The Truth About Cars » Driven The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Sat, 19 Jul 2014 17:00:13 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » Driven Capsule Review: 2010 Cadillac CTS-V Sat, 19 Jun 2010 20:03:17 +0000

Wuchtig. I’m sitting, panting, trying to catch my breath on the side of a tiny two-lane road running through the vineyards of California’s Napa Valley. I’m in an American car. I haven’t spoken German regularly since I was 18. Adrenalin has chased everything resembling a coherent thought from my mind. And yet, strangely, the only thing left banging around my speed-addled skull is a single German adjective for which the English language has no translation: wuchtig.

From the safety of my desk back in Oregon, a German-English dictionary offers a parade of possible English meanings for this word, that 556 horsepower has left ringing in my ears. Weight, pressure, force, impetus, vigor, power, and kinetic energy all make the list. But what about anger? Rage? Impatience? Wuchtig is how daddy shouts when he comes home drunk and angry; it’s the roar of a sweaty millionaire celebrating his dominance in an NFL endzone.

It’s also the sound that 6.2 liters of supercharged V8 make when they get just out of earshot of their rightful owner.

This particular “V” belongs to one of Cadillac’s PR guys, who, having heard that I’d never set ass in the infamous sedan, handed me a key fob. No “be careful” preceded this unexpected gift, no waivers were signed, no next-of-kin informed. Just a friendly “why are you not driving yet?” as I collected my thoughts before approaching the large, dark presence lurking in the parking lot.

But whatever confidence I’d gained by psyching myself up, soon melted in the evil presence of this brute. Walk up, and the smell of vaporized rubber tickles the nose and jangles the nerves, like the smell of blood on the breath of a large predator. And after two days of riding and driving in Cadillac’s standard seats, the V grabs your body in the crushing embrace of something living and powerful. Only after the engine comes to life, and I begin to dawdle out of the parking lot does the V become just another Cadillac, softly woofling towards the open road. But that impression only lasts until I reach the first stop sign, wait for the briefest interruption in traffic, and leap out onto the highway.

With a gusty, hard-edged snarl, the V launches onto an unfortunately crowded two-lane highway. California’s wine country may be a favorite launch site for luxury cars, but not because it’s an easy place to find an open road. Moving at barely-legal speeds, the V feels nailed to the road; firm, flat and communicative compared to its (relatively) pedestrian brand-mates. But unsupervised press cars aren’t about barely anything. At the first unmarked turnoff, I leave the traffic behind and pull onto a narrow country road. After a few flat (but hardly flat-out) corners, the road suddenly straightens. Almost involuntarily, my right foot flattens the pedal.

When was the last time you shouted? Not to a friend across a crowded bar, or even at an athlete on television… I mean really shouted. I’m talking about opening your throat, and expelling every accumulated frustration, sorrow, anger, and joy until your vocal cords ooze wuchtig red vino. The kind of roaring bellow that leaves you shaking, giddy, drunk off a heady cocktail of emotion, adrenaline, testosterone and fear of a power you didn’t even know you had. Add some supercharger whine, and you’re starting to get an idea of what happens when you pin a CTS-V’s go-pedal to the floor. The crazy part: it isn’t even all that loud.

What happens next is almost irrelevant. It’s certainly difficult to describe without jeopardizing the unexpected goodwill shown by Cadillac’s PR team. Even as broad a term as “Autobahn speed” takes on a sinister aspect when describing activities undertaken on a shoulderless, uneven, pot-holed road used mainly by worktrucks filled with migrant laborers. Especially when you realize that pulling back on the wheel won’t send this low-flying aircraft soaring towards the clouds. The speed was simply breathless, relentless, slobbering… quite like the prose you’re reading here, in fact.

By the time I get back to the hotel, the rest of the journalists had already left. The PR team sat on the gracious terrace where I had left them, soaking up the California sun. I hand over the key fob, my brain still bouncing off its redline limiter. “Well…?” someone prompts me. “Wuchtig,” I answer. Nothing else comes to mind.

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Review: Volvo XC60 T6 R-Design Fri, 07 May 2010 16:03:36 +0000
Not so long ago Volvo attempted to poach some customers from BMW by offering high-performance R variants of the S60 sedan and V70 wagon. Then it decided these weren’t selling well enough to justify the expense of developing them. So now we’re offered “R-Design” variants instead. These involve larger wheels, a mildly stiffened suspension, and a slew of styling tweaks. Not part of the recipe: additional horsepower. Halfway through the 2010 model year the XC60 gained such a variant. All sizzle, or is there some steak here as well?

Proportioned more like an SUV than the wagon-based XC70 but lower and more car-like than the larger XC90, the XC60 seeks out a happy medium between the two vehicle types. A diagonally bisected trapezoidal grille, sizable shoulders, and tall twisty tail lamps mark it as a Volvo. In standard form the XC60 looks interesting but also a bit odd, with a pinched midsection and overly long nose. Volvo clearly tried to break further out of its traditional box with this one, and the results seem mixed…until you see the R-Design. Add body color, silver-accented rockers and attractive 20-inch five-spoke alloys, and suddenly the crossover’s curves and proportions work. So transformed, the XC60 T6 R-Design looks tight and athletic, and more distinctive than the competitor Audi touts as distinctive. I hadn’t realized that the regular XC60’s black lower body cladding and smaller wheels were doing the underlying form such a disservice.

The interior undergoes less of a transformation. The instruments have blue faces, the leather seats have contrasting inlays, and textured aluminum replaces brushed aluminum on the center stack. Tastefully restrained Scandinavian design, floating center stack, semi-premium materials with no untoward glitz—you’re in a Volvo. If you want outright luxury, go elsewhere.

Another sign you’re in a Volvo: the front seats. Neither too hard nor too soft and shaped for long-distance comfort, these seats probably trail only safety among the reasons to buy a Volvo. This said, those in the last true R cars were larger, even more comfortable, and provided more lateral support. There’s not a lot of room in the front seat, but the driving position is about perfect, and the A-pillars are thinner than most these days despite Volvo’s safety emphasis. The back seat is high enough off the floor and smartly contoured to provide adults with lumbar and thigh support, but knee room is in short supply. The XC60 is truly a compact crossover. You might find large-car quantities of rear legroom in mainstream cute utes like the CR-V and RAV4, but not here. The Audi doesn’t offer much more, but only the EX35 offers less. Cargo room is similarly just adequate. If you want more, there’s always the XC90.

In the U.S. the XC60 is offered with a 235-horsepower 3.2-liter naturally aspirated inline six and a 281-horsepower turbocharged 3.0-liter variant of the same. The R-Design is offered only with the latter— though bereft of a bespoke engine, performance does remain part of the R equation. It seems odd, a transversely-mounted inline six. But the turbo 3.0 feels so smooth and sounds so delightful, you wonder why anyone bothers with a V. Or with an inline five for that matter. Some premium car buyers might wish the engine were a bit less vocal, and more in line with the low levels of wind and road noise, but anyone who loves driving will dip deeper into the throttle just to make it sing. If only Ford’s 3.5-liter “EcoBoost” V6 sounded or felt nearly this good. Thrust with the Volvo turbo six isn’t at EcoBoost levels, but there’s more than enough for all but the most enthusiastic drivers. It makes a great case for quality of power delivery over quantity.

Not that the quantity of power delivered is bad—the T6 powerplant is only 19 horsepower short of the last R engine, a more aggressively boosted 2.5-liter five-cylinder. Paired exclusively with a manually-shiftable six-speed automatic, it’ll get you to sixty in about seven seconds. And yet, 281 horsepower isn’t much for a turbocharged 3.0-liter. Would it be that hard to dial up the boost a bit, if only to make the R-Design a little more special?

Elsewhere, boost could stand to be taken down a notch, or at least finessed. Steering effort isn’t overly light, and weighting is decent, but there’s an omnipresent syrupy numbness that has characterized Volvo steering for as far back as I can remember. Even the R cars were similarly afflicted. On the other hand, even with the XC60 T6 R-Design’s huge low-profile tires the suspension strikes a very good balance between handling and ride comfort. The R-Design certainly has none of the feel of a sports car, but it doesn’t feel large or bulky and takes curves with commendable balance and poise. There’s no plow, no float, no rocking, and no harshness. So why bother with the standard suspension that underpins other XC60s? Relative to the competition, this is Volvo’s best handling vehicle. But not the best-handling vehicle in the segment—that continues to be the BMW X3, followed by the Audi Q5. Note to Volvo: fix the steering.

With a base price of $42,400, the XC60 T6 R-Design starts $3,750 higher than the regular T6. But the R-Design’s standard xenons and sunroof account for two grand of that. $1,750 seems a more than reasonable amount to pay for the R-Design’s larger wheels, massaged suspension, and styling tweaks. With options, you’re in the mid-to-high forties. Seem high? Well, run the XC60 T6 R-Design and the Audi Q5 through TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool, which similarly configures both vehicles then adjusts for remaining feature differences, and you’ll find that the Teutonic crossover runs a significant four-to-five grand higher.

It’s always disappointing to see a marque’s ambitions scaled back, and this disappointment could easily have rubbed off on the R-Design cars. The XC60 T6 R-Design isn’t quite an R inside the engine compartment, and this is a bit of a shame since true R status is only a few pounds of boost away. But it’s quick regardless, the R-Design tweaks do dramatically improve the exterior styling and finesse the ride-handling compromise, and the price is competitive. So, while the T6 R-Design isn’t a home run without further tweaks to the engine and steering, it’s a strong contender and clearly the one to get if you’re getting a Volvo XC60.

Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online provider of auto reliability and pricing data

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Review: Fiat 500C Fri, 23 Apr 2010 15:09:48 +0000

John Steel, 42. Resident Nurburgring hotlapper, amateur race driver and menace of all slow moving objects. On weekends, he likes thrashing his Porsche 997 Mark II GT3-RS around the local track. Karen Levy, 25. Professional mall stormer, party queen and dedicated student. Enjoys a fine café-latte by the Mediterranean Sea and the gentle spring breeze while driving her Fiat 500C.

Two people, two separate sides of the automotive equilibrium. This time, driving around the peaceful and slow moving streets of southern Tel Aviv, amongst buzzing restaurants and overcrowded coffee shops, I get to explore the latter. Meet the Fiat 500C: the open-air sibling of the 500 retro car, and an inevitable win of form over function.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, the ‘C’ in this Italian mini car’s name stands for convertible – only the 500C doesn’t really convert into anything. Taking the recipe of the original 500, Fiat’s ever-quirky engineers left the roof structure entirely solid, with a sliding fabric roof replacing the conventional steel – essentially a very large sunroof. This unconventional setup allows for a greater structural integrity than a traditional convertible, improves safety (all 7 airbags are left intact) and benefits practicality (since the roof doesn’t have to be stored in the trunk). But the real reason this setup was chosen is also the original sibling’s raison d’etre: affordability. Does it all work out in the real world? Let’s see.

Parked by the curb, the 500C attracts a lot of attention – most of it, predictably, from ambassadors of the female gender. Interestingly (while not surprisingly), it is also the Gay Car of the Year. Gender preferences aside, the 500C is a pretty car – ‘cute’ attractive, not ‘wow’ attractive. The retro-esque grille with the horizontal chrome emblem and round headlights give the car a face of sorts – and it’s certainly smiling. Its bubbly proportions and the tan roof neatly folded against the trunk transform you to a time when The Beatles topped the charts and Cuba was all about nuclear warheads.

Looking for the rear window? It’s not there, at least not when the roof is folded. Without a trunk to fold into, the fabric cover neatly arranges itself to perfectly block the driver’s rear view. With the roof, gone is the small window – so if you’re into drop top driving, you’ll have to rely on the mercy of the parking sensors and the flexibility of your partner’s neck. Really, who needs a rear view where there’s so much sky to look at?

The disappearing rear window isn’t the only awkwardness in the 500C’s chic cabin. Fortunately, that’s mostly good awkwardness: color coded plastic panels, a radial speedometer and rev counter, and in the well equipped tester – sporty red leather seats with contrasting white headrests. All pleasing to the eye, but not to the touch – Fiat’s newly-found interior quality hasn’t found its way here.

The wiggly handbrake, air conditioning controls and door handles and the flimsy rear seat access mechanism are just a few of the components that don’t have anything in common with solidity or quality, and most of the plastics are hollow and low rent. The same goes for the roof: my tester barely clocked 5,000 (admittedly difficult) miles and the roof was already stained. The driving position is also seriously lacking, leaving you too far from the steering wheel and too close to the pedals. Taller fans of the elevated driving position will find their head comically sticking out the roof.

The 500C’s roof has three modes: closed, half-open and Who Let the Dogs Out. The last two are fine for city driving, but in speeds reaching recommended freeway velocities, you risk blowing off your eardrums. Fortunately, if you’re looking for a peaceful and quiet drive, sound isolation while the roof is closed is quite good – not significantly worse than the standard 500.

Should the party in question consist of more than two adults, you better call shotgun fast – the rear seats are just OK for a shorter teen, and range from troubling to impossible, depending on your definition of a full size adult. Luckily, the unique roof doesn’t hamper headroom – which wasn’t too impressive to begin with – that’s sufficient for sub-six-footers. Getting back there, however, is a chore: rear seat access is clumsy – the handle doesn’t push the seat forwards, so entering the rear seat is a multiple stage process. The trunk is more reminiscent of a glovebox (6.3 cubic feet), and while the fancy roof only takes up 3 liters of storage space, sizeable shopping bags are probably the most you’ll fit in there.

The good thing about convertible cars: everyone seems to think you’re enjoying yourself, when in fact, you’re not. Powered by the 1.4 liter gasoline unit, the 500C spits out a full 100 horses – which sounds good for a small car, until you recall it isn’t really small, what with its dazzling array of airbags and safety features, nearing the car’s curb weight to a tick below a ton. And so, along with Fiat’s soon-to-be-discontinued sequential Dualogic gearbox, it completes the sprint to sixty at almost 11 seconds.

11 seconds don’t sound like much on paper, and they definitely don’t look like much on the road. The insensitive throttle needs a serious kick to garner some pace. Try flooring it when the light turns green and there isn’t even one tiny bit of a tire squeal to boost your alter ego. And then comes the shift to second.

Yes, this gearbox is terrible – there really isn’t a softer way to describe it. Sure, you can adapt to it and you can meticulously learn to lift your foot off the throttle when it decides to shift. You can also bring it flowers and chocolates on its birthday – the thing is, you’re not supposed to have a delicate relationship with your gearbox, and being advertised as an automatic, this powertrain creates false hopes of a smooth self shifter. Be aggressive with the throttle, and your head gets thrown against the hard plastic heardrest – almost as if the car scolds you for misbehaving. Smash the throttle in high gear, and absolutely nothing will happen – it simply won’t downshift.

According to the auto journalist’s handbook, when all hope is lost, try the Sport button. Pressing the red button makes the 500C hold on to a gear for dear life, ignoring subtle notes (like a gentle pet of the throttle) and bolder ones (like cursing in three languages). The steering marginally stiffens up and the throttle becomes more sensitive, but these changes are too subtle to have any dynamic implications.

Sport, then, is probably not a part of this 500C’s lexicon. Performance aside, the overassisted Dualdrive steering stiffens suddenly and artificially during acceleration. It’s vague and lacks any concept of feel, which doesn’t inspire confidence during spirited driving. If you manage to get past the steering, you’ll find that the little convertible can offer decent amounts of fun thanks to its short wheelbase, allowing it to cut corners and induce some tail play – all monitored by the electronic nanny, of course. But it isn’t a sporty car – not even a warm hatch, and surely not the first choice for a Sunday drive.

If you’re a John Steel, you would probably hate the Fiat 500 Convertible. The back is cramped, the plastics are cheap, the ride is bumpy, the driving position is horrible, the engine is weak, the gearbox is annoying and the steering is awful – I could bash this car for hours. But then again, judging the 500C acutely would be wrong. It drips with character, sits theoretical four people and some luggage, attracts loads of looks and has a shiny tan roof, which is what Miss Levy looks for in her brand new city car. So if these are the qualities at the top of your shortlist and you can’t afford the more expensive (but much better, albeit less practical) Mini Cooper Convertible, the 500C may be the car for you. I, for one, know it’s not for me.

Fiat provided the car, insurance and one tank of gas for this review

This review brought to you by

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Comparison Review: 2011 Hyundai Sonata Versus 2010 Toyota Camry XLE Wed, 21 Apr 2010 16:24:25 +0000

Driving enthusiasts love to hate the Toyota Camry. Yet, despite the company’s current troubles, it remains the best-selling car in the United States. Hyundai would love to steal the crown, or at least tens of thousands of customers. So it recently launched a totally redesigned 2011 Sonata and will be advertising it heavily. Should Toyota be concerned?

Both the young (my kids) and the old (my parents) were captivated by the beauty of the Camry. Not the sheetmetal, mind you. They probably didn’t notice the shape of the car. The bulbous exterior was a great leap forward for a Camry four years ago—engineers might have designed the previous generation sedan—but at this point it is a generation behind current automotive fashion. The good angles it does possess (not the front view even with this year’s redesigned grille) have been overexposed through its omnipresence. And the XLE’s small, multispoked alloys don’t flatter the car—the SE looks considerably better. Rather, my family was captivated by the paint, a highly metallic dark green.

The Sonata’s paint options are relatively ordinary. But its swoopy exterior design marks a sharp departure from that of the handsome but utterly forgettable 2006-2010 Sonata. What the Mercedes-Benz CLS did for luxury sedans—bring coupe-like style to the segment—Hyundai hopes to do for midsize family sedans. Some resemblance can be seen to various luxury sedans (CLS, A6, ES), but Hyundai has also taken far more risks here than with the Genesis. An arching roofline, a couple of strong, curving character lines, and a ribbon of chrome trim that connects the beltline to the headlights could have combined in the side view to form a complicated mess. And yet these design elements manage to form a whole that is both cohesive and distinctive, and at once upscale and sporty. Even the fashionably oversized grille works. Most important of all: unlike the Genesis sedan, the new Sonata stands out on a crowded road—even without fancy paint. In comparison, the Toyota looks stodgy.

Upholstered in light gray leather, the Camry XLS interior includes nothing analogous to the exterior’s paint. Its design is thoroughly conventional circa 2006. One exception: the audio controls to the right of the nav screen are a bit of a reach, a common sin these days.

As with the exterior, the new Sonata’s interior is much more up-to-date and stylish than the Camry’s. The instrument panel includes some artful curves, but is cleanly designed. All of the buttons are easy to reach, and they helpfully vary in shape and size. As with the exterior, Hyundai appears to have benchmarked luxury sedans rather than other family sedans. Controls beneath the nav screen mimic an Infiniti’s, while the climate controls mimic a Volvo’s. The anthropomorphic control for directing airflow is just a single button rather than the three found in a Volvo, though, so it captures the Swede’s style more than its functionality. After sampling all three trim levels—cloth GLS, cloth/leather SE (sport), and leather Limited, the last is easily the most attractive. For those who want an escape from black, gray, and beige, wine-colored hides are offered.

Interior materials are of similar quality in both cars: not bad, but you’re clearly not in a luxury car. The Toyota has higher-quality switchgear, but its glossy “wood” is too obviously plastic and the silver-painted trim covering the center stack doesn’t even pretend to be aluminum. Perhaps because it was tailored for the European market, the interior in Hyundai’s new Tucson feels more solid and tightly constructed than that in either of these sedans.

The steering wheels deserve special consideration. Prior to the Genesis, Hyundai upholstered its cars’ steering wheels with the world’s slickest leather. With the Genesis they seemed to have finally realized that the point of having leather on the steering wheel is to make it easier to grip, not to help it slip through one’s fingers. But with the new Sonata they’ve backslid. The artfully designed steering wheel has a rim composed of three different materials: urethane on the outer sides, slippery leather from 10 to 2 o’clock and from 5 to 7, and, inside the lower perimeter, the sort of rubberized plastic that tended to wear poorly in MkIV Jettas. The last was already badly worn on one of the tested cars. None of the materials is well-suited to the task, and three is two too many. A good steering wheel has one material, a grippy leather, all the way around the rim–like the one in the Camry.

The Camry doesn’t have great front seats, but they’re both more supportive and more comfortable than those in the Sonata. With the Sonata, the feel of the seat varies quite a bit depending on whether the center panel upholstery is cloth, as in the GLS and SE, or leather, as in the Limited. The leather seats feel firmer, and you sit noticeably higher in them, or rather on them. With either upholstery the side bolsters quickly surrender when called upon to provide lateral support. The Camry’s side bolsters failed me less, but then I asked less of them. 

Some other car reviews will tell you that the Sonata’s new coupe-like roofline cost the sedan 2.8 inches of rear legroom compared to the previous generation car. What they fail to notice: maximum front legroom increased by 1.8 inches—which is sure to delight long-legged drivers (with a 30-inch inseam, I’m not one). So rear legroom is only down by an inch, and still fairly plentiful. Rear headroom, not quite so much. Tall passengers will have the scrunch down or sit up front. Other than this, the rear seat is perhaps more comfortable than the front seat. It’s a decent height off the floor, the backrest provides a healthy amount of lumbar support, and in the Limited it’s even heated.

The Camry’s back seat is even better, with a little more room, a little more height off the floor, and, in the XLE, manual recliners. The price of the manual recliners: unlike in the base Camry and the Sonata, the rear seat doesn’t fold to expand the trunk. Both cars have usefully commodious trunks that are moderately compromised by conventional gooseneck hinges and constricted openings. In both the Camry XLE and Sonata Limited, but not in lesser trims, rear seat passengers get their own air vents, a welcome feature on hot sunny days.

The tested Camry was fitted with a 268-horsepower DOHC 3.5-liter V6. Hyundai will offer no V6 in the new Sonata, we’re told to shave 100 pounds off the curb weight (a commendably light 3,199 pounds with the automatic). And a 274-horsepower turbo four won’t arrive until fall. So the cars I drove were fitted with a 198-horsepower direct-injected DOHC 2.4-liter four (200 with the SE’s dual exhaust). Not an even match, so just a few words on each.

The Camry’s V6 engine is easily the most entertaining aspect of the car. It’s smooth, powerful, and makes lusty noises when prodded. But there’s really little point to it in this car. The Camry simply doesn’t ask to be pushed hard enough to render the four-cylinder insufficient. Then again, Detroit’s specialty used to be overpowered cars with soft suspensions and over-boosted steering, and perhaps there’s still a market for this combination.

The Sonata’s new engine is, like the related port-injected unit in the new Tucson, very smooth and quiet for a four. Even held at 4,500 RPM using the automatic’s manual shift feature it’s not loud, and it never sounds rough. The previous generation four sounds and feels uncivilized in comparison, and it’s not a bad engine. The loud clacking typical of high-pressure injectors can be heard when outside the Sonata, but not when inside it. Thrust is a bit soft up to about 25 miles-per-hour, beyond which point the engine feels fairly energetic, if not a substitute for a V6. Few buyers will need more power or refinement than this four offers. The others can wait a few months for the turbo.

The Camry’s engine provides good fuel economy for a powerful V6, about 22 around town. But the Hyundai’s new four is outstanding in this regard, earning a class-leading 22/35 MPG from the EPA. Driven along rural roads, I observed 35 MPG for one segment, and low 30s overall. So the EPA numbers don’t seem to have been cheated. A hybrid arrives in the fall, but it seems pointless unless most driving involves frequent stops.

Both the Camry and Sonata are fitted with six-speed automatics that usually shift smoothly and behave well. One minor demerit for the Hyundai’s box: it slightly lugs the engine at times, no doubt to maximize fuel economy. Those whose ears aren’t sensitive to low frequency sounds will never notice.

The Camry and Sonata drive about as differently as they look. The first thing you’ll notice when setting off in the Camry: it feels extremely smooth and quiet, clearly the result of lessons learned when developing Lexus. Bumps effect some head toss at moderate speeds, but overall the Toyota’s ride could hardly be more comfortable. Unfortunately, the focus on isolation extends to the steering. It’s far too light, lacks a strong sense of direction, and (aside from some kickback) is devoid of feel. A shame, because even in XLE trim the chassis is more composed than in previous non-sport Camrys. A firm, even overly firm, suspension is standard in the Camry SE.

The three trims of the Sonata all drive differently. The GLS’s higher-profile 16-inch tires are noisier than the Limited’s 17s and harm the car’s ride and handling. Paired with steelies, they’re begging for a mod. The SE’s 18s are also noisier than the Limited’s 17s, and together with a firmer suspension yield a busy, occasionally unsettled ride. If the SE handled much better than the Limited the ride penalty might be worth it, but it doesn’t. The Limited handles nearly as well as the SE, and rides more quietly and much more smoothly. Add in its more attractive interior and additional features, and the Limited is easily the best of the three trims. If you want a Sonata, you want a Sonata Limited.

Still, compared to the Camry XLE, the Sonata Limited isn’t as quiet or as smooth. It’s the difference between good, even very good, and great. The Camry feels like a premium car through the seat of one’s pants and the drums of one’s ears. The Sonata does not quite manage the same. On the other hand, the Sonata’s steering, while nearly as devoid of feel as the Camry’s, isn’t overly light, is nicely weighted, and has a clear sense of direction. As a result, even down two cylinders the Hyundai is more engaging and fun to drive (such things being relative).

In the end, the Camry cannot escape its advancing age. It does a few things extremely well, and most other things very well, but its steering is far too light and its styling is bland and dated. With the new Sonata, Hyundai has avoided competing with the Camry head on. The Sonata isn’t as smooth, as quiet, or as comfortable, but it has better steering and is more fun to drive. But will many midsize sedan buyers notice or care about the difference in how the cars steer? Maybe, maybe not. But they’ll certainly notice how the new Sonata looks. A Hyundai that sells because of how it looks—who saw this coming? Now if only Hyundai offered some eye-catching green paint…

Toyota and Hyundai provided the vehicles, insurance and one tank of gas each for this review

Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online source of auto reliability and pricing data

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Review: Renault Mégane R26.R Mon, 19 Apr 2010 14:46:02 +0000

Driving the Renault Mégane R26.R on the snow-covered L-10–a public road-cum-rally track near the famous Nürburgring–is an unforgettable affair. And not simply because summer tires and slush don’t mix. This particular Mégane is a stunning piece of machinery in any condition: no Stateside machine comes even remotely close. And unlike most European unobtainium, it’s no sculpted, Teutonic monument to cash-flow either. It’s French. Cheap gas, Japanese quality and the Detroit-centric Eisenhower Interstate System have given Americans no reasons to contemplate, let alone lust after, French cars in the modern era, but not having this Ferrari-killing hatchback on crack is a bummer. The Mégane R26.R is so wrong it’s gotta be right.

The Mégane R26.R is simply unmistakable, even if it’s a Renault hatchback. Clock the 18-inch alloys and Piet Mondrian-worthy geometric decals in red ink. And there’s the Lunar Grey paint contrasting against the carbon fiber hood: a not so subtle reminder this three-door is far more than the tall roofline and dorky C-pillar implies. Rear spoiler aside, there’s simply no way to get around the Mégane R26.R’s hatchback roots. But this isn’t a rice boy poseur: resting against the near weightless polycarbonate rear/quarter windows gives the kinds of goose bumps that only come from a real race car.

Note: first timers will push those side windows while going in for a closer look at the spartan and sporty interior of the Mégane R26.R. And because there’s so little to behold, everything in eyeshot will be serious business: race seats with carbon fiber shells, six point harnesses, an optional roll cage (dressed in red, of course) and suede accents on the tiller and shift knob. The ambiance is bare bones, but what’s left is reasonably appealing in ergonomics and touchy-feely build quality. So it’s still a far better place to kill time than any modern Chrysler product.

And what was left on Renault’s chopping block? A loss of 270lbs from the removal of sound insulation, rear seating, a lone airbag (driver’s side), no radio, fog lights or other ancillary creature comforts. But if you missed the Mégane’s racing pedigree, there’s a “R26.R” badge screwed in the dash to remind all and sundry this ain’t no ordinary French econobox. You know, in case the red wheels didn’t tip you off.

And the greasy bits don’t play around. The Mégane R26.R’s mill comes from the RenaultSport racing parts bin: a 2.0L turbocharged mill, 6-speed transaxle and Michelin Pilot street tires. The (optional) titanium exhaust is a wicked affair, providing unfettered access to the turbo’s prodigious “woooosh” at anything more than quarter throttle. George Lucas never made a Tie Fighter hatchback, but Renault is clearly picking up the slack.

Perhaps you heard that the Mégane R26.R is the fastest production wrong-wheel drive whip on the Nürburgring, earning an 8:17 time slip. While weather conditions kept this review off the ‘ring, driving on nearby country roads shows how the Mégane R26.R accomplished that feat: plenty of suspension travel, a body that stays docile and flat in aggressive cornering and what must be the most communicative steering ever installed on a FWD vehicle. Bumpy roads have little chance at upsetting the Mégane R26.R’s racing line, both the steering and suspension keep the driver informed and in control.

But discretion is the better part of valor with a turbo pushing the front wheels, torque steer still rears its ugly head. With a limited-slip axle, modest power output (230hp/229lb-ft of torque) and a torque peak that’s nearly flat, boost is easy to modulate for post-apex bursts of acceleration. The Mégane R26.R will cook when needed, but the whole affair is subtler than the powertrain (or wheel color) suggests. And that’s not a cop out.

The groovy rotors and Brembo calipers move with a linear feel you rarely see in a (once) mundane compact platform. The Mégane R26.R stops as smoothly as it corners: with only 2700 lbs to halt, there’s no doubt the Mégane R26.R can handle hot lapping on the Nürburgring with grace and pace. And that’s precisely where this car excels, offering owners a rewarding but pain-free way to kick butt on any road course. I’m prepared to forgive Renault for importing the LeCar if they sell us the Mégane R26.R.

Or not. In reality, some performance icons are better left to the brand loyalists. Think of this as the French Cobra R: limited quantities and a lofty asking price of $35,000 USD, not including US federalization. And I reckon an immaculate C5 Corvette Z06 is a far superior track toy, with more creature comforts too. And buying one won’t require a degree in International Business.

And unless Honda jump-starts the Sport Compact genre in the United States, this French sweetheart is merely a tease. Too bad then, that Renault made a true masterpiece. The Mégane R26.R is the ultimate econobox expression, sporting credible looks with hard-edged, useable performance. Perhaps one day gas prices will inspire our premium compact platforms to reach for the stars the way this whip-sharp Renault has…. and maybe someday we’ll all get 5-8 weeks of mandatory paid vacation.

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Review: 2010 Toyota 4Runner Limited Fri, 09 Apr 2010 15:24:57 +0000 Et tu 4Runner?  So many historically famous cars are back with “good old days” styling but added overweight dimensions to the party. It’s sort of like Fat Elvis, on four wheels.  That said, “Moody Blue” is a pretty catchy song. And there’s nothing especially wrong with the 2010 Toyota 4Runner.  Elvis rocked the rhinestones with passion and the 4Runner combines it’s rugged past with urban sheetmetal and a host of electronic cocktails for pleasure and enjoyment. Which gives the impression that happy days are here again, even if polypharmacy did lead to the death of the King of Rock ‘N Roll.

The new 4Runner takes everything enjoyable from the original model and adds a shot of steroids.  The styling is proof: oversized fenders, blocky A-pillars and surprisingly short (and efficient) bumper overhangs.  The angry headlight eyebrows are an improvement from the outgoing model, but lack the classic Toyota truck virtue of honest workhorse design. Tough for toughness sake, perhaps?  Clock that small-ish greenhouse, but note the surprisingly decent visibility. While the 4Runner is a politically correct HUMMER H2, the menacing hood bulge looks truck-tastic behind the wheel.

Maybe the 4Runner is a poor man’s Land Rover: the dashboard was cribbed from something suitable for a weekend in the UK countryside. Never mind Toyota’s (now expected) rubbish plastics and a lack of charming British oak, there’s liquid-smooth buttonage, vents, and knobs.  Even the fake aluminum looks nicer than any paint job has a right to.  But the Limited-grade 4Runner’s leather trim feels and smells like a new rubber hose.  And again, there’s simply too much hard plastic on the dash and door panels to keep the GM references at bay:  the line between these two automakers is thinner and more blurred.

Toyota’s well-documented slip in quality is no shocker, but the seats escaped the brunt of the cost cutting: all three rows are comfortable enough for the 4Runner’s mission, though the third row is for kids only.  Add the intuitive touch screen navigation with a fifteen speaker JBL Audio system and two top-notch traveling companions come for the ride.  With the subwoofer thumping and the (aforementioned) hood bulge cutting an aggressive path toward the horizon, there’s little doubt the 4Runner is a cooler, tougher way to haul the kids around town. CUV’s don’t stand a chance.

Then again, maybe those new age station wagons don’t care.  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. The new 4Runner drives like a crossover utility: numb steering, vague handling responses, a thoroughly torque-less motor, roly-poly suspension and electronic throttle responses befitting a Camry.  While the SUVs from the good old days were no track Gods, you couldn’t resist cracking a smile when their chassis hugged a twisty road with surprising speed and grace.

When you combine a motor with a torque peak at 4400 revs, a drive-by-wire system with more red tape than Medicare and five-cog automatic with downshifts slow enough to earn a free pizza delivery, the result is a vehicle torn between doing what the driver wants and what the CUV-segment demands.  The available four-cylinder motor can only make matters worse, as the enlarged 4Runner should have kept the once optional V8 instead.

And the buzz kill runs like a negative undercurrent behind the 4Runner’s overpromising sheetmetal. Because turning is more of the same: less.  With Camry levels of body lean, the driver is discouraged from extra steering input or faster than geriatric mid-corner exit velocities.  Perhaps the legacy of SUV rollover terror lives on, so drive the 4Runner as its former self and prepare to clean the puke from your kid’s booster seats.

SUV thrills are a thing of the past, but the real shocker is the ride. Road noise levels were unacceptable, but a velvety ride from a 4400lb vehicle was expected.  At highway speeds, the 20” wheels bang on pavement joints like the drummer in a suburban high school jazz band: cross a lane and you’ll feel every Bott’s Dot on the pavement. Live-axle critics point to the antiquated rear suspension, but you’ll rarely notice the shortcomings: a back-to-back drive with a modern Ford Explorer is the only way to feel the advantages of an independent rear axle. Even then, the difference is modest at best: the Toyota’s overall suspension tuning is the main culprit.

And such compromise at the $40,655 asking price? On the plus side, bang for the buck of a used 4Runner is officially realized: more inspired performance and an optional V8 for those who take towing seriously. So the new 4Runner is another wrong move from a company seemingly destined to steal defeat from the hands of victory. Would-be buyers are better off filling the garage with a fully depreciated 4Runner to remember the good old days, plus a new Camry for today’s harsh realities.

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Review: Lincoln MKZ Wed, 07 Apr 2010 13:19:57 +0000

The logic behind the Lincoln MKZ is clear enough: if Toyota can get away with making a Lexus out of a Camry, why can’t Ford do the same with a Fusion? The ES 350 is arguably convincing as a Lexus (I’d argue pro, if not with much vigor, while there’s no shortage of people who’d take the other side). But does the MKZ make for a convincing Lincoln?

The MKZ spent one year as the Zephyr, and received a more thorough revision for 2010. Both the grille—Lincoln’s current twin waterfall—and the tail lamps have gotten larger, in the current fashion. Unlike with the Fusion’s tri-bar, the supersizing doesn’t hurt. But the grille does nothing for the side view, from which the MKZ, though handsome, appears much less distinctive. Even with bespoke sheetmetal fore and aft of the doors, the midsize Lincoln sedan doesn’t look even as different from the Fusion as the ES does from the Camry. The money for dedicated fenders was not well spent—this is the way GM used to do it. If you’re going to spring for unique metal, spend a little more to alter the basic shape.

A larger problem: the MKZ doesn’t look much different than any other conventionally packaged three-box sedan. Ask a kid to draw a sedan, and he’d likely draw this. I dropped by a Buick showroom while driving this car, and the LaCrosse makes the MKZ appear just so twentieth century in comparison.

This story continues inside the MKZ. The Zephyr and pre-refresh MKZ had a three-quarter Town Car IP that, though certainly dated, was definitely Lincolnesque. There’s nothing remotely memorable about the new IP with the possible exception of the lighted hash marks that ring the instruments—a trait shared with other current Lincolns. Some other bits of style: the light gray piping on the steel gray seats and a tasteful level of chrome trim. The interior materials, while not those of a $41,000 car, are certainly better than those in the Fusion. The padded door panels are an especially welcome upgrade. But the Fusion should have door panels this nice, rather than the econo-car moldings it does have. A Lincoln interior should be nicer still. Beginning with the sound the doors make when pulled shut.

One dividend of the MKZ’s conventional packaging: good visibility to the front and sides. The thick-pillared, high-belted LaCrosse can’t touch it here. The front seats, though less cushy than those in the larger MKS, provide good lateral support. Together with the hand-operated parking brake, they suggest that we might even have a sport sedan on our hands. The rear seat, while fairly roomy, has on overly flat bottom cushion, for me among the least comfortable in any car.

Cargo is a strong point. Unlike in the MKS or the LaCrosse, the opening is as expansive as the trunk itself. Credit the conventional three-box shape. The hinges are the non-intrusive sort. And, for even more space, you can fold the rear seat. Can’t do that in a LaCrosse or a Lexus ES. One omission: no interior handle to close the trunk—you must touch the outer surface of the lid. Why?

A 263-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 remains the sole engine option. It’s no EcoBoost—if Ford offered that engine it could just put the MKZ on the enthusiast map—yet the sans-boost six is more than adequate.  If you don’t want a little torque steer, you want the optional all-wheel-drive. Fuel economy in mildly aggressive suburban driving was about 18.5—almost the same as the larger, heavier, considerably more powerful all-wheel-drive MKS EcoBoost. Go figure. The six-speed automatic can be manually shifted, which can be handy on curvy or hilly roads.

Manually shift a Lincoln, really? The tested MKZ was fitted with an optional sport suspension that certainly livens things up. After a few days in an MKS, this MKZ felt like a Miata until my reference point readjusted. It’s taut.

Perhaps too taut. With the sport suspension, the MKZ’s ride quality is often jittery, and occasionally crosses the line into harsh. I don’t recall the Fusion Sport riding this firmly, though certainly it must have? With a Ford badge and tighter steering I might have found this ride/handling balance agreeable, at least on the right road. In a Lincoln it seems…inappropriate.

Noise levels are fairly low, but not MKS low. When I drove an MKS with the regular suspension and a Milan back-to-back a few years ago, I found that the former was notably smoother and quieter. Possibly because the typical mainstream sedan has gotten so much smoother and quieter in recent years, I didn’t get the same premium feeling this time around. If the Fusion isn’t this smooth and quiet, it ought to be.

Perhaps it’s time to change our perceptions of what a Lincoln should be? Problem is, we need something to change them to. Like the MKS, but to an even greater degree, the MKZ lacks a coherent, distinctive character. The MKS at least had the “big and cushy with tons of stuff” thing down pat. As much as I hate to say it, the MKZ is just a mildly upgraded Fusion. Not a bad car by a long shot, since the Fusion is a good, reliable basis to start from. And at the right price I’d gladly recommend the MKZ, and certainly wouldn’t kick one out of my garage. But the $41,355 on the tested car’s sticker is not the right price. To deserve that kind of money, Lincoln needs to offer something more special. Perhaps the most telling indicator: while my luxury-loving wife hated to see the MKS go back, she hasn’t missed the MKZ for a moment.

Ford provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review

Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online provider of automotive pricing and reliability data

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Review: BMW X1 xDrive20d Mon, 05 Apr 2010 14:06:16 +0000 Diesel clatter in a BMW is like watching Bullit to the tunes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. In other words, distasteful and illegal in 48 states. And yet, driving BMW’s new X1 is a surprisingly John Deere-like experience. Is this a BMW or the ultimate agricultural machine? Maybe this sort of confusion is the X1’s worst problem.

In this day and age, BMW’s identity crisis justifies a psychological hotline. Ever since Mercedes beat BMW in defining the midsize-luxury-SUV segment with its successful ML, the Bavarian automaker is having a separation anxiety of sorts, racing to create new and increasingly eyebrow-raising niches. The X3 may have invented the premium-compact SUV, but the X6 and the recent 5 GT have been trying to answer questions no one really asked.

You’d expect the X1’s nomenclature to indicate its roots lie in the compact 1 series, but the X1 is actually a chopped 3 series Touring (same wheelbase, different overall length), which makes the X3 the ugly duckling of the BMW family. Expensive and outdated, the X3 is less than 5 inches longer than the new X1, meaning the next generation of the sandwich child of the X series will have to get a serious bump in size and kit to justify the price increase over its baby brother. When it does – likely in 2011 – the X1 will also arrive stateside.

The exterior of the X1 is almost as confused as its identity. Up front, the X-junior bears BMW’s new upright kidney grill. Coupled with the bulbous bumper from the 1 series, the result isn’t completely unattractive – but definitely polarizing. The back is influenced by the 5 GT, with an uncanny resemblance to the E32 7 series, but the way the X1’s design elements connect is what makes it a bit of an odd bird. The proportions are strange, and they aren’t helped by the profile line sweeping from the front to the back – which is handsome on the new 5 series, but feels busy on the compact hatchback that the X1 fundamentally is.

Thankfully, the X1 still provides at least some core BMW experience. The seats are comfortable and grippy, and the thick, neatly stitched steering wheel falls comfortably into the driver’s hands. The driving position is also much closer to a conventional car than a true crossover – so that fans of the genre may be a little disappointed.

The rest of the cabin gets the basics right: everything in eye-level is fairly pleasing to the eye and touch, but as you go down you will discover flimsy plastics not worthy of a car of this caliber. There’s nothing here to make you feel particularly luxurious, and the general design of the cabin is a little dull – even BMW’s signature gearlever is replaced by a run of the mill stick. Annoyingly, there isn’t even a proper armrest.

The newest member of the X series does, however, get the practicalities right. Four passengers will be comfortable and so will their luggage – a huge improvement over the cramped 1 series. At almost 15 cubic feet, the X1’s trunk is smaller than the standard 3 series’. It is, however, significantly more comfortable to load, thanks to the practical benefits of the rear hatch and the slightly raised ride height.

Call me mad, but I’ve actually taken the baby-X to some mild offroading, and imminently proven that the X1 – and its expensive looking bumpers in particular – is allergic to as much as moderate potholes. And unless you don’t live in a country as sunny as mine, you really don’t need xDrive – BMW speak for 4 wheel drive – the car’s minimal clearance will probably limit it much quicker than treacherous mud will.

The X1’s natural habitat is the road, where it offers a good (but mixed) experience. The ride is bad. Blame BMW’s beloved low profile runflat tires for that. In moderately slow driving the X1 feels bumpy and crashes on minor asphalt imperfections, while in higher speeds and flatter roads the experience improves significantly – wind and tire noises are kept at bay, too.

Other than that, the X1 drives like a BMW should, with weighty hydraulically-assisted steering that’s not to anyone’s liking – especially not in town and during parking maneuvers. Thankfully, it’s also accurate and communicative, greatly contributing to a driving experience that’s very close to its road focused sibling. Body roll is minimal and the brakes are excellent, both in pedal feel and bite retention. The well-praised six speed ZF gearbox is well-praised here too, with a smooth and decisive action, but tap-shifters are sorely missed for spirited driving.

The engine is a mixed bag too. With 177 brake horsepower on tap, it won’t set this BMW’s tires alight (or puncture them, for that matter), but 258 lb-ft of torque have their way of getting this crossover to 60 in about 8.5 seconds on paper. Off paper, it feels quicker once the turbocharger kicks in at about 1,500 RPM. But then there’s that John Deere identity issue. The diesel clatter, which is well silenced in the rest of BMW’s diesel-sipping offerings, is present not only while the engine is cold, but also during moderate accelerations, almost never letting you forget it’s down there, and it won’t take regular unleaded without a fight.

Casting a verdict on the BMW X1 isn’t a “good car, bad car” affair as with most cars, because you have to put it in context, and right now you can’t. BMW want us to believe that their newest crossover is the opening shot in a new and busy segment which will be populated by the upcoming Audi Q3 and Land Rover LRX, but as of the present, the X1 can’t be readily compared to any vehicle on the market.

Even more confusingly, the X1 isn’t a bad car – it handles well and has some practical edges. The downsides – a mediocre cabin, iffy ride comfort with the stock runflat tires, and noisy engine – place it closer to the 1 series in the BMW quality hierarchy. In the end, it all boils down to pricing. UK pricing of the X1 place it close in price to an equally equipped 3 series sedan, but significantly cheaper than the more spacious 3 series touring.

In this price range the X1 can make sense for people looking for added practicality and raised ride height, who are willing to sacrifice some refinement and cabin quality. But it also comes mighty close in price to the larger Audi Q5, which makes me wonder: is there really a place for another sub-niche in the niche of the century?

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Review: 2011 Ford Mustang GT Wed, 31 Mar 2010 14:53:41 +0000

Powered By Ford. There’s something special about those words, something iconic, something that evokes a grand American scope, from the first cross-country trips in a Model T to a majestic GT40 hammering down the rain-soaked Mulsanne straight. Powered by Ford. It’s the logo stamped into the cam covers of the five-liter Mustang, but you won’t need to raise the hood to understand what it means. The first time this majestic engine swallows through its thirty-two adjustably timed valves and bellows a crescendo through its twin exhaust, it will be more than crystal clear.

Down Topanga Canyon Road, I can see the road is clear several switchbacks below. I loaf along, watching and timing, waiting for the moment when I have seen everything before me. Then I drop to third gear and let this new 2011 Mustang sing to seven thousand revs. The acceleration is shocking, as is the maddened “whoop” which fills the cabin. In no time my co-driver and I have swallowed seas of traffic, fast-forwarding the windshield view to a blur, an F-15 in a sky of Cessnas. I could go on, but this is TTAC and therefore convention requires that I discuss price and value.

The price is pretty good. Under thirty grand puts you into a 5.0. Equip the car with the bare necessities — Brembo front brakes, 3.73 axle, and a deleted rear spoiler — and the cash register rings to the tune of $32,980. This is the equivalent of Frank Bullit’s old 390GT, but make no mistake: with a conservatively-rated 412 horsepower, this car would rip the lungs from the Highland Green hubcap-eater. E92 M3 owners should worry. C5 Z06 pilots will need to find a twisty road lest they be run nose-to-tail down long freeway sprints.

Not that this revamped Mustang is helpless or hopeless on those twisty roads. As with the Mercedes SL, the faster variants are increasingly numb at the helm due to greater engine weight. Consider this the SL63 of the range; strong enough for virtually any fast-road duty but without the extra weight and ponderousness of the forced-induction version. Turn-in is light but feedback through the EPAS is surprisingly good, no doubt aided by the 19-inch P-Zero Neros. Nineteens are standard on Brembo-package cars and the California Specials. I’d prefer to combine the lighter eighteen-inch wheels with the Brembos, even at the sacrifice of 235-width tires against the 245-width big-wheels, but Ford does not offer that particular combination.

Once in the turn, the five-liter is torquey enough to adjust the cornering attitude at will. I suspect that the stability control intervenes when brakes are applied, even when it’s supposedly turned all the way off. With that said, I’m not a newspaper journo and it’s not really in my bag of tricks to stomp the brake in mid-corner. Left-foot braking into the corner is dicey enough; the Brembos are nice but they are still two sizes too small for a car of this performance potential.

It is nearly impossible to overstate the sheer charisma of this engine. Dyed-in-the-wool import snobs will simply adore the way it builds power along the rev range. It feels like the big-money four-or-five-liter engines from Audi, BMW, and Jaguar, but there’s an American helping of torque thanks to the Ti-VCT clever cams.

While the original Fox GT 5.0 was in many ways simply a flexible platform for a sterling engine, however, this Mustang continues Ford’s march of refinement. NVH is down. Interior quality is up, measurably so in these pre-production cars compared to the GT 4.6 I drove last year. SYNC is available and recommended to all but the most feverish of Luddites. The “MyKey” electronic nanny is available as well, but no amount of technology will keep teenagers from dying in this car if the conditions are wrong. It’s simply too quick to be entrusted to the inexperienced.

The rest of the car is a Mustang, and more or less as we know it: shiny metal interior, vaguely retro styling laid atop decidedly retro packaging, low seating position, decent visibility, and stronger-than-Corolla inputs required at all controls. As with the V-6, there’s a bit of a fuel-economy story here: twenty-six miles per gallon for a stick-shift with the standard rear axle.

There are few things about this car that will not be apparent during a casual test drive, and it is worth passing them along to TTAC readers. These Mustangs don’t feel natural to those of us used to perching over transverse motors in a cab-forward arrangement, but after a few dozen miles one adjusts very well and begins to enjoy being in the longitudinal center of the car. This is a fast, competent, well-sorted performance car that delivers M3-level performance at half the price. That will seal the deal for many drivers, even initially skeptical ones, but I cannot lie: they had me at “Powered”.

[Jack Baruth attended the launch for the Mustang, which was paid for by Ford]

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Review: 2011 Ford Mustang V6 Mon, 29 Mar 2010 20:06:58 +0000

“Hey there!”

“Excuse me?”

“Ain’t that one of them Ay-cord koops?”

“Why, yes it is. Aren’t you sporting the hairstyle commonly referred to as a ‘mullet’?”

“I sure am! Good enough for Brian Bosworth, it’s good enough for me. Is that Ay-cord fast?”

“It has 271 horsepower.”

“Well, shucks! Mah Mustang here done got Three. Oh. Five. Guess it’s faster, cause I don’t think it weighs more than a touch ahead of what you got.”

“Well, the Accord is also rated for twenty-eight miles per gallon on the highway. Much better than that Mustang. It’s important to conserve the planet’s resources.”

“Aw, hell. Guess you’re right. I mean, I’m only GITTIN’ THIRTY-ONE! YEE HAA!” And we close with the sound of a Flat Rock-fashioned burnout. End scene.

Forget the Challenger V-6. It’s heavy, crippled by an antiquated transmission, and severely down on power. And forget the Camaro V-6; the car once championed as the musclecar for the smart set looks distinctly porky at nearly four hundred pounds above the Mustang’s curb weight of 3,459. Ford’s after bigger game, and while the Accord Coupe was mentioned early and often during the media briefing, I suspect the real target of this stalking horse is the Hyundai Genesis.

The Genesis has proven to be rather popular with young people who don’t much care for the eight-cylinder engine and its attendant social baggage. It’s the ponycar for the twenty-first century, as important to some people as the original Mustang was in 1964. Except, of course, for the fact that this new Mustang is superior in virtually every respect, from interior quality to high-speed handling.

Oh, yes. I would disappoint the fine readers of TTAC if I didn’t run out to America’s mean streets for a bit of the old ultraviolence, and I do not mean to disappoint. I aim to misbehave. And I certainly did, aided by a six-speed manual, a 7000-rpm redline, and a limited-slip differential.

The results were more than surprising. After forty-plus years of being a consolation prize, the six-cylinder Mustang has finally found its voice. No, it’s not a charming engine, at least not compared to the bellowing five-liter with which it will share showroom-floor space, but it revs with abandon and chirps the rear wheels in third gear. Triple digits are less than fourteen seconds away at any moment.

When it’s time to slow the car, I’d recommend using your time machine and going back in time to choose the Performance Pack, which adds the suspension and brake pads from last years’s Mustang GT Track Pack. No car at this price level ($22,995, since you asked) will have brakes that are truly good enough. If you want twenty fade-free laps of VIR, I’d suggest purchasing a Boxster 2.7. Just be careful when you see the Mustang behind you on the long back straight., because you won’t have the pull to hold it off.

Through the infamous canyon roads surrounding Los Angeles, I regularly stretched out my perception and ran this Civic-priced Mustang at a pace traditionally reserved for the likes of BMW’s 335i. It’s plenty fast, and the light nose makes it a subtle handler. Ford’s introduced EPAS this year in the Mustang, and while some of the wannabes in the press will no doubt criticize the feel at the wheel, there’s enough information to do fast work.

Through undulating high-speed sweepers, I identified the pony’s biggest problem: lack of rebound damping. It’s so damned fast, and the front end bites so well, that it’s possible to really unsettle the rear and send it skyward. It’s not the fault of the axle, because the five-liter doesn’t suffer from the same issue. Come to think of it, the Performance Package car, which I couldn’t drive under identical conditions, might not have the problem either. On the positive side, the car rides well enough.

To get the most from your Mustang, you will want to punch the option chads until you clear the $30,000 mark. Doing that will obtain such goodies as Bimmer-style brown leather seating, a full aluminum interior which would probably cost five grand in a 911, and Ford’s sublime SYNC system. Thirty Gs for a six-cylinder Mustang? It sounds crazy, but the Hyundai isn’t much cheaper, and a similarly equipped Camaro actually costs more.

This car is not everyone’s cup of tea, and it’s ridiculous to think that the emotional needs of Accord Coupe buyers can be met by a snorting pony. Still, for those willing to look beyond the stereotypes, the Mustang is rapid, economical, and amusing to drive. It’s worth a look for almost any $25,000 import intender out there. If your neighbors worry that you’ve become Joe Dirt, show ‘em the EPA sticker and explain that you’ve become, ahem, Al Green.

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Review: Cadillac CTS Sportwagon Mon, 22 Mar 2010 14:48:51 +0000

I’m too young to remember the 1970s, but I have recollections of a Cadillac-based abomination known as the “Castilian Fleetwood Estate Wagon.” Perhaps the recent success of Cadillac-based trucks made someone at the RenCen give the Cadillac Wagon a second look. Yet the CTS Sport Wagon isn’t a cobbled-up engineering afterthought, though it reeks of branding desperation: the American icon formerly known as the pinnacle of everything now goes for entry-level luxury success in a station wagon. And that’s why this mirage hailing from the days of Motorized Malaise has some ‘splaining to do.

But wagons have their purpose, especially in Europe. Not so much in America, though using the far-from-ungainly CTS sedan could change all that. Too bad this Estate’s hindquarters are more aesthetically challenged than a Cy Twombly retrospective. Taking the CTS’s bulky proportions to new heights, the Sport Wagon’s short and “fast” roofline sports a pointless quarter window and massively “slow” looking D-pillar. And much like half melted dinner candles in a gothic dungeon, the crystalline tail lamps are an asymmetric eyesore on an already overwrought posterior. Conversely, any wagon sold in the USA is inherently desirable to some. So the CTS Sport Wagon is indeed cool.

And the hits keep on coming, as the CTS Sport Wagon’s interior is the same as the sedan. The front seats are near perfect, while dash materials and buttonage are first rate at this price point. All the requisite wood grain bits and electronic gadgets are accounted for, OnStar or otherwise. GM should be proud of this interior, so let’s get to the heart of the beast.

The business end of any wagon lies south of the B-pillars. The backseat is large enough for two average adults, but the tall beltline and narrow doors add an undue amount of claustrophobia. The cargo area has enough right angles for box friendly loading, albeit not large enough for items held by yesteryear’s wood paneled wagons. And while there’s not enough real estate for an E-class like rear facing seat, the carpeted floor sports elegant metal accents and a shiny sill plate: rivaling the CTS’ dashboard for mid-market luxury supremacy.

No matter, fold the seats and luggage volume becomes a reasonable 58 cubic feet: not exactly striking fear into the Volvo V70, but other European Estates in this price range have some competition. Even the CTS Sport Wagon’s rearward visibility “looks” far better than the blocky pillars and sparse glass imply.

Sadly, relative to boosted Volvos, Audis, and V8 Benzes and Bimmers, the CTS Sport Wagon’s dynamic demeanor is downright uninspired. With the direct injected V6 in play, the CTS Sport Wagon feels downright sluggish until the tach swings above 4000 revolutions. And with no manual transmission option, the sloth like motions of the standard six-speed automatic make for a powertrain that’s like a hibernating bear woken up by a foolish hiker. Hit the gas when the light turns green and there’s a big snore underhood, followed by an explosion of accelerative mediocrity.

If today’s Cadillac can’t muster up class leading acceleration, at least the Germanic chassis and taut suspension are done right. Sporting the somewhat-famous “FE3” suspension moniker, the CTS Sport Wagon has more grip than any street going wagoneer ever needs, and keeps things flat and drama free in the suburbs. Push harder on highway sweepers and the estate still remains flat. Understeer is out there, somewhere, but reaching the CTS Sport Wagon’s upper limits takes dedication and blatant disregard for public safety: this wagon is made for the Nürburgring.

Even better, the Caddy’s steering feel is omnipresent and boundless, making the CTS Sport Wagon feel far smaller and lighter than the 4200lb curb weight suggests. Get some steam in the motor and this whip is an absolute hoot to drive. Just stay on smooth pavement.

Like every other brand with visions of BMW conquests, Cadillacs lose their composure when things get bumpy. FE3 fettling be damned, the 19-inch rolling stock cause more in-cabin jolt than an AMG E-class wagon, with not enough cornering prowess to compensate. If bad roads are a normal part of your commute, get the base suspension. Or wait for a Magnaride option.

No, really. The good stuff isn’t available on a normal Cadillac: Buick’s half-dead Lucerne gets a torque monster V8 and Magnaride, buyers of GM’s top brand must ante for the V-series. So the CTS Sport Wagon is another import wannabe struggling to find its raison d’être: while the components for success gather dust on GM’s shelves. Instead of making the best sedan on the market, Cadillac made a (limited production) station wagon.

Respectable performer or no, this is one more mistake in a series of the wrong moves: why not reincarnate the Cadillac Hearse next time, underwriting a Ghostbuster’s sequel for its introduction?

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Review: Lincoln MKS Ecoboost Take Two Fri, 19 Mar 2010 14:42:56 +0000

If Lincoln were a person, it would have been committed to a psych ward years ago. Battered by corporate politics, economic cycles, and a desire to both retain traditional customers and conquest new ones, the brand has lacked a coherent identity for over a quarter-century. There have been times when each of its models was the product of a different strategy and expressed (or failed to express) a different design language. In the early 2000s Lincoln seemed to finally be getting its shit together, with a brilliant Continental Concept and a common design language applied to all of its 2003 models. Then the wheels came off the wagon—again—and a bankruptcy-skirting Ford had no choice but to cancel the ambitious cars in the PAG pipeline and redo Lincoln on the cheap. Did they spend their pennies well? What is a Lincoln in 2010? There’s no better place to find out than the driver’s seat of the current flagship, the MKS EcoBoost.

There’s absolutely no sign of the long, sleek Continental Concept in the MKS. To save money, Lincoln based its latest large sedan on the Five Hundred. To their credit, the designers made the most of the platform’s challenging proportions, scrunching the greenhouse, blacking out the rockers, and detailing the exterior much as Lexus would have. Aside from its chunky proportions, the car isn’t distinctive, but it has presence.

The tested MKS EcoBoost had the $2,995 Appearance Package, which takes the car in the wrong direction. The rockers are not only body color, but they’re extended with side skirts. The last thing this body needs is to appear taller. The package’s 20-inch chromed alloys accentuate the insufficiency of the wheelbase. And the extra-cost Red Candy Metallic paint? Not the right shade for this car.

Inside, vestiges of Lincoln’s earlier aesthetic remain in bits of satin metal trim. But the overall appearance is much less distinctive and, while a couple steps up from the related Taurus, not quite luxury class. High points: the upholstered IP upper, glitzy instruments, and soft brown leather seats. Low point: the black plastic trim panel on the rear face of the center console doesn’t have the metallic sheen of the other trim panels and wouldn’t even look suitable in a Focus.

None of this mattered one bit to my wife. She fell in love with the MKS because it does other aspects of luxury very well. The interior is hushed even at highway speeds. The large seats are heated, cooled, and cushy—no BMW emulation here. There’s less room than in the Five Hundred—function has been traded for form—but still plenty of it. And the car is chock full of gadgetry: automatic auto-dimming steering-linked headlights, automatic wipers, adaptive cruise, active parking, keyless access and ignition, THX audio, voice-activated nav, SYNC, and a rearview monitor that, combined with front and rear obstacle detection, makes the car’s severely restricted rearward visibility a non-issue.

Ford couldn’t afford to develop a new V8. So, through some odd twist of economics, it developed a twin-turbo DOHC V6 instead. The EcoBoost V6 doesn’t make lusty sounds, but at least it sounds more refined in the MKS than in the Flex. There’s no boost lag to speak of and all 355 horses are present and accounted for when you mash the go pedal. Despite the requisite all-wheel-drive, drive this car harder than it’ll typically be driven and there’s an occasional twinge of torque steer. The Eco bit isn’t just marketing hype. I observed 19 MPG in suburban driving, and 24 on the highway, surprisingly good for 355-horsepower, 4,400-pound car.

Know how some cars shrink around you the harder you push them? The MKS is not one of those cars. Mind you, it doesn’t fall all over itself in hard turns. It just prefers a more sedate driving style, and long stretches of highway most of all. You sit crossover high, and never does the MKS feel an inch smaller or a pound lighter than it is. Which is larger and heavier than it looks—the tall bodysides and large wheels trick the eye. How big is it? Compared to an Audi A6, the MKS is 10.6 inches longer, 2.9 inches wider, and 4.1 inches taller. It’s a “whole lotta car.” The Fusion-based Lincoln MKZ I drove the following week felt as sharp and tossable as a Miata in comparison. In Lincoln’s defense, it didn’t aim to create a sport sedan with the MKS, turbos and paddle shifters notwithstanding. Even with EcoBoost the suspension is biased in favor of ride quality (which is nevertheless merely good, not great). The Appearance Package’s side skirts and spoiler would be all wrong even if they looked right.

Not the most refined, but loads of features—sounds like a value play. Is it? Close comparisons aren’t easy to come by—there aren’t many truly large 350-plus-horsepower all-wheel-drive sedans on the market for anything close to the MKS’s price. Similarly load up an Audi A6 4.2 quattro, and the smaller, German luxury sedan lists for about $10,000 more. An Infiniti M45 AWD? About $11,000 more. While the Lincoln’s $54,000 price tag (sans Appearance Package) seems steep, others are significantly steeper. With one notable exception: the Hyundai Genesis 4.6 undercuts the MKS EcoBoost by about $10,000. Adjust for the Lincoln’s additional features, including all-wheel-drive, using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool and the Korean sedan retains a $7,000 advantage.

And so, what is Lincoln? Judging from the MKS EcoBoost, it’s size, power, silence, soft leather, and lots of buttons. These are all things Lincoln used to be known for, and all are turn-ons for the typical American luxury sedan buyer with no desire to carve a curve quickly. The MKS is a little rough around the edges, but many of these buyers won’t care or even notice. The relatively low price will help. But will potential buyers notice the MKS in the first place? The main thing missing: styling that is just as unapologetically American as the rest of the car. Something like that aborted Continental.

Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online source of auto pricing and reliability data

Lincoln provided the car, insurance, and one tank of gas for this review

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Review: Aston Martin Rapide Mon, 15 Mar 2010 13:54:09 +0000

I know someone who’s been in the fashion biz most of her life. Her affinity with handsome male models is not surprising, yet her insistence–a “shush” sound accompanied by a finger on their lips–that the Eye Candy refrain from voicing their opinions definitely got me thinking. Perhaps beauty and critical thinking are two circles that rarely intersect in the Venn Diagram of life?

True dat, since I can’t remember a day when Aston Martin’s historically gorgeous automobiles weren’t trampled by the performance of neighboring Jaguars or the German and Italian marques. And with the Rapide sedan, we have another stunning Aston Martin to admire. Shush!!!

The Rapide is certainly a looker. The roofline moves at illegal speeds, thanks to greenhouse’s acres of tumblehome and the muscular haunches of the rear fenders’ leading edge. Sure, the Rapide is a hunkering, swaggering affair. But unlike the earth-hugging wedge of William Town’s 1976 Aston Martin Lagonda, the Rapide isn’t a serious re-think of the traditional luxury sedan: it’s a Dachshund-ized DB9 with a significantly wider rear track. No surprise then, that the Rapide so closely resembles the coupe there’s almost no difference from the front or rear. For all the grief this website gives Detroit for its bankruptcy-worthy platform sharing, Aston Martin’s badge engineering for the D&G crowd is a slippery slope (see: Aston’s planned Cygnet).

And it’s the same inside: think Mazda RX8 with a Vantage extreme makeover. Aside from the smaller front portal, occupants receive the same decadent ambiance of the Aston coupes. Maybe that’s a good thing, as a recent redesign of the center stack has easier to use controls, a better navigation interface and a chronometer that isn’t lifted from a Ford Fusion. And the fifteen speaker Bang and Olufsen stereo has interstellar imaging, after the diva-like tweeters get over themselves and fully extend out of the dashboard. While the Panamera doesn’t share much of anything with the 911, the badge engineered Rapide is still an entertaining piece of kit: the rear seats do a folding trick to extend the hatchback’s somewhat useless space into something IKEA-worthy. Like, awesome.

Our tester came with black leather, red stitching, metal trim with polished accents: a decidedly sporty, top dollar affair that smells even better than it looks. All four seats are contoured for beautifully slender people who appreciate thin padding, albeit with the heating and cooling features deemed mandatory at this price point. The Alcantara headliner is stitched stem to stern, with no provision for a glass-paneled roof. But the miniscule vanity mirrors turn your face into a Fun House distortion: perhaps the Rapide hates being a real luxury sedan so much it wants you to hate yourself?

Self-loathing aside, the Rapide is a decent sports car from the driver’s seat. The high-strung 6.0L mill makes all the right Italian V12 noises from the rear and inside the cabin, though bystanders posted yards ahead hear the same sucking sound of a Duratec-equipped Ford. Get on the cams fast, because peak power comes far later than any top-drawer Merc or BMW sedan. Like that German competition, the Rapide’s six speed is a true automatic, but with quick up shifts and paddle controllers that work well enough to make you swear there’s a F1-style gearbox underneath. If the competition didn’t fall in love with turbocharging, the Rapide would be one sweet rocket ship.

But corners are here for a reason, and the Rapide excels in its purity of powertrain and that coupe-like chassis. The low seating position, tight steering, adjustable dampers and 20-inch rolling stock deliver a command performance of flat cornering with immense grip. I never felt the extra wheelbase or pounds of bulk, and the hindquarters rotated the chassis with zero drama and no complaints: coupe performance Über Alles.

But I was a second-class citizen when the same dynamic tests occurred in the rear seat. The intelligent dampers’ smoother-than-DB9 ride is much appreciated, because it’s loud and claustrophobic back there: the full-length console and assertive exhaust note lose their elegant demeanor after a few minutes of actual usage. The rear buckets encourage G-forces from the driver, though the terrible visibility makes rearward occupants wonder what the hell is going on. And escaping via the trap door portal (utilizing Kia-worthy gas assist struts) without scratching any leather or paint is a difficult task.

Perhaps it was operator error: the dull venue and my uninspiring clothing weren’t worthy of a typical Aston Martin owner. Expectations of haute couture aside, everyone understands how the Rapide perfectly blurs the line between coupe and sedan, but a select few feel that blend of bragging rights and disappointing compromise. That’s provided they meet the business end of a Panamera or an AMG V12, ‘natch. So the Rapide is what an Aston has always been: beautifully constructed, elegantly sculpted and behind the competition.

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Review: 2010 Nissan Altima Coupe Mon, 08 Feb 2010 18:38:54 +0000

Until recently, if you wanted a semi-practical sport coupe for less than $30,000, and pony cars weren’t your thing, you had to get one based on a front-drive sedan. Chevrolet offered the Monte Carlo, Honda offered the Accord Coupe, Toyota offered the Solara, and two years ago Nissan introduced an Altima Coupe. The Nissan was the sportiest of the bunch owing to a dramatically shorter wheelbase and the company’s usual emphasis of handling over ride quality. Then, for the 2010 model year, Hyundai changed the rules of the game by tossing the rear-drive Genesis Coupe into the mix. Given this new addition, the question has to be asked: why would anyone still opt for the Nissan, when the Genesis is the same price?

Both the Altima and the Genesis crib from the G35/G37 Coupe, Nissan more legitimately than Hyundai since it owns Infiniti. The Altima Coupe is quite stylish from the rear quarter, with shades of Bentley in its more complex surfaces and no intentionally odd side window outline. But when viewed from the side or front quarter the car’s front-drive proportions take their toll. There’s simply too much visual mass ahead of the front wheel, which itself is too close to the passenger compartment. The door windows are framed. The 2010 SE’s 18-inch wheels and the tested car’s dark gray paint, with a bluish tinge, do make the best of the shape.

Inside both the Altima and Genesis put the business of driving—and cost—ahead of style and flash. The Genesis has a more flowing center stack, but the Altima makes do with much less faux aluminum trim. Saving the Nissan’s off-black interior from having the ambiance of a coal bin: red leather seats that look so good you wonder why so many companies offer only gray and beige. The women in my life (okay, a wife and a daughter) loved them. Hyundai offers orange-brown leather, which looks more luxurious but less sporty than the Nissan’s red. The 2010 Altima’s soft-touch IP and padded door panels are a definite step up from the shoddy hard plastic interiors of the first-gen V6 models—but then what isn’t? The primary instruments are attractive, designed to provide much of the appearance of those in a Lexus for much less money.

The good stuff inside the car ends here. All of the other readouts—including the new head unit’s LCD–suffer from Nissan’s inexplicable love for orange lighting. The look, feel, and layout of the various buttons and switches continues to lag the leaders by a substantial margin. For example, the trip computer would be much more useful if the buttons for it were on the steering wheel rather than requiring a reach around. And who thought it would look good to place rectangular temperature readouts within the round HVAC knobs? I suspect the bean counters. The seat heaters never get very warm, and the Bose audio system never sounded right no matter what adjustments I tried—one speaker or another always stuck out above the others rather than blending with them.

The front seats don’t feel quite as good as they look. They’re comfortable, but those in the Genesis Coupe are even more comfortable and provide better lateral support—the bolsters are spaced for larger people in the Altima. The view forward is open, while the view rearward is more constricted—which is where the new-for-2010 rearview camera pays off. Typical of a coupe, in back there’s not enough space for the heads or legs of adults. If you need to put adults in the back seat, then Nissan will sell you an Altima sedan. The Altima Coupe similarly gives up much of the sedan’s trunk space—there are only 8.2 cubic feet of it, and the opening is tight. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a smaller trunk in a car with a non-folding roof. Adding insult to injury, Nissan didn’t include a handle inside the lid, so you’ll dirty your fingers closing it.

Without question the V6 engine is the best part of the Altima Coupe. Variants of the VQ V6 have powered various Nissans and Infinitis since 1994, in 3.5-liter form for the past decade. In some applications the enlarged VQ sounds gruff at higher rpm. Not this one. I cannot recall the VQ ever feeling or sounding better than it does in this car. The V6 pulls very strongly from 3,500 rpm on up, and the sound it makes is downright addictive. Hyundai must find a way to make its V6 sound and feel more like this one. Sure, the larger Korean V6 kicks out better numbers, but subjectively it doesn’t come close.

In suburban driving I averaged 17 MPG partly because I could not keep my foot out of the throttle. How much better would it do driven gently? It’d be easier to find out how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop. The 6-speed manual transmission’s shift lever is tall and its throws are on the long side when snicking clunking from gear to gear, but it’s still an easy choice over the CVT for any enthusiast.

Surprisingly, given the 258 pounds-feet the 3.5-liter engine produces, there’s very little torque steer. But before sounding the all clear, try shifting gears during full-throttle acceleration—the front wheels perform such a violent double-hop that I initially wondered if something was wrong with the car’s front suspension. Go easier on the throttle and there’s still a bit of the same unless you slow the shift and feather the clutch engagement. A quick check with owners confirmed that the 6-speed Altima V6 suffers from fairly severe wheel hop. The aftermarket offers a fix in the form of traction rods—not a common mod for a front-wheel-drive car. Another, not recommended fix: the CVT. Never has it been more necessary to eliminate “shift shock.” Did Nissan set up the suspension for the CVT, with the manual an afterthought?

The Altima’s handling is thoroughly predictable, even in snow, with minimal roll and minimal understeer…okay, you know the qualification is coming…for a front-wheel-drive car. This said, the steering doesn’t feel as quick or responsive as that in the Maxima. It’s dull in normal driving, but thankfully becomes communicative in hard turns. The Altima Coupe is one of those cars that feels best when driven aggressively. If the only competition were other front-wheel-drive coupes, it would compare well, if only because competitors with their larger dimensions feel even more like the sedans on which they are based. But the Genesis handles better, if still not remotely like a sports car, thanks to the additional chassis modulation afforded by rear-wheel-drive.

The Altima Coupe’s roll control comes at a high price—over all but the smoothest roads the ride varies between annoyingly jiggly and sadistically harsh. My wife likes to read in the car. She couldn’t read in this one. Even with its optional sport suspension the Genesis rides much better. With a ride this bad, the Altima Coupe should handle like a sports car. It doesn’t. Even if it did this price would be too high. Nissan needs to find a way to calm the suspension down.

And yet…I enjoyed driving the Altima Coupe more than I did the Genesis Coupe. It just feels so much more eager and alive, asking for and rewarding an aggressive driving style. Which makes it all the more a shame that the chassis punishes much more often than it rewards. An outstanding engine can compensate for a lot of minor shortcomings, but not this major one. The 2010 refresh ought to have done more to raise the rest of the car nearer the level of the engine.

Nissan provided the vehicle, insurance, and one tank of gas for this review

Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online provider of auto pricing and reliability data.

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Review: 2010 Suzuki Kizashi Mon, 18 Jan 2010 20:34:17 +0000 100_5987

The dominant Japanese car companies remain uncomfortable with their nationality, doing their best to seem somehow American lest they provoke a political backlash. Even as unabashedly Japanese products have become prevalent in the intertwined worlds of TV, gaming, and toys, I cannot recall a car with so much as a Japanese name prior to Suzuki’s new Kizashi. Why Suzuki? Well, they’re too small in the U.S. to fear a backlash. And tagging a motorcycle Hayabusa didn’t exactly harm its popularity. Why “Kizashi?” The name means “something great is coming.” Well, is it?

100_5990With a name like “Kizashi,” one might expect Suzuki’s new sedan to look distinctively Japanese, or at least distinctive. It doesn’t. Some of the details are nicely done, such as the Lexus-like exhaust outlets. And the proportions are athletically tight. But if anyone noticed the Kizashi during the week I drove it and wondered “what is that?” they were very discreet about it. I suppose we should be thankful that the new corporate front end introduced with the XL7 went no further than the XL7. But anonymous soap bars are so mid-90s, and something about this car should say Suzuki aside from the oversized S on the grille.

The interior is no more Japanese than the exterior. But, for a car priced in the mid-20s, the Kizashi has an exceedingly well-appointed interior. Door pulls are the first thing you touch inside a car, and you grab them every time you get in. Yet these are rarely fully upholstered, even in premium brand luxury sedans. Well, the Kizashi has them, along with luxuriously upholstered upper door panels.

The premium look and feel continues with a woven 100_5714headliner, switchgear that’s a cut or two above the mid-20s norm, compartment lids that open with a dampened glide, and thorough red backlighting. Everything that could possibly be backlit is backlit, down to the hood release and shift paddles. In the midst of this refinement, the long clunky rod used to adjust the instrument panel’s brightness and the slop with which the glove compartment latches stick out more than they otherwise would. A third oversight, and easily the most annoying: while the brightness of the instruments can be adjusted, the bright green lights that announce that the cruise and AWD are engaged cannot be. I avoided using both on the highway to avoid the green lights.

Suzuki similarly aims to impress with the Kizashi’s features list, and generally succeeds. Especially nice to see at this price: an immersive 425-watt Rockford Fosgate sound system, keyless access and ignition (will anyone who owns a car with it ever go back?), rain-sensing wipers (can’t get them on a Cadillac this year), and rear air vents. Some bits missed in their absence: 8-way instead of 4-way adjustment for the power passenger seat (a common omission at this price) and rear reading lamps. Yes, my well-ventilated kids complained when they could not read at night.

100_5712Suzuki is pitching the Kizashi as a driver’s car. The firm front buckets fit the bill, with side bolsters that (for once) actually provide even better lateral support than their appearance suggests they will. The driving position needs work—I had to telescope the wheel all the way out to comfortably reach it, and tilt it a little higher to avoid obstructing the instruments. Size-wise, the Kizashi falls between a compact and a midsize. This translates to a rear seat that is just large enough for the average adult. Those six-feet and up will wish for a true midsize. Kids, on the other hand, will wish for a lower beltline as they’ll struggle to see out of the Kizashi.

About that driver’s car pitch—it’s not based on the engine. A 180-horsepower 2.4-liter four isn’t ever going to impress in a nearly 3,500-pound sedan. With the six-speed manual and front-wheel-drive it might serve fairly well. With the four-wheel-drive and the CVT it mandates, not even close. GM uses active noise cancellation to make a similarly-sized four sound refined in the new Equinox. The Kizashi needs some of that. As is, the 2.4 has the shakes at idle and sounds more like a diesel than VW’s latest TDI south of 4,000 rpm. Too bad it doesn’t also have the low-end pull of a diesel. Acceleration from zero to 20 is downright sluggish. At that point the engine hits its stride and pulls strongly (well, as strongly as it can) until the CVT decides to reel it in.

In normal around-town driving, the CVT often 100_5998decides “mission accomplished” and quickly transitions from an athletic 4,000+ rpm to an engine-lugging 1,500—even though you’re still accelerating. Or at least trying to. I’m not sure there’s a four-cylinder alive that sounds and feels good under load at 1,500 rpm. This one certainly doesn’t. To prevent this, make frequent use of the shift paddles to hold the transmission in one of six predefined ratios.

The CVT clearly wants to maximize fuel economy. Well, in moderate suburban driving the trip computer reported 20.5. My 300-horsepower V8 Lexus with 110,000 miles approaches 20 on the same routes. On the highway the Kizashi struggled to crack 26 even with the 4WD turned off. Turning off 4WD didn’t seem to improve fuel economy to a noticeable degree, perhaps because the system’s extra mass and much of its extra drag are still along for the ride. Oh, yeah, the trip computer might be optimistic—manual measurement of one highway tank returned 24.6 vs. the 26.2 reported by the computer.

T100_5870he driver’s car pitch is based on the Kizashi’s handling. The in-between size and low-profile 18s (on the two top trim levels) should pay dividends here. In casual driving the Kizashi does have the polished, well-dampened feel of a German sport sedan, if VW more than BMW. And yet, when the chips are down, the (almost) sporty steering and suspension both become vague, failing to provide a sense of precision when it’s needed most. Say, when driving one of the curvier sections of the Pennsylvania turnpike, where the Jersey barrier comes uncomfortably close to the side of the car. No I didn’t scrape it, but the Kizashi doesn’t inspire confidence the way the best sport sedans do. At speed the front end becomes a touch floaty, the steering cuts back on communication, and bumps do some of the steering. The ride similarly lacks that final bit of polish, failing to absorb the occasional impact and at times turning jittery, especially for those in the back seat. On the other hand, when the engine isn’t working too hard the interior is quiet.

Unlike the typical all-wheel-drive system, with the Kizashi’s you can lock the car in front-wheel-drive. So, technically speaking, it has a four-wheel-drive system. The only clear benefit: you can find out how much difference driving all four wheels makes. Obviously, there’s more traction on snow-covered roads with the system engaged, enabling the car to be driven more quickly through turns without tripping the traction control system. And you don’t want to trip it—once this system takes power away it’s slow to give it back. But with 4WD engaged the handling is actually less predictable and thus less safe, with a tendency to oversteer not otherwise present. The car’s tail-happiness is easily controlled and even entertaining, but not something for less experienced drivers who simply want to stay out of the ditch. In front-wheel-drive the rear wheels dutifully follow the front ones. On dry roads, 4WD is of limited use until Suzuki offers a more powerful engine. A turbo 2.4 could make a big difference.100_5855

Even after selling cars in the United States for a quarter century, Suzuki remains below the radar. If it wants to be a player here, it needs to offer a car so great that Americans must take notice. Unfortunately, while the Kizashi has definite strengths, most notably the upscale interior and premium feel in casual driving, it’s not that car. The styling is too anonymous, the engine lacks refinement, the CVT could learn a thing or two from Nissan, and the chassis needs another round of tuning. Above all, the Kizashi has far too little personality. There’s a lot to like, but not much to love. Suzuki has been bold with the car’s name. Why not with the car itself? Something great might be coming from Suzuki, but it hasn’t yet arrived.

Vehicle, insurance, and one tank of gas provided by Suzuki

Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, a source of pricing and reliability data

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Review: 2010 Acura TSX V6 Fri, 15 Jan 2010 17:52:54 +0000 The V6 that nobody asked for?

Remember the ’86 Acura Legend Coupe, the definition of elegant muscle? Or how about the ’97 Integra Type R, the weekend racer you couldn’t break? These were Acuras that inspired passion, joy, and a special place burned into my long-term memory. Even though it’s been 24 and 12 years ago respectively since I drove these high points for Honda’s luxury brand, I remember them like it was yesterday. In contrast, I drove a TSX V6 a mere three days ago, and already my primary remaining impression of it is a longing for those Acuras of yesteryear. And my memory isn’t even that bad.

I’ve always liked Acuras. At least the idea of them. I don’t demand rear-wheel drive and V8s in my sport luxury cars. I appreciate the Honda work ethic, attention to detail and sense of assurance. The difficulty is, if you like them, you go to the dealership and wonder where they are. The TSX V6 is the perfect example. It’s a Honda Accord with a pretentious snout and three-times the buttons.

YeeshThe interior is Steve Jobs personal Hell. Every necessary button comes with an average of four attendants. I stopped counting at five thousand.Things  look very nice inside, in the current black and silver style, but nothing generates a ‘wow’. Nothing generates a ‘where’ or ‘what’ either, so I shouldn’t complain.

Ergonomically, everything is pretty much at or near where you’d guess it would be. Every switch and knob feels firm but pliable, like a good assistant or yoga trainer. Which is what luxury’s all about in the end.

Based on the European Honda Accord, the TSX exterior design is more crisp than its underlings. Cues like the hip crease are tense and sophisticated, but overall Acura’s design language has a limited vocabulary. There is not enough to give this car – the whole line, really – distinction. There is nothing terribly wrong with the TSX, it’s just not as attractive as, well, everything else in the class (the Lexus ES being the only possible exception.)

On that pretentious snout rests the Acura crest, a stylized caliper, signifying the company’s devotion to engineering. It is rightly placed over the hood. This is where the discipline shows. The V6 is new for 2010, offering the TSX’s first-ever step up from the four-cylinder. The 24-valve, single overhead cam with variable valve timing puts out 280 horses and 254 pound feet of torque. This is not insubstantial. The engine revs freely, effortlessly and on an easy to understand path. And there’s no shortage of grunt, despite the 3700 pounds. tsxv63

The five-speed automatic transmission is equally attentive. As opposed to many competitors, this one is a worthy dance partner, never falling behind or stepping on the wrong cog. Downshifts were on time and correct, without the three-blind-mice effect, bumping around in search of the right gear. The automatic clipped to the four-cylinder actually achieves better gas mileage than the manual.

The V6 also comes with enhanced steering, which feels like they added a couple of clock weights to the standard electronic set up. The result is more satisfying than the over-juiced wheel in the base TSX. It is not better, just heavier. Heavier has a shorter learning curve which makes me wonder if I’d get used to the lighter settings, adapt my driving, and not care after a while.

One thing is certain: the brakes aren’t stopping potential buyers in their tracks. They are simply not as good as most of the competition. While not unsafe, they lack the precise feeling and sheer stopping power this drivetrain deserves.

The fact that the suspension is decent makes the inferior brakes even more disappointing. The car’s roll is minimal, keeping you fairly flat, without making your fillings fly out. The car is waggle free. Combined with the frictionless engine and alert tranny, the TSX is hardly short on fun.

tsxv64But neither are the Audi A4, BMW 3, Mercedes C, Infinity G, Cadillac CTS, Hyundai Genesis, Volvo S80 . . . All of which have more personality in one department or another. The TSX is a conservative entry in a broad market segment. So while the car is not bad, it fails to stand out against a dozen direct competitors. And I’m probably forgetting some . . . Oh, right, the V6 Honda Accord, this car’s fraternal twin.

The suspension is assembled from the same components (albeit a tad softer.) The engine lacks a mere eight horsepower, though for that compromise your gas mileage climbs by two (city/highway average.) Though nearly identical in exterior measurements, the Accord offers six more cubic feet of cabin space. It might not be of the useful variety, but that’s not the point. It’s eight grand less (our tester stickered at $38,881) and, in many respects, it’s better.

The TSX’s luxury appointments are just that: appointments. The guts are too similar and style too tame. If you’re fond of Hondas and have more money than you used too, buy a V6 Accord, swap out the tires for a stickier set and donate the remaining six and a half Gs to your favorite charity. You’ll be better off, the world will be better off and maybe, in the long run, it’ll help make Acura better. Till then, thanks for the memories.

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Review: BMW 750i Mon, 11 Jan 2010 16:47:43 +0000 bmw750i1

BMW is rapidly becoming the Swiss Army Knife of automobile brands. Elegant and well-trained coupes, estates and sedans? Check. Interested in CUVs of both respectable and questionable utility? They got you covered. Though the X6 and 5-series Gran Tourismo are answers to a question nobody asked, the smaller, racier 750i Sport treads dangerously into well established 5-series territory. And while the 5-er and 7-er’s pasts are more than a little intertwined, should history repeat itself?

bmw750i4Yes, if the sheet metal changes to the latest 7 are any indication. The latest 750i is a more refined piece than it’s E65-bodied predecessor. Yesteryear’s Bangle Butt is thankfully, mercifully absent from the posterior, replaced with the boxy butt and conservatively sculpted taillights that signify the refined styling of a proper luxury saloon. Even the outgoing model’s po-faced nose of is replaced with brash BMW kidney grilles, flowing fenders and a muscular hood bulge. But this isn’t an ostentatious S-class Benz, as tight wheel arches, the classic Hofmeister kink and 19” M-spec wheels make the 750i a performance oriented luxury sedan. Lose the garish fender vents and call it done.

And the leather-wrapped interior makes it work. The latest 7-series sports a cabin worthy of its lofty asking price and Teutonic design heritage. The chrome accents are from a metal-like substance, and a gifted artist is responsible for the inside door releases. There’s plenty of brilliantly grained wood trim that, unlike the S-class and LS460, is arranged in a manner that doesn’t draw attention to itself. And the heavenly seats are contoured for maximum comfort and modest lateral support. If an automotive ambiance ever mirrored a Hollywood movie, this one’s an Oceans Eleven.

Then again, this is a BMW: in lieu of a real shift knob and intuitive ancillary controls, the 750i sports a new-ish iDrive system and a gear selector resembling a melted Nintendo Wii remote control. Then again, the iDrive’s user interface and screen size is far superior to older versions. Which is like saying Windows 7 can’t be any worse than Vista at first glance. At this rate, BMW will come full circle to the E38’s moderate buttonage by 2020. One can hope. bmw750i2

But even the most Bangled of Bimmers from the current millennia was a genuine pleasure to drive on the most challenging road, with room for plenty of cargo and passengers. So raising the bar for latest tuned, tweaked and twin turbocharged 750i Sport is logical.

The 750i Sport is the most driver-involving sedan in its class: there’s nothing like a beefy V8, especially one with torque-rich turbochargers keeping the power down low, never letting go until 407 horses reach redline in any of six gears. Aside from zee Germans (seemingly) mandatory throttle delay at tip in, the 750i Sport is a rewarding powertrain that’s both sublime and brutal. If this is a harbinger for the forthcoming M5’s motor, the best is yet to come.

But the 750i’s demeanor feels inferior to previous generations of BMW’s flagship. Thanks to steering feel with the consistency of mashed potatoes, turn-in is muted to the point of delayed reaction. Which is apparent while the sound of the sandpaper textured, leather wrapped tiller rotates in your hands, doing it’s damnedest to replicate the kicks of a chorus line in nylon running suits.

bmw750i3Overall, that’s just a minor quibble: the 750i Sport corners BMW-flat and true on any urban road, with endless grip and seating that both coddles and cuddles its occupants in that sporting luxury known by every generation of Bavaria’s biggest sedan. With pavement joints transmitting muted bangs and bumps throughout the cabin, the ride isn’t as effortless as an S-class. Not pleased? Give the long wheelbase, conservatively sprung, 7-series a spin before leaving for the Lexus dealer.

But there’s still a fly in the ointment: BMW’s marketing ploy called EfficientDynamics. One trick up their sleeve, the “Brake Energy Regeneration” system, relieves stress associated with hyper-complex automotive electronic systems: like Toyota’s Hybrids, the big Bimmer uses energy from the brakes to recharge the battery, unloading the alternator and the engine bolted to it. And that (marginal) improvement on fuel economy nets an artificial, non-linear brake pedal in parking lot maneuvers. Which launches everyone in the passenger compartment forward with a touch of the stoppers. That might be worth the trouble, if this whip netted impressive fuel economy figures.

But 15 MPG on premium fuel is the opposite of efficient. While the Marketing Science behind BMW’s EfficientDynamics begs to differ, this car is a remarkably well-crafted, twin-turbocharged pavement pounder that straddles the line between a sporty 5-series and a decadent 7-series. And nothing more. Which works: buy a Cobalt XFE if you want to save the world from unabashed consumerism, and tell Bavaria to keep the tree huggers away from the flagship 7-series.

bmw750i bmw750i1 bmw750i1-thumb bmw750i2 bmw750i3 bmw750i4 bmw750i5 Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail ]]> 46
Comparison Review: Kia Soul Versus Nissan Cube: Second Place: Kia Soul Mon, 04 Jan 2010 20:49:12 +0000 Sould?

Back in 1997, when Volkswagen introduced the New Beetle, my wife badly wanted one because it seemed so much more young and fun than her current car. But she also wanted children. The two were not compatible, so no Beetle for her. No doubt she was not the only person seeking a cute, quirkily styled car with four doors. But at the time there were no such cars. Chrysler was arguably first to fill this void, with the PT Cruiser. So that’s what my wife has been driving for the past five years. Today there are a number of contenders. The latest: Kia’s Soul and Nissan’s cube. Which comes closest to the mark? Well, since you’re reading about the Soul first, clearly the cube. Here’s where the Soul falls short…

Picture 72First, a step back. Japan has been awash in quirky small cars for years, but the 2004 Scion xB was the first to reach American shores. The extreme rectilearity of the xB polarized opinion. Most people found it ugly, but enough found its combination of anti-style, roominess, and economy appealing enough to make the first-gen xB a hit.

The Kia Soul is Korea’s response to that xB. It answers the question: what happens if you keep the basic box, but do more with it than add wheels? What if you actually put serious thought into the design? In the case of the Soul, an upward angled beltline, downward angled roofline, flared wheel openings, and various other details perfectly meld to form a much more attractive box. This is the sort of innovative yet cohesive design Honda used to be capable of, but somehow forgot how to do. The Soul hasn’t repulsed people the way the xB has, and I’d personally feel much more comfortable driving one.

But perhaps this is a sign that Kia hasn’t pushed the envelope hard enough. While attractive, the Soul doesn’t challenge aesthetic conventions the way the xB and cube have. It doesn’t seem as quirky, and doesn’t stand out as much in a sea of other cars. So it doesn’t appeal as much to people like my wife who want something clearly different from the mainstream. Those macho fender flares and angles might also be a factor: there’s more sport and less cute in this exterior design than in the cube’s.

Inside, color provides the Soul with much of its soul. Well, not in the lower two trim levels—their interiors are un-fun solid black. Soul! InteriorBut the !’s interior (yes, ! is a trim level, as is +) is a combination of beige and black, while the sport’s (lowercase intended) is red and black. Opt for the red only if you really like red. There’s a lot of it, including nearly the entire instrument panel, and hard plastic is clearly hard plastic in this particular shade. You’ll want to wear your shades. Beige veers too far in the other direction, but houndstooth seat inserts save the !’s interior from appearing mundane.

The Soul’s most unexpected feature: speaker lights. The great-sounding 315-watt, eight-speaker audio system has lights in its two front door speakers. And, no, that’s not the end of it. These lights have four settings: off, on, mood, and music. In “mood,” you set the frequency with which they blink. In “music,” they beat to the music. An excellent way to entertain the kiddies—except that the rear door speakers are not similarly endowed. Why not?

Another problem with the speaker lights: responses to TrueDelta’s Car Reliability Survey suggest that they often failed to work as designed. Kia has a fix for this problem, though, so it shouldn’t affect recently produced cars.

Sitting in the Soul feels much like sitting in a regular compact, just with your rear a half-foot further from the ground. While a protruding center stack benefits ergonomics, it also reduces the perceived roominess of the interior. Similarly, the large, modestly raked windshield provides a familiar view from the driver’s seat, but cuts into perceived roominess more than an upright windshield would.

Picture 74All of these tall boxes provide more rear legroom and headroom than in the typical small car, and the Soul is no exception. Two adults will fit in back, no problem. Cargo space with the second row up is limited, but simply fold the rear seat to more than double it. The Soul could carry even more stuff if the front passenger seat also folded, as in the PT Cruiser. Alas, it does not.

Unlike in the cube, the cargo floor is flat when the rear seat is folded. The trick: a false floor behind the rear seat. Useful storage compartments occupy the space between this false floor and the floor over the spare. Up front, storage areas include a huge bi-level glove compartment and a storage box atop the IP. So there’s plenty of space for four people or stuff, if not four people AND their stuff.

The Soul looks like fun, and it has those nifty speaker lights. But it is fun to drive? A 2.0-liter four good for 142 horsepower motivates 2,800 pounds, not a bad ratio. Problem is, the automatic transmission has only four speeds, and upshifts much more readily than it downshifts. So, at least with this transmission, the Soul feels much more sluggish than the numbers suggest it should. An additional ratio or two would also permit more relaxed and economical highway driving.

The Soul sport has a sport-tuned suspension. The most obvious difference between it and the !: the sport’s heavier steering feels less natural and makes the vehicle feel less agile. With either suspension, body roll is fairly well controlled for a 63-inch-tall vehicle and there are none of the fore-aft bibbly-bobblies found in some tall boxes. The Soul generally feels tighter and firmer than key competitors do. But for truly fun handling you’ll want something with a lower center of gravity. Sick of the puns yet?

The Soul’s handling advantage vis-à-vis direct competitors comes at the evident expense of ride quality. On subpar pavement the busy ride borders on punishing, for the ears even more than the seat of the pants. While the base Soul has 15-inch steelies, and the + has 16-inch alloys, both the ! and the sport are shod with 18s. The Soul’s bold fender flares certainly pair best with the large wheels, but the attendant low-profile tires thump loudly across every bump and divot. This sort of ride might be worth paying for sports car handling. But many sports cars these days ride much better, and the Soul certainly doesn’t handle like a sports car.

In the final assessment, the Kia Soul is an attractively styled, functional box with some rough edges. Perhaps Kia will add some needed refinement in coming years. The powertrain from the Forte SX and more polished suspension tuning would be a good start. Even as-is, the Soul will appeal to those who prefer sporty to cute and quirky. But car buyers seeking cute and quirky in conjunction with a more relaxed driving experience (e.g. my wife) will be better off elsewhere.

[Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, a source of pricing and reliability data]

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