The Truth About Cars » Pre-Production http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Thu, 17 Jul 2014 13:26:26 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.1 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 editors@ttac.com editors@ttac.com (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 » Pre-Production http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/wp-content/themes/ttac-theme/images/logo.gif http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com First Drive Review: 2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrd (With Video) http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/12/first-drive-review-2014-acura-rlx-sport-hybrd-with-video/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/12/first-drive-review-2014-acura-rlx-sport-hybrd-with-video/#comments Fri, 13 Dec 2013 14:00:00 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=675970 2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Exterior

It wasn’t that long ago I had an Acura RLX for a week. If you recall that review, I came away liking the car but found little joy in the price tag. Despite wearing a fantastic stitched leather interior, there was just no way I could justify the $10,000 premium over the AWD turbocharged competition from Lincoln, Volvo and others. Can a new dual clutch transmission and three electric motors turn the RLX from being a good car with the wrong price tag to a value proposition?

Click here to view the embedded video.

Because of the RLX’s FWD drivetrain, I was forced to view the RLX with an eye towards the Volvo S80, Lincoln MKS and the Lexus ES. With the Sport Hybrid model, Acura has done two things to take the RLX out of that pool and dive into another: AWD and a hybrid system. On paper a 377 horsepower hybrid system should put the RLX head to head with the Lexus GS 350, Infiniti M35h, and BMW AciveHybrid 5.

On the outside, the RLX cuts an elegant and restrained pose. Although the cars Acura allowed us to drive at a regional event were pre-produciton, fit and finish was excellent. Lincoln has certainly made strides in recent years, but there is a difference in build quality between the MKS and the RLX that didn’t go unnoticed. Acura attempts to further distinguish the RLX from the other near-luxury brands by going aluminum intensive with the hood, quarter panels and all four doors courtesy of Alcoa. I find the RLX unquestionably attractive but the overall form fails to beat the Cadillac CTS or BMW 5-Series in my book. I place the RLX’s exterior form a tie with the Infiniti M and a hair behind the Lexus GS, especially if the GS is wearing that funky F-Sport nose.

2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Interior

Interior

While German interiors continue to be somewhat spartan and cold, the RLX feels open and inviting. Stitched dash and door panels elevate the cabin well above what you will find in a Lexus ES Hybrid or Lincoln MKS. The same is true for the rear of the cabin. Constructed out of the same high quality materials as the front, this is a definite departure from the hard plastics found in the ES and MKS. Most of my day was spent in an RLX with a grey and ivory motif that played to my personal tastes. On the down side, Acura continues to woo luxury shoppers with obviously fake looking faux-wood. This decision is doubly perplexing, as the new MDX is available in Canada with real wood trim, but not in America. Why don’t they offer it in America on either car?

Front seat comfort is among the best in the luxury set, beating the Mercedes E350, Lexus GS 450h and Infiniti M35h that I drove that day, but falling short of the million-way BMW M-Sport seats. Because the RLX rides on a transverse engine platform, there is an inherent space efficiency and the direct beneficiary is the rear cabin where you’ll find 2-3 inches more rear leg room than any of the other hybrids. I had hoped the Sport Hybrid design would allow a low “hump” since there isn’t a driveshaft going rearward, but unfortunately Acura decided to use this space for hybrid drivetrain components. It’s probably just as well, since the middle seat is considerably higher than the outboard rear seats making it impossible for a six-foot passenger to ride in the middle. Thanks to lithium-ion batteries(rather than the nickel-based packs Toyota and Lexus use), the RLX maintains a decently sized trunk capable of swallowing four golf bags.

For reasons unknown, Acura decided to use the Sport Hybrid to re-invent the shifter control. I know that everyone else is doing this, but Acura’s 4-button arrangement strikes me as one of the most unusual. Instead of a flat button bank ala-Lincoln, Acura uses a bank that is designed to have some meaning. Park is a button, Drive is a differently shaped button, Neutral is yet another shape of button and Reverse is a button on its side that you push toward the rear of the vehicle. While that sounds logical, it was far from elegant when we had to make several four-point turns in San Francisco. Anyone else prefer a regular old console shifter?

2014 RLX Infotainment, Picture Courtesy of Acura

Infotainment, Gadgets and Pricing

Like the regular RLX, the Sport Hybrid combines a 7-inch haptic feedback touchscreen with an 8-inch display only screen set higher in the dash. The engineers say the concept is as follows: the lower touchscreen handles the audio, freeing the upper screen for navigation and other tasks. My opinion of the system has improved since I first encountered it on the MDX but I still think the casserole needs more time in the oven. You can change tracks and albums using the touchscreen but changing playlists or genres requires you to use the rotary/joystick lower in the dash to control the 8-inch screen. In my mind this sort of kills the dual-screen sales proposition. On the positive side the system is very responsive and the graphics are all high-resolution and attractive. iDrive is still my favorite in the mid-size luxury segment, but AcuraLink ties with MMI in second.

Base Sport Hybrid models get a speaker bump from the gas-only RLX’s 10-speaker sound system to the mid-range Acura ELS system. As you would assume, the Sport Hybrid model is well equipped versus the gasoline model and all models come with navigation, tri-zone GPS-linked climate control and keyless go. Keeping things simple there is only one option, the “Advance package” (no, Advance is not a typo), which adds Krell speakers, ventilated front seats, sunshades and seat warmers for the rear passengers, front parking sensors, power folding mirrors, radar cruise control, lane departure warning and lane keep assist, a pre-collision warning system and electric front seat belt tensioners.

2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Drivetrain, Picture Courtesy of Acura

Drivetrain

Now for what makes the RLX a Sport Hybrid. First up, we a direct-injection 3.5L V6 producing 310 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of twist that now sports start/stop technology. This engine is mated to a brand-new 7-speed transaxle developed specifically for the RLX. The new transaxle is a hybrid of sorts (and I’m not talking about the motors yet) blending a 2-speed planetary gearset with a 6-speed dual-clutch robotic manual transmission. The two technologies allow the entire unit to be as compact as possible. First gear is obtained by setting the dual clutch gearbox to 5th gear and the planetary gearset to low while “second” through “seventh” use DCT gears 1-6 in order with the planetary set to high. I found this solution particularly interesting because it would, in theory, allow Acura to obtain more than 7 ratios from the same unit with some software programming. 12-speed anyone? After the transmission is the first (and largest) motor/generator, rated for 47 horsepower/109 lb-ft. Thanks to the dual-clutch transmission, the engine can be decoupled from the drivetrain, making this different from Honda’s IMA system where the engine is always spinning.

Linked by a high-voltage electrical system is a rear mounted two-motor drive unit. The single inboard housing incorporates twin 36 horsepower /54 lb-ft motors and a clutch pack. The clutch pack is used to connect the motors together when the system needs to deliver equal power to each rear wheel. Combined with the lithium-ion battery pack in the trunk (the same one used in the Accord Hybrid), you get 377 total horsepower and 377 lb-ft of combined torque. Until you reach approximately 75 MPH at which point you have around 310 horsepower because the rear motors gradually disengage and completely disconnect over 80 MPH. The whole shebang is good for 28/32/30 MPG (City/Highway/Combined).

2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Exterior-006

Drive

Why bother with two motors in the rear? Torque vectoring. The dual rear motor arrangement separates Acrua’s system from the e-AWD systems in the Lexus RX 400h and Highlander Hybrid, or the mechanical systems in the Infiniti Q50 Hybrid or Lexus LS 600hL. Although it produces about the same amount of power as Toyota’s rear hybrid motor and likely weighs more, splitting things in two allows it to vector torque all the time, power on or off. Say what? Yep, you read that correctly, this is the first production system that torque vectors when your foot isn’t on the gas. Think of it like a canoe. If you’re moving forward and you plant an oar in the water, the canoe will rotate around that axis. Instead of oars, the RLX uses motors.

Let’s get one thing out of the way right now – this isn’t a replacement in my mind for Acura’s mechanical SH-AWD system. The mechanical AWD system uses an overdrive module to make the rear wheels almost a full percent faster than the front wheels causing the vehicle to behave like a RWD biased vehicle. In that setup, the front wheels are being “pushed” by the rears and the result is steering feel that is very much like a RWD sedan when under power. When the power was off in the old RL, the car would plow into the bushes like a front-heavy Audi. The RLX Sport Hybrid is completely different.

2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Exterior-007

Under full acceleration, the rear motors in the RLX contribute 72 ponies while the engine serves up 310 to the front wheels. The numerical imbalance between that total and the 377 “system horsepower” is consumed in the power curve of the motors and engine and the use of the front motor to draw a little power off to send to the rear. This means that while the old RL could effectively shuttle the majority of the power to the rear wheels, the RLX hybrid is at best an 80/20 split (front/rear). As a result, flooring the RLX from a stop elicits one-wheel peel, a vague hint of wheel hop and a smidge of torque steer. Once the road starts to bend, the hybrid system starts to shine. By not only accelerating the outside rear wheel in a corner but essentially braking the inside one (and using the energy to power the outside wheel), the RLX cuts a near perfect line in the corners. Point the RLX somewhere, and the car responds crisply and instantly. And without much feel.

The downside to the rear wheels contributing so much to the RLX’s direction changes is that the steering is next to lifeless. The analogy that kept coming to mind was a video game. The RLX changes direction more readily and easily than a front heavy sedan should, yet there is little feedback about the process. When the power is off, things stay the same, with the RLX dutifully following the line you have charted in a way the FWD RLX or the old RL never could.

Acura was confident enough in the RLX to provide a GS 450h for us to play with and the difference was enlightening. The GS is less engaging from a drivetrain perspective thanks to the “eCVT” planetary hybrid system, something the RLX’s dual-clutch box excels at, but the well-balanced GS platform is by far the driver’s car on the road. The Lexus feels less artificial, more nimble, and more connected to the driver. The RLX is not far behind in terms of raw numbers, and is faster off the line, but the RLX feels less connected and more artificial in the process. It is also important to note that the RLX is the only AWD hybrid in this class since the Infiniti Q50 hybrid is Acura TL sized and the Lexus LS 600hL is considerably larger and more expensive. That feature alone makes the RLX attractive to anyone living in areas where winter traction is a consideration.

2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Exterior-002

The 2014 RLX Sport Hybrid is an amazing bundle of technology. Combining a dual clutch transmission, a torque vectoring AWD system and three hybrid motors, the RLX is the gadget lover’s dream car. As a technology geek, the system is an intriguing solution to two problems plaguing near luxury brands like Acura, Volvo and Lincoln: How do we make our FWD platforms compete with RWD competitors, and how do we put a green foot forward. In doing so the RLX Hybrid may have also solved the value proposition I complained about with the FWD model. According to Acura”s thinly veiled charts, we can expect the RLX to be priced the same as the Lexus GS 450h which is $5,000 more than the M35h and about $1,000 less than BMW’s ActiveHybrid 5.

Factoring in the AWD system’s $2,000-$2,500 value and standard features on the RLX and the value proposition gets better. At the high end, the “Advance” package is likely to represent a $10,000 discount vs a similarly configured Lexus or BMW. The RLX Sport Hybrid has caused me to look at the RLX in a different light. Instead of thinking the FWD RLX should be $10,000 cheaper, I now think it is irrelevant. The Sport Hybrid has what it takes to compete with the Lexus and Infiniti hybrids head on and the value proposition to tempt potential BMW shoppers, but that turns the front-drive base model into a potential image liability. I’ll reserve my final judgment until we can get our hands on one for more than a few hours, but until then, it appears Acura has crafted a compelling hybrid system that should be on any snow-belt shopper’s list and may provide enough value to sway RWD luxury hybrid shoppers. Stay tuned for more pricing information in the Spring.

 

Acura provided the vehicle at a regional launch event and one night’s stay at a hotel.

 

2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Exterior-001 2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Exterior 2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Trunk 2014 RLX Infotainment, Picture Courtesy of Acura 2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Drivetrain, Picture Courtesy of Acura 2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Exterior-002 2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Exterior-003 2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Exterior-004 2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Exterior-005 2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Exterior-006 2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Interior 2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Exterior-007 ]]>
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Pre-Production Review: Scion iQ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/08/pre-production-review-scion-iq/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/08/pre-production-review-scion-iq/#comments Mon, 08 Aug 2011 19:15:55 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=406280

It will come as no surprise to regular TTAC readers when I say that Scion has had some sales issues lately. But instead of euthanizing the brand as some on TTAC have suggested, Toyota has decided to take a different route. Thankfully, rather than creating more me-too models based off of US-market Toyotas, the plan includes some JDM/Euro models and the much anticipated “Toyobaru “sports car. The first object of foreign desire landing stateside to start off Scion’s resurrection is the Toyota iQ micro-car. The iQ should be in showrooms across the country soon, but does Scion have the IQ to make a smarter Smart?

The problem with the Smart ForTwo isn’t really the car itself, it’s not Penske (the former Smart distributer), and it’s not even parent company Mercedes’s on-and-off waffling relationship with microcars in America. The problem with the Smart car is that all the other cars on the market exist. I learnt this the hard way back in 2007 when I put a $99 deposit down on a Smart ForTwo Cabriolet. The months waiting for my precious pregnant roller-skate to arrive only fueled the flames of desire for the car only Europeans were allowed to buy. Unfortunately when the car arrived the novelty had worn off due to the anemic engine, steep pricing, lack of features and a dumb-witted automated manual transmission. When Toyota said they were bringing their micro car stateside I was suitably concerned yet strangely intrigued, as a result I could not resist an invite to Seattle to see the latest diminutive people-mover.

Numbers are important with small cars, so with measuring tape in hand let’s explore. The iQ is 14-inches longer and just under 5-inches wider than the US market ForTwo (10-feet long and 66-inches wide) making it not only the smallest four-seater in the US but in the world. For anyone counting, the iQ is considerably smaller than the former (or planned) Smart ForFour or even the Mini Cooper. Lilliputian-car lovers rejoice: the iQ is still small. Strangely however, the increased dimensions pay much larger dividends than you would expect due to packaging and the funky layout.

The Smart’s rear-engine layout hurts the tiny car’s space efficiency compared to the front-engine iQ. How can this be? Well, the radiator and other support systems, steering rack, etc. are all still under the miniature hood while cargo space is restricted by the ending in the rear. The iQ engineers on the other hand found ways to repackage everything to use less space. The steering rack sits nearly above the engine, the differential was relocated and compacted, pushing the front wheels in front of, rather than behind the engine and barely behind the bumper cover. Inside, the glove box was deleted and the HVAC unit went on a diet combining massively reduced pluming, a tiny air handler and miniaturized bits-and-bobs jammed entirely behind center console. This means the front passenger compartment could be shifted forward into the void where these systems would normally live. By shifting the front passenger noticeably ahead of the driver, you can actually fit a 6-foot-tall passenger in front, a 6-foot-tall passenger in the rear, a 6-foot-tall driver behind the wheel and a small child or a small amount of shopping behind the driver. That’s what Toyota means by 3+1.

While it is technically a four-seater, my experience stuffing journalists into the car and driving around Seattle can be summed up this way: it can carry two in comfort, three acceptably, four in a pinch. I was actually able to drive the iQ while a 6-foot-tall person sat behind me. It wasn’t awful, but I wouldn’t want to take a road trip that way. Cabin width is not an issue as the iQ is actually wider than Yaris or Corolla and this makes the iQ far less claustrophobic than a Smart. You would think the addition of extra seats would result in lost legroom upfront vs the Smart but you would be wrong. In reality the iQ possesses 3/10ths of an inch less legroom than the ForTwo in front, while adding 28.6 inches of legroom in the rear. The math whizzes in the crowd will notice that 28.6 inches of rear legroom come with an increased overall length of only 14-inches vs the Smart how’s that for IQ?

Those 2.5 passengers will at least be happy spending time inside the iQ as the diminutive people mover possesses better quality bits than most Toyota products in recent memory. (They are certainly better than Versa, which may be a strange comparison, but I was just here in Seattle for that launch, so there you go.) Most interior surfaces that you will touch are covered in a thin soft-effect plastic that is miles ahead of more expensive Toyota products like the Prius or Sienna. The integrated front-seat headrests are functional but strike me as being a tad out of place as the rears are adjustable. The loss of a glovebox (sacrificed in the name of space efficiency) may be a problem for some, but you can opt for a flimsy tub on questionable rails under the passenger seat as a substitute.

All iQ models get a standard flat-bottomed steering wheel wrapped in soft leather which I have to say is the of the best steering wheels I have had my hands on lately. With every high must come a low; I found the new “joystick” controls for the audio system a pain to use. Speaking of audio systems, Scion continues to take a novel approach on this front. All Scion models are shipped to our shores radio-free and the radio or nav system of your choice can be inserted at the dock or dealer. Fail to tick an optional head unit box and you’ll get the standard Pioneer system which includes HD radio, CD player, Bluetooth (for phone and streaming audio), iPod/USB control, AUX input and four Pioneer speakers. Stepping up to the 200-watt premium audio box gets you a 5.8-inch LCD with iTunes tagging, Pandora connectivity (via a smartphone) and RCA preamp outputs. Should money be no object, you can step way-up to the $1999 Scion Navigation System 200 which is basically the Scion version of the Toyota/Lexus navigation system in everything from the Camry to the LS600. While I find the Toyota/Lexus/Scion nav system easy to use, snappy and well featured, $2000 represents a whopping 13% increase in the price of the car just by selecting this one option. Ouch. Another oddity is the total lack of cruise control, optional or otherwise. As a city car it makes sense I suppose, but it is a nicety I’d still like to have.

Under the tiny hood beats a 1.3L four-cylinder (1NR-FE) engine, brand new for the iQ and for Toyota churning out 94 HP at a lofty 6,000 RPM and 89 lb-ft of twist at 4,400 RPM. I had hoped to see perhaps a diminutive 3-cylinder turbo or perhaps a direct injection engine, but Toyota has decided to go for the tried-and true multi-point electronic injection pioneered last century. Despite high compression of 11.5:1 only regular unleaded is required. Power is put to the ground via a new CVT making the iQ the only Toyota non-hybrid CVT product on these shores. I can’t help another Smart comparison here: the ForTwo’s automated manual shifts like a drunk 12 year old driving daddy’s John Deere, the iQ’s CVT on the other hand likes to rev the nuts off the little 1.3L engine, but at least it is smooth in the process. Pitted against the 2127lb curb weight of the US spec iQ, acceleration is neither swift nor slow but in the same realm as a Prius at an observed 10.52 seconds to 60 (0-60 quoted 11.8) keen observers will note this is considerably faster than the Smart.

The EPA has crowned the iQ with the highest combined economy for any non-hybrid in the US at 36/37/37 (City/Highway/Combined EPA 2008). During my short 105-mile stint with the car on three separate driving routes around town, I averaged 32.1, 37.2 and 49.1MPG on two city routes and one 25-mile highway run.

The safety conscious in the crowd will no doubt be concerned about driving around in a car the size of a high-top trainer. To allay these fears, Toyota has jammed 11 airbags into the iQ including front airbags, knee airbags, side curtain airbags, front thorax bags, a rear window airbag to shield passengers from a tall vehicle impacting your hind end, and finally in-seat airbags to prevent the driver and front passenger “submarining” under lap belts in a rear collision. I don’t know about you, but I want to see video footage of all those bags going off simultaneously.


Starting in December on the west coast and working its way across the country, expect the iQ to slip into dealers with a base MSRP of $15,256 plus destination of $730. Included in the price is scheduled maintenance for 2 years/25,000 miles and 3 years of roadside assistance (mostly because there is no spare). Toyota expects sales to be substantially similar to the xB and xD (20,364 and 10,110 respectively in 2010). Seeing as Smart managed to con 14,595 people in 2009 and 5,927 in 2010 into buying a fairly awkward little car, Scion’s low end sales forecast seems totally achievable. When it does land in a dealer near you the usual bevy of Scion accessories will be available including lowering springs, wheels, sway bars, fog lights, etc. One of our Facebook followers asked us if installing lowering springs would result in lowering the driver’s iQ. You’ll have to check back for the full review of the production model for the answer as well as comparisons to the Mini and 500.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Toyota flew me up to Seattle, put me up in a swanky hotel and stuffed me full of wine and food for this review.

0-30: 3.906 Seconds

0-60: 10.52 Seconds

1/4 Mile: 18.05 Seconds @ 73.6MPH

IMG_3461 IMG_3501 IMG_3513 IMG_3453 IMG_3484 IMG_3486 IMG_3507 IMG_3460 IMG_3490 IMG_3489 IMG_3478 IMG_3482 IMG_3458 IMG_3472 IMG_3495 IMG_3491 IMG_3469 IMG_3498 IMG_3465 IMG_3516 IMG_3454 IMG_3471 IMG_3487 IMG_3457 Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail IMG_3492 IMG_3499 IMG_3464 IMG_3459 IMG_3480 IMG_3505 IMG_3467 IMG_3479 IMG_3485 IMG_3500 IMG_3477 IMG_3463 IMG_3462 IMG_3508 IMG_3493 IMG_3466 IMG_3488 IMG_3509 IMG_3503 IMG_3483 IMG_3511 IMG_3497 Smarter than Smart? IMG_3481 IMG_3502

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Capsule Review: Mazda6 SKYACTIV-D Mule http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/08/capsule-review-mazda6-skyactiv-d-mule/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/08/capsule-review-mazda6-skyactiv-d-mule/#comments Tue, 02 Aug 2011 15:35:17 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=405174

The Sea-to-Sky highway in British Columbia, Canada, carves a winding route from the gorgeous – and occasionally riotous – city of Vancouver to the world-class ski resort of Whistler. Its looping curves were rebuilt to make it a high-speed corridor for tourists and athletes during the last Winter Olympics, and as a result, it’s probably one of the top five roads in this country. Mind you, it’s also a favourite hang-out for the local constabulary.

So here I am then, at the wheel of a priceless prototype, sitting on the wrong side of the car next to an emeritus journalist, on a blind on-ramp to one of the most highly-patrolled roads in Canada. What’s called for here is a little decorum, a careful merge, some light throttle application, a few gentle gear-changes and so on. Anything else would be at-worst dangerous and at-best unseemly.

By a curious co-incidence, “unseemly” is my middle name. So I floor it.

But first, a little background on the rare beast to which I have been (somewhat irresponsibly) handed the reins. Essentially a Mazda6 in guise, this prototype boasts all four of Mazda’s SKYACTIV technologies: chassis, suspension, transmission and twin-turbo diesel engine.

More on that mill later, but the important thing to note is that this is a true full-SKYACTIV vehicle. When the next-gen Mazda3 drops later this year, the mid-level trim will be sporting SKYACTIV transmissions and the new gas engine, but it will be a full year before the first vehicle – the CX-5 – arrives with a full complement of Mazda’s new tech. Additionally, it’s going to take even longer for North Americans to have access to a manual-transmission diesel mid-size sedan that doesn’t have a German-Mexican accent.

So this Mazda6 is something quite special. It’s also a bit of a hack-job.

Nagare styling doesn’t work range-wide for Mazda, but the ’6 was always quite a handsome car. Here though it’s been chopped apart and pop-riveted back together, and somebody’s painted its ears yellow. Obviously, these aren’t styling cues that have any shot at making it into production, but they’re worth mentioning to give an idea of how unique the car is. It also looks great, in a dystopian-future kinda way.

Dr. Frankenstein has been at work in the interior too. Exposed screws. Deactivated airbags. There appears to be an inner-tube wrapped around the steering column. The horn is a button marked “horn” and the turn signals don’t self-cancel.

It’s quite a lot for the mind to process: the last time I was in a car this duct-taped together, it was a Ford Escort GT I’d bought for a hundred-and-fifty bucks. That car should have sucked, but funnily enough, it had a Mazda BP power-plant, and what with the chopped coils and zero-interior treatment, it felt incredibly raw and interesting to drive.

Mazda’s probably going to be extremely annoyed I’m comparing their prototype to a hunk of early-90′s Ford flotsam, but it’s important for everyone to be on the same page here. This car boasts no new fancy touch-screens or intelligent voice-activated massaging seats. This is an engineering pin-up; this is an enthusiast-minded company showing us how they’re trying to keep building driver’s cars in an increasingly technology- and efficiency-obsessed market.

Back on the on-ramp, the SKYACTIV mule responds with a kick like a – er – mule. The first of the sequential turbos is a tiny hairdryer that you could spool with a sneeze. Peak torque of 310 lb/ft comes at a low 2000 rpm, but it was already cresting into the 200s at a little over half the revs.

But so what? Diesels have always been about low-range grunt: high-gear highway pulls sans downshifting make driving easy, but lack the fun-factor of a gas engine. Or rather, that’s usually the case.

Here though, the low-compression SKYACTIV-D pulls a neat trick: revs to match the shove. A 5200rpm ceiling would be laughable in a gasoline engine, but in a diesel it’s excellent. There’s no need to ping it off the rev-limiter, but the Mazda’s diesel is flexible and revs up surprisingly quickly, and that big secondary turbo doesn’t appear to lose steam until the very upper reaches.

That and a six-speed manual transmission make this car fun. Lots of fun. I forgot to look at the taped-in speedometer when we hit the bottom of the on-ramp, but we were clipping along very nicely.

Hitting the well-cambered curves of the Sea-to-Sky at speed also shows off the ’6s chassis and steering refinements. Rigidity and weight-loss are welcome but incremental; the real progress has been made with the way the steering feel is enhanced by a significantly quickened ratio and an aggressive amount of caster for a front-driver. It’s not quite Miata (sorry: MX-5) territory yet, but the DNA is there.

There was apparently a little Lost In Translation confusion when journos came back from driving the SKYACTIV-D mule. “I don’t need to drive anything else today!” can be interpreted more than one way, and it caused quite the consternation when overheard by Mazda’s Japanese engineers.

I’ll try to be more clear. This isn’t a real car you can buy yet, but depending on what the fuel figures look like, it’s going to be a great one. If they bring their SKYACTIV-D technology to the North American market, Mazda has a real opportunity to eat Volkswagen’s lunch.

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Pre-Production Review: Volkswagen Golf blue-e-motion http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/07/pre-production-review-volkswagen-golf-blue-e-motion/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/07/pre-production-review-volkswagen-golf-blue-e-motion/#comments Tue, 19 Jul 2011 21:09:56 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=403598

As I noted in an earlier piece on the macro-level issues with EVs, it’s dangerously misleading to assume that electric cars can simply replace internal combustion-engine vehicles without a basic re-think of nearly every way in which we relate to our cars. That’s true in terms of consumer-end issues like refueling grid impacts and “range anxiety” but it’s also true in terms of manufacturer-end issues like development and differentiation. It’s even true for the auto media.

One of the giant re-thinks spawned by EV development is in how manufacturers make their vehicles reflect their brand values and stand out in the marketplace, as the electric motor in (say) a Ferrari EV wouldn’t be as fundamentally different as an electric motor in (say) a Kia. This, in turn, makes reviewing EVs extremely difficult, as they all display similar power attributes, weight challenges, single-speed transmissions and battery ranges. So when you are asked to drive a pre-production EV from a major manufacturer, the major question in the mind of the conscientious reporter is the same as the question that drove the vehicle’s development: how is this vehicle different than any other EV? In the case of the Golf blue-e-motion, the answer to that question reflects the challenges of developing a major-market electric vehicle.

But before we dive into what makes the Golf blue-e-motion unique, we have some background to get through. Having spent the last decade joining its German brethren in poo-poo-ing EVs and hybrids, Volkswagen has finally decided that it makes sense to develop a pure EV for eventual mass-market sales. And rather than buying into a company like Tesla, as VW’s arch-rival Toyota did, VW set up its own battery research team around Tesla founder and former CEO Martin Eberhard. When I toured VW’s Palo Alto Electronics Research Lab last year, Eberhard’s contribution was already visible in the form of renderings of battery arrays for this Golf blue-e-motion and the Audi e-tron electric sportscars. Just like the battery packs that Eberhard developed at Tesla, the VW systems eschew the expensive prismatic cells used by Nissan’s Leaf and Chevy’s Volt in favor of 18650 cells, the cheapest, most-produced format for lithium-ion cells. Using these cells, argues VW, will make its packs more energy-dense, safer and cheaper than the competition. And to think, they got so much of the 18650 array know-how without even buying into the strategic nightmare that is Tesla!

In the Golf blue-e-motion, 180 of these AA battery-sized 18650 cells are packed into modules, 30 of which are assembled into a pack that occupies the bottom and rear of the car, including the cargo area underfloor, under the rear seats, and in the central tunnel of the Golf’s underbody. With active air/water thermal management, the battery pack weighs nearly 700 lbs, but thanks to a lightweight electric motor and other weight-saving measures, it ends up weighing about 3,400 lbs, just 50 lbs more than Nissan’s Leaf (which does not have active thermal management) and 450 lbs more than a Golf TDI with DSG. And because that weight is all concentrated low and to the center of the car, it carries its weight through the corners with the grace of a much lighter car (as do most EVs).

Volkswagen estimates that the 26.5 kWh battery array can power the Golf to a maximum range of 93 miles, for functionally similar usability as a Nissan Leaf (provided these numbers hold up in testing, we weren’t allowed to test range on our drive).

But, also like most EVs, the Golf blue-e-motion only feels remotely sprightly from a stop, when its zero-RPM max torque twists it from a stop with adequate brio (VW estimates 11.8 seconds for 0-60). Though it offers a lower peak output of 85 kW than the Chevy Volt (with 111 kW) and a slower 06-60 time (by nearly three seconds), it feels remarkably similar in terms of seat-of-the-pants performance in the moderately-trafficked street conditions I saw in our test drive in Wolfsburg. Fun for the first few seconds followed by some building frustration at the single-geared drivetrain (which the Volt mitigates slightly better) is the major impression. All told, the Volt is quicker and possibly a bit more fun to toss in the corners, but the distinction is basically academic as neither car is performance oriented in any meaningful sense.

One strange feature that took some getting used to: the lack of “creep” when you take your foot off the brake. Whereas the Volt eases forward when you let off the brake, just like an automatic-equipped ICE car, the Golf blue-emotion just sits there like it’s in neutral (or using a stop-start-equipped ICE) until you give the throttle a hesitant stab. It doesn’t actively interfere with driving, but with 100 percent of your torque available at 0 RPM, the lack of ease-in might make some American drivers uneasy. Use a steady right foot and you’ll have no problems, and it seems like the kind of issue that one would stop noticing after even a few hours with the car.

Thus far, the Golf’s lack of off-throttle creep is its most distinctive characteristic among EVs. And VW could have simply left the development there, fighting the Leaf on a relatively level field (100 mile range with adequate performance and space) while adding a Volt-style thermal management system (only without the complex ICE component). If the price point were right, that would be a relatively marketable car. But instead, VW felt it had to bring something to the table in hopes of justifying its less-than-entirely-groundbreaking project. The holy grail of EV development is a multi-speed transmission (which nobody has been able to build tough enough to reliably handle an EVs torque output), but that would have been far too complex for VW to include on a production bound vehicle (more on that in a bit). So instead of giving its EV a transmission, VW did the next best thing: allowing  drivers to “shift” the regenerative braking system. Row, row, row your… brakes?

In addition to three “driving profiles” which vary power mapping and AC power use for improved range or power, VW has included no fewer than four regenerative braking modes. Like the Volt, the shift column has both “drive” and “low” settings, the latter of which provides the most extreme engine braking for heavy traffic or slow hill descents. In this mode the off-throttle regeneration is almost neck-snappingly extreme, slowing the car strongly and progressively as soon as you get off the “gas.” In “drive” the Golf blue-e-motion offers three separate modes which are selected not with the shifter, but with DSG-style paddle shifters mounted behind the steering wheel. Two modes offer varying degrees of regeneration, ranging from a gentle slowing to a stronger regeneration but both are less extreme than the “low” setting. Accompanying these two modes is the “sail” mode which allows the Golf to coast in light traffic with no off-throttle regeneration at all.

This is an innovation I’ve been waiting for since I first drove an EV… although in my mind I imagined a separate lever for infinitely-variable regeneration. In practice, however, it does take a little getting used to. Flipping between coast mode for empty roads and light throttle openings and progressively stronger regen modes as traffic built up was a genuine challenge at first. And even as comfort with the “anti-shifting” builds you do get the sneaking suspicion that you’re working awfully hard for relatively small range savings. But then I realized just how similar this Golf was to the other EVs on the market, and that this variable-regen system is one of the more meaningful differentiations available to pure electric driving (and one that Tesla should be listening to customers about). And then something else occurred to me: it’s also fun to be driving an EV that actually engages the driver. Sure, it’s more like the video-game trance you get from a hybrid than the man-machine melding you’d get piloting a manual-transmission sports car on a winding road, but it’s engagement nonetheless. In the era of electric vehicles you take what you can get.

Speaking of taking what you can get, you won’t ever be able to buy this specific car, which will spend the next two years testing in various car-sharing and corporate fleets around Europe. VW’s first EV will be an electric version of the Up! city car which goes on sale in Europe in 2013, but likely won’t be headed to the US. This Golf blue-e-motion will continue to be tested and refined until 2014, when a production version will debut, sporting the next-gen Golf VII looks and underpinnings. So, by mid-to-late 2014, this seemingly competent and ever-so-slightly innovative Golf blue-e-motion could well become the first pure electric Volkswagen sold in the US. Which raises an interesting question: will its incremental innovations still be news by then? With new chemistries in its 18650 cells, the Golf blue-e-motion could well move the game on from the Leaf’s opening position, but in its current form it seems more of an evolutionary half-step. And as far as Volkswagen or I know, EVs could be rocking multi-speed transmissions by the time this comes to market in 2014.

Volkswagen flew the author to Wolfsburg, Germany to drive the vehicle for this review. Over the course of the trip, the author was treated to multiple meals, free lodging, a factory tour, an Autostadt tour and a women’s World Cup soccer game.

DSC_0480 IMG_0378 Row, row, row your... brakes? Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail Golf blue-e-motion pack above, e-tron below IMG_0380

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