The Truth About Cars » Road Test The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Sun, 27 Jul 2014 20:45:49 +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 » Road Test Review: 2014 Mitsubishi Mirage ES Sat, 19 Jul 2014 14:55:52 +0000  

Press Cars: just a Mirage? (all photos courtesy Sajeev Mehta)

Press Cars: just a Mirage? (all photos courtesy Sajeev Mehta)

Mitsubishi’s website claims the Mirage is a “small car for a big life.” Possible: while I haven’t done a TTAC review in over a year, know that even the rare automotive sampling of a ball of flaming garbage in a catapult possesses a modicum of engineering /styling/marketing prowess. Good cars exist everywhere, which is worthy of someone’s “big life.”

And contrary to the rash of negative press, the Mirage is an honest machine worthy of a closer look.

DSCN5986The Made in Thailand DNA is unmistakable: the Mirage feels like an aspirational vehicle for a growing middle class in an emerging market. Living outside of the American design bubble has its perks: peep that demure, wind cheating nose bearing no pretense to corporate branding (cough, Aston Martin grilles) for starters. The low-ish DLO provides excellent visibility without resorting to the artificially large/dorky greenhouses of yesteryear’s subcompacts. The top-line ES sports cheerful 14” alloys while color-keyed fog lights add modest flair to the base model’s surprisingly subtle and cool rear spoiler. You know, for a 5-door econobox.

DSCN5990So pop inside the Mirage’s surprisingly inviting cabin: headroom galore, not uncomfortable bucket seats, dressy black lacquer center stack sporting Rothko-worthy HVAC vents, leather(ish) wrapped wheel, power everything, keyless ignition (on the left like a 911) and admirable ergonomics encased in richly grained, tightly constructed plastics that look more expensive than their fossilized demeanor suggests. That infamous road test mentioned airbag flash casting, which my test Mirage had instead on the E-brake handle. To see such cheapness on a new car under 13 grand ($15,195 as-tested) was horrifying I tell you!

DSCN6006Genuine gripes for a car this cheap? No center armrest, and the small cargo area means the (comfortable) rear seats must fold down for modest amounts of luggage. No biggie, except getting them back up without snagging the shoulder belts in the latch mechanism is a challenge. But the inability to stream audio (SoundCloud) from an iPhone 4 via the glovebox’s USB plug got on my nerves. It defaulted to iTunes, which I rarely use. And forget music when Google Maps’ turn-by-turn navigation is on: since I was denied the best Mirage-related song on the face of the earth, here it is.

Click here to view the embedded video.

DSCN6017And while bright colors add necessary excitement to a bottom rung hatchback, my Radioactive Blue Mirage fought its purple-flecked seat fabrics to no end. Cheap cars rightly show their exterior paint around interior window frames, a colorblind seat fabric is necessary. Feng Shui aside, color coding on the (power) door locks wouldn’t hurt: the lever needs a red decal to warn of threats from potential carjackers from an unlocked portal.

DSCN5997Fire up the Mirage and a pleasant (if you appreciate any mechanical sound) bellow from the three-banger mill makes it clear: this is an honest machine from another era. Even with electronics behind the 7 airbags, ABS, electric steering and active handling nanny in tow, the Mirage provides an unhindered driving joy coming from a suspension managing a mere 2051 lbs. Driving dynamics occasionally delight with its flat powerband, even with the CVT in lieu of a proper 5-speed. Bargain basement fun was a simple trick away. Check it:

Dial into the 1-ton Mirage’s occasionally communicative steering and toss it a corner (off-throttle) and the low-rolling resistance, tall profile rubber holds on with modest body roll. Now mash the throttle a good 2 seconds before hitting your intended apex. Do it right and you’ll fling out the corner with all 74 horses’ howling in passionate protest. Try to stop smiling as traffic becomes a dot in the rear-view.

DSCN5984And on the remote chance you built enough steam for a rapid stop, the vented disc/drum combination is more than adequate for the street. Even the twist-beam axle plays well on bumpy roads, further testament to the joy of a lightweight car.

DSCN6007Forcing the Mirage’s CVT into submission is moderately more infuriating than today’s auto-erratic transaxles. Yet, considering the efficiency boost, the autobox is done: the EPA’s 37/44MPG were matched and quickly surpassed. Light traffic (40-50mph) rewarded with a stunning 50.2 MPG from my house to the local Tesla gallery. And that’s with this featherweight’s (surprisingly robust and standard) automatic temperature control HVAC cranked!

As the 3-pot Mirage burbled buzzed idled next to the Tesla, I pondered if these radical electronic wonders are $85,000-ish better than a 50+ MPG hatchback. Is anything really that much better?

10372084_10152226017973269_3590992957388189892_nQuirky shit-can vibe aside, the Mirage cruises like a larger car, spanking the Smart ForTwo in both speed and stability. While acceleration is never rapid, the CVT keeps the Mirage in its powerband, hovering around 5000 revs. Mash the throttle around 70mph and the CVT revs to 6000, netting acceleration no slower than lower speeds. (In Houston, near sea level.) It’s still molasses slow with a loud engine, but with insane aerodynamics (small frontal area, 0.28 cd) it works. Witness this Easter Egg in the owner’s manual: a Highway Patrol speed warning for another journalist.

10452467_10152230027413269_1482059042706384612_nAnd upon the realization that running the Mirage at 10/10ths is a fool’s errand, one’s rewarded with a ride that soaks up both huge potholes and small pavement imperfections with precision. Impact harshness, so prevalent in modern cars with 18+ inch wheels, is literally smothered by Low Carb Panther Love.

Should you buy the Mirage over its sub-15k competition, or any “superior” used car? Maybe, but given the combo of a low asking price, $1000 rebate with 1.9% APR (this month), robust 10-year warranty and new car smell unavailable in used cars, you’d be forgiven for heading straight to a Mitsubishi dealer, using the extra monthly cash for food, gas, shelter, children, baby momma/daddy drama, medical bills, credit card debt, college debt…see where I’m going with this?

The similarly priced Chevy Spark could excel, depending on incentives. A larger, safer used car gives a fighting chance against wayward SUVs threatening a harsh lesson in the Laws of Physics. But Mitsubishi claims the Mirage meets their (modest) sales goals for good reason: it’s kinda fun and gets the job done with mad respect for your wallet.  And I appreciate that.

DSCN5995Your opinion of our society’s demand for easy credit and “need” for new car smell aside, the Mirage is a valid transportation opportunity for many Americans. If a Mitsubishi dealer is within easy reach, a cost-benefit analysis is certainly on the table.

(Mitsubishi provided the test vehicle, insurance and a full tank of gas for this review.)


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Review: 2013 BMW 750Li – Video Wed, 06 Mar 2013 13:30:41 +0000

The full-sized luxury market used to be a small pond before the Lexus LS appeared. Up to then all Mercedes had to worry about was the German brand known for their delightfully crude 2002. Jaguar? 1980s Jags spent so little time running they were more garage ornament than transportation. Fast forward to today and BMW is the new Mercedes and the full-sized luxury segment is getting crowded with entries from Audi, Porsche and an XJ that spends enough time running to count. Where does that leave the S-Class’ old foe? BMW tossed us the keys to their most popular 7 to find out.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Luxury cars are status symbols. Status can be two things however, buying something unique or showing that you can afford the same sedan as that guy from the country club. With that in mind, sales are important. In 2012 BMW nearly beat Mercedes in America shifting 11,098 7-Series vs 11,794 S-Classes making the 7 a popular and safe bet. If you’re looking for something less common, Audi shifted 6,002 A8s, the XJ  hit 4,852 while that Japanese entry that rocked the boat in ’89 had a slow year at 8,345. Porsche moved 7,614 Panameras proving that you don’t need 5-seats to move your six-digit roller.

Because full-size luxury cars are low volume but important for brand image, frequent makeovers are more common than redesigns. Like many of its owners, the 7-Series went under the knife for a face lift, resulting in a blunter nose and larger grille openings along with redesigned front and rear lamps.


Mercedes ditched the short-wheelbase S-Class in America but can still get your Beemer in different lengths. BMW tells us the long-wheelbase 750Li (as tested) is the most popular flavor so that’s what we requested. Our tester started at $90,500 and mildly optioned it landed in our driveway at $113,000. Despite being a refresh year, little changed on the inside in terms of style and parts. Still, the dashboard and doors were slathered in hand-stitched leather goodness and nary a seam was out of place. Compared to the Mercedes, the 7 feels like it is assembled from a more expensive parts bin but if you need better bits, BMW is happy to up-sell you things like a ceramic iDrive knob for $650. Jaguar and Porsche earn higher scores in this area thanks to better material, but you’ll pay dearly for them. Meanwhile Lexus delivers 95% of the interior elegance for 80% of the price.

Unless you’re slummin’ in the “discount” $73,600 740i, all 7s come with 20-way power front seats with four-way lumbar, extending thigh support, “butterfly” airline-style headrests and seat backs with adjustable curvature. They may not be as cushy as the Barcaloungers in the S-Class, but they win the award for contorting in the most directions possible. If you can’t find a comfortable position, you’re not human. Mercedes and Jaguar tout massaging thrones, but BMW’s active contour seats are more my style. Like the anti-fatigue seats in the Ford Taurus, the system uses air bladders in the seat to improve blood flow and reduce that “numb butt” feeling on long trips. (It also feels like someone is slowly groping your bottom, you know, if you’re into that.)

Interior parts quality usually declines as you move rearwards, but not for the high-rollers. The rear doors, center console and controls are all just as nicely finished as those up front and all 2013 models have standard 4-zone climate control. For an extra $3,700 (standard on the 760) the optional “luxury rear seating package” gives the rear passengers 18-way power/memory seats that heat, cool and massage your royal personage. Reclining rear seats aren’t new, but BMW takes the range of motion to an all-new level. As you’d expect, legroom is good in the 750i and excellent in the 750Li matching the XJL for most rear legroom and beating everyone else. If getting a decent massage in the rear seat is on your must-have list, buy your driver the Lexus, as it’s shiatsu massage system uses rollers instead of air bladders and gives a much deeper rub.

Infotainment and Gadgets

Luxury sedans are prime gadget breeding ground thanks to owners with disposable cash. This year brings BMW’s latest version of iDrive (4.2), hands-free trunk operation and an “attention assistant” to tell you when you’re sleepy. Of course if you were in Europe you’d also have access to “dazzle-free high beams” which shade the vehicles in-front of you from your high beam allowing it to stay on for the rest of your field of view. Sadly the DOT has decided the fancy lights aren’t allowed in America.

The newest iDrive replaces the CD button with a  “Media” button, adds voice recognition commands for searching your USB/iDevice, mildly tweaked menus and mapping software with improved 3D graphics. I find BMW’s latest iDrive iterations to be one of the more intuitive and feature-rich systems available at any price. Sadly the latest heads-up display in the 3-Series that shows infotainment details hasn’t made it to the 7 yet. Now that BMW has patched the glaring hole that was the lack of iDevice/USB voice commands, I have nothing to complain about other than the $3,700 price tag on the Bang & Olufsen sound system.

Debuting in the 7-Series is a new take on rear seat entertainment. Up till now, RSE systems have been kept  mostly separate from the infotainment system up front. Even the latest Jaguar/Land Rover vehicles which use similar graphics on the headrest screens don’t interact with the system in the same way users up front do. BMW’s new system uses 9.2-inch LCDs attached to the front seats that “float” as BMW calls it, but that’s not the interesting part: the system uses an iDrive controller and accesses the car’s central iDrive system. The twin displays aren’t the same aspect ratio or resolution as the front, but rear users have essentially the same level of iDrive access as the front allowing you to enter a navigation destination, change the media source, access BMW Connected apps and control media devices. The only thing I found odd is the rear seat user can’t control a USB/iDevice plugged in up front and vice versa. The price tag on this rear seat love? $2,800.

Like Audi and Mercedes, BMW offers an expensive night vision system. The $2,600 system uses a FLIR camera and image processing software to detect pedestrians and highlight them in yellow on the iDrive screen. It will also place a yellow pedestrian icon in the gauge cluster. Because we’re in America and our lighting laws are stupid, the system won’t shine a spotlight on the pedestrian’s legs like it would in Europe. (No, I’m not kidding about that one.) Of course, I find that the best way to detect pedestrians is to simply look out the window. My advice to Americans: save your cash or spend it on the less expensive but much more useful full-range active cruise control.


There is no doubt the Germans lead the pack when it comes to engine options, the 7-Series offering a single turbo inline-6, two twin-turbo V8s, a ridiculous twin-turbo V12 and tree-hugging hybrid.

Not originally planned for the American market, the base 740i and 740Li are the result of dealers wanting a less front-heavy 7-series lower 7-series price point. The twin-turbo 3.0L N54 I6 is out in favor of the newer twin-scroll turbo N55 engine. Power is up slightly compared to the N54 and the update adds “Valvetronic” which is BMW’s variable valve timing and lift system that also acts as the engine’s throttle body.

The 750i and 750Li, get an updated 4.4L twin-turbo V8. The new N63B44TU engine (the TU part is what’s new) gets Valvetronic and tweaked software programming to boost power from an already strong 400HP to 443. Torque takes a similar jump from 450lb-ft to 479lb-ft from 2,000-4500RPM. The power increase shaves nearly two-tenths of the 750′s sprint to 60 vs the 2012 model.

Instead of a twin-turbo V8 hybrid, BMW has downsized to a 3.0L turbo inline-6. The system uses a pancake motor between the engine and transmission to boost the same N55 engine as the 740i to 350HP and 360lb-ft. Fuel economy increases from 19/28MPG to 22/30 vs the 740i. You can expect a return on your investment sometime around the 12th of never when you consider the $10,700 premium.

If you need more cylinders, there is a twin-turbo V12 which adds more weight to the nose in exchange for 535 ponies and 550lb-ft of stump-pulling from 1,500-5,000RPM. Despite the numbers, the V12 isn’t the performance choice because of the added nose weight and long wheelbase, that’s where the Alpina B7 comes in. The B7 is a 750 that’s been tweaked by BMW’s a boosted version of the 750′s 4.4L twin-turbo V8 putting out 540HP and 538lb-ft of twist.

All engines are now mated to ZF’s 8-speed automatic sending power to the rear wheels or to all four if you check the xDrive option box. For 2013 BMW has decided to program 740, 750 and B7 models to essentially decouple the engine and transmission when you lift off the accelerator pedal. The effect is like shifting to neutral and can be disabled by keeping the car in Sport or Sport +. BMW has also fitted the I6 and V8 engines with their mild start/stop system which uses a heavy-duty starter and a glass mat battery.

The 7-Series used to have the reputation of “the driver’s luxury car” but BMW’s mission has changed. That’s not to say that BMW is emulating Lexus, but our 750Li with dynamic dampers and rear air suspension felt far more isolated than the XJ Supercharged or a Panamera S. Even the badly broken pavement and pot-holed off-camber turns in the Sierra Nevada foothills were unable to upset the supple ride. Of course, a luxurious ride is at odds with crisp handling, but that is a “problem” every luxury sedan must contend with. Where does the BMW land vs the competition? Firmly in the middle. The BMW 750 uses 245-width rubber front and rear, notably smaller than the S550′s 255-width tires and the XJ’s staggered 245/275 setup. This coupled with the 4,745lb curb weight meas the 750 can’t pull as many Gs on the oval as the lighter XJ or Panamera. It also means the 750 has a harder time applying its power when compared to the competition with staggered rubber.

Don’t mistake me, the 750 is no slouch on the road. Mash the go pedal from a stop and our 750Li blasted to 60 in 4.95 eerily quiet seconds, only a few tenths off a Mustang GT (with a professional shifter at the stick.) 8.35 seconds later, the Bavarian heavyweight crossed the quarter-mile at 107MPH. Shoppers should take two things from this: First, the 750Li is a few ticks behind the lighter XJ Supercharged and second, there isn’t much of an exhaust note. You see, the turbos that give BMW’s 4.4L engine its epic shove are in the exhaust stream and that means BMW had two choices, make it quiet or live with the turbo-song. (That’s why the M5 plays canned V8 noises through its stereo.) If you want your luxury car to look and sound mean, the Panamera screams like a banshee at WOT and the XJ Supercharged and Supersport growl like a monster in a horror flick.

Although the optional active four-wheel steering ($1,750) and active roll-stabilization ($2,500) make the 750 more dynamic on the road, nothing will change the fact that the 750 is a large, softy sprung sedan with numb electric power steering. The Audi A8, despite being redesigned to put the engine farther forward in the body still has a 55/45 weight balance and front-heavy (albeit predictable) driving dynamics. While we’re talking about the Audi, it’s important to remember that there is no RWD version of the A8. Of course it goes without saying that the S550 is still Buick soft and the air-ride suspension makes it somewhat ponderous over bumpy roads. The Lexus LS 460 may be the slowest of this bunch as it’s the only one left with a naturally aspirated engine, but thanks to a relatively light curb weight and balanced chassis it has some of the most direct road feel and manners of the group.

After a week and 836 miles with the 750Li I have to admit I was smitten, but despite BMW advertising the 7-series as “the driver’s luxury car,” it had little to do with the way the 750 drove and everything to do with the back seat. Sure, the 750 is fast, sure it’s impressively nimble for a vehicle that’s one cheeseburger away from 5,000lbs, but honestly if driving feel and handling ability were your top concerns, buy the Jaguar or Porsche. If you’re after the best back seat experience, but the 750Li, it’s a better place to spend your time than a number of ultra luxury sedans I could mention. Where does that place the 750Li vs its nemesis the S550? On top for a variety of reasons. The 750Li is more engaging to drive than the S550 yet also offers a higher level of gadgetry and creature comforts. Mercedes promises the all-new 2014 S-Class will shake up the luxury market when it lands next year, but until then the Jaguar XJL should be at the top of your list followed closely by the 2013 BMW 750Li.


Hit it

  • Best Rear Seat Entertainment system available. Period.
  • BMW’s full-color heads up display

Quit it

  • Night vision. It’s kind of “gimmicky” and your cash is better spent on BMW’s excellent full-speed adaptive cruise control.
  • V12 – nose heavy and seriously, the twin-turbo V8 is incredible.

Specifications as tested

0-30: 2.2 Seconds

0-60: 4.95 Seconds

1/4 Mile: 13.3 Seconds @ 107 MPH

Average observed fuel economy: 21MPG over 836 miles

BMW Provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review

2013 BMW 750Li, Interior, Rear Seats, Picture Courtsy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 BMW 750Li, Interior, Rear Seats, Picture Courtsy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 BMW 750Li, Interior, Rear Seat Entertainment, iDrive, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 BMW 750Li, Interior, Rear HVAC controls, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 BMW 750Li, Interior, Rear seat controls, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 BMW 750Li, Interior, Rear iDrive Controller, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 BMW 750Li, Interior, Gauge cluster, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 BMW 750Li, Interior, Gauge cluster, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 BMW 750Li, Interior, infotainment, iDrive, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 BMW 750Li, Interior, infotainment, iDrive, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 BMW 750Li, Interior, Radio and HVAC Controls, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 BMW 750Li, Interior, Shifter and iDrive, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 BMW 750Li, Interior, Driver's Side, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 BMW 750Li, Interior, Front Seats, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 BMW 750Li, Interior, Dashboard, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 BMW 750Li, Interior, Passenger Side, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 BMW 750Li, Interior, Door switches, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 BMW 750Li, Interior, Rear Seats, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 BMW 750Li, Trunk, Cargo Area, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 BMW 750Li, Engine, N63B44TU, N63 4.4L Twin-Turbo V8, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 BMW 750Li, Engine, N63B44TU, N63 4.4L Twin-Turbo V8, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 BMW 750Li, Exterior, Front 3/4, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 BMW 750Li, Exterior, Front 3/4, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 BMW 750Li, Exterior, Front, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 BMW 750Li, Exterior, Side, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 BMW 750Li, Exterior, Rear 3/4, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 BMW 750Li, Exterior, Rear, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes Hit it or Quit it? Hit it or Quit it? Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail ]]> 38
Review: 2012 Fisker Karma EcoChic Mon, 21 May 2012 13:00:55 +0000

Henry Ford was no gifted artist, yet he made a car worthy of the common man.  William Durant didn’t especially like cars, but created a marketing and distribution empire that inspired us all.  And while Henrik Fisker’s car-centric life isn’t fully wikipedia’d, the first creation of the company that bears his name is an object of wonder and inspiration.  The Fisker Karma, like every concept from any auto show, is a dream car: flaws and compromises intact.


While I spilled the beans on the Karma’s Vellum, I never discussed the interior.  So let’s fix that.  The Karma’s guts are another exercise in concept car Shock and Awe.  While autojournos occasionally sit in million dollar concept cars, most folks do not.  Safe to say that if you, mere mortal, sit behind the tiller of a Fisker Karma, you’ve experienced the Concept Car in all its glory. Especially in the avant-garde EcoChic trim level, which is a good and bad thing.



Instead of mass-produced, the Karma goes cottage industry, Aston Martin Lagonda style. Plastic door panels at your knees?  Maybe, but they’re swathed in sheets of “EcoSuede”. Most touchpoints are wrapped in padded fabric reminiscent of Ricardo Tubbs’ designer threads.  And while there’s a touch of wood trim (eco-farmed from the bottom of a lake, no less), the obvious places for timber have iPhone worthy glass.  And brushed aluminum, including the electric door releases.  Aside from the EcoChic’s cornball leaf-etching in the glass, this tri-tone environment is an interior designer’s wet dream.

And the ICE in the center stack looks unfinished/overtly minimal like a proper concept car, but is intuitive and beautiful…once it finishes booting up. Even worse, the large Karma is shockingly small inside.  But since it isn’t thin and harsh like a (similarly exotic) Aston Martin Rapide, it’s more like the first time you sat in a bean bag chair. If you’re significantly wider than Justin Bieber, you might disagree. But less is still more.

Except when you get the Karma moving. That’s when 5300lbs of sedan feels just about right.  Aside from the frequent thuds and bumps from the 22” wheels, this is a proper luxury car with a ride that puts everyone else to shame using the Laws of Physics. You can’t hustle the Karma like a normal car, because this is a (compromised?) hybrid concept car come to life.

But the steering is remarkably lively, hybrid or otherwise. Handling is flat if you keep those steering inputs slow and stately.  Combined with the obligatory torque of an electric motor and the interior ambiance of a C4 Corvette (complete with ample view of that stunning hood), you’re piloting a proper space ship.

The driving experience of a monstrous hybrid sedan with a disturbingly low center of gravity is just as unique as the concept car styling. Touchy-feely thoughts aside, the performance numbers won’t impress: a garden variety 7-series will run circles around this monster. At least the GM Ecotec power generator is quiet and “sport” mode is entertaining…if not especially exciting.  I’d like to think the fuel economy is better than most luxury sedans, but that’s not the point.

The Karma is an experience. It’s immensely rewarding in every way. 

And Two and A Half Men product placement aside, this won’t be someone’s only vehicle.  At $116,000 for the top line EcoChic trim, it doesn’t take a White Whine fan to realize you’ll get more car for less money elsewhere. But can you put a price on owning a concept car? And drive it to work, enjoying every moment?

Bragging rights intact, every jerk off in a Benz, Panamera, Bentley, Phantom, etc. are cast off as “untouchable” when this bit of Hindu mysticism is in the joint. Inappropriate Caste System references FTW, son!

And while the current reality of the H-Town McMansion burning Karma adds irony to said Hindu concept, I did fall in love with this dream machine. And now I wonder if my tester was the responsible party…wait, could my personal/spiritual karma be responsible for the Karma’s McMansion maiming?

No matter: if the Pinto survived the explody-problem and thrived in a (somewhat) competitive market for years, why not cut Fisker a break?  Unless it burned down your crib, too. So let’s go back to the money, honey. Everyone’s all about Fisker’s long-term financial prospects: tragic, but a fair point.

My point? Screw it: the intended buyer has tons of disposable income and the Karma is a stunning piece of machinery. It, like true love, is filled with beauty, bliss and effortless good times. Also like true love, there’s sadness, tragedy, and nothing more than unfounded hope for a better future with the one you adore.  This is the passion of owning a sedan that will be the last vehicle mistaken for an appliance. A sedan amongst the most exotic vehicles, no less!

And with that, thank goodness for concept cars becoming a reality. Enjoy it while you can.






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Review: 2012 Mazda3 Sedan SKYACTIV-G Wed, 28 Dec 2011 09:10:58 +0000

Picture courtesy

One of the constant dangers for your humble TTAC correspondent is drifting away from gimlet-eyed and ruthless objectivity towards developing a soft spot for a particular manufacturer. Lord forbid you should ever start becoming an “advocate”.

Should such tendencies emerge, one of our larger and hairier Senior Editors will show up on the front stoop bearing a large boat oar emblazoned with “Integrity” and begin beating you about the ears in the manner of the berserker school-master from Flann O’Brien’s An Beal Bocht. Leaving aside semi-obscure references to mid-century Irish literary satire for the moment, there’s one company for which I’d cheerfully risk the aforementioned major head trauma: Mazda.

How could you not? The homologation-special 323 GTX, the curvaceous FD RX-7, the gutsy MX-6 GT, the sharp-yet-practical Protege5, the apex-predator Mazdaspeed3, the Brit-that-don’t-break Miata; over the years, Mazda has produced a veritable pantheon of great cars, all relatively affordable, all moderately practical.

Picture courtesy

Well, the MX-6 GT was a bit crap, if I’m honest. I had one, and it was really fast and ran forever, but it also torque-steered like a helicopter with the tail-rotor shot off.

And, lest you think that I’ve entirely become Mazda’s – ahem – protégé, it’s worth noting that Mazdas appear to be plagued with rust issues that don’t seem to affect other Japanese competitors (we’re rarely afflicted with this problem in the Pacific Northwest, but it’s a common complaint among Easterners). Also the early ‘speed3 ate motor mounts like milk-duds and the RX-7′s twin-turbocharged engine couldn’t have been less stable if it was made out of nitroglycerine, anti-matter and bits of the Middle East.

So, there are occasional flaws. And with the current Mazda3, two warts immediately hove into view, and beg to be looked past.

Picture courtesy

First, the styling, about which they’ve done little with this new car. A tweaked front fascia makes the grin a little less idiotic, they’ve added blue mascara ’round the headlights, and there’s a “Skyactiv” badge out back. That’s about it.

In fact, the reason you’re looking at press shots here rather than my own ham-handed photography is that so little is changed, I plumb forgot to take pictures of the car. But everybody knows what the Mazda3 looks like already: lots of curvy styling, big goofy smile.

Who. Cares. While – based on the conservative-but-interesting looks of the CX-5 – I look forward to seeing a new, KODO-ized Mazda3, the current ’3 now blends right in to modern traffic alongside bulbous Hyundai Velosters, basking-shark Ford Focii, and bug-eyed Nissan Jukes. If the smirk really bothers you, just buy a black one.

Picture courtesy

We can also take any interior criticisms “as read”. Exactly the same, but the lighting is now light blue, the official other colour of efficiency.

Which brings us to the other wart, perhaps the larger and hairier of the two. While the ’3 has a certain verve with the 2.5L engine, it’s not particularly competitive in the economy department. Opting for the base 2.0L improves the fuel-consumption somewhat, but the power deficit is quite noticeable. What Mazda needs to stay competitive is more zoom-zoom from less fuel.

There isn’t the space here for me to fully explain the science of Skyactiv (click here to read my somewhat bumbling attempt to do so), but let me lay out the Cole’s Notes. First, it’s not a hybrid. I’ve lost count of how many people have come up to me and asked what I thought of “Mazda’s new hybrid”.

Skyactiv is not a specialty trim level, it’s the tagline for the mindset of the engineer who’s currently designing your – they hope – next Mazda: a full suite of technologies designed to improve economy and enhance driver involvement. In the case of the Mazda3, you get partial Skyactiv tech in the mid-range models free-gratis-for-nothing.

Picture courtesy

Second, if we simplify things down to a level that would have Dave Coleman gnawing on his graphing calculator, Skyactiv-G engine tech is about the controlled burn. The high-octane, premium fuel normally required in high-pressure engines (including turbo’d and supercharged applications) is less prone to spontaneously combusting than regular. Mazda gets around this requirement for high-grade gas with precise multi-point injector technology and specially dished pistons that ensure regular flame-front propagation out from the spark.

Advantage? A clean, even burn that runs leaner and gives you a bump in power. Theoretically great, but what about real-world application?

Picture courtesy

Here it is then, finally, the meat n’ potatoes of this review. Assuming you’ve read this far, you don’t care about styling commentary, you don’t care that they’ve swapped all the red interior lights for blue ones, you don’t care about high-flown hyperbole, or even how Skyactiv tech actually works. You want to know: is this ’3 any good?

Well, first the bad news. The first Skyactiv ’3 is a bit of a mongrel. It’s the same old Mazda3 chassis with an engine and transmission swap, and part of the Skyactiv-G gasoline tech has been watered down. There isn’t room underhood to fit the 4-2-1 header that allows the CX-5 to attain that sky-high 13:1 compression ratio with tuned exhaust pulses. The mill in the ’3 is therefore restricted to 12:1.

However, the six-speed automatic gearbox in this tester is fully Skyactiv (conventional but lightened with improved shift control and a greater lock-up range), and while the chassis is roughly the same as last year’s – with a slight enhancement to rigidity – there was nothing wrong with the old one. In fact, there was everything right with the old one.

And here comes the good news. This heart-transplanted ’3 is better than ever.

Picture courtesy

I was invited to the launch of the Skyactiv-equipped Mazda3 in sunny Los Angeles, but elected to wait for a locally-available tester instead. I’m glad I did, and not for some imaginary independent-can’t-be-bought-hipster-journo street-cred: I knew the ’3 would be great to drive on a Mazda-planned canyon route; I’m pleased to report that it’s also great to drive in rain-soaked, volume-snarled, suicidal-pedestrian, militant-cyclist, turn-signal-absent everyday horrible traffic. It is such a hoot.

The new automatic transmission delivers crisp, rapid shifts, and is actually fun to operate in manu-matic mode. No paddle-shifters (yet), but it’s an engaging transmission that makes a mockery of weaksauce dual-clutch systems like that found in the Focus.

The engine, while lacking the outright grunt of the 2.5L, provides considerably more poke than the somewhat dowdy 2.0L, splitting the difference between the two engines at 155hp and 148lb/ft of torque. Mazda claims the power of a 2.5L from a 2.0L, but that’s pushing it a little: there is still plenty of room for more down-low power.

Picture courtesy

Expect the full-fat, 91-octane burning 14:1 Euro-versions to have a little more panache, but if I’m going to express jealousy of the cheese-eating surrender monkeys, it’ll be for their upcoming Skyactiv-D diesel with its 300lb/ft of torque and 5300rpm redline.

But I digress, back to what we actually get. In my normal driving style, which is to careen everywhere as though pursued by a brown 450SEL with a rocket-launcher-wielding Robert DeNiro hanging out of its sunroof, the Skyactiv-G Mazda3 returned a very respectable 33mpg.

Granted, that’s about 15% off the promised 40mpg highway, but seriously, we’re talking depleted uranium Dr. Scholl’s inserts here. I beat that thing like a concrete piňata and not only did it feel like it loved every minute of it, but there was also little penalty at the pump.

Picture courtesy

Currently, this kind of fuel-economy puts the ’3 right up there amongst other – alleged – fuel sippers. Should the little Mazda fall mid-pack for operating costs in the future as others catch up, its fun-to-drive quotient should do the rest of the selling.

Of course, there’s a worry. Any time words like “high-compression” start getting tossed around, the image that immediately pops into mind is of some brightly coloured Italian exotic on the shoulder and en flambé. And while most Mazdas have a reasonably good track-record for reliability, there’s still the long shadow cast by that FD RX-7 and its, um, explosive performance.

But I’m bullish on Mazda’s new tech, and can’t wait to see it range-wide and try it in full effect in the CX-5. It’s all well and good to have interesting niche enthusiast cars like the GT 86 and the EVO-X but we need a car company that champions driving pleasure as a core value for all its models.

It’s nice to have a company like Mazda around, and I’m happy to report that their SKYACTIV technologies seem to indicate that they’ll be able to compete on both fronts: not only as the enthusiast choice, but also as a manufacturer of economically efficient daily drivers. This new Mazda3 is certainly a car I’ll be recommending next time somebody asks.


Oh hang on, someone’s at the door.

Mazda provided the vehicle tested and insurance.

]]> 124
Review: 2012 Volkswagen Sharan TDI BlueMotion (Euro-Spec) Fri, 23 Dec 2011 20:55:05 +0000

Editor’s Note: Be aware that photos are larger than the usual format.

When I told friends that my European vacation would give me the opportunity to test a few European cars, their reactions fit a certain pattern: “So you’re going to be running around Europe in Porsches and Audis?” they asked. “Can I have your job?”

“No such luck,” I replied. “I’ve got a Hyundai station wagon and a VW minivan lined up.”

And though my friends may have been disappointed, I certainly wasn’t. After all, I expected great things from the Hyundai i40 I had during my first week, and I was actually quite excited to have secured a VW Sharan for week two. After all, I have something of a history with minivans (I drove a Grand Caravan in High School, the only vehicle I’ve ever crashed), and I was looking forward to comparing VW’s new Euro-MPV to its US “counterpart,” the Chrysler-rebadge VW Routan. If VW would rather sell a rebadged Town & Country than the slick little MPV I received straight from Wolfsburg with only 3,500 km on the clock, surely there was a reason. And I was determined to find it out.

VW’s newest Sharan debuted last year as a 2011 model, ditching the B-VX62 platform that had been jointly developed with Ford, in favor of the new MQB modular platform which could eventually underpin as many as 60 models, from subcompacts to “Large MPVs” like the Sharan. Some 11 inches shorter than the Routan and with a wheelbase that’s over six inches shorter, the Sharan would be considered a “Large MPV” only in Europe. On the other hand, it’s no compact minivan either, splitting the difference between the Routan and the newest Mazda5 almost perfectly (11 inches shorter than Routan, 10 inches longer than Mazda5). And it makes the most of that space: though available as base with only five seats, our tester came with the seven-seat option, and though it impinges upon cargo room considerably, the third row is no penalty box. At a little over six foot tall, I could easily occupy the Sharan’s hinterlands for all but the longest hauls, with sufficient headroom and only slightly limited legroom. In short, like the i40, the Sharan’s size alone does not preclude the possibility of US-market service.

And in return for the considerable extra space it gives up to the Routan, the Sharan offers all of the other joys of authentic, Euro-spec Volkswagen goodness. The exterior is, if a bit overly subtle, a far more handsome and complete design than the somewhat awkward Routan. And equipped with adaptive bi-xenon and LED headlights and a gigantic panoramic moonroof, one could almost imagine imagine the schnörkellos Sharan as Audi’s first foray into the world of MPVs. If you think minivans are incapable of being passable for even the most fashionable young families, take a moment to peruse the photos in the gallery below.

Meanwhile, the impressions of quality continue when you step inside. Far from the new world of disappointingly cost-cut interiors in US-market Vee-Dubs like Jetta and Passat, the Sharan’s interior is classic Volkswagen. Dash plastics are yielding to the touch but solidly situated, with only a slightly coarse “grain” on the surfacing giving an impression of less-than-top-notch quality. From the switches to the knobs, from materials to design and assembly, the contrast to American-market VWs can not be mistaken, although they don’t stand out much in pictures. Add optional leather upholstery with suede-alike inserts, VW’s top-of-the-line navigation system, parking sensors and backup camera, fully-electric side sliders and rear hatch, multi-zone climate control, the previously-mentioned panoramic moonroof, heated seats, keyless-go, stop-start, auto-park function and yes, adaptive suspension (!) and this mass-market-branded minivan truly becomes the equal of some Audis (even more so with optional 168 HP TDI engine and AWD). For a price, of course (more on that shortly).

Settle into the driver’s seat, and the first thing you notice is that the driving position is incredibly bus-like. In order to make the most of the Sharan’s (relatively) limited space, you sit high and upright on typically firm seats, while your feet reach down at a sharp angle for the three pedals and you work the long-ish throw shifter with a bit of a trucker-style downward reach. It takes a moment to get used to, especially after a week in the low-slung Hyundai wagon, but the seating position gives a commanding view of the road, and thanks to a tall roof, there’s still a vaulted cathedral worth of headroom above. All in all, then, there’s no mistaking that you’re driving a minivan, albeit a somewhat smaller, considerably more premium phenotype of the species than those we’re accustomed to in the United States.

Press in the clutch and poke the starter button, and the 140 HP version of VW’s 2.0 TDI engine rumbles subtly to life. If the i40 astounded with the refinement of its diesel engine, the Sharan made me forget almost entirely that we were driving under oil-burning power. Only the diesel’s distinctive torque and unwillingness to rev (and some clatter on cold morning warm-ups) betrayed the dieselness of this altogether capable little lump. With only 236 lb-ft to motivate some 4,300 lbs, progress was not exactly brisk, but performance was considerably more satisfying than the numbers suggest (11.4 seconds 0-100km)… and on the autobahn it had no trouble cruising at triple-digit (MPH) speeds.

Inevitably, however, the Sharan’s aerodynamics and weight conspired to push reported fuel economy way down in both high-speed cruising and brisk driving on mountain roads. Though rated at 5.4 l/100km in “extraurban” driving, the Sharan’s observed economy was rarely below 6 l/100km (~40 MPG), and often registered as high as 9 l/100km (26 MPG). On the other hand, higher numbers often came at some altitude, when climbing hills and cruising at higher speeds… still, after the Hyundai’s remarkably consistent economy, the Sharan was not as frugal as I might have hoped. On the other hand, stop-start helped urban fuel economy, and in typical European driving the 6.2 l/100km (~38 MPG) “combined” rating seemed highly achievable. Not bad for a seven-seater minivan.

Behind the wheel of such a full-fat, Euro-focused minivan, I will admit to having harbored some hope that the Sharan would be a dynamic revelation compared to the typically saggy-bouncy-leany style of the typical American minivan. Initial impressions, however, proved that my expectations were way out of line. Steering feel seemed nearly American-light at first, and though the suspension didn’t outright wallow, it certainly allowed far more lean than I had expected. Combined with a relatively high curb weight, the soft suspension provides great ride comfort and stability at speed, but also lets things to fall apart miserably in corners. The steering lacked precision and front-end bite, while the soft, well-laden chassis struggled to stay on the same page as the driver’s inputs when pushed even slightly. The overall impression was, then, not entirely unlike what any American would expect from a minivan: an emphasis on comfort (albeit with better damping and more manageable size than most US offerings), and a chassis that discourages more than a responsible, familial pace. And unlike my old high school Caravan V6, the power was sufficiently insufficient to reinforce that mode of travel.

At least that’s what I thought until I realized that our tester had the optional adaptive suspension, and that I had been experiencing the Sharan in “normal mode.” Now, I have no idea who in their right mind would spend over a thousand Euros to equip their family-hauler with the choice between “normal,” “comfort,” and “sport” suspension/steering modes (let alone the €770 lowered “sport suspension” which our tester did not have). But thanks to Europe’s build-to-order market, this minivan had a sport mode, and once selected, I left it there for the rest of our time with the Sharan. Though I don’t want to oversell the improvement of firmer damper settings and a bit more steering heft, I have to report that it carried the Sharan across the ineffable border between “sloppy mess” and “I can work with this.” On the descent from the Sella Pass in Northern Italy, where the photos for this review were taken, I had the most fun I’ve ever had in a minivan… well, with my clothes on, anyway. It was subtle, push-by-degrees fun, but at least everything felt like it was working together. Not half bad for a minivan.

But this unexpected revelation held the key to my main impression of the Sharan: all of my favorite things about it are optional. From the giant panorama roof that blessed the cabin with an airy feel and made Dolomite-gawking a dream, to the superb navi system (complete with speed limits), from the sport mode to the third row, and from the excellent headlights to the classy upholstery, all of our Sharan’s many delightful touches come at a cost (with the glaring exception of its high-quality six-speed manual transmission). And the Sharan itself is no cheap thing even without these options: our mid-trim Comfortline Bluemotion with manual transmission started at €33,875, and my attempts to recreate our test vehicle using VW Germany’s online configurator (no Monroney label was provided) show that our tester was essentially a €50,000 vehicle. Even with an Audi badge, a $50,000 pricetag would make this Sharan a non-starter in the US market.

To be perfectly frank, I was hoping to prove that this Sharan could be offered in the US, and that VW’s decision to rebadge a Chrysler was cynical and unnecessary (interestingly, the VW employees who picked up and dropped off the Sharan had no idea that the Routan exists). Certainly I think a minivan of the Sharan’s size could carve out a segment in the US market, but it’s clear that the fine interior, diesel drivetrain and tech-laden equipment levels that European families are willing to pay for would doom our tester in the value-oriented stateside market. That’s a pity, as this Sharan served as a stark contrast to VW’s recent embrace of American-style value, and as a reminder of the positioning that once made VW so popular with American connoisseurs.

Volkswagen provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of (expensive) diesel for this review.

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Review: 2012 Hyundai i40cw BlueDrive (Euro-Spec) Thu, 22 Dec 2011 18:19:49 +0000


Editor’s note: be aware that the images are extremely large, in order to show off TTAC’s rare opportunity for amazing photo shoot locations.

What makes a flagship? It’s a question that gets to the heart of one’s philosophy as a car reviewer, and no better example exists to explore the issue than Hyundai. Here in the US, Hyundai’s unquestionable flagships are the large, rear-drive Genesis and Equus, well-equipped traditional luxury bruisers at a value price. And though these plush-but-understated cars sell well enough in these economically uncertain times (and they certainly help Hyundai embarrass the likes of Cadillac, which still lacks a true, large, rear-drive flagship barge), they don’t completely fit with the brand values that Hyundai has ridden to prominence across the globe. They’re not wildly efficient, they lack Hyundai’s dramatic “fluidic sculpture” design language, and they’re dreadfully conventional in light of Hyundai’s professed mission to promote “New Thinking, New Possibilities” in the automotive space. Indeed, they’re almost the last throwbacks to Hyundai’s old image of slightly stodgy cars that simply beat the competition hollow on value.

But if we look past the undeniable market logic to offering the Genesis and Equus in the US, it becomes clear that Hyundai has another flagship that almost perfectly captures the reasons the Korean brand has become such a force in the global car business in recent years. Though it might not be the right flagship for the US market, the Hyundai i40cw is far closer to representing the platonic ideal of Hyundai’s brand than any other car the brand offers. And as such it’s also just a damn good car.

Larger than Elantra but slightly smaller than Sonata (neither of which is available as such in Europe), the i40 is the largest family car offered by Hyundai in continental markets (Genesis is sold there only in Coupe form). And as if to confirm the model’s European focus, the i40 has been launched first as the slickly-styled wagon you see here, although a sedan version will launch next year. Based on the Sonata’s platform, the i40 is 5 cm shorter and has a 2.5 cm shorter wheelbase, bringing it more in line with the European D-Segment than America’s voluminous crop of family sedans. Still, the quarters are far from cramped; though the sleek roofline emphasizes style over space, there’s plenty of room for two six-footers in the backseat and less claustrophobia than you might think. Though clearly aimed at Europe, the i40cw isn’t fundamentally doomed to stay there.

The i40cw’s exterior styling is, in this reviewer’s opinion, the best example yet of Hyundai’s distinctive design language, and the car stands out even among the slickest of Euro-confections. But such determinations are fundamentally subjective; the interior of the i40 is much easier to praise in a purely objective manner. Though the design is not a major departure from the Sonata’s, it’s a little more expressive and gives a much higher impression of quality. Center instrument panel controls are more tightly clustered to create room for the larger display screen, and the design eliminates much of the Sonata’s cheaper looking and feeling materials. This pattern continues throughout the i40′s cabin, with great swaths of solidly-located, soft-touch plastics accented by minimal amounts of relatively high-quality faux-aluminum. In comparison with the brand-spankety new Euro-spec Volkswagen I drove in my second week in Europe (look for a review of that very soon), the i40 meets and in some respects even exceeds what you find in Euro-market benchmark vehicles.

As might be guessed from exterior images, outward visibility is somewhat compromised in the i40, especially in blind spots and the rear-view. But the slightly more compact dimensions and a suite of electronic gizmos that might seem like overkill in a car of this class more than overcome any downsides. Forward vision is excellent, and as I learned during a pitch-black ascent of an alpine pass, fully automatic headlights, which sense obstacles one either side of the car’s hood and adaptively add illumination where needed, keep the driver well-appraised of any obstacles and help navigate narrow roads and tunnels with ease. Parking sensors and a backup camera make parking a snap, even in spots and garages built for cars much smaller than the i40. Add an excellent navigation system (which need only update its information for Italian roads), and comfortable (if somewhat lacking in side bolstering) seats, and the i40 makes for a near-perfect European road trip vehicle.

Further making the case for its touring capabilities, as well as exemplifying Hyundai’s emphasis on efficiency, our 1.7 liter diesel drivetrain matched with a superb six-speed transmission kept the hits coming (if any part of the i40 should come to the US but probably won’t, it’s this slick six-cog box). Though making only 136 HP, Hyundai’s shockingly refined oil-burner churns out a far more respectable 243 lb-ft of torque, and hauls the 3,500-ish lb i40 to 100 km/h (~60 MPH) in a respectable 10.6 seconds. Though not fast by US standards, and demanding of a bit of gear-rowing to keep up a brisk pace, performance is more than adequate for a family car of its class. Let’s just say I had no problem cruising at  175 km/h (108 MPH) on Germany’s unlimited autobahns (although revs were a bit high at that speed), and managed to easily snag a speeding ticket after forgetting that Austria’s autobahns are not similarly lacking speed limits.

More importantly in countries where the i40 cost nearly €100 to fill with diesel, efficiency is exemplary. At 140 km/h (~86 MPH), where the i40 seems most comfortable making rapid touring progress, the onboard computer clung tenaciously to a 6 liters/100km readout (39.2 MPG), and shorter bursts on the German autobahn only brought it as low as 6.5 l/100km. Moreover, on interurban “B Roads,” mileage improved to between 5 and 5.5 l/100km (as good as 47 MPG), and thanks to the equipped “BlueDrive” technology (mostly a smooth stop-start system, as low-rolling-resistance tires were replaced with winter rubber), urban observed economy didn’t take much of a hit. We weren’t able to do any remotely scientific efficiency testing, but based on my impressions, this is a car that Hyundai could almost advertise in the US as a “40 MPG anywhere” family car. Suffice to say, we toured from Munich into the depths of Austria’s Salzkammergut, to Vienna, to Venice, back to Austria (including a side trip involving the afore-mentioned nighttime alpine ascent) and on through to Munich on less than two tanks of diesel.

Dynamically, the trip was far from a thrill-fest, as even Hyundai’s European offerings slightly lag the established competition in ride and handling. But compared to US-market Hyundai’s it’s still a big improvement: the suspension is more planted and the steering more feelsome than any US-spec Sonata. Conveniently light around town, the steering firms up nicely as you push on, but ultimately the i40 feels more comfortable making efficient rather than frantic pace. The nose is quite heavy thanks to the diesel lump, and the front suspension could use a bit more damping, or possibly a mild sport mode just to firm things up a little when the mountain roads call you onwards. But ultimately the engine delivers its torque in a fairly utilitarian manner, and in concert with a undertuned suspension, attempts at Alpine hoonery are soon abandoned in favor of gawking at the spectacular views. But for a visiting American, the i40 never ceased to feel like a competent, comforting ally in everything from cramped cities to unlimited autobahns.

In short, the i40 is not only a near-ideal family touring car for exploring the European continent, but I also came away with the impression that it’s Hyundai’s spiritual flagship. Expressive good looks on the outside meets a Winterkorn-scaringly high quality interior. Instantly-at-your-ease performance meets great fuel economy. Boatloads of sensible technology meets smart packaging and a unique aesthetic. Which leaves only Hyundai’s most traditional brand value: value. And here too, the i40cw lives up to its ascendant brand’s formula for success. Our “Style”-trimmed, 1.7 CRDi BlueDrive with “Plus Package” and Navigation costs a whisker over €33,000… but don’t go calculate that directly into dollars, as purchasing power adjustment puts the dollar and Euro on similar footing, practically speaking. A mid-trim Passat “Comfortline” TDI wagon with none of the Hyundai’s tech options costs about the same in Germany, offering a little more power, a little less (rated) efficiency, and (absent optional trims) less of a an impression of interior quality or slick exterior looks. In other words, the i40cw is a rolling object lesson in the priorities that Hyundai has ridden to world-class status, and the brand’s truest flagship.

Hyundai Germany provided the vehicle, insurance and one (expensive) tank of diesel for this review.

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2012 Volkswagen Beetle 2.5 Wed, 21 Dec 2011 19:51:48 +0000

I never was a New Beetle kind of guy. But then I am a guy. Unless a cute car handles like a Miata, I’m not interested. For 2012 Volkswagen has redesigned the New Beetle, dropping the “New” and the bud vase (every review must mention this) in the process of attempting to broaden the car’s appeal. And?

The new (not New) Beetle’s body is less far-out styling exercise, more faithful yet also better resolved and altogether more attractive update of the form-follows-function original. Except dimensionally, where a page has been ripped from Harley Earl’s decidedly contra-Bauhaus “longer, lower, wider” car design philosophy, with changes of +7.3 (to 168.4), -0.5 (to 58.5), and +2.3 (to 71.2) inches, respectively. Most notable among the now bent curves, the Beetle’s roof no longer traces a continuous arch from fender to fender. There’s enough of a flat roof surface for a much larger glass panel, but not enough for this panel to open even halfway. Disregard the brochure: “panoramic” it’s not. Paint the bug “autobahn appliance silver” and shoe it with wide, low profile treads (235/45HR18s, to be precise), and only men least sure of their manliness should feel uncomfortable driving this car.

The interior is similarly less style for its own sake and more a blend of the original’s minimalist aesthetic and today’s standard VW issue. Though the herringbone pattern in some of the off-black leatherette and the audio display graphics are kind of nifty, those seeking cheery, bubbly fun are much less likely to find it here. The potential for whimsy largely departed with the bud vase. Fans of functionality will adore the extra glove box and three-dial HVAC controls, though.

When I spoke of men being comfortable in this car, I was speaking figuratively. The hard, flat front seat put my seat to sleep, while the hard flat door-mounted armrest made my elbow wish for the same. The view forward is more confidence inspiring than that in the previous car, since the 2012’s windshield is much more upright and you no longer have to gaze across a vast expanse of instrument panel to see through it. But unless you’re especially long of torso it’s first necessary to crank the seat way up to avoid feeling trapped, Kafka-style, in the big bug body. Only the windows seem small. The new car arguably comes by its high belt and small windows honestly, as postwar Beetles weren’t exactly fishbowls. But the large feel from the driver’s seat? That’s new. No such novelty in back—it’s still a tight fit for adults, though the rear glass thankfully isn’t overhead. Cargo volume similarly remains in modest supply, though the hatch opening, no longer a fashion victim, is usefully larger.

I’m oddly fond of the much-maligned low-revving 2.5-liter inline five-cylinder engine in its latest 170 horsepower, 177 pound-feet iteration. Very torquey, it pulls strongly up to 40 miles-per-hour or so, and then more than adequately up to highway speeds, while sounding more substantial than a four (if not remotely like an air-cooled boxer) in the process. Too bad the six-speed automatic transmission, in a not terribly successful attempt to earn good EPA numbers (22 city / 29 highway MPG), is more than capable of lugging even this engine. Want to shift for yourself? You’ll save $1,100 with the five-speed manual. Or spend more and get the 200-horsepower 2.0T / six-speed stick combo.

Hopefully the steering and suspension are tuned differently with the turbo. The 2.5’s hydraulic power steering (vs. electric-assist with the 2.0T) communicates well as loads build, but feels sluggish and a touch sloppy on-center. Little happens during the initial quarter turn. The chassis feels stable but not at all agile. As with the second-gen Scion xB, the oversized feel of the 2012 Beetle really takes a toll. Frisky personality like that of a MINI or 500? Not at all. You could be behind the wheel of any 3,000-plus-pound German driving appliance. The car is all business.

Aesthetically, the 18-inch wheels are perfect for the car. Since those big shiny discs are hubcaps, the rims probably aren’t as hefty as they look. But they do feel as hefty as they look, pounding across all but the most minor road imperfections. Though the suspension tuning is hardly GTI athletic, the ride is jittery more often than not. Chassis refinement is uncharacteristically lacking for a VW. What were the engineers aiming for? To put a positive spin on it, those seeking sharp handling and those seeking a smooth ride will be equally satisfied.

The price of the bespoke body? Easy to figure, since the new Beetle is essentially the latest North American Jetta underneath. Okay, maybe not so easy, as the Jetta 2.5 isn’t offered with the 400-watt Fender audio system or 18-inch rims. The tested Beetle, loaded up with automatic, sunroof, and nav, lists for $25,965. A Jetta without the aforementioned bits but with enough other things to be worth a $680 feature-based price adjustment (according to TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool): $25,065. So figure about $1,580 for the bug body, larger rims, and rocking audio system. Not bad if the rest was good. A similarly equipped (but 121 horsepower) MINI Cooper costs nearly the same as the tested Beetle after adjusting for feature differences.

German coachbuilder Gunter Artz once highly modified a few Golf bodies to fit over Porsche 928 mechanicals. Driving the result must have affected severe cognitive dissonance. The same is the case, if in a less desirable direction, with the 2012 Beetle. Even butched up, it looks like it should be fun, or at least feel somehow special. Perhaps like a less mini MINI. Instead the latest Beetle drives like an American-spec Jetta with gangsta windows, sloppier steering, and less polished suspension. I actually enjoyed driving the Jetta mit 2.5 more. The Germans have never understood our American fondness for the car that, for them, can only have painful association with their immediate postwar condition. This might explain why, after masterfully crafting a more functional, more attractive, and more broadly appealing update of the iconic exterior, they phoned the rest in. The result certainly isn’t a bad car, but also isn’t the distinctive experience it could have been. The abandoned better idea: Think Small.

Volkswagen provided the car with insurance and a tank of gas.

Michael Karesh operates, an online provider of car reliability and real-world fuel economy information.

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Review: 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco Fri, 16 Dec 2011 00:35:04 +0000

Through the mid-1980s, General Motors essentially owned the midsize sedan market. This dominance was ended by the original Ford Taurus, and GM’s position sunk further with the rise of the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry to the top two spots. In recent years the Fusion has replaced the Taurus, while Nissan, Hyundai, and (for 2012) even Volkswagen have become serious contenders. For GM to reclaim one of the top spots, the Chevrolet Malibu had better be a damn good car. The model has been redesigned for 2013. Is the new car good enough? After doing my best to get some seat time in the Detroit area, I gave up my press junket cherry to Chevrolet to find out.

The Sonata gained its current position partly through striking exterior styling. The same won’t happen with the new Malibu. It’s a handsome car, especially with the LTZ’s 18-inch five-spoke alloys (the chunky overhangs appear more massive with the Eco’s 17s), and the ends of the car are distinctively Chevrolet, but the side profile has been seen many times before in various Accords and Camrys over the past 15 years. The trunk bustle was introduced on the 2002 BMW 7-Series, though it is more successfully (if still not entirely successfully) incorporated here. Chevrolet touts the Camaro-inspired tail lamps, but will many potential buyers notice or care unless the car also performs like a Camaro? Either way, the Malibu might be more attractive than most competitors but its conservative shape won’t grab the attention of potential buyers.

The best-looking car I saw in Austin? That would be a double-dubbed 1961 Cadillac Coupe de Ville:

The new Malibu’s interior is better. Though there’s nothing exciting about the instrument panel’s styling, and the strakes connecting the vents are a questionable element, it looks and feels much more upscale than those in competitors, especially the Camry and Passat. Much of the instrument panel and door panels are soft-touch surfaces suitable for a more expensive car.

Step up to the LTZ trim (not available with the eAssist powertrain, and so not offered at launch), and you can get stylish brown and black leather seats with orange piping and neon blue stitching. Sound like too much? Well, it actually works:

In the Eco, the optional leather is a relatively drab single shade, and the standard cloth is even more downscale. At night, everything is lit in ice blue. The various buttons do have a feel in keeping with the car’s price point, but they are large, logically arranged, and within reach. The Eco has MyLink standard, which provides Bluetooth smartphone integration complete with voice activation and apps for Pandora, Stitcher, and others to come.

The new Malibu is 2.7 inches wider than the current car, and rides on a wheelbase 4.5 inches shorter. These dimensional changes translate to the interior, where there’s more shoulder room but less rear legroom. The VW Passat now clearly leads the segment in the latter. The front seats are fairly comfortable, at least when fitted with four-way power lumbar (which is on the passenger side only with leather). Without the adjustable lumbar lower back support is lacking. Unlike in some recent GM cars, power recline is available for both front seats. Raise the driver seat a couple inches to clear the tall instrument panel, and the view forward isn’t too far off the segment average. The view rearward, on the other hand, could well prove a stumbling block for many potential buyers. Because of the very high trunk, the rear window is a narrow slit. And to get the drag coefficient to 0.30 (for the Eco, 0.29 for the upcoming LS with its narrower tires) the side mirrors were downsized.

Though the official rear legroom stat of 36.9 inches suggests otherwise, the back seat is just large enough for one adult male about six-feet in height to squeeze behind another. While the large cushion promises good thigh support, it’s mounted a couple inches too low to actually provide it. Compromised by the rear-mounted battery pack, trunk space and utility are only a match for hybrids. The rear seat folds, but as in the Camry Hybrid the pass through is a small slot on only one side:

Buyers for whom trunk space is a priority will strongly prefer the related conventionally-powered sedans in all cases. Interior storage is fairly generous, and includes a hidden compartment behind the display screen.

Eventually three four-cylinder engines will be offered in the new 2013 Malibu: a 182-horsepower 2.4-liter with “eAssist,” a 190-horsepower 2.5-liter, and a turbocharged 2.0-liter. At launch in early 2012, only the first will be available. Horsepower ratings for the 2.0T, like the 2.5 part of a new Ecotec engine family, haven’t yet been announced for this application. But in the Cadillac ATS it’ll churn out a not-quite-Sonata 270. “eAssist” refers to an electric motor linked by a belt to the engine that charges a small battery pack while braking then provides up to a 15-horsepower boost—on top of the engine’s 182—while accelerating. So it’s essentially GM’s “light hybrid” system from a few years ago with upgraded components (including a lithium-ion battery pack) and re-branded to lower expectations vis-à-vis full hybrids with larger battery packs and more powerful electric motors. How much more powerful? The Toyota Camry Hybrid’s motor-generator can produce 105 kW. The Malibu’s? Eleven.

To take advantage of this assist to benefit fuel economy, GM has fitted the Eco with a taller final drive ratio (2.64 vs. 3.23). Perhaps they should not have. While 190+ horsepower should be plenty to motivate the Malibu’s 3,620 pounds (about 130 were saved through Eco-specific lightweight parts), in practice the powertrain often struggles, especially up hills. While the engine is nearly silent under 3,500 rpm, above that mark a high-pitched whine suggests that too little engine has been given the task of accelerating too much car. Whatever assist is provided by the “eAssist” is far from evident. The full hybrids from Toyota, Ford, and Hyundai all feel significantly quicker. For best performance it helps to manually downshift the six-speed automatic (the only transmission likely to be offered with any of the engines), but this proves awkward. The manual shift rocker switch is on top of the shifter, so you cannot grab the shifter in a conventional manner to operate it. I improvised by using the armrest to fully support my arm, and then tapping the rocker with my free hand.

The EPA rates the Malibu Eco at 25 city, 37 highway. The trip computer reported about 25 in suburban driving with about one complete stop per mile. Out on a rural highway we occasionally observed just over 30. While the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid also struggles to match its EPA numbers, both the Ford Fusion and Toyota Camry are capable of low 40s in suburban driving. Of at least equal concern: the non-hybrid Sonata (24/35) and Camry (25/35) have EPA ratings nearly as high as the Malibu Eco’s.

The new Malibu is even more resistant to stopping than accelerating. While the regenerative braking is transparent, braking force does not build linearly, and the brakes don’t do much until quite a bit of effort has been applied. Repeatedly I had to step up my braking effort, then step it up again, as the Malibu Eco rushed towards a stopped car ahead.

The Malibu’s handling casts further doubt on its claimed 3,620-pound curb weight. Though closely related and dimensionally similar to the Buick Regal, through its steering wheel the Chevrolet feels much larger and heavier. Suspension tuning that contends for the title of softest-in-class is part of the reason. While over decent roads during casual driving the payoff is a very smooth ride, hit wavy pavement at speed and the under-damped body floats and bounds about. The suspension geometry seems sound and the car’s handling is always safe, with mushy understeer as the low limits of the Goodyear Assurance tires are approached, but there’s little sense of what’s going on where the rubber meets the road. Confidence is not inspired. I’d much rather drive a Regal or even a 2012 Camry on a challenging road. What the Malibu does do extremely well: keep outside noise outside. It’s an incredibly quiet car. Even the clatter of a Ford diesel pickup accelerating uphill with a loaded trailer the next lane over was barely audible.

While the Malibu Eco can’t match the Fusion or the Camry hybrids in terms of performance and economy, it also costs less despite having a much more upscale look and feel. The Malibu starts at $25,995. Load one up, and the sticker is $30,625. A similarly-equipped Ford Fusion Hybrid lists for $33,835, over $3,200 more. TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool indicates that in terms of features the cars are close to equal. A similarly loaded up Camry Hybrid or Sonata Hybrid splits the difference between the two: both are about $1,900 more than the Chevrolet after adjusting for feature differences. But a Sonata Limited costs about the same as the Malibu, while a Camry SE is about $2,000 less. So the Eco only seems a good value if compared against full hybrids—with which it cannot compete in terms of fuel efficiency. The Malibu 2.5, when it goes on sale next summer, will likely cost about $2,000 less (the amount GM charges for this system in the Regal).

So, the Malibu Eco isn’t terribly fuel efficient, and also certainly isn’t a driver’s car. And yet Chevrolet will likely still sell many of them (especially once the other engines arrive). Toyota’s and Volkswagen’s recent decontenting have opened up a hole in the segment. Many midsize sedan shoppers prioritize interior materials and a cushy, quiet ride above all else, and Chevrolet has done a very good job with the new Malibu’s interior and an outstanding job with noise suppression. This formula has been working with the Chevrolet Cruze and Equinox. It will likely work with the new Malibu as well.

For this review, GM paid to fly the author to Austin, TX, put him up for a night, and fed him four meals.

Michael Karesh operates, an online provider of car reliability and real-world fuel economy information.

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Review: 2012 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara Wed, 30 Nov 2011 22:28:21 +0000

Back in the day, the Jeep Wrangler was only for serious off-roaders. Posers might visit, but assaulted by the SUV’s sluggish acceleration, clumsy handling, rough noisy ride, and spartan hose-out interior they weren’t likely to stay long (or return after leaving). But Chrysler has worked steadily to eliminate these downsides and render the Wrangler fit for everyday use. Back in 2007 the Wrangler grew in size and became available in extended wheelbase four-door Unlimited form. Last year its interior was substantially upgraded. And this year the unloved 202-horsepower 3.8-liter “minivan” V6 has been replaced by a 285-horsepower DOHC 3.6-liter “Pentastar” V6. Meanwhile the chassis has been tweaked repeatedly to improve on-road ride and handling. So, with all of these improvements, is the 2012 Wrangler Unlimited as suitable as any other SUV for running the kids to school and then dropping by CostCo?

The Germans aren’t uniquely capable of tastefully refining an iconic shape redesign after redesign, decade after decade. The current Wrangler isn’t a cartoonish “retro” reinterpretation of a classic vehicle from the distant past. Like a Porsche 911, it’s a special purpose iconic vehicle that has undergone an uninterrupted evolution over the years. Chrysler has made many mistakes, but messing up the Wrangler’s styling isn’t one of them. Unchanged since the 2007 redesign, the exterior retains an unmistakable resemblance to the original Jeep. Form relentlessly follows function. The Sahara’s chunky five-spoke 18-inch alloys, though up two inches from the base Wrangler’s wheels, remain well short of over the top. Unlike with some supposed off-road vehicles, you’ll find no mere rim protectors here. There’s no “DUB Edition.” Given the 2007’s increased width, the four-door actually has better proportions than the two-door. The Jeep might not be a beauty, but no one with any appreciation for design (as opposed to “styling”) can fail to find it attractive.

The revised interior is nicer yet still suited to the Wrangler’s intended use. Though heated leather seats and automatic climate control are now available, you’ll still find no luxury car cabin inside a Wrangler, nor should you. After all, it’s still possible to remove not only the roof but the doors, and even to fold the windshield. Functionality is the clear priority. The various buttons and knobs are large, close at hand, and logically laid out. Interior storage is plentiful. Though the upright windshield can block traffic signals, the view from the cushy, thick, high-mounted driver’s seat is otherwise commanding. You’re clearly piloting no ordinary vehicle. The main ergonomic slip: there’s no good place to rest your left foot. The rear seat is similarly high and cushy, but comfort suffers from a bottom cushion that stops mid-thigh. With the four-door legroom is sufficient for the average adult to sit behind the average adult. With the rear seat in place, the Wrangler can hold 46 cubic feet of stuff. Fold the seat and you can squeeze in another 36 cubes. Both figures are competitive with mid-size crossovers.

Does the addition of 83 horsepower transform the Wrangler from slug to rocket ship? Though I half expected it to, even aided by a fifth ratio in the automatic transmission the new mill effects no such transformation. Instead, while the 2007-2011 Wrangler felt painfully slow over 40 miles-per-hour, the 2012 feels…adequate. Though sixty arrives in about eight seconds if you plant your right foot to the floor, the Wrangler doesn’t feel even that quick. Despite its 6,400 rpm horsepower peak and 4,800 rpm torque peak, the engine doesn’t ask to be revved, with some audible strain if and when the throttle is opened more than halfway. But then neither does the engine, despite its DOHC configuration and these lofty on-paper peaks, feel peaky or out of place in the Wrangler, where low-end torque has always been the priority. The new engine seems happiest in casual suburban driving, where shifts occur around 2,700 rpm. It likely feels more energetic when hitched to the six-speed manual transmission, which provides a direct mechanical connection and includes much shorter initial gearing. [Update: the optional lower final drive ratios would also help. The tested Wrangler had the standard 3.21 axles.] For even more thrust, some aftermarket firms will swap in a HEMI, and a boosted V6 should also be a possibility—all it takes is money. But would a shockingly quick Jeep even make sense?

Given the chassis, no. The latest Wrangler does ride much better than those from decades past, especially in not-as-trail-friendly 116-inch-wheelbase Unlimited form. And it even has better-controlled rear body motions than a Land Rover LR4 or Toyota’s conventional SUVs. But compared to just about any other similarly-dimensioned vehicle, the Jeep’s on-road handling, though also much improved, remains sluggish and clumsy. At 4,294 pounds, the Wrangler isn’t terribly massive, but it drives about a quarter-ton heavier than it actually is. On the road, the Jeep’s steering feels loose on-center, its body rolls considerably (if in a well-controlled, predictable manner), and its all-terrain tires readily lapse into a mushy slide. On the plus side, in 2WD (required on pavement, as the 4WD system is part-time) the Wrangler can easily be steered with the throttle. Noise levels are lower than in pre-2007 Wranglers, but at highway speeds there’s still wind rush over the header. EPA ratings of 16 city, 20 highway further suggest that the Jeep wasn’t designed to cheat the wind. Instead, it remains optimized for off-road driving, with on-road behavior a second priority.

With many bespoke bits, the Jeep Wrangler isn’t going to be cheap. A four-door Sport starts at $26,345. But opt for the plusher Sahara with an automatic transmission and body-color hard top, as with the tested vehicle, and you’re looking at a $34,585 sticker even without options like heated leather seats, automatic climate control, Bluetooth, and nav. TrueDelta’s Car Price Comparison Tool suggests that a similarly-equipped Toyota FJ Cruiser is only couple hundred dollars less at MSRP but about $1,500 less when comparing dealer invoices. Price isn’t likely to be the deciding factor between these two.

Given the list of improvements to the Jeep Wrangler over the past few years, culminating in the new V6 this year, some people might be expecting a vehicle that can go toe-to-toe with the latest crossovers in the daily commute, then tackle the Rubicon on the weekends. This isn’t quite the case. Though no longer a penalty box liable to trip over its own feet while failing to get out of its own way, the Wrangler continues to drive like…a Jeep. The latest iteration of this real thing might require less severe day-to-day hardship from the off-road enthusiasts it’s designed for, but it continues to require sacrifices nonetheless. It’s not thrillingly quick. It’s not remotely athletic through curves. It’s somewhat (down from tremendously) noisy and thirsty on the highway. Rear seat room and comfort are merely sufficient. Which, frankly, is very much the way a Wrangler should be. Any closer to being suitable for everyday life, and its essential authenticity would be lost. The world needs at least few cars that to their core aren’t meant for the daily grind, and that consequently drive differently from everything else. For those willing to compromise off-road prowess for on-road comfort and capability, perhaps because they’re never going to venture off the road, Jeep offers the Grand Cherokee.

Vehicle provided by Michael Williams at Southfield Jeep in Southfield, MI (248) 354-2950.

Michael Karesh operates, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.

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Review: 2012 BMW X5M Mon, 28 Nov 2011 18:14:13 +0000

If you ask a certain segment of the automotive press, it seems that BMW is rapidly losing the plot. While I agree that BMW’s latest wares are bigger, heavier and more leather-clad than ever before, I can’t say thing is a bad thing in my mind. I upset a few people when I reviewed the then-new 335is by saying “BMW is the new Mercedes”. I’m not sure why noses were “rankled”, but there seems to be a large segment of TTAC’s readership that believe BMW has abandoned “sport” for “luxury”. Maybe they are right; the M3 and M5 have been gaining weight an alarming pace and now we have the X5M and X6M, a pair of 5,400lb SUVs wearing full-on M badges. The burning question at TTAC is: should the guy responsible for designing it be committed? Or should the vehicle be put in a straight-jacket for being a totally insane machine?

From the outside the X5M looks less “M” compared to its donor model than do the M sedans. Sure there are enlarged grilles on the front, unique bumpers, and quad exhaust tips out back, but the overall form doesn’t scream “something wicked this way comes” like an M3. Helping the X5M blend into the urban jungle is the 2” hitch receiver, a first on M vehicles as is the tow rating of a healthy 6600lbs. Closer inspection however reveals the subtle tweaks to this urban assault vehicle include some seriously wide 315-series rubber out back, ginormous brakes and a plethora of radiators visible behind the large mesh grill openings.

On the inside of the X5 it will take very observant passenger to tell the difference between the go-fast model and the plebian people movers. Of course there are bespoke X5M gauges greeting the driver and the thick rimmed M steering wheel is also along for the ride. Aside from the driver’s controls however the majority of the X5M’s interior is lifted directly from the lower models. Fit and finish was excellent in our tester (as you would expect at this price) but I have to admit I was somewhat disappointed by the so-called “carbon fiber” leather trim which appears to just be black leather embossed with a carbon fiber pattern. I think some dark stained wood or brushed aluminum would be been more befitting of the X5M’s target market, but what do I know? The only toll on the interior taken by the M conversion that we observed was the loss of the third-row-seat option. If you’re a family of seven with a need for speed, you might have to wait and see if Mercedes will sell you a 7-seat ML AMG.

By now the suspense is likely killing you, after all we haven’t even mentioned the new M engine under the hood of the X5M so here we go: Turbo lovers rejoice! Squeezed under the bulging hood of the X5M beats a 4.4L twin-turbo V8 engine cranking out 555HP and a mind numbing 500 lb-ft of torque. While this engine is quite similar to the X5 xDrive50i’s 4.4L twin turbo V8, there are some significant differences, most notably the broader torque curve. The “pedestrian” 4.4L engine delivers 450lb-ft from 1750-4500RPM while the X5M’s mill broadens the torque plateau to 1500-5650 and the difference is marked behind the wheel. Power is routed to all four wheels via a heavy-duty ZF 6-speed automatic transmission, BMW’s full-tine AWD system and of course, a torque vectoring rear differential. I have seen complaints by the forum fan-boys whining that BMW didn’t put their dual-clutch M transmission under the hood of the X5M, but to me at least, the softer (and more “normal” feeling) shifts of the ZF transmission are more suitable for SUV use.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Some years ago when I heard the first rumors about the X5M, I was concerned that BMW would make their first sports SUV rear wheel drive only. I’m sure a RWD SUV would have pleased the BMW purists in the crowd, however, the X5M may just be the sports car for the rest of us. How so? It’s all about applying the power for me. While Jaguar XFR and last generation M5 I tested were a blast to drive, both spent considerable amounts of time at the starting gates spinning their wheels. 0-60 testing a two-wheel drive high-output vehicle takes a certain amount of time and finesse to get the best possible numbers out of the vehicle. The X5M just requires a heavy right foot. The same can be said for the fun-factor of the X5M when on a windy mountain road: just mash the go pedal and hang on.

The X5M is not the best handling car I have ever driven, but it is quite possibly the most confidant. The torque vectoring rear differential helps the X5M feel like a much lighter vehicle on windy roads and the permanent AWD system means it’s easy to stomp on the throttle at just about any moment without everything going pear-shaped. For those of us that aren’t Jack Baruth, this much power needs four powered-wheels. Back to the handling; while the X5M is not a 911 on the track, it is (no kidding at all) at the top end of the handling scale in general. While on a twisty road I frequent, I let a brand new Porsche Cayman S pass (because I thought I’d slow the fun down), just to see how I’d do, I tried to keep up with the light-weight Porsche. To my surprise the X5M picked up its lederhosen and danced. While the Cayman was more nimble in the tight corners common to any coastal California road, the X5M’s massive thrust more than compensated in the short straightaways. With the right driver, on a closed course, I have little doubt the 5,400lb SUV would have spanked the bantam weight Porsche.

While the X5M weighs nearly 2400lbs more than a Cayman S PDK, our 0-60 tests revealed the BMW to be faster than all but the fastest of Stuttgart’s wares. BMW’s website quotes an official 4.5 seconds to 60, but our first run on a cool 50 degree morning yielded an eye-popping 4.05 second run. Amazed, disturbed, and incredulous we spent the next 30 minutes verifying and re-verifying our numbers. After a morning where we consumed about 15-gallons of premium dinosaur we arrived at two conclusions: The first is that the X5M has a “problem” with heat soak despite the mammoth intercoolers, and the second is that BMW is totally honest about the 4.5 second 0-60 time. What do I mean? Let’s talk numbers, our first run clocked at 4.05, our next was 4.1 and by the time we had done our 25th back-to-back run our times had “ballooned” to 4.51 seconds which represents a variance of about 12%. What should you get out of our experimentation? Unless you are really pounding the snot out of the twin-turbo V8, you’ll pretty much always beat that guy in the Carrera 4S next to you. Need some crazier numbers? The old M5 needed 4.4 seconds to achieve the same speed (as does the M3 in manual form), making the X5M not only the fastest car we’ve tested from BMW so far, but perhaps the fastest car TTAC has tested period.

Because the concept of “launch control” on a nearly three-ton SUV with a regular-old slush-box is about as insane as the SUV itself is, we must go over the feature as it did make a 1/10th of a second difference in the 0-60 time. Here’s how you activate it: With the vehicle stopped, you put your foot on the brake pedal, slide the shifter over to M/S mode and then use the paddle shifter to out the transmission into M1. You then need to put the stability control into MDM mode, select the sport program from for the M Engine dynamics control (these two actions can be linked to the M button on the steering wheel). You then floor the car and a little checkered flag appears in the cluster. You then let your foot off the brake pedal and the X5M takes off like a daemon possessed Chucky doll cranking out crispy shifts like a Gatling gun (as long as you don’t lift). As if common sense wasn’t enough, the manual reminds you to not use launch control while towing a trailer. We tested the X5M with a 5,000lb trailer and trust us, launch control was not required.

Competition to the X5M can of course be found from all the usual suspects: the Range Rover Sport Supercharged, the ML63 AMG, and of course the Cayenne Turbo. The Range Rover retains some of its off-roading ability making it far less capable on-road than the BMW (and not quite the same creature). By all appearances, Mercedes decided not to tackle the X5M head on with the ML63 as it’s down on power, torque and needs almost a full second more to get to freeway speeds. This leaves the Cayenne Turbo the sole competition for the X5M if you care about handling and speed. Strangely enough however, even with the brief 30 minute test drive I was able to finagle in a Cayman Turbo it was obvious the Porsche is more of a luxury SUV than a sports SUV with a more supple, less connected ride,  a transmission more willing to upshift (and gear-hunt) and a considerably larger price tag. While the Porsche represents a more refined SUV without question, the BMW is by far the performance winner. It’s also the maddest in the bunch and if the X5M was a person it would be bound in a straight-jacket and locked in a padded cell.

OK, so it’s an insane vehicle that’s crazy fast and crazy fun, but who’s it for? This is twisted logic, so stay with me here: If you are the kind of middle-class guy that has a Porsche Cayman for the daily commute, a trailer for weekend camping which, because we’re Americans and we cannot possibly tow a 1,200lb “toy hauler” with our car, also meant buying a pick-up truck, you should save yourself the garage space and buy the X5M instead. It’s a far better sports car than a Cayman, and oddly enough the 555HP and 500lbft of torque make it one of the best tow vehicles this side of a diesel F-250. The price of this joy? $95,000. Still, that’s cheaper than a Cayman and an F-250. I’ll take my straight jacket in blue please.


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

Statistics as tested

0-30: 1.35 Seconds

0-60: 4.05 Seconds

1/4 Mile: 12.6 Seconds @ 111.2 MPH

Average Fuel Economy: 15.2 MPG over 483 miles

2012 BMW X5M Front Right IMG_4701 IMG_4702 IMG_4703 IMG_4704 IMG_4706 IMG_4707 IMG_4710 IMG_4712 IMG_4713 IMG_4714 IMG_4715 IMG_4716 IMG_4718 X5M Twin Turbo V8 IMG_4725 IMG_4726 IMG_4728 Driver Side Interior IMG_4731 IMG_4734 IMG_4735 IMG_4737 IMG_4738 IMG_4740 IMG_4741 IMG_4746 IMG_4747 IMG_4751 IMG_4753 M Instrument Cluster IMG_4755 IMG_4757 IMG_4758 IMG_4759 IMG_4761 X5M Cargo Area IMG_4765 Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail ]]> 77
Review: 2012 Honda CR-V EX-L Mon, 21 Nov 2011 20:14:20 +0000

“Hey Brendan,” runs the e-mail from our illustrious ed., Ed, “I was wondering if you wanted to take on the most challenging story I’m currently facing: making the new Honda CR-V interesting.”

Fat chance.

“Don’t get taken in by the free bacon!”

Wait, what now? Free bacon? I’M THERE.

Next thing you know, I’m ensconced in the driver’s seat of Honda’s latest mild tweak total redesign, the 2012 Honda CR-V, rolling through the bleached-out stubble of the South Cali countryside, mentally projecting the headlines from our beloved colleagues, co-bloggists and fellow car-writey-types.

“The New CR-V: Has Honda Lost Its Mojo?”

“2012 CR-V: Honda’s Mojo, Has It Been Lost?”

“Totally Redesigned 2012 CR-V Casts Doubt on Whereabouts of Honda’s Mojo.”

“The Top 10 Cars Owned By Playboy Playmates! Also, CR-V something-something Mojo.”

Here’s the thing: there has been far too much ballyhoo, fooferaw, bluster and blather about Honda’s seeming design slump. It’s not a slump, it’s a strategy. The question is: does it work for the CR-V where it failed with the Civic?

Like the critically-unacclaimed Honda Civic, nearly every piece of sheetmetal on the new CR-V is completely different – but not such that you’d notice. In fact, as our convoy snakes its way through the bleached-out California landscape, I do a double-take as somebody triple-lane-changes out of our line and dives for the off-ramp. Did I miss a turn? Wait, no: it’s just some lunatic in a last-gen CR-V.

On the other hand, the conservatism works. Gone is the slightly frumpy melting ice-cube of the previous gen, which if you squinted a little, looked a bit like the ’11 cute-ute had muffin-top. The strong three-bar corporate grille gives the new CR-V some presence, the faux skid-plate treatment butches things up a bit, and from there on back think current Tribeca. There’s little to inspire, but also little to offend.

Inside, the cockpit should be familiar to anyone who’s sat in an Accord recently. Hard plastic surfaces abound, about which much hay will be made in various publications. However it’s perfectly acceptable, and should wear well except for the occasional bits of silver-painted trim. The between-seat storage bin, captain’s chairs and dash-mounted shifter maintain the modicum of mini-van present in the earlier model but overall, it’s a bit less utilitarian and more car-like.

A multi-angle backup camera is standard across the range, as well as an eco-coaching instrument cluster that goes green around the gills when you drive gently. Also standard: Bluetooth handfree and a USB connector for your audio. If you’ve an iPhone, you can run Pandora through the stereo, if you’ve a Blackberry, the car can read you your SMS messages. There’s now an optional DVD player to soothe rear-seat savages. Just enough tech to stay current.

Product specialists were quick to point out how clever the rear seats were, capable of damped flat-folding action with a single pull from either side, or via levers in the cargo bay. Don’t expect the Hogwarts-grade magic of the Fit’s rear seats, but again: easy-to-use, works well, doesn’t feel like it’s going to break. Honda has also bunged out the old cargo tray in favour of a more standard layout. Dog-owners take note: the cargo floor is very low at 23.6”, perfect for older pooches. The rear doors open a full ninety degrees for maximum kid-wrangling.

I mildly alarm my co-pilot for the launch, internationally acclaimed rockstar and noted loud-walker Blake Z. Rong – Cato to my Clouseau, Turner to my Hooch – as we enter a corner too hot and all-season tires howl in aggrieved indignation. Understeer? Oh sure. There’s less roll than you might expect, and the CR-V is perfectly capable of hustling along these winding country roads, but is there joy to be found in doing so? Not much.

Besides which, flinging the offspring around the cabin with lateral-g is a sure-fire way to end up cleaning vomit out of the headliner. Forget the hooning, focus instead on the comfortable ride (10% more damper stroke) and in-cabin noise levels which are decent until you start requesting revs.

This new CR-V still has a 5-speed transmission, albeit a revised one, and to hear the clucks of disapproval, you might think that’s a mis-step. Why? Because six is one more, innit? Despite the fact that every other manufacturer seems to be suffering from Nigel Tufnel Syndrome, the five-speed box in the CR-V puts out perfectly decent fuel-economy (22/30mpg claimed) and will doubtless give years of trouble-free operation because it doesn’t have a V6 attached to it.

Mind you, show the ’12 CR-V a steep hill and the 2.4L four-cylinder – with all of 5 more horsepower this year – can struggle a bit. Engaging Eco mode feels like you’re suddenly trying to tow the Sea Shepherd around. Twice I noticed a reluctance to kick down even with the accelerator fully depressed, and with gearing taller across the board things can get a bit leisurely.

The 2012 CR-V is pitched as a safe choice. An easy choice. A choice you might make based on sensible price, reasonable fuel economy, a legacy of decent reliability, strong resale value and low operating costs. This new Honda presents all the same arguments that you’d traditionally expect from a Toyota product, and it’s 5-10% better than the best-selling out-going model in every empirically measurable field.

But as I sit in the morning product presentation, listening as the PR folks flesh out the target buyer to the point where we could positively identify her in a police lineup (30s, female, “cool mom”, active lifestyle, enjoys Pina Coladas, getting caught in the rain, etc.) I can’t help but start contrasting this spit-and-polish with Mazda’s recent SKYACTIV show-and-tell. Mazda’s gambling, taking a moon-shot with high-compression engines and a dedication to driving pleasure. Honda’s reacting to current economic instabilities and the public’s cooling ardour for the automobile by circling the wagons. Except they don’t make wagons anymore, so they’re circling the crossovers.

The Q&A was even more telling. Why only five gears in the transmission? A: Our research told us that people weren’t asking for more gears, just better fuel economy. Why those hard plastics? A: Our research showed that people didn’t have a problem with the old interior. What about small-displacement turbocharged engines? A: Our research showed us that people weren’t asking for that.

You know what though? Survey every single ’80s Legend buyer, and nobody’s going to tell you to build an NSX. Survey every DC-chassis Integra owner and nobody’s going to tell you to build the S2000. Survey every ’90s Accord wagon owner, and nobody would tell you to build a small, flexible, Civic-based SUV.

This new CR-V is a fine, sensible appliance; they’re going to sell boatloads of them. Forgive me if I was hoping for something with a little more innovation, a little more invention, a little more cutting-edge.

A little more Honda.

Honda flew us all the way to sunny San Diego, put us up in a fancy hotel, crammed us full of rich food, provided current and previous models of the CR-V and even threw in a free Camelbak. We were also ferried to and from the airport in a high-mile Town Car.

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Review: 2012 Jaguar XJL Portfolio Fri, 18 Nov 2011 20:24:52 +0000

Location: John Dodge mansion, Detroit

Editor’s note: The car pictured is not a long-wheelbase model, which is the only “Portfolio” model sold in the US. We are looking into the discrepancy.

When Jaguar of North America informed me that I’d be getting a 2012 XJL Portfolio for review, my first reaction was to engage in some mental bench racing. How would the new XJ compare to the smaller but more powerful XF Supercharged that I tested just about a year ago, and how would it compare to my dearly departed Series III XJ, considered by many Jaguar enthusiasts to be the finest of the traditional XJs. On both counts the 2012 XJ comes out favorably in the comparison.

The XJ Portfolio is the fully equipped long version of the XJ. While other luxury car makers have introduced “L” versions of their sedans, in part to serve the Chinese market where the person who owns the luxury car is likely to be riding in back, Jaguar has been offering long wheelbase XJs for decades. Other than a small handful of options like back seat entertainment and the two available supercharged engines, the test model had just about every luxury, convenience and safety feature that Jaguar offers. With transportation charges, as tested it comes in at just a tick over $82K.

Location: Charles Fisher (Fisher Body) mansion, Detroit

The Portfolio package, a $4,000 option, gives you an additional 5” of wheelbase, heated and cooled 20-way power front seats with massage, heated and cooled rear seats, navy blue leather trim with detail stitching and contrasting gray piping, suedecloth headliner and trim, plus four zone climate control with individual controls for the back seat passengers. The front seats store up to three position memories. You also get front fender vents with “Portfolio” badges. Twenty inch “Orona” style wheels, @ $875 ea. complete the optional equipment. A no charge option is your choice of wood trim, which sweeps from one back door around the front of the cabin to the other back door. The test car was trimmed in a satin finished burled elm veneer, book matched left to right. The console is finished in “piano black”, and tasteful thin shiny chrome trim surrounds many of the interior elements.

Location: Walter Briggs (Briggs Body Co.) mansion, Detroit. Briggs competed fiercely with the Fisher brothers but they were neighbors in life and are also buried near each other. I’m not sure that body maker Charles Fisher would have appreciated the Pontiac Aztek parked behind his house.

Standard equipment includes Jaguar’s base V8, with 5.0 liters displacement, making 385 HP, driving through a six-speed automatic by ZF, with paddle shifters that are activated when you turn the round Jaguar shifter to the Sport position. Stability control is standard as is a winter mode control. Every XJ comes with what Jaguar calls a “panoramic” glass roof.

That’s Henry and Clara’s place in the background. Note the green historical marker.

While the entire roof panel may be glass, the view from inside is not really panoramic. In addition to a normal sized venting sunroof over the front seats, rear passengers have a smaller fixed glass panel that can be exposed.

Blind spot monitors (which seem to be not as hypersensitive or distracting as the system on the 2011 XF), multiple air bags and active head restraints are among the standard safety features. Infotainment is handled by an audiophile quality Bowers & Wilkins audio system with Bluetooth, iPod and USB connectivity, a 30 gig hard drive, and a navigation system, controlled through a 8 inch touch screen that is as frustrating as every reviewer says it is. The XJ comes standard with a smart key and a power trunk lid. Customers and reviewers love the XF’s “handshaking” ritual, wherein the shift knob rises from the console and the HVAC vents rotate to an open position. The XJ has a more traditional looking dashboard design, so to give us a little theater, in addition to the rising shifter when you power up, when you unlock the doors, the side mirrors rotate from their retracted parking position.

I’ve been around computers for more than two decades and I’m usually pretty good at intuiting how to use digital devices but I found the nav system to be not particularly intuitive. It took me a few aborted efforts to figure out how to get it to accept a destination once the address was entered. Well, once I managed to enter the address. The touch screen reacts slowly and you’re never entirely sure each time you press a “button” that it’s going to work. Sometimes a small light touch will work, other times you have to practically jab your thumb at it. Also, it’s much easier changing modes from the steering wheel controls than using the mode buttons on the touch screen. They are so close to the bottom of the screen that the frame gets in your way. Fortunately for most of the basic audio and HVAC functions there are actual buttons and knobs. I’m a smartphone newbie so I can’t tell you much about phone connectivity beyond the fact that once connected the XJ’s infotainment system easily accessed music on my Samsung Android and the fact that it was much easier to get my phone to connect to the car than the other way around. Bottom line is that I was able to get all the infotainment functions to work and in the case of the audio system, work very well indeed, but the touch screen is a chore. Perhaps because the rest of the car is so good the touch screen and nav system stand out like a sore thumb. Either way, it detracts from an otherwise enjoyable driving experience.

The instrument panel is a TFT display, with virtual gauges. There are a couple of things that I don’t like about the interior, though I suppose that I’m picking nits to do so. I don’t like the way the big round HVAC vents look. They function better than most, with almost infinite adjustment, but I just don’t like how they look. The other thing is that I’d rather Jaguar had fitted proper analog gauges, at least a real speedo and tach. The virtual instruments look out of place, almost faddish in an otherwise traditional looking interior. I realize the need for digital displays these days, but I think that Jaguar could have put two smaller TFT screens flanking real gauges. Also, if you’re going to go with virtual gauges, at least sync the tachometer and speedometer indicators. One of the cool things about my old XJ was that at traffic speeds the tach and speedo needles were parallel and pretty much moved in sync as you went faster. If Jaguar could do that with mechanical gauges in the mid 1980s, I think they could do it with a virtual digital display. As is au courant in luxury cars, there’s an analog clock in the center of the dash that’s supposed to remind us of expensive wrist watches. Perhaps ironically, the analog clock is set digitally through the touch screen. Press “set” and the hands start spinning to the correct time.

Note how the grain in the burled elm wood trim is book matched left to right.

Quality control can be meaningless when it comes to prepped press fleet cars, but with that caveat, there were few noticeable flaws in the review car. Sometimes I could feel something moving around inside the driver’s seat back, perhaps it was part of the built in massager, and the back window glass slopes so that there is some visual distortion that makes objects look shorter and wider than they are. Fit and finish was as you’d expect in a car of this price. Other than some rather convincing looking vinyl on the door kick panels, just about everything you touch and see in the interior was once alive, sourced either from a cow or a tree. The leather trim shows signs of being fitted by real human beings. I see those slight imperfections as a good thing. The car smells like a leather jacket factory. That’s not hyperbole – my day gig is embroidery and every couple of months or so I trek down to Reed Sportwear to buy big leather scraps to use for motorcycle patches. I’m sure that my friends at Reed would admire the quality of the Jaguar’s leatherwork.

The XJ doesn’t just smell good, it feels good too. Car interiors are designed to fit just about 99% of people. If you can’t get those 20-way seats to find you a comfortable position, you’re probably in the 99th percentile. My bad back appreciated the inflatable lumbar support and massager. My love handles the inflatable bolsters, not so much. Those wealthy Chinese riding in the back will appreciate the longer wheelbase. Again, if you don’t have enough room sitting back there it’s probably because there’s a 99th percentile person sitting in the front seat. I can’t tell you how much that sloping roof affects headroom because at 5’6″, I always have enough headroom. Room for my ego? That’s a different question. I could get very used to driving this car.

The XJ is a fabulous looking car inside and out. That’s not just my opinion. Everyone who saw it just gushed with enthusiasm. While driving the XJ, I noticed that people noticed the car. More than one person came up to talk to me about it. The car makes a visual statement. The XJ is a big car to begin with and this stretched version came in an impossible to miss Polaris white paint.

After a week of driving, the painted alloy wheels were streaked with black brake dust.

Customers who opt for this color should invest in a coupon book at their neighborhood car wash because the bright white finish shows every tiny little bit of dirt. That’s a problem because like the XF I drove last year the XJ sheds brake dust like a Siberian Husky sheds undercoat in the spring. The big rims are painted in two shades of grey, perhaps to camouflage the dust. Or perhaps not, because it doesn’t really hide much of the dirt. Also, some of that dust ends up on the white paint. It’s a shame, because it’s really a beautiful car and its lines look great in white. Of course, in exchange for all that brake dust you get pretty effective anchors. It took a day or two of driving to get used to the somewhat sensitive pedal, but after that the brakes were easy to modulate and they retard your speed quickly. Use the brakes hard and the ABS will kick in, a bit earlier than I expected, but it’s not intrusive.

Location: Edward Fisher (Fisher Body) mansion, Detroit

It’s not perfect. On a white car Ian Callum’s rather notorious black sail panels that visually extend the rear glass from port to starboard are hard not to notice. I’ve never really objected to them as some folks have, since I get what Callum’s team was trying to do, but I understand those objections. Perhaps if the bottom edge of the window and those panels had extended couple of inches farther down, eliminating the slightly awkward little curl where the body meets the back edge of the side glass, there’d be fewer complaints, but I’m not going to lecture Ian Callum about car design beyond saying that I like or don’t like.

Speaking of the side glass, all things considered, visibility is good. The small window behind the rear doors really helps with your blind spot. I said all things considered because this is a modern high waisted high assed car, like just about every other sedan and coupe being made today. Between the high back deck and sloping roofline that distorted rear window only fills up about half of the rear view mirror, so the standard backup camera does come in handy.

Location: Mayer Prentis (longtime GM treasurer, Alfred Sloan’s right hand man) home, Detroit

The high beltline affects both the height of the back deck and the height of the front cowl. How high is it? Well, my big sister tells me that from the back seat I look like my dad when I drive, right hand bent over the top of the steering wheel, left elbow on the window ledge. Perhaps if I was six inches taller the window ledge might not be so uncomfortably high to use as an armrest. As it is, it looks like I’m trying to do the Funky Chicken. I should say, though, that the leather covered armrest on the door worked just fine. The high cowl, accentuated by that wood trim as it runs under the windshield, means that a short person like myself doesn’t have a prayer of seeing the front end of the car.

Location: Alfred O. Dunk home, Detroit

Still, that didn’t seem to be a problem, mostly because the XJ handles very well for a large car. Scratch that. It handles very well period. It doesn’t really feel like you’re driving such a big car. The fact that you can’t really see the corners of the car don’t really matter because it just goes where you steer it. All in all, I think the XJ may be a better handling car than the XF. The XF Supercharged had all of the XFR’s suspension upgrades, and according to published tests it’s a little bit quicker than the XJ Portfolio in the slalom. Ultimately the XF Supercharged is a bit more sporting, with less body roll, but the XJ Portfolio is more balanced. In long wheelbase form the XJ is a much larger car than the XF, about 10 inches of wheelbase and overall length, but its turning radius is only a foot wider than that of the XF. My perception is also that the steering on the XJ has a faster turn in than the XF. Not so quick that it makes the car feel darty, but once you get past 2 or 3 degrees from dead center, the car moves laterally with alacrity. This is one big car that can definitely get out of its own way. The speed sensitive power steering is very nicely weighted, with the right amount of effort in every case I experienced. The car is a pleasure to drive either sedately or with more vigor. It will waft with the best of them or alternatively, put the car into “dynamic” mode, which adjusts shock absorber settings and changes drivetrain mapping, and carve to your heart’s content. The XJ Portfolio has a lot of grip, the same .9g skidpad results as the XF Supercharged. I had to look up that figure because I don’t have a Traqmate or some other testing gizmo, but all of us have our own unofficial real world proving grounds. *Doing 60 on Providence Drive is pretty good, particularly with no tire noises or drifting. Though it doesn’t have the supercharged models’ active differential, the rear end is well controlled and when the dynamic stability control activates, it does so with little fuss. You have to try to break the rear end loose, and when you succeed, the DSC steps in quickly and fairly unobtrusively.  Alternatively, you can just deactivate the stability control and let it hang out. Even then, there’s enough grip that you have to work at getting the back end to slide. The ABS also shows a level of refinement that you might not find in cars at a lower price point. The XJ never seemed out of sorts. It drives with the composure that a longtime XJ fan expects from the marque.

Location: James Couzens (FoMoCo business manager & Ford partner) mansion

One of the things I was interested in finding out was if the stock 385HP engine was stout enough for the biggest cat Jaguar makes. The XF Supercharged had 85 more horsepower, a non-trivial delta. It turns out, though, that there is more than adequate power to endanger your driver’s license. The new XJ is Jaguar’s most modern architecture and the body is all aluminum, magnesium and polymer composites. The XF is highly ferrous by comparison. That means that the XJ Portfolio that I drove, at just over 4200 lbs, actually weighs about 100 lbs less than the smaller XF Supercharged. Though acceleration is not as instantaneous as with the smaller, blown Jaguar, you’re still capable of doing 90 mph without thinking about it as you enter the freeway. If Providence Drive is suitable for testing cars’ handling, the northbound Southfield freeway just north of Eight Mile Rd just before the expressway ends is great for short high speed runs. Detroit PD doesn’t patrol north of 8 Mile and Southfield cops generally won’t go all the way south to 8 Mile just to do traffic surveillance on 1 mile of expressway. So you have about a mile where you can open it up as much as you are willing to do, traffic allowing of course. The XJ Portfolio is still accelerating at 115. I have no doubt that it will pull hard all the way to its electronically limited top speed of 148 mph.

Attention was paid to weight (aluminum wheel for spare tire) and weight distribution (battery mounted in the trunk).

There are signs of attention to reducing weight from front to back and in between. Under the hood, you can see the lightweight castings that are used for the suspension towers. Next to the trunk mounted battery is a dedicated space saving spare tire, with its own aluminum wheel. The body panels are a mix of aluminum and composites. Jaguar did a fine job getting uniform paint color over multiple substrates.

Location: Ty Cobb home, Detroit

There is one aspect of the XJ that it unfortunately shares with the XF Supercharged that I tested last year. Right off of dead idle, throttle response is kind of flaky. After a week with the car I decided it was probably a combination of throttle and transmission mapping to keep MPGs high. I believe that under normal circumstances, the transmission starts out in 2nd gear. At least it starts out in second when you switch it to sport mode and activate the paddle shifters so I assume that from stops, the car starts in second. You step on the gas pedal and the car kind of sits there for a fraction of a second till you get past that point on the throttle. If you’re real sedate you might not notice it, and if you drive with a lead foot you probably won’t either, but if you drive like Goldilocks, it almost feels like a stumble, almost. It’s not something that would keep me from buying the car, but it is out of character with Jaguar’s sporting ways.

Location: Henry Ford mansion, Detroit. It should be noted that the Ford Motor Co. was a success before the Model T. Completed in 1908, Ford started building this home before he introduced the T.

The XJ Portfolio also had a firmer ride than I expected. Once you enter the freeway, that’s really where the XJ’s ride quality shines and it evokes memories of older XJs, but with a suspension tuned for drivers, those 20” rims give the XJ a ride on Detroit’s frost heaved roads that is surprisingly firm for a luxury car. Not harsh, but definitely on the harder edge of firm. It would be interesting to drive the XJ with 19” wheels to see if there’s a substantial difference in urban ride quality.

Perforations allow some engine noise to reach the cabin. Big cats gotta growl.

Jaguars are luxury cars for enthusiasts so they don’t entirely isolate you from what’s going on outside. There’s a little bit of road noise from the huge back tires, and there’s a perforated panel under the hood that lets some engine noise into the cabin. Still, the car cossets you in its own way. I could get very used to driving this car.

Location: Horace Rackham (FoMoCo lawyer and investor) mansion. Built in 1907, a year before the Model T was introduced. Ford and his partners were rich even before they put the world on wheels.

Once out on the open interstate or on winding back country roads the skill of Jaguar’s chassis tuners shows through. On the highway, the XJ Portfolio has all of the grace of old school XJs, though with a bit more pace, and at least as much space. On winding roads, the XJ is surefooted, quick, and will bring a smile to your face.

Gas mileage was about what you’d expect from a two ton car with almost 400 horses. I averaged 16.2 mpg for a bit more than a tank of gas, though most of that was not highway driving. Judging by the instantaneous readings, on the highway you should get into the 20s, maybe 25 mpg if you lightfoot it. EPA ratings are 16/23.

The suspension towers are lightweight castings that are fastened to the aluminum superstructure.

Not having driven a recent S klasse Mercedes, 7 Series BMW or LS from Lexus I can’t tell you how the XJ Portfolio stacks up against its direct competitors. I can say that if I could afford any of those cars, the XJ would definitely be on my short list. Yes, the infotainment system is a bit clunky, but ultimately I judge a car on it’s utility and its dynamics.  The XJ Portfolio is such an engaging car in terms of performance and handling, the comfort and aesthetics so well executed, that the question of how easy the touch screen is to use becomes almost irrelevant. We all know the Lucas, Prince of Darkness jokes and historical downsides to British cars, but at the same time the Jaguar brand and in particular the XJ has always stood for a uniquely British take on sporting luxury. A few flaws notwithstanding, the 2012 XJ Portfolio is a great Jaguar, a great XJ and should be considered by anyone in the market for a full size luxury sedan.

*Very late at night with no other traffic.

Jaguar of North America provided the car for a week, insurance and a tank of premium gasoline. Detroit’s historic Boston-Edison district provided most of the backdrops for the photos, which are courtesy of Cars In Depth.

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Review: 2011 Audi S4 Wed, 16 Nov 2011 20:10:03 +0000

I needed a suitable car for a spirited 500-mile run to the “coolest small town in America,” and back. One leaped to mind: the Audi S4 with its optional active differential. In our first encounter, the current “B8” S4 underwhelmed me. Though quick and capable, it just didn’t feel special. “A4 3.0T” seemed more apt. But that car lacked the trick diff. And metro Detroit’s roads aren’t the most challenging. A re-test was warranted. The roads of Southeastern Ohio and West Virginia would provide it.

My first reaction upon seeing the imola yellow sedan: “So much for stealth.” I needn’t have worried. Though subtly attractive, the S4 is nevertheless a four-door sedan that’s decidedly less sexy than the related S5 coupe. Even in yellow it doesn’t attract unwanted attention from law enforcement the way a sports car would. Scratch the “even in yellow:” against a background of fall foliage the bright hue serves as camouflage. The wheels’ $150 “titanium” finish attractively contrasts with the yellow, but could be obtained for free by simply not washing the regular 19s (the brakes’ plentiful dust is nearly the same color). The tested S4’s black leather interior is similarly tasteful to a fault and all business, with only some dark gray alcantara and aluminum trim to liven the place up. (Silver/black and red/black are available interior color options, though the latter does nix the butt-restraining alcantara and require another $1,000 for this favor.) Audi’s “MMI” interface is much easier to operate here than in the Q5 crossover, as the shifter serves as an armrest while working the system’s knob and foursome of buttons.

The biggest problem with the drive from Detroit to West Virginia: with roads running straight to the horizon (and far beyond), the first 250 miles are mind-numbing. The S4’s performance tires clomp and roar on Michigan’s pockmarked concrete highways, less so on Ohio’s smoother asphalt. Luckily even the S4’s base sound system is quite capable of drowning them out without distortion. The car’s ride, though far from harsh, jiggles enough that putting off rest stops is not an option. Every ripple gets reported to the ears and bladder. Even the S4’s rearview mirror is stiff. The driver’s seat includes four-way power lumbar and provides very good lateral support, but I can’t get comfortable in it. Put less delicately, the seat often puts my ass to sleep. If there had been passengers in the back seat, they would have found it livable but tight. Though the S4’s body structure and interior possesses the solidity and refinement expected of a premium car, it’s not the ideal turnpike cruiser.

A bright spot: hitched to a six-speed manual and driving all four wheels in a 3,847-pound sedan, the 333-horsepower supercharged 3.0-liter V6 covers 25 highway miles on each gallon of gas (the trip computer reports 25.8 while driving nearly 80 MPH, but manual calculations suggest it’s about one MPG high). Drive it like you stole it down a mountain road, and you’ll still observe mid-to-high teens. The previous-generation S4’s 340-horsepower 4.2-liter V8 was far thirstier, with EPA ratings of 13/20 vs. 18/27. Unfortunately, what the engine giveth the fuel gauge taketh away: the latter reliably reported a 0-mile DTE with about three gallons left in the tank.

Once south and east of Columbus the roads become increasingly entertaining, and with Ohio 555, full of tight curves and blind knolls, the fun really begins. The V6, though it lacks the soul of the previous-generation S4’s 340-horsepower 4.2-liter V8, produces an encouraging mechanical whir when revved, some of it courtesy of the supercharger, along with a modest amount of exhaust roar. (With no lag, the blower’s muted whine is the only sign that boost is in play.) The “3.0T” engine is louder here than in the A6 and A7, but still far from too loud. There’s no drone when cruising at highway speeds. Oddly, the six is least refined at idle, where it suffers from a touch of the shakes.


The V6 is so strong through its wide midrange that deep downshifts are rarely called for—a sharp contrast to the Mazda RX-8 I’ll drive the rest of the long weekend. Push down on the accelerator, and the six rockets the car smoothly out of curve exits. This broad torque curve proves especially welcome on West Virginia 14, which is much more heavily traveled than I had hoped. Half the state drives pickups, the other half drives Chevy Cavaliers (which I hereby nominate as the Official State Car of the mountain state). The blown six is ever ready to jump past clots of them whenever the briefest passing zone pops up.

If you need to shift, or simply want to, the S4’s slick, solid, moderate-of-throw stick serves better than Audi shifters of years past. Second can be a bit hard to hit when rushing a downshift, but this is the full extent of its shortcomings. Unlike in late model Volkswagens where the tach was numbered in hundreds, the S4’s rev-meter is numbered in the thousands with a large font and is consequently far easier to read at a glance. A light and/or beep 500 rpm short of the redline would be even better, but wasn’t much missed. Don’t care for a clutch? A seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual is optional here—and the only transmission Europeans can get. On the other hand, they can still get an S4 wagon, while we’re limited to the sedan. An S4 wagon with a manual transmission? No longer offered anywhere.

I take a side trip to hilly Charleston to sample a couple of R-Design Volvos—you’ll read about them later. Afterwards, the S4 is a perfect match for the more convoluted sections of US60 east of Gauley Bridge. At Rainelle I take a shortcut, miss a turn (no nav in this lightly optioned $49,625 car), and end up on a delightfully undulating single-lane ribbon of asphalt. Later, on the way back to Detroit, with a nav system lifted off my old man to warn of impending hairpins, the S4 chews up WV16 (with an especially glorious stretch after it splits from 33) and OH26 once across the Ohio. If anything, the S4 makes driving all but the twistiest bits of these roads too easy.

The Audi’s steering deserves only second billing in the credits. It’s fairly quick, naturally weighted, firm at highway speeds (especially in “sport” mode), and finds its voice as the car’s high limits are approached. Placing the car precisely never poses a challenge. But luxury was clearly a top priority, and the system doesn’t feel as nuanced or as direct as the best. You do your part, and it will do its. Melding as one? It’d rather not.

The S4’s suspension takes up some of the steering’s slack. As mentioned above, though far from harsh it’s communicative even when you don’t care to chat. Firm springs and taut damping keep body motions under control, with just a hint of float in quick transitions to remind you that this isn’t an extreme sport machine. Partly because the V6 weighs less than the old V8, and partly because the differential is now ahead of the transmission (enabling a 55/45 weight distribution), the current S4 doesn’t plow through tight curves like the previous one did. Instead, it feels almost perfectly balanced. The 255/35ZR19 Dunlop SP Sport Maxx tires grip the tarmac tightly as long as no snow is falling. Add in all-wheel-drive and strong, firm, easily modulated brakes, and even the most challenging roads can be tackled with extreme confidence.


The resulting lack of drama can get a bit boring, as discovered in my first drive. But with the optional active differential, progressive, easily controllable oversteer is just a dip into the throttle away. Unlike with the Acura TL’s SH-AWD system, driving sideways isn’t happening without an unpaved road surface or extreme steering inputs. But a tighter line is there for the taking, just dial in the desired number of degrees with your right foot. This agility enhancement should be standard equipment in an “S” car. As is, it’s $1,100 very well spent. I would not buy an S4 without it.

Ultimately, the S4 proved a perfect choice for the trip to Lewisberg. Some other cars would have been more engaging and entertaining. Others would have been more isolating and comfortable. But for moving rapidly along an unfamiliar twisty byway with never a wheel out of place, rain or shine, the S4 could hardly have been beaten. It’ll get you there, quickly and securely and even somewhat efficiently, with plenty of smiles along the way.

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

Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.

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CPO To Go: 2011 Lexus IS250c Tue, 15 Nov 2011 23:18:56 +0000
Most folks aren’t into cars.

They do want advice though; which is tricky for the B&B. While auto enthusiasts like us seek the Coltranes and Metallicas of vehicular enjoyment. They prefer… well… Jimmy Buffett. A well executed car that makes them feel comfortable, has a touch of ‘fun’ at times (the non-enthusiast types of fun), and can go about the transport business for a good decade and change with the same tune and minimal fuss.

They want Maragaritaville without the DUI.

All the convertibles in the $40,000 to $60,000 range seek to attract this mainstream audience. Can the Lexus IS250c do it better? And if so, at what price?

First Impressions

Walk around the Lexus IS250c and you’ll immediately notice two things. The first is that the vehicle has lines all over the place… and these lines are asymmetric. While the front and side profiles of the IS250c are evocative of the IS from which it is based, there are heavy thick lines on the front of the roof, sides and rear that almost have a mind of their own.

They curve. They dip. They even protrude when a lighter color is chosen over a darker one. From an engineering standpoint, they enable the Lexus hardtop to retract in a beautifully seamless way. But as a design element they accentuate the bulbous nature of the vehicle. Especially in the rear where Lexus apparently tried to meld the back of a late-90’s Camry with the IS250c.

Getting Comfortable

Most IS250c’s will come equipped with the luxury package. This  includes ‘Semi-Aniline’ leather seats, heated and ventilated front seats, a bit of wood trim near the automatic shifter, and LED lights on the front that are found standard on the far less expensive CT200h.

With all the options checked off including navigation and parking assist, the price came to… $48,192… which is precisely where the IS250c begins to lose its competitive edge.

I’m going to be blunt here. For the longtime enthusiast, the IS250c will be a stark reminder of how Toyota is trying to ‘Scionize’ the Lexus division. Padded dashes and copious levels of interior wood have been replaced with two things. A dashboard material nearly identical in texture and color to an industrial grade GMC Yukon SUV, and door panels that are devoid of all the luxurious appliques that once adorned Toyota’s luxury flagships.

Cost containment is right there in your face. The steering wheel… would do fine in the Scion Tc. Not so much in a $48,000+ luxurious convertible. The wood is nice… but thin and scanty. On the positive side, the seats are still superb. The Lexus Enform system is truly state of the art, and the fit and assembly is unquestionable.

A non-enthusiast will look at the seats, slide right in, play around with the multimedia functions during their daily drive, and have fun. But enthusiasts and long-itme Lexus owners may have trouble ponying up so much money for this interior. At or near the $40k mark it is fine. But the inteiror of an IS250c is just not what most would expect out of a near-$50,000 Lexus.

The drive

Off the line a Lexus IS250c will still offer the magic carpet smoothness that is pure Lexus. From 0 to 30 it almost feels like a smooth sail of acceleration  Handling is very tight and direct. The Lexus calling card here is to offer buyers plenty of confidence and just a hint of sportiness. Audi and BMW owners will find it to be clinical and over-managed… but for real world driving by a non-enthusiast it is near optimal.

The IS never felt underpowered while traveling through 600+ miles of interstates, town driving and winding roads. The torque range has a nice, almost Saab like thrust from 30 to 70 mph, and the 204 Horsepower, 2.5 Liter V6 is surprisingly capable of launching this vehicle.

Though some may complain that the ‘numbers’ are at the back of the pack, the real world experience reflect this car’s unique ability to pack punch with excellent fuel economy. The EPA sticker shows 21 city / 30 highway. But my experience with a 50/50 combination of city and highway was… 30 mpg. And no, that is not a typo. I even checked the tire pressure to make sure that nothing strange was going on and everything was stock and spec. Highway driving is in the the thick of the mid-30’s.

Why buy it?

Let’s look at the big reason to buy one of these things; the retractable hardtop. At speed the interior is an absolute tomb of quiet. We’re talking easy, whisper conversation quiet. Most folks won’t even realize that this Lexus has the power to go topless until you deem it so.

Press a single button and within 20 seconds the IS250c transforms itself into a surprisingly quiet convertible cruiser. There is some tire noise and rear passengers will get a bit of buffeting… but don’t worry. You won’t need to take on too many passengers. You can’t.

This convertible is essentially a three seater. Two adults on the passenger side can fit in a pinch. On the driver’s side I had to move my seat up four inches to accommodate my eight year old son. If you want to pay mere ‘lip service’ to the idea of transporting your friends, the IS250c may be just your ticket.


The truth is the IS250c needs a lot of interior upgrading, more rear passenger room and exterior design improvements to become a class leader. Will the non-enthusiasts who want to have a ‘Lexus’ appreciate this car? Yes. But a Volvo C70 offers a bit more room and a far nicer interior. The Audi A5 and BMW 328i give off the driving feel that appeals to the enthusiast crowd, and the Inifiniti G37 offers a better overall package without the quirks. In the real world of financing and leasing you’re only looking at about a $50 per month difference, so why buy an IS250c?
Note: Lexus provided a free tank of gas, insurance, and use of the vehicle for a week. 
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Review: 2012 Volkswagen Eos Wed, 09 Nov 2011 19:45:43 +0000

Thirteen years after the Mercedes-Benz SLK reintroduced the hard top convertible, the novelty has once again begun to wear off in the face of concerns about cost, complexity, and curb weight. Even high-end manufacturers like Audi, BMW, and Jaguar have fit their latest convertibles with soft tops (albeit multi-layered ones to retain heat and keep out noise). In other words, the retractable hard top has not rendered ye olde ragtop obsolete. This isn’t to say that the retractable hard top is pointless, at least not when innovatively executed. The recently updated Volkswagen Eos remains the best. But would you want one?

The Eos’s exterior styling remains consistent with the VW brand. Meaning it’s much more clean and functional than drop-dead gorgeous. The revised, de-chromed nose is more generic, but an improvement nonetheless. The top’s novel configuration avoids the poorly located side rail seams that mar the appearance of the otherwise more stylish Volvo C70. Inside, the Eos is similarly very VW, with an instrument panel similar to other compact Euro-market VWs. So clean and solidly-constructed, but nothing flashy or notably luxurious.

As in a number of other VWs and Audis, the driver’s seat is firm and supportive, but is not especially comfortable despite the inclusion of a four-way power lumbar adjustment. You’ll find a far better seat in a Volvo. Visibility is pretty good in all directions. The rear seat is just roomy enough for the average adult male to side behind another such male. If either person is six-plus-feet-tall, though, the fit is going to be tight.

The top is truly the big story. If you’re not interested in it, then you’re not interested in the Eos. VW’s key innovation: separating the center panel from the side rails. This enables a number of unique advantages:

  1. A superior exterior appearance when the top is up, as noted above. The separated side rails can stow to each side of the rear seat, so they can be longer than a one-piece center panel could be.
  2. An extra-wide rail-to-rail fully functional glass sunroof within the retractable hard top. So you can get some light in the car even with the roof up. Or, to get a little air in the car without fully opening the roof, vent or open the sunroof.
  3. A compact retracted roof, in sharp contrast to the much simpler roof of the late, unlamented Pontiac G6 hard top convertible. Even with the top down there’s enough room in the trunk for my usual weekly grocery run. With the top up, trunk space expands from 6.6 to 10.5 cubic feet. And there’s a pass-through to the rear seat for long objects in either configuration.

You simply cannot buy any other car with a roof this versatile. VW even includes a standard wind blocker that covers the rear seat to enable comfortable top-down driving on cool days, and that easily fits in the trunk when not in use.

Of course, the roof also has downsides. The first: with so many motorized pieces, it’s extremely complex. While my sons were highly entertained by the top’s “transformer” effect when in transition, the reliability survey conductor in me must wonder how durable this mechanism will be, and how much it would cost to fix if it did break. Even with the nearly new tested car the top proved finicky. On cold mornings it visibly shook and audibly creaked while traversing patchy pavement. (To keep the seals supple, regularly apply Krytox GPL lube, which runs $50 for two ounces.) Get the trunk’s cargo separator just a bit out of place, and the top won’t go down. Other times the windows wouldn’t move up or down in response to my initial request. And once the windows started rapidly going up and down a fraction of an inch, as they do whenever a front door is opened.

The second downside: curb weight. Tipping the scales just north of 3,500 pounds, the Eos is over 400 pounds heavier than a GTI. So VW’s ubiquitous 200-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine feels a bit soft off the line and more laggy at middling speeds. Unlike some these days, you can tell it’s a turbo. Once boost is up, though, the 2.0T moves the Eos forward more than well enough given the car’s typical cruising mission. You don’t have to rev the engine, given its plump midrange. If you want to do so anyway, the mandatory ultra-quick-shifting DSG dual-clutch automated manual transmission is eager to assist. Manual mode works via the lever; there are no shift paddles.

The extra curb weight appears to have cut two-to-three MPG from the Eos’s rated fuel economy, 22/30 vs. 24/33 for the GTI. In suburban driving the trip computer reported from 23 to 26, depending on my driving style. Not bad numbers for a four-seat turbocharged convertible.

In casual driving the Eos feels taut, sporty, almost agile, and much more enjoyable than a Chrysler 200 (the only other hard top four-seat convertible with a price in the mid-thirties). The VW’s steering provides little feedback, but it’s quick and nicely weighted. Drive the Eos as you might a GTI, though, and it lapses into a clumsy plow as its higher center of gravity (especially with the top up) and extra pounds overwhelm the capabilities of the suspension and 235/45HR17 Goodyear Eagle LS tires. The tires do contribute to a generally smooth, quiet ride.

The final downside of the complicated top: price. At $34,765 in its base trim with no options, the Eos lists for $6,950 more than a GTI with DSG and the Sunroof and Convenience Package. Aside from the retractable hard top, the feature level is very similar (according to TrueDelta’s Car Price Comparison Tool), so you’re paying about seven large for the top (in addition to the cost of a sunroof, which is included in the GTI as configured). Not that you’ll do better elsewhere. A Chrysler 200 Limited hard top convertible costs about the same, while a Volvo C70 lists for $6,000 more.

The Volkwagen Eos doesn’t handle like a sports car, or even like a hot hatch. Its styling doesn’t suggest otherwise. But some people are merely seeking a solid, sensible, livable car with a versatile roof that lets them enjoy the sun and fresh air to the maximum extent the weather permits. For this mission, the Eos serves best.

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

Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.

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Review: 2012 Buick Verano Thu, 03 Nov 2011 22:32:54 +0000

In a luxury market that’s always looking for the next big thing, “Compact Luxury” has become something of a hot trend. And with GM’s Buick brand saved from the bailout-era brand cull, a compact Buick is a key test of whether The General has moved past its bad habits of cynical badge engineering. Thus the 2012 Buick Verano is a hugely important car to The General, not only serving as a bellweather for the health of the Buick brand, but also proving whether or not GM “gets” the tough-to-crack entry-luxury market. So, does the Verano measure up?

From the get-go, it’s clear that GM wanted the Verano to be a clean break from its ignominious past of rebadging Chevy compacts. In sharp contrast from Buick’s last compact, the Skylark which died out in 1998, the Verano hides its Chevrolet roots well from the outside. With only a subtle “hockey stick” character line betraying its Opel roots, the Verano is neither a rebadged Euro-market sedan (like the Regal) nor a “pure” Buick design like the LaCrosse. But it does split the difference between the two designs, marrying a subtle design with a few discrete Buick cues like the hood-mounted ventiports. The overall impression is of a clean, classy car that is, if anything, possibly a bit too substantial and anonymous… which, upon further reflection, makes it quite Buick-like.

Inside, GM’s newfound parts-bin savvy takes center stage: just as the Regal was rebadged from a different market, the Verano’s interior is borrowed but not duplicative. The seats, which are some of the best available in the compact class, are the huge, well-bolstered thrones from the LaCrosse. The IP, which is visually and ergonomically more approachable than the somber, button-laden Regal unit, is borrowed (with a few modifications) from the Opel Astra… which just so happens to be getting a new sedan variant soon. Especially in the warmer, lighter shades that Buick makes available, the soft-touch interior with its subtle chrome accents makes even the LTZ Cruze seem a bit cold and cheesy.

On the other hand, I do have one beef on the materials front. At Chevy’s Centennial event in Detroit a Chevy interior specialist told me that GM’s mass-market brand was moving away from “materials that look like something they’re not,” a direction I find highly laudable. Sadly, GM’s “thoughtful luxury” brand is a bit behind the curve in this respect, employing great swaths of brushed-nickle-look plastic around the IP and elsewhere. Though it looks good from a distance, it takes only the most superficial contact (or even thought) to realize that it’s just another hard plastic. In an interior that otherwise hits its cues well, this is something of a letdown, especially from a brand that seeks to emphasize subtlety and substance.

With the Cruze already earning accolades for being one of the most quiet and refined cars in the Compact segment, one had to wonder just how far GM would go to differentiate the Verano in this respect. The answer: much farther than you’d think. The Verano is packed with more sound-deadening foams and sealants than a Guantanamo Bay interrogation room, adding several hundred 10-15 pounds to its weight (additional weight increases compared to Cruze come from wheels, drivetrain, and additional length, say Buick reps) but delivering a shockingly quiet cabin. Puttering around town in a deathly silence, I rolled my window  down a few times for contrast, and was blown away at the wealth of aural feedback that would flood in only to be blocked when I rolled the window back up again. If you’re looking for a quiet compact, you’d be hard pressed to find a more effectively isolating model than the Verano.

That principle applies to the Verano’s 2.4 liter inline four-cylinder as well. Though frequent drivers of GM products will recognize the unmistakable buzz of an Ecotec under the hood, a special airbox gives the mill a more refined, intake-dominated engine note. Though I’d stop short of calling it musical, it sounds and feels considerably more sweet than any other Ecotec, especially at higher RPMs. Which is where you’ll probably spend quite a bit of time: though this 2.4 also does service in the larger Regal and Malibu sedans, it still has to work hard to hustle 3,300+ lbs of compact car around. Stuck behind a log truck on one of Oregon’s winding two-lane country roads? Make sure you have plenty of room and time to pass, as pickup is adequate rather than luxurious. On the other hand, if you kick back and cruise, said truck could jake-brake for miles without ever disturbing the cabin’s serene ambience.

Normally a Buick tuned for quiet, refined cruising would not be let down by weakness in the engine room. But strangely, the Verano has far more responsive (even twitchy) steering than you might expect, and it rotates around its short wheelbase to an extent that surprises… even coming from the more sport-oriented Regal. Though I personally prefer the Regal, the Verano can be even more fun than a base Regal, which is even more let down by the underwhelming 2.4. There’s no hiding the Verano’s heft, and too much fun will leave it a bit breathless, but there’s more directness and feel from the ZF electric steering rack than you might expect. If you’re looking for some real sport to go with your compact luxury, the Verano may not quite fit the bill… but a forthcoming Verano Coupe is starting to look quite promising.

Perhaps what makes the Verano feel more sporty than I expected is the simple fact that it’s a compact car… because from the driver’s seat it doesn’t feel like one. There’s a good impression of space up front, and the LaCrosse-sourced seats are large and excellent. Unfortunately, the large size of those front seats do cut back on rear-seat legroom, which loses an inch and a half compared to the Cruze (front and rear combined legroom is 76 inches, the same as an Audi A3). As a result, the rear seat impression is considerably less luxurious and less Buick-like than the front-row experience. Is this the price of entry into the compact luxury field?

This brings up another important question, and one that gets to the heart of the Verano’s most basic flaw: why do buyers want a smaller luxury car? Though marketers may bring up a number of reasons, it seems the most key consideration is fuel economy rather than smallness for its own sake. And here the Verano lets down its entire mission: 21/31 (city/highway, GM’s estimate) isn’t even competitive for a midsized car, let alone a compact. For comparison, Audi’s A6, Chrysler’s 300 V6, and BMW’s 528i xDrive and 640i Convertible are all rated at 31 MPG on the freeway or better. Closer to home, Buick’s larger Regal also gets a 31 MPG freeway rating with the same 2.4 liter and even does one better on the freeway with its optional turbo engine.

Of course, the Regal is a very different car than the Verano. Whereas Buick’s compact is a quiet, comfy cruiser with an emphasis on isolation, the Regal is pure Euro-market, with its firm, flat seats, sombre interior and handling-tuned suspension. In other words, the Verano’s engineers hit their brief dead-on: they built a well-executed, refined baby Buick that avoids direct competition with other models in the range. Unfortunately, GM’s managers seemed more intent on building a compact luxury car for its own sake (or for Buick-GMC dealer throughput numbers’ sake) than really understanding why compact luxury appeals to buyers. Until Buick decides to equip Verano with its EcoAssist mild hybrid system, it seems to be a compact luxury car without the key appeal of its segment, namely competitive fuel economy. As the saying goes: great landing, wrong airport.

Buick made the Verano (as well as a Regal for comparison) available for this review at a media event. Buick provided lunch, and later sent a set of water glasses made from old wine bottles to me, to commemorate the event’s presence in Oregon’s Pinot Noir wine country. 

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Review: 2012 Fiat 500 Lounge (BCAS Edition) Mon, 31 Oct 2011 17:45:29 +0000

Throw “Sport” on a car, and I’m going to expect certain things from it. So I wasn’t kind to the first FIAT 500 I reviewed. But, as with people, I’m always willing to give a car a second take from a more amenable angle. To avoid bits I didn’t care for, I requested the base-level “Pop” trim with an automatic transmission. Chrysler counter-offered a top-level Lounge. In brown. With brown leather. Not quite what I asked for, but as a member of the Brown Car Appreciation Society (sans card, alas) I felt duty bound to accept.

Dip a 500 in Espresso Metallic and fit it with multi-spoke alloys (a $300 extra), and no one will think it an economy car. The look is as upscale as the Scion iQ’s is not. And this is before opening the door to find seats upholstered in chocolate brown leather, with matching trim on the doors and dash. The ivory steering wheel, upper seatbacks, and control panels provide a classy contrast while keeping the whole from seeming too serious or somber. Most definitely lounge-worthy.


Sadly, all parts of the 500 can’t deliver on this initial impression. Work the manual height adjuster in an attempt to lower the high-mounted seat, and the degree of flex suggests it’s not long for this world. Then again, the seat is so high in its lowest position that few people will ever use this adjuster. The buttons for the HVAC and audio feel very much like those of a sub-$20k car (even though this example wasn’t). Drive down any but the smoothest roads, and the doors constantly scratch against their seals. Perhaps press cars aren’t prepped as thoroughly as conventional wisdom suggests? A few dabs of a suitable lube might have gone a long way.

Thanks to the 500’s unsportily high seating position, the view forward is open. As is the view upward through the Lounge’s standard large fixed glass roof panel (much of the utility of the optional sunroof, without the rattles and leaks). The view rearward, not so much, as the B- and C-pillars are thick and close. But with so little car back there the Luxury Leather Package’s rear obstacle detection is nevertheless pointless. The driver-side spotter mirror is of much more use, enabling fear-free lane changes to the left, even if it does rob some scarce real estate within the mini-compact mirror pods. Whatever the trim level, the ergonomics are, well, Italian. The shifter remains too high and too far forward, but with the automatic this isn’t an issue. Despite the intimate interior, the logic-defying myriad small buttons for the BOSE audio system (thumping sub beneath the passenger seat) are just beyond reach. Would a few large knobs close at hand cramp the 500’s style? The “sport” button is close at hand, but all it does is bump the steering effort without reducing steering numbness and force the transmission to hold gears far too long for casual around-town use. We’re lounging this time around, so absolutely no need for this.

The Lounge’s seat is the same as the Sport’s, but with no clutch requiring frequent full leg extensions the overly prominent under-thigh bulge didn’t bother me. In fact, nothing really bothered me, though my diminutive rear seat occupants did complain about the car’s hard round headrests.

The 500’s 101-horsepower 1.4-liter engine was—surprise—no match for a Ford GT rapidly approaching in my rearview on I-75. Even with the rightmost pedal pressed hard to the floor there’s little thrust at highway speeds. Bill Ford’s supercharged supercar blew by without even realizing I was there. But up to 45 or so there’s easily adequate power. With the Lounge’s mandatory automatic I felt far less need to dispatch the engine anywhere near its redline (though the autobox is more than happy to take it there), and the MultiAir mill sounded much less thrashy as a result. The trip computer reported 33-35 MPG in the suburbs, dipping into the high 20s when my right foot lapsed out of lounge mode. Not bad, but at best a match for the most efficient cars one or two size classes up, despite FIAT’s highly touted throttle-less intake technology. Handling might not be sporty, but it is effortlessly pleasant. And the standard suspension delivers a livable ride, if still a bit choppy and bouncy.

Even if the FIAT 500 Lounge isn’t especially fun to drive, it is nevertheless thoroughly fun (when not hopelessly attempting to match pace with a supercar). The styling is engagingly cute (chics dig it) yet—in brown—also elegant. In Lounge form the car’s easygoing driving character fits. Pulling up to Trader Joe’s with my three chattering progeny, and tight on time, I announced, “All right you clowns, out of the clown car.” My youngest almost died from laughter in the parking lot. That was just the first of four stops on the weekly shopping expedition. Even with all seats occupied, my cargo anxiety heightened by what might well be the world’s smallest cargo cover, and some sale items bought by the dozen, everything fit with room to spare. In the $21,800 500 Lounge BCAS Edition, the entire experience seemed much less of a chore.

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

Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.

Whos that knockin at my door Goodbye BCAS 500 rear quarter 2 BCAS 500 rear quarter BCAS 500 interior BCAS 500 instrument panel BCAS 500 front quarter 2 BCAS 500 front quarter BCAS 500 front BCAS 500 cargo 500 view forward 500 instruments 500 engine ]]> 91
Review: 2012 Scion iQ Take Two Thu, 27 Oct 2011 14:56:33 +0000

Scion is quite sure of one thing: the new iQ is a much better car than the smart fortwo. What they’re much less sure of: how many of the targeted fine young North American urbanites will buy one rather than periodically use Zipcar. I’m neither young nor urban, but I’m going to do my best to pretend. Why might I buy this car—or not?

Exterior styling – not

Toyota fits the iQ with 16-inch wheels that can be upgraded to multi-spoke alloys in a bid for the intended buyer. But the exterior isn’t nearly as stylish as the smart’s, with a frumpy nose, awkward B-pillar, and a single, square-cut door filling nearly the entire space between the wheel openings. Add the relatively large wheels, and the whole looks like a Photoshop chop—except it’s real, with a 79-inch wheelbase (vs. 74 for the smart) and 120-inch overall length (vs. 106). Scion has been struggling to get its mojo back ever since launching the bloated second-gen xB. With the iQ the struggle continues.

Interior styling – maybe

The interior is more successfully stylish than the exterior, but still has none of the whimsical character you’ll find inside a 500 or a MINI. All of the surfaces are—surprise—hard plastic but they generally look and feel solid. The red-stitched leather-wrapped steering wheel and the glossy black trim on the doors and center stack are high points. The controls are simple and easy to use, with three large vertically-aligned knobs for the climate controls. Less functional: the driving position is well aft of the windshield, so traffic lights aren’t visible if you stop at the white line. The button to temporarily deactivate the traction control (but not the stability control) is mounted low on the far side of the shifter. A power lock button sits next to it, but there’s another more conveniently located on the driver’s door. My suspicion: the design initially included only the button on the console, in line with European practice, but the Scion marketing folks insisted on having buttons on the doors, where Americans expect them. They got half of their request.

Interior packaging – where the car earns its nameplate

I’m a space efficiency geek. The intelligent packaging and seating of the Ford Freestyle and Taurus X is perhaps the main reason (beyond the need for seven seats) that I bought one of the latter.

Toyota is most proud of its packaging innovations for the iQ, and this part of their pitch for the car is not hype. Though only a foot longer than a smart, the iQ has a rear seat that can fit one adult without resorting to cruel and unusual punishment, and two with it. They were able to pull this off by:

  1. Placing the engine in the nose of the car (it’s in back with the smart) and locating the differential ahead of the transmission, which sits next to the engine. This enables an unusually short front overhang, and would improve the appearance of even large front-wheel-drive cars. (Back in the 1990s, GM’s designers wanted to flip transverse powertrains around for this very reason, but the engineers refused to enable any such silliness.) A special high-mounted steering rack also plays a role.
  2. Compacting the A/C componentry and locating the evaporator behind the center stack rather than ahead of the front passenger, enabling the right front seat to be shifted forward a few inches. Which is why the right rear passenger enjoys more legroom than the left rear passenger. Space is provided between the front seats for the left rear passenger’s legs, as the driver’s seat can slide all the way to the rear seat cushion. This space exists because, with a width of 66 inches, the iQ is over a half-foot beamier than the smart. A by-product: those in the front seat sit about as far apart as they would in a C-segment car like the Corolla, not shoulder-to-shoulder like they do in the smart.
  3. Developing ultra-thin seatbacks. They don’t feel substantial, but aren’t uncomfortable.
  4. Developing an ultra-thin fuel tank—it’s only 4.5 inches tall—and locating it beneath the driver’s seat.
  5. Adding an eleventh airbag that deploys over the rear window, essentially a rear curtain airbag. There are only a couple of inches between the rear seatbacks and the liftgate, so otherwise the rear seat would be dreadfully unsafe instead of…

Of course, Toyota’s engineers can’t do magic. So without folding at least half of the rear seat there is absolutely no cargo room.

Electronics – good, but better gadgetry on the way

Bluetooth (hands-free phone and audio streaming), USB, and HD radio are all standard, while nav is available as a dealer-installed accessory. But something like Toyota’s new Entune system, with Internet-based apps, is a year or two away.

Performance – quicker than a smart!

The iQ weighs only 2,127 pounds, but this is still a bit much for the 94-horsepower 1.3-liter four-cylinder hitched to a mandatory CVT. (The smart weighs 300 pounds less, but has only 70 horsepower.) In normal mode the CVT produces the rubber-banding effect typical of CVTs paired with small engines. Shifting into S largely eliminates this while also kicking the revs up a grand or two (so it’s not a full-time solution for anyone interested in fuel economy). And if you want to keep the small four at high boil there’s B (intended for engine braking on downhill grades) that further bumps the engine speed. Not the ideal transmission, especially not for driving enthusiasts, but far better than the clunky automated single-clutch manual in the smart. The engine sounds better than that in the Nissan Versa, which similarly employs a CVT, but remains well short of spine-tingling. There’s no joy in winding this one out. Sixty arrives in an acceptable ten to eleven seconds, but acceleration trails off considerably past that mark.

Fuel economy – very good in the city, meh on the highway

Scion touts the iQ’s fuel economy as the best of any non-hybrid. But the EPA rating of 36 city is much more impressive than the 37 highway. Then again, the iQ is marketed as a “city car,” not a “highway car.”

Handling – not remotely a new CRX

The best that can be said of the iQ’s handling is that its ultra-tight 12-foot turning radius, roughly two-thirds that of the average car, is truly a joy to experience. The second best: unlike the smart, the tiny Scion drives much like a regular car. Perhaps too much like a regular car, if by “regular car” we mean a Camry. Aided by the car’s unusually high width-to-wheelbase ratio, roll and understeer in hard turns are both moderate. But the steering is neither quick nor communicative, handling isn’t particularly agile, and the non-defeatable stability control cuts in well short of the car’s limits. The legendary Honda CRX was a thrill to drive sideways. That won’t be happening here. The iQ drives like an appliance.

Ride – survivable

Given the iQ’s ultra-short wheelbase, a choppy ride is a given. Drive over 60 down a concrete freeway (again, not the car’s primary mission), and expansion joints induce a rhythmic bouncing. But otherwise ride quality isn’t bad, and doesn’t feel like that of a very small, very light car. Though larger and heavier, a FIAT 500 rides worse.

Pricing – bespoke bits aren’t cheap

The iQ lists for $15,995. Scion continues to practice “Pure Pricing.” This doesn’t mean that dealers cannot discount, only that they must offer the same price to everyone. A similarly-equipped smart fortwo lists for $16,850. Adjust for the iQ’s additional features using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool, and its advantage widens to a considerable $2,300.

But Scion rightly isn’t taking the smart seriously as a competitor, at least not in North America. Here stiffer competition will come from the Fiat 500 and B-segment cars. The much more entertaining Mazda2 costs a grand less, though a $1,600 feature adjustment gives the iQ a $600 advantage. Compared to a FIAT 500 Pop, the iQ is $1,000 less before the feature adjustment, $400 less afterwards. So the prices for these three are quite close before discounts and incentives—which will tend to favor the Mazda and (as the cars pile up on dealer lots) the FIAT.

Bottom line: The iQ costs about as much as B-segment cars despite being much smaller and less fun to drive.

Sales forecast – not promising

So, the Scion iQ isn’t going to sell based on its price or driving excitement. Its packaging innovations are impressive, but you don’t have to own the car to admire them. Though the iQ is a much better car than the smart fortwo, the latest B-segment cars are better still in nearly every way. In terms of fuel economy, the iQ does very well in city driving, but the larger cars do better at higher speeds (where the Scion is out of its element). In the end, the iQ’s key strengths are its short length and ultra-tight turning radius, both of which make it easy to park in the city. But how many people have ease of urban parking as their top priority AND will be buying a car rather than occasionally renting one?

Scion provided the vehicle, insurance, and fuel for this review at a media event.

Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.

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Review: 2011 Porsche Cayenne S Fri, 21 Oct 2011 19:19:17 +0000

Strongly feel that Porsche should stick to sports cars? Personally, I’m willing to cut Zuffenhausen a little slack. Sports car sales, with their boom-and-bust cycles, don’t provide a sound foundation for corporate financial health. A more reasonable test: does Porsche’s entry look and drive unlike any other, in a manner consistent with the marque? Though not pretty, the Panamera passed this test. And the Cayenne SUV?

The initial outlook isn’t good. While the Cayenne’s front end strongly resembles those of other Porsche models, the rest of the exterior can easily be mistaken for an Audi or even a Volkswagen. In fact, the first time I saw the redesigned-for-2011 second-generation Cayenne I thought it was an Audi Q5. One reason: while the Panamera is closely related to no other car, the Cayenne retains close ties with the Volkswagen Touareg, which it also resembles. This isn’t entirely a bad thing. Like the second-generation VW, the 2011 Cayenne is sleeker, better-proportioned, and altogether more attractive than its predecessor.

The Cayenne’s interior is more distinctive than its exterior. Whether by actual dimensional differences or by visual trickery, the instrument panel seems significantly lower and more compact in the Cayenne than in the Touareg. As in the Panamera, the IP rests directly atop an upward-sloping center console (its many buttons closer at hand than they would be in a vertical center stack) to form a subtly tapered “T.” The center console’s upward-angled grab handles (why would the driver need one?) are now mirrored by the door pulls (though the latter are mounted farther forward). Put it all together, and the Cayenne seems sportier from the driver seat than any other SUV. Yet, unlike in the Panamera, there’s no sense that you’re actually in a sports car. The seats (and entire vehicle) would have to be much closer to the ground for that.

Porsche’s interiors have come a long way over the past decade, but the new Cayenne’s still includes too much hard plastic that cannot be mistaken for anything else—even when fitted with the tested car’s upholstered instrument panel and center console. One surprising oversight that provides a poor early impression: the artful door pulls flex and creak when put to their intended use. Form clearly took precedence over function.

The Cayenne’s base front buckets are cushier than the German norm. Though they provide some lateral support, anyone planning to drive this Porsche like a Porsche should pony up another $1,815 for the 18-way power-adjustable sport seats. As in the Touareg, the comfortably high rear seat slides and reclines. In its rearmost position there’s plenty of legroom for all but the tallest adults—but the same can be said of many smaller, lighter compact crossovers. Cargo volume is similarly beyond sufficient but well short of outstanding.

As in the Panamera, engine choices include a 300-horsepower V6, 333-horsepower supercharged hybrid V6, 400-horsepower V8 “S”, and 500-horsepower turbocharged V8 “Turbo.” In the Panamera, the V8 takes the car to an entirely different level. With the Cayenne I sampled only the V8, but drove a Touareg with the V6 in 280-horsepoweer tune immediately beforehand. While the V8 is quicker and more sonorous than the V6, it doesn’t transform the Cayenne like it does the Panamera. Blame two factors. First, while the 4,553-pound 2011 Cayenne S is, commendably, 400 pounds lighter than the 2010 and 740 pounds lighter than the similarly-dimensioned BMW X5 xDrive50i, it remains ten percent heavier than the Panamera. About 70 pounds went with the no-longer-offered two-speed transfer case—Porsche figured out that few owners ventured far off the tarmac. Second, while the V8 is paired with a seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual in the big hatchback, it’s hooked up to a conventional eight-speed automatic in the SUV. Though the Aisin box is perhaps the best of its kind, with quick, nearly imperceptible shifts, the PDK shifts even more quickly and provides a manual-like direct, mechanical connection. Bottom line: in the SUV, the turbo is needed to kick the tail out at will and quicken one’s pulse. The reduced curb weight and additional transmission ratios do significantly improve fuel economy, bumping the V8’s EPA ratings from a dismal 13/19 to a respectable 16/22.

The Cayenne is too large (though not too heavy) to feel as chuckable as compact SUVs like the Audi Q5 and BMW X3 (the upcoming Cajun will target these), but too small to have the road presence of a Cadillac Escalade or Infiniti Q56. The boxes not checked affect its braking and handling. Options include ceramic brakes ($8,150), adaptive dampers ($1,990), air springs (another $1,990), active stabilizer bars ($3,510), torque vectoring ($1,490), and ultra-low-profile ultra-high-performance tires ($1,560-$4,875). The tested Cayenne S had none of these. So perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that it didn’t steer or handle dramatically better than the Touareg. Yes, the steering was quicker and more communicative, there was less lean in hard turns, and body motions were more tightly controlled, but the difference was a matter of degree, not of kind. As in the VW, you don’t forget you’re driving a tall, heavy vehicle. And so nothing like the difference between the Panamera and its competitors. By the same token, though, the standard suspension Cayenne S only rides a little more firmly than the Touareg, so it’s more day-to-day livable than the hatchback.

You’re not getting an entirely bespoke vehicle with the Cayenne, and its price does reflect this. Outfit a 2011 Cayenne S with Convenience Package (nav, xenons, Bose audio, heated seats, auto-dimming mirrors), obstacle detection, and full-leather interior, and it lists for $71,780. A similarly-equipped Panamera S lists for nearly $95,000. But even relatively inexpensive Porsches are far from cheap. A BMW xDrive50i with the same bits lists for $65,125, and adjusting for remaining feature differences using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool adds another grand to the heftier, truckier BMW’s price advantage, for a total over $7,500.

In the end, the tested 2011 Porsche Cayenne S doesn’t quite pass my test. From most angles it’s too easily mistaken for an Audi or even a VW. It handles better than competing SUVs, but not dramatically so. The turbocharged V8 and chassis options might well make a big difference. But if one or more of these are needed to render the Cayenne worthy of the Porsche crest, then why offer the SUV without them?

Scott Vollink of Suburban Porsche in Farmington Hills, MI, provided the car. He can be reached at 248-741-7980.

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

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Review: 2012 Nissan Versa Wed, 12 Oct 2011 20:40:45 +0000

Do you have automotive tastes common among people of a certain age? Not a fan of huge wheels or firm seats? Want something economical? Meet the new 2012 Nissan Versa.

Some small cars are comfortable with their small car-ness. Others, not so well-adjusted, put on airs well above their station. Like more than a few post-war European sedans, the new Versa falls into the latter camp. A high, bulbous front end strives for big car road presence, but tall, narrow proportions blow the charade. In the side profile, a stylishly plunging roof line primarily succeeds in truncating rear headroom, combined as it is with a bulbous nose, barn door bodysides, and (by current standards) tiny 15-inch wheels. When the Chinese knock off the new Versa they might actually improve it.

As long as you don’t look closely or touch anything, the interior of the 2012 Versa almost passes as luxurious, with chrome highlights and the taupe/tan color scheme that’s been a Lexus staple since the first LS 400 rolled off the boat. High-mounted, spongy seats continue the “compact luxury” play. But the hard plastic door-mounted armrests do not—those in a high-end previous generation Versa were far more amenable to elbows. If there’s a design here it’s certainly not a coherent one. The tall, chunky center stack would be more at home in an MPV. In the Versa it locates the audio system controls beyond easy reach. And the climate control area at its base…I haven’t a clue what the designer was thinking. Shame about the impact of the plunging roof line on rear headroom, as there’s substantially more rear legroom than in most competitors.

Compared to the previous-generation Versa (which lives on in hatchback form), the new one is about the same size but, at just over 2,400 pounds, over 300 pounds lighter. The weight loss is welcome, as an uncouth 109-horsepower 1.6-liter engine is no longer just the base engine—it’s the only engine. Paired with a CVT (a five-speed manual is offered only on the base S trim), the 1.6 moves the flyweight car well enough. According to the stopwatch, anyway. Your ears will report all of the side effects that have made CVTs as (un)popular as they are today. Nissan has some passable CVT implementations that don’t inspire thoughts of rubber bands, slipping clutches, and angry lawn care equipment. This isn’t one of them.

The EPA fuel economy ratings of 30 city, 38 highway, while much better than the 2011 1.8SL’s 24/32, don’t quite match the segment’s best. But you’d never know this from the trip computer, which reports over 40 (even 46 for one light-footed fifteen-mile trip) in typical suburban driving. Trip computers can be optimistic, but the gas gauge (Nissan’s traditional orange LCDs) moved less over the course of a day than some move while idling at a traffic light.

The suspension is tuned much like the seats, so there’s copious body roll in turns, limited grip, and considerable bobbling about over poorly maintained roads. No dynamic surprises, though, aside from the modest amounts of understeer and tire squeal (credit the 185/65HR15 Continental ContiProContacts for the latter). Noise levels (when the CVT isn’t doing its thing) are in line with current competitors, so much lower than the bygone B-segment norm.

Clearly, the new Versa was engineered to hit a low price point, and does start at $11,750, $1,455 lower than the 2012 Accent, the second-cheapest car currently offered in the U.S. And the Versa, unlike the Accent, comes standard with conditioned air. Live large with an SL like the car reviewed and the sticker jumps to $16,320. Not so cheap, but over $1,700 less than a 2011 SL with Convenience Package (for the now standard Bluetooth). The 2011 did include about $700 in additional features according to TrueDelta’s Car Price Comparison Tool—some luxuries like keyless ignition, leather-wrapped steering wheel, center armrests, and a passenger-side vanity mirror are no longer available—but this still leaves the 2012 a grand more affordable.

Unfortunately, the price cut only brings the Versa 1.6 SL in line with superior competitors. A Ford Fiesta SE with SYNC and Sport Appearance Packages lists for nearly $1,000 more, but includes over $1,000 in additional features. The story is much the same with the new Hyundai Accent GLS with Comfort and Premium Packages: $900 higher sticker, but over $700 in additional features.

So the new Versa isn’t a value play. Financially, it only makes sense—in base trim—for those who must pay as little as possible for that new car smell. In as-tested SL trim the Versa leads the competition in hardly anything, trails them in many things, and costs about the same. So who’s going to buy it? As noted in the introduction, not everyone is a fan of the latest automotive trends. Those seeking the character of a post-Reuss, pre-Lutz Buick, in a much smaller, more economy-minded package, will find what they’re looking for here.

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

Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.

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Review: Hyundai Veloster Take Two Mon, 10 Oct 2011 19:26:52 +0000 The author’s expectations play a large but rarely disclosed role in any auto review. Expect a car to be awful, and it turns out to be adequate? Then the review might even seem positive. On the other hand, if reviewers buy into the hype surrounding an upcoming model, and it turns out to be only pretty good, then the reviews can turn ugly. No one wants to be sold a bill of goods. I approached the Hyundai Veloster with different expectations than most of the automotive press.

Why? I never bought the hype gushing forth from Hyundai. I knew the Veloster would have the same 138-horsepower direct-injected 1.6-liter engine as the new Accent, but saddled with more curb weight (2,430-2,588 vs. 2,584-2,740 pounds). I also knew that Hyundai had yet to master the art of suspension tuning. (I’m also not buying the hype surrounding the Cadillac ATS and Scion FR-S until I have a chance to drive them.)

We already knew what the Veloster would look like. It’s a distinctive shape, made even more so by having two doors on the passenger side (the rear one “hidden”) but only one on the driver side. (I personally prefer the side with the rear door. You?) Fully loaded cars get the most attractive wheels complete with color-keyed inserts. On public streets the Veloster looks even wilder than it did at the auto shows, especially from the rear. People on the street recognized something new, and asked about the Veloster more than any other press car I’ve had. If Hyundai’s hype hadn’t persuaded journalists to expect an outstanding driving experience, this exotic shape would have.

The interior I wished for in the Accent? It’s here in the Veloster, complete with Cayennesque grab handles (that actually feel more solid here than in the Porsche), sportier upholstery, and available red/black color scheme. The designers were permitted to get a little more crazy in the sport coupe, but not to the detriment of ergonomics or good taste. The instruments are conventionally located and arranged while the center stack controls are easy to reach and operate. A seven-inch display and A/V inputs are standard, while a household-type power outlet is part of the Tech Package. Hyundai execs have personally tested the possibility of playing an Xbox in the car (while stationary). Hyundai’s new Blue Link adds some apps (like Pandora) along with OnStar-like emergency services, with an OnStar-like monthly fee after the first few months. There are also a couple of fuel economy-related games you can play, at least one of which compares the efficiency of your driving style to those of other Veloster owners.

The Veloster’s driver seat is better bolstered and more substantial than that in the Accent, if still not to the degree I’d prefer, but is similarly lacking in lumbar support. There’s only a single manual height adjustment, so the tilt of the cushion cannot be separately adjusted. But at least the steering wheel telescopes as well as tilts, unlike in the Accent. The view forward is open—you don’t sit too low in the car—the view rearward not so much thanks to a narrow, bifurcated rear window and stylishly raked C-pillars. The Tech Package with its rearview camera and rear parking sensors can come in handy. There’s enough room for heads and legs in the rear seat (adults up to 5-9 or so fit without issue) to make me wonder about the absence of a left rear door. Past three-door vehicles all ended up growing a fourth, and I would not be surprised to see history repeat itself with a future Veloster redesign. Also enough cabin width for three across in a pinch if Hyundai hadn’t designed the seat with an integral center console. Cargo volume is on the tight side, but sufficient for even sizable grocery runs.

Hyundai execs are apologetic about the Veloster’s performance, admitting that while the original concept was “eco-sport” the end result is more eco and less sport. Personally, I don’t mind limited power if the engine revs smoothly and eagerly, and the new Hyundai 1.6 does. I banged the rev limiter once because, eyes on the road, I wasn’t aware I was approaching it. As in the Accent, if anything I’d appreciate more of the good sort of noise at high rpm. Those looking for a punch in the lower back will be disappointed, though, as there’s little torque in play. Hyundai won’t confirm that a turbocharged variant is on the way to rectify this shortcoming, but one almost certainly is.

Okay, let me qualify that lack of disappointment. I was pleasantly surprised by the Veloster’s manual transmission, as its shift feel and ratios are much better than those in the Accent (though first and second remain too far apart while fifth and sixth remain too close together).

Accent6MT Veloster6MT VelosterDCT
1st 3.77 3.62 3.62
2nd 2.05 1.96 1.96
3rd 1.29 1.37 1.30
4th 1.04 1.04 0.94
5th 0.89 0.79 0.72
6th 0.77 0.69 0.57
FD 3.64 4.27 4.81


Simply put, the Veloster’s shifter and manual transmission should be in the Accent. Why Hyundai had two groups of engineers where one would have done a better job escapes me.

The ratios of the automated dual-clutch transmission, Hyundai’s first and developed in-house, are better yet. But on the road the theoretical advantages of a dual-clutch transmission fail to materialize. Shifts, though admirably smooth despite the employment of the cheaper-to-maintain dry clutches that have been such a drivability headache for Ford, are not lightning quick like those of VW’s dual-wet-clutch DSG transmission. I sense a tradeoff. Worse, acceleration feels considerably more sluggish with the DCT, even though it has a shorter final drive ratio. With no torque converter to sap the engine’s power, why might this be? City fuel economy is a bit better with the DCT (EPA city 29 MPG vs. 28), while the manual wins on the highway (40 vs. 38).

Perhaps the sluggishness of the DCT powertrain shaped my entire perception of the car. I can find no other convincing explanation for why the manual transmission Veloster felt lighter and more agile than its DCT counterpart. Okay, is it lighter, but only by 73 pounds. The Tech Package on the DCT car adds a few more, some of them possibly in its unique color-keyed wheels. Enough to make a difference? Whatever the reason, the manual transmission car felt balanced, poised, planted, and almost (but not quite) agile while the DCT car felt heavier and less willing to change directions. Unfortunately, even the manual car doesn’t feel significantly more agile than its considerably heftier arch-rival, the 3,060-pound Scion tC. Neither comes across as “tossable.” Lighter yet more communicative steering would help I the Hyundai’s case.

On the flip side, the Veloster also feels more solid than its kinship with the Accent and curb weight might suggest. Though bumps occasionally elicit sharp reactions, ride quality and noise levels are generally very livable. I’d much rather commute in the Veloster than in the bouncier Elantra sedan that provided the basis for the sport coupe’s twist-beam rear suspension.

So how much will this sporty looking, not so sporty driving Hyundai set you back? If you can live with 17-inch wheels, a steel roof, and a 196-watt, six-speaker audio system, then $18,060. The Style Package (18s, panoramic sunroof, fog lights, leather steering wheel, leatherette seat bolsters, 450-watt audio) adds $2,000. The Tech Package (color-keyed wheels, nav with rearview camera and sensors, proximity key, 115v outlet) adds another $2,000.

Compared to the Veloster with Style Package, a Scion tC checks in $755 lower, but based on TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool also includes about $600 less content. So the two end up very close in price. Which to get? The Hyundai looks more distinctive and is simply sexier, while the tC packs fifty-percent more displacement under its hood and has a roomier rear seat (but no third door to aid access to it). I enjoyed driving the tC more, but this is relative. In both cars’ defense, if you want to have considerably more fun, you’re going to have to spend considerably more money. Even a Ford Focus SE or Mazda3 is nearly $2,000 more when similarly equipped. In the other direction, an Accent SE costs about $1,500 less. For those who care about such things, the Veloster’s more stylish exterior and upgraded interior will easily be worth this premium.

So, the Veloster isn’t as fun as it looks. But its performance and handling are adequate, while its styling, feature set and price are very attractive. As-is, it will fit the bill for many sporty coupe buyers. Those who insist on go with their show needn’t despair, only patiently wait for the turbo Hyundai’s not yet talking about.

Hyundai provided the vehicle, insurance and fuel for this review during a media drive event.

Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.

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Review: 2012 Hyundai Accent SE Wed, 05 Oct 2011 18:45:15 +0000

So, what’s your checklist? If you read this site regularly, you have one: the characteristics of your ideal next car. Perhaps more than one, if you have the need or desire for more than one type of car. One of my checklists concerns my ideal compact hatch. The latest contestant: the 2012 Hyundai Accent SE.

  1. Tasteful, subtly sporty exterior, with tight proportions and no extraneous details

The Mazda Protege5 that’s occupied my garage for the past eight years nailed this one. The Mazda3 that replaced it on dealer lots, not even close. The Accent SE doesn’t hook me like the P5 did, but it’s more attractive than the related sedan and, among the current small hatches, edges out the similarly-styled Ford Fiesta for the top spot thanks to crisper lines and a less swoopy, windowlette-free A-pillar. (The car does look better in person than in these photos.) Additional points to Hyundai for not overdoing the front end and designing the car to look its best without monster rims (the SE wears 16s). The exterior styling is far from stodgy, but it also works for those of us well out of our teens.

  1. The same inside the car, with solid construction and good ergonomics

I don’t want to drive an appliance, but I don’t want to inhabit a video game or science fiction fantasy, either. Looking at some key design element, I don’t want to constantly wonder, “What were they thinking?” This rules out the Civic, Mazda3, and MINI, among others. The Accent isn’t far off my ideal, but falls short thanks to the lingering econo-car mindset evident in the silver-painted trim on the doors and the thin, light gray (why?) fabric on the seats. Ford does much better with these bits, while also offering more solidly bolstered buckets. On the other hand, the Accent’s instrument panel is a keeper. The plastic is all the hard stuff, but it feels solid and doesn’t appear cheap. Unlike in a Fiesta or Focus, the center stack controls are easy to reach, understand, and operate.

  1. A driving position that encourages an intimate connection with the car

It’s easier to describe what my ideal driving position does not include: a distant windshield, thick pillars, or small, high-mounted windows. The Accent much better than the current norm on the first and okay on the other two (though the rear window is very small). You’ll find an airier cabin in a Mazda2, but other competitors tend to rank below the Hyundai. One minor negative: unlike in the Fiesta and new Chevrolet Sonic the steering wheel does not telescope.

  1. Adequate space for three pre-teen kids and a run to CostCo

The Accent’s rear seat and cargo area are no match for those of the Honda Fit and Nissan Versa, or any C-segment hatch, but are roomier than in the Fiesta. Good enough, The rear seat cushion is mounted a little too low for adult comfort, but I’d rarely have adults back there.

  1. A refined, willing, sweet-sounding engine

Hyundai’s new, direct-injected 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine twists out a segment-leading 138 horsepower at 6,300 rpm. There’s noticeably more oomph than with the 120-horsepower mill in the Fiesta, much less the asthmatic 100-horsepower lump in the Mazda2. But even when saddled with a reasonably light 2,400-pound curb weight we’re still talking about the difference between very slow, sorta slow, and a touch more than adequate. With a torque peak of 123 pound-feet at 4,850 rpm, you’ll have to rev the 1.6 in all but the most casual driving. Which is okay, as Hyundai’s latest four revs smoothly and quietly. If anything, I’d like to hear more of the right sort of noise over 4,000 rpm.

  1. A tight, slick, solid shifter

Unfortunately, exercising the four requires contact with the manual shifter, which avoids a failing grade thanks only to moderate throws and the ease of grabbing the desired gear. The shifter feels clunky and crunchy. It even sounds clunky and crunchy. Logitech makes better-feeling shifters—for your computer. Every car company has been engineering manual shifters since the day it was born. Tech doesn’t get any older. So why does getting the shifter right remain so hard for so many of them? Hyundai has employed a pretty good B&M unit in the Elantra Touring and the previous-generation Accent. Do the same with the new one.

On top of this, no points are awarded for fitting a six-speed transmission, even though most competitors make do with five-speeds. Here’s why:

1st 4.40 3.77
2nd 2.73 2.05
3rd 1.83 1.29
4th 1.39 1.04
5th 1.00 0.89
6th 0.77 0.77


See the nicely-spaced ratios in column A? You get them with the Accent’s six-speed slushbox. Column B is the manual. The top three gear ratios are so close together that fifth is pointless. Meanwhile, the first three gears are too far apart. Rev to the 6,300 rpm power peak in first, shift to second, and revs fall all the way to 3,400 rpm, well short of the torque peak. If this weren’t bad enough, the engine bogs momentarily following such aggressive shifts, especially if the finesse-free traction control detects a whiff of wheel slip. (There’s a solution for this last issue: turn the system off.) The power hole isn’t as deep or as broad as in the Mazda2, but only because you’ve got more engine to work with.

  1. Good fuel economy

Working from home, I don’t drive much, so a small car’s fuel economy doesn’t have to clear a high bar. Anything over 29 will do, though bigger numbers earn bonus points. Hyundai worked much harder to earn these bonus points than on shift feel, with EPA ratings of 30 city and 40 highway. In suburban driving the Accent’s trip computer reported numbers as high as 48, but more typically about 37, and as low as 30 with a heavier foot and more frequent stops.

One oddity not limited to Hyundai: all of the latest B-segment cars earn similar EPA numbers to their C-segment sibs despite lower curb weights and smaller engines. What’s the deal with this? If the Hyundai Elantra can manage 29/40, then why can’t the Accent achieve 32/44? Just curious personally, though other buyers less interested in handling will find the Bs pointless.

  1. Communicative steering and agile handling

For me, the primary strength of a B-segment car should be agile handling. If I wanted to feel like I was driving a big car, I’d buy a big car. (Okay, I did buy a big car, but not because I liked how it handled.)

The new Accent lacks the frisky chassis and quick, sharp, communicative steering of the Mazda2, but handles and steers better than other direct competitors with the partial exception of the Ford Fiesta. The Ford has a more solid, German-as-opposed-to-Asian feel, but softer suspension tuning. Both chassis are well-behaved, especially when hurried. Either car steers and handles better, and is much more fun to drive, than the soggy, bland appliances from Nissan and Toyota (2011 anyway; I haven’t yet driven the 2012 Yaris). The Honda Fit? While others sing its praises, I can’t get past the microvan driving position (see #3).

  1. A livable ride

I used to think I wanted a bare bones car. Then I drove a Lotus Elise. Immediately afterwards the Protege5 seemed as quiet and cushy as a Lincoln Navigator. But compared to just about anything else the Mazda is rough and noisy. Though I’m not seeking a cocoon, I’d prefer a car that didn’t beat me up or assault my eardrums. The Accent does well here, bettering the larger but bouncier Elantra and nearly matching the segment-best Fiesta.

  1. Good value

My wife thinks I’m cheap. But value is really my thing. I’m looking for the sweet spot in the amount of car delivered for the dollar. In contrast, B-segment buyers have traditionally been downright cheap. Seeking their nickles, the Hyundai Accent vied with the Nissan Versa for the title of America’s cheapest car.

The $9,990 special is gone, and then some, with the Accent’s redesign. The base sedan lists for $13,205, the base hatchback (now with four doors rather than two) for $13,455. And an SE like you see here? $16,555. Even with this, its most affordable model, Hyundai is now about value, not the lowest possible price.

Does the Accent deliver this value? The closest non-Korean competitor, the Ford Fiesta SE with SYNC and Sound and Sport Appearance Packages, lists for $16,990. Running both through TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool finds that the two are very closely matched in features, with a mere $15 adjustment in the Ford’s favor. So this decision is going to come down to something other than price. In the Ford’s favor we have a sportier, better-trimmed interior, a decent shifter, and a generally more upscale feel. But the Hyundai counters with a stronger engine, larger wheels (16s vs. 15s), tighter suspension tuning, and a more viable back seat. It’s a tough call that’ll come down to priorities until Hyundai fixes the shifter and interior trim (or the aftermarket does what it does best).

A Mazda2 Touring is also very close in price, listing for $125 less but ending up about $500 more after the feature-based adjustment. The Mazda is easily the best handler of the three, but is saddled with gearing that makes a weak engine feel even weaker and a more econo-car look and feel.

The problem with any of these small hatches: C-segment cars offer more power and nicer, roomier interiors with similar handling and fuel economy. A Ford Focus SE with Convenience and Sport Packages lists for $20,930. About $900 of the difference pays for additional features. The rest simply pays for more car. If you have the extra scratch, spend it. Don’t have it? See the previous paragraph.

Maybe in 2014? 

The new Hyundai Accent SE is a good car that’s painfully close to being a great one. The stuff that can’t be changed easily or cheaply is all here: tastefully attractive styling, good driving position, refined, relatively powerful engine, competent chassis. The interior trim and shifter need work, and the steering and transmission would also benefit from additional development. As-is, it seems that a light gray interior aficionado was working off a spec sheet without really understanding or caring about the goal of a driver-oriented car. The days when “GT” meant standard leather inside your Elantra aren’t quite past us. Someone who truly loves driving small hatches needs to tweak this one to look and feel more overtly sporty, communicative, and engaging (without going over the top). In Hyundai parlance, the Accent hatch needs and deserves the R-Spec treatment. Hyundai has proven itself willing and able to make improvements as quickly as the second model year. They can start here.

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

Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.

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Review: 700 Miles In A GMC Denali 2500 HD 4×4 Tue, 04 Oct 2011 18:21:33 +0000

The last few years have been a struggle for a lot of folks. Financial meltdowns. Millions of bankruptcies. Massive unemployment. Our ‘global’ economy continues to experience a maelstrom of wealth destruction that seems to make nearly everyone guard their money.

It’s been hell for most…. but guess what? In spite of it all you are among the few who have thrived. In fact you are laughing all the way to your nearest dealership.

So get your something nice! Let’s say the budget is up to $65,000. What would you buy for yourself? Would it be a lightly used Lexus with all the trimmings? A new BMW 5-Series? Maybe one of those VW Touaregs with the diesel engine and all the luxury trappings of a neo-Audi.

In my neck of the woods where the suburbs meets the ex-urbs, this question has only one suitable answer… a truck.

This is what you see when you enter the dealership closest to my home. Trucks. Not just any trucks. But 26 consecutive four-door Chevy and GMC trucks that are ripe for the taking. The GMC Denali HD 2500 4X4 is an upscale supersized Cadillac in a town where the only true upscale vehicles have 4WD and altered suspensions.

Don’t even think about getting an Impala or a Malibu in rural America. Those are parked in the back at the dealership. The way back. The Hardy Boys (even 70 year old men are still boys in the South) want you to buy big and haul ass. That’s why they put the trucks as close to your eyeballs as possible.

“Oh… my… gosh… that’s one big puppy!”

Back at home, my wife was completely in awe of the truck that we magically found on our driveway last Monday. No doubt delivered by Brazilian elves who apparently worked for a press fleet company.

The heavy duty truck Marcello’s elves left us bordered on the gargantuan

To call the GMC Denali HD 2500 4X4 large would be a mild understatement. Think about a truck that dwarfs SUV’s and most everything else on the road. How big are we talking about? I’ll put it to you this way. In downtown Atlanta I saw this seemingly small vehicle scurry right past it. I first thought at first it had been a Beetle or a Civic.

It turned out to be a Hummer.

The truck is larger, longer and heavier than the two cars we drive put together. More than seventy five hundred pounds of big. Even with a regular bed. This Denali HD 2500 along with the Ford F-250 and Dodge Ram 2500 want to make the Lincolns and Cadillacs of the road look as low to the ground as coffins on wheels.

They do it…. because that’s what the buyers want.

So with ‘big’ out of the way let’s go straight to price. The 2011 GMC Sierra Denali HD 2500 4X4 Diesel I tested will also tip the scales with a $62,124 price tag which includes over $15,000 in options. That amount alone would give most customers pause… except for a few notable things.

First off you’ll never have to pay anywhere near that price. But more on that later. Let’s first look at what guides the brow of this behemoth. A 6.6L Duramax diesel engine will offers today’s blue collar executive 397 horsepower and 765 lb. ft. of torque. That is tops for the class on paper, and is all well and good.But on the road it’s incredible.This vehicle can go from 30 mph to 70 mph with a Baruthian thrust. The engineers at GM put the torque right at the low to mid end of the scale which means that if you drive normally, you’ll rarely see it go beyond 2000 rpm’s. When you want power, you’re launched. 0 to 60 time is 7.4 seconds which for a work truck is simply unheard of.

So a plain jane Camry with a V6 is faster you say? You’re missing the point. This truck can also haul 21,700 lbs. with a fifth wheel while comfortably going 80+ mph on the open road. No kidding. No lawyers will even want to dispute that number.

Regular towing will yield 13,000 lbs. and the bed alone can haul over two tons. All of these numbers rate it top in the class. In functional terms you can’t buy the power of this truck at this price range in anything other than a new Corvette or an abandoned Libyan airfield.

If power alone could sell trucks the Denali trimmed HD 2500 would be hard to beat. But you have to look at the whole package. Here is the point where I have to throw in a disclaimer. Most work trucks have interiors that look like they came from cars that were half the price.

The one in this truck is nice… in the same way that an Impala LTZ is nice. You get thick leather seats up front that can be heated or cooled. Wood and aluminum accents throughout the cabin that aren’t ‘super-sized’ just because it’s a truck. A navigation system along with a touch screen that is surrounded with too many small plastic buttons that are of little use Plus you get a dashboard and door panels that look to be directly lifted out of a GMC Yukon Denali.

If you love GM full-sized trucks, you will love the interior of this truck.

On the road the overall set-up is tuned towards comfort and ease of use. The ride is slightly stiff without a load which is to be expected in a work truck. But the steering has a directness and precision that is more like a modern full-sized sedan than a truck. The seats in particular put a smile on my face during long drives through Atlanta and North Georgia. Over 750 miles worth in a week. Even in traffic, the Denali was a wonderful vehicle in most every respect and surprisingly easy to drive. But there are still more than a few opportunities for improvement.

GMC’s nav system is not nearly as intuitive or seamless as the Sync on the 2012 Ford F-250. For example, I was able to locate a nearby hotel and have the number called while driving down the road using the nav system quite easily. Other primary functions are easy as well.

Radio controls are on the steering wheel, the display screen is easy to read, and the trip computer offers quick feedback on the fuel economy, fluid levels and tire pressure.
So the main functions work. But I had to also read through the manual more than once to fully understand a lot of the other buttons and features. The small plastic buttons that surround the nav screen are particularly heinous in their feel and design, and should be shelved.

Another weakness? Although the vehicle is 241 inches long the back seats are also works in progress. The rear space is small compared to competitors and although an unusually upright position may be fine for kids and teens, your adult friends may not be happy if you take them on a road trip.

Finally I wish all automakers, GM included, would focus a bit more on upgrading some of the little things in their trucks once they venture into the higher price ranges. The power features along the door panels (windows, door locks, mirrors) would have been perfectly at home in a leftover Chevy Cobalt. The antenna is a base universal screw on and the intake louvre on the hood looks cheap compared to the rest of the vehicle .The bedliner also should have been upgraded with stronger materials to reflect the higher price.

Are these things dealbreakers? Not at all. But in a $62,000 truck these little things should be tended to as well. Especially since we’re talking about a truck with an asking price that can now get you a decent house in the ex-urbs where I live.

Which brings me to the key question. Is this loaded up work truck worth the ‘real world’ price? That answer has a twist given the time of year we find ourselves in.
As a 2011 changeover this model will go for thousands less than the new F-250. More than likely in the mid-50’s. With that you get a better ride, greater hauling capability, an interior that is better proportioned for most drivers, and a powertrain that is far better noted for durability.

If you are the type who buys new and keeps forever, I would consider it. But (and this is one I can’t help mentioning given what I see at the auctions) work trucks have phenomenal levels of depreciation. Due to the economy a lot of work trucks have been repossessed. It’s one of the few vehicles that is not in short supply in the used car market. As a matter of fact, when I parallel parked this truck in a street at the Atlanta zoo I happened to see…

The market on full-sized diesel work trucks is very soft at the moment, new or used. However October and the first fifteen days of November is an absolute dead zone in the car business. No tax refund checks. No Christmas bonuses. No holidays to encourage whatever conspicuous consumption is left in the marketplace.

With this also being the tail end of model changeover time, you should be able to get this truck for a lot less than $62k+. Think about right around $54,000. At that price it’s worth considering.

 A press fleet company provided me with one full tank of gas, insurance, and one nice conversation for this review. This particular model came with a Power Sunroof ($895), 20” Forged Polished Aluminum Wheels ($850), 6” Tubular Chrome Assist Steps ($689), Front Heated & Cooled Seats ($650), Rear Vision Camera System ($450), and a Heated Steering Wheel ($150).I did run over an opossum during the course of this review. I’m thinking about getting it stuffed and taxidermied so I can use it as my profile picture on Facebook. .

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Review: 2011 BMW X3 xDrive35i Mon, 03 Oct 2011 18:46:33 +0000

Despite what Frank Greve might tell you, some automotive journalists (well, automotive writers anyway. Car writers. Hacks.) don’t have gleaming new cars dropped off curbside, with caviar and champagne in the cupholders and an eight-ball of coke in the glovebox. Instead, a jobbing freelancer such as myself usually has to hoof it on the ol’ public transit network to wherever the fleet cars are kept, staring out the window at people picking their noses in Toyota Corollas and pretending not to notice the pressure on my thigh as the portly, odiferous gentleman on my left overflows his seat.

This time though, BMW being so far out of the way, I grabbed a lift from a friend in a track-prepped, bright orange Lotus Elise. I have never indulged in methamphetamines, but now I no longer need to: never mind road feel, that car was effectively fifteen miles of licking the tarmacadam.

After such a Habanero sorbet, the drive back in the BMW was fairly muted. Ho-hum, another big heavy heffalump with a fancy badge on the nose and an options pricing list that reads like the GDP of Belgium. Right? Next morning at the on-ramp: um, actually no. This thing’s a rocket.

Despite the safe beige colour of my tester, perhaps I should have got a whiff of this tendency for velocitous extramuralisation from its pugnacious stance. The new X3 is flared out, lowered, blocky and creased, making the corporate twin-kidney grille resemble nothing so much as the nostrils of a French bulldog. I like it quite a lot: there’s a smidgen of 1-series M Coupe in here, possibly because they both have such stupidly long names.

Best of all, while this new X3 has swelled by a few inches in all directions to make market room for the upcoming X1 (already available up here in the Great White North), it hasn’t been on the usual Nick Riviera Diet for Dangerously Underweight Individuals. Unlike other BMWs – the 5-series GT hits the chocotastic group so hard it should come with an available MUMU paint code – the X3 pulls the shades on the window to weight-gain, although optioning-out the turbo model will put you up two hundred pounds over the out-going model in base, manual transmission configuration.

More about that heft later, let us first slide into a cockpit furnished in the only the finest of rubberized cows. Apparently from the same polymerized herd that provides Angus beef to McDonald’s, the pleather interior in the X3 is pleasing to the touch and assuredly going to be wipe-down durable if this is your kid-hauler, but for $50K+ is its hard-wearing surface better than leather? Maybe. Yeah, and maybe I’m a Chinese jet fighter pilot.

Then again, the rest of the spartan cockpit of the X3 is really quite good. If I might voice a dissenting opinion on the usually-lambasted iDrive, I actually don’t mind it as a control device. I’m sure more than the usual week-long exposure provided by a review might prove it completely livable, if not quite Apple-grade intuitive. If you can’t stand it, all the radio and HVAC functions have redundancies on the centre stack and steering wheel.

Cargo-wise, and I assume that’s why you’re considering this yoke over a 3-series sedan, there’s plenty of head-and-legroom in the back seats. The trunk is big enough for things and/or stuff. A dog should fit, or maybe even one of those modern strollers that’s like a medieval siege tower with handlebars, although you’d probably have to hack the legs off of Fido to accommodate both.

But enough of this hum-drum Consumer Reports clipboard checking. If you wanted a pure family hauler, you’d have a Dodge Grand Caravan and a ex- Iwo Jima Marine’s thousand-yard-stare. This is a BMW: mach schnell!

Gripping the BMW’s hefty tiller (everyone in Bavaria must have mitts like Paul Bunyan), I face down the most idiotic on-ramp in the Western hemisphere: 5-degrees short of a T-Junction, at the bottom of a blind hill. As per usual, some trembling poltroon has pootled down to the the end of it and stopped dead in a rabbit-freeze panic. They misjudge, meander out and nearly receive a fifteen-ton Peterbuilt enema. I’m about fifty feet back, watching for a suitable gap.


Shrugging off its 4222lb curb weight, the Bimmer leaps forward with a surprisingly enthusiastic exhaust note, the 8-speed auto-box snapping off the gears with engaging rapidity. Forget the UV part, this thing hauls some serious S. Figure a 5-point-something sprint to 60mph and the quarter in the low-14s: enough to quash the boy racers.

To the heart of the matter, that amazing straight-six turbo engine. Where the 335i’s power-plant is twin-turbocharged, the X3 puts out pretty much the same power with just a single snail hanging off the exhaust manifold.

With a mesa-flat torque-peak from 1300rpm and up, its incredibly responsive twin-scroll turbo is more proof that we’re entering a second golden age of forced induction. After a week of boost, I was trying to figure out how to turbocharge the lawn-mower, the dishwasher, the Cuisinart… the cat caught me holding a dustbuster and looking at it speculatively and wisely buggered off tout suite.

Naturally, some credit also has to be given to the octo-tranny. Here though, despite what certain late-70s sitcoms might have you believe, eight is more than enough. While great when you put your boot in it and, above 30mph, slick as the salesperson who talked you into the optional $800 metallic paint charge, it’s a bit fussy around town. The shifts aren’t rough, and the X3 has plenty of low-end poke, but it is a little disconcerting to be already in fourth gear a heartbeat after leaving the line. It’s like riding shotgun with someone short-shifting at 1500 revs: a trifle jerky.

Flicking the shifter into “sport” mitigates the effect, but if you like to downshift to engine-brake, you’ll find yourself having to hit it repeatedly to come down from the higher gears. Coming off the freeway, I was hammering at the control like a whack-a-mole.

These are minor quibbles, and I’ve another: the electrically-assisted steering is… well, “numb” would be an overstatement, but certainly there’s not all the feel there that one could wish. Essentially the X3 is so well-balanced and handles so nicely, that I’d prefer just a tiny bit more BMW 3-Series flavour.

All is forgiven because they fixed the ride. The old X3′s feet of clay were its legs of concrete. Specifically, someone seemed to have constructed the suspension out of granite, bits of old cathedrals and depleted uranium. The new one is immeasurably better: it’s still firm in a German way, but instead of a foaming-mouthed scream of, “Ve haff ways of makink you talk!” every time you hit an expansion joint, it’s simply communicative. “Zo, tell me a little about yourself.”

Verdict then: really, I only have one problem with the X3, but let me leave that ’til last. It’s quick enough to be entertaining, roomy enough to be practical, priced well enough to fit into your driveway at a minor premium above less aspirational metal (and given BMW’s leasing programs, probably at a payment par with optioned-out prole-wagons), rides well enough to be a good tourer and isn’t even that expensive to keep in high-test. In short, it’s a Bayerische Motoren that really Werkes.

The only problem with the X3? The guaranteed sales success Bimmer’s going to see with this chariot means we’re never going to see a 335is wagon. Sad trombone.

BMW provided the vehicle and insurance for this review.

Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail IMG_1981 IMG_1980 IMG_1979 IMG_1978 By-bye wagon, hello crossover. ]]> 45
Review: 2012 Hyundai Veloster Fri, 30 Sep 2011 00:34:30 +0000

Recently a video surfaced from the Frankfurt Auto Show, depicting Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn puzzling over the remarkable quality of Hyundai’s latest Golf competitor, the European-market i30. But if Herr Professor Dr. Winterkorn seemed perturbed, and he certainly did, it wasn’t simply because of one car, even one aimed at the heart of his empire. The i30 is simply the latest in a string of strong Hyundai products that are rapidly erasing memories of the brand’s budget-basement roots. In an industry that likes to compare itself to the fashion business, Hyundai is hot. So much so, in fact, that TTAC readers are likely beginning to tire of hearing about it.

And when brands are hot, especially on the strength of their mass-market offerings, the next logical step is to build a halo car that reflects the values that made them so popular. But Hyundai’s unconventional positioning, selling everything from a $15,000 Accent to a $60,000 Equus, and its mandate to reflect “Different Thinking” mean a traditional halo car is out of the question. Enter the Veloster. Or, as Hyundai calls it, the “reverse halo car.”

Before we get into the car itself, let’s quickly deal with Hyundai’s confounding concept of the “reverse halo.” When asked by Wards Auto if he would consider building a GT-R or Corvette fighter, Hyundai Motor America CEO John Krafcik said

I’m not saying we’d never do one, but it wouldn’t be a priority of mine. You define your brand as much by what you choose not to do as what you do. We’ve got a laser-like focus on leading the industry in fuel efficiency.

Would it be cool and fun to have a halo performance car? Yeah. But it would be expensive, and what would it really do for us?

So, to truly reflect its brand values, a Hyundai halo car would have to be efficient. To properly accent (so to speak) Hyundai’s marketing tagline, it would have to be “different” (an affordable halo car?). And to show off Hyundai’s technological prowess (to say nothing of giving Herr Winterkorn’s ulcer an honest workout), it would have to have a direct-injected engine and an available dual-clutch transmission, the euro-tech confections that VW insists Americans don’t care about. The result: an Accent-based, 40 MPG, hatchback-coupe with three forward-hinged doors that’s nothing like anything else on the market. And whatever else might be said about the Veloster, its entire concept as a halo that shines from the bottom of the model range upwards represents a bold step by the upstart Korean company (if one borrowed from the Kia Soul).

And like every good halo, the Veloster is unabashedly extroverted in its exterior styling. It’s got the motorcycle-helmet proportions of its Scion tC competitor, but brings a more compact bulldog stance and the visual dynamism of Hyundai’s “fluidic sculpture” design language to the party. Pure coupe from the driver side, the third door gives the passenger side its own unique look, while the rear offers the most striking vista of them all with its chrome center exhaust, rounded glass hatch and Ferrari-font “Veloster” badge. Love or hate the looks, it’s tough to deny that it is simultaneously recognizable as a Hundai and yet far more expressive than any other Hyundai on the market. Reverse halo mission accomplished.

Slide into the driver’s seat, and Herr Winterkorn will be reaching for the Tums again. For all the praise its products do receive, Hyundai still doesn’t get enough credit for putting out some of the most solidly-assembled interiors at the lower price points, and the Veloster carries that banner with pride. The interior’s isn’t mind-blowingly glamorous, although it is a step up from the Accent design-wise, but from the dash assembly to the knobs, everything is built with reassuring solidity and quality materials. Almost every affordable car’s interior has at least a handful of elements that betray the inevitable cost-cutting, but in the Veloster I could literally only find two points of criticism. The silver plastic door pulls were supposedly inspired by a sport bike frame, but their lack of structural integrity clearly wasn’t. Also, the door latch handles felt cheap compared to the rest of the interior. For a car that starts just over $17,000, that’s quite the achievement… and one Herr Winterkorn’s latest round of similarly-pried products don’t come close to reaching.

The centerpiece of the Veloster’s cockpit is the standard seven-inch touchscreen which can plugged into an iPod or xBox and used as a movie or video game display, or play host to the optional navigation system. But none of these reasons explain why it’s standard in Hyundai’s “reverse halo” car. Just as the Veloster is the first Hyundai to offer a dual-clutch transmission, it’s also the first model to offer the brand’s full suite of OnStar-alike telematics services. Hyundai expended the breath of many PR people in hopes of generating some enthusiasm for the three packages of services, but they seem like they will appeal far more to older buyers, who prefer the link to a “real person” rather than wrangling with a device, than to the average Veloster buyer. And none of them elevate the genre beyond the services already offered by OnStar. Furthermore, some of the Veloster’s other tech toys, like the Gracenote voice-activated mp3 management system didn’t work easily or intuitively enough to get excited about (although the optional Dimension audio system sounded great).

But who cares about tech toys? After all, we’re talking about a sporty coupe that has 138 HP to move between 2,600 and 2,800 lbs (depending on trim and transmission) of car… the real question is “how does it drive?” And the truth is that it’s nowhere near as exciting as the spec sheet might have you believe. To begin with, the engine doesn’t feel as powerful as you’d expect, thanks to the core brand value of “fuel economy leadership.” The engine feels remote, short on torque, overly throttle-mapped and generally lacks the directness that make even an underpowered car fun to drive. And that’s the weird thing: especially with the manual transmission, there’s certainly enough power to not only stick with traffic but even have some fun on a back road… the engine simply has no personality, no desire to push. It hints at  a promising growl when you open it up through the low midrange, but the enthusiasm dies in an uninspiring thrash. But hey, nobody said 40 MPG on the highway would come free.

Speaking of fuel economy, the magical 40 MPG highway rating is only available on the manual transmission version, as the extra weight of the dual-clutch box drags the rating down to 38 MPG. Which is strange, considering the DCT seems programmed to match the engine’s tuned-for-economy flavor, and from a performance perspective, it’s a poor match for the low-torque (123 ft-lbs) engine. Meanwhile, anyone choosing the manual will likely find themselves wringing out the little mill, wrecking fuel economy in the process. Still, the manual is the clear choice for a car like this, both keeping the weight to a minimum and allowing better use of the engine’s power. Which is a pity, as this car is supposed to highlight Hyundai’s use of the latest transmission technology. And the DCT works extremely well, shifting smartly but smoothly… but again, it’s best when, like Hyundai, you value fuel economy over performance.

Out on the road, the Veloster’s chassis surprises not with its sporty response, but with its refinement.  You might expect a car like this to be a blast on the twisty bits and a bear on commuter roads, but the opposite proves to be the case. Freeway cruising is far more refined and relaxed than you’d expect from a stubby B-segment coupe, as the Veloster maintains composure and comfort even across crumbling sections of Oregon highway. But when you leave the freeways and begin pushing through the tight roads that wind up the sides of the Columbia Gorge, you soon realize that the Veloster’s suspension was tuned more for ride than handling. The electric steering offers more feel than other electro-racks, but the feedback is still painfully subtle. And there’s enough vagueness and lean just off-center to make you feel like you’re piloting a larger, heavier car than you actually are. Like the engine, the chassis is hardly inept… it just lacks the directness and playful spirit that defines every fun small car ever made. And the brakes are cut from the same cloth: they work just fine, but the small pedal ha a distinctly squidgy feeling that doesn’t inspire confidence in enthusiastic driving.

An uphill stretch of road punctuated with sharp hairpins brings out the worst in the Veloster as a dynamic proposition. Lacking confidence in the brakes, you slow prematurely and then wait endlessly for the engine to develop the torque to pull you out of the corner. And in the midst of those slow, tight corners, the body roll is most pronounced and the steering is at its least tactile. It’s never a mess dynamically, but there’s no doubt that Hyundai’s chassis engineers left some jinba ittai on the table. After winding back down the hill, the road follows a river valley, flattening into rolling undulations and opening up for some faster (but still blind) corners. Here the Veloster makes the strongest case for itself as a driver’s car. Keep the engine on the boil and you can build up the pace, as the front-end bites better when loaded-up in fast corners. At this faster pace, the Veloster gels into coherent whole, flowing from corner to corner in a far more satisfying fashion. But you still can’t shake the feeling that, for such a small car, it sure doesn’t feel as lively or intuitively chuckable as you’d hope.

And here’s where Hyundai’s fresh-faced, up-and-comer status shows: anyone who has been in this industry long enough will tell you that tuning a car to the perfect balance of ride and handling takes decades of experience and institutional memory. Hyundai clearly doesn’t have that, and as a result it played it safe with the US-market Veloster , tuning it a bit too far to the side of ride comfort. And based on reviews from Old Blighty, the opposite took place in the UK-market Veloster, which appears to have been tuned too far towards the enthusiast side of the spectrum, resulting in a crashy ride. The compromise made here was probably the right one given the death of the enthusiast market in the US, but it also proves why Hyundai probably isn’t ready to go chasing the GT-Rs and Corvettes of the world.

But then, that’s why Hyundai didn’t set out to make the Veloster a true enthusiast coupe, and why Hyundai Motor America executives only roll their eyes if you ask about the 200 HP Veloster Turbo that is apparently already approved for Europe. Instead, Hyundai built a funky, distinctive and surprisingly practical little car that reflects the values it champions in this market. It may not be a born-again CRX, but it’s less gimmicky and far more refined and practical than you might expect. And, with fully-loaded examples offering navigation, a nearly all-glass roof, back-up camera, dual-clutch transmission and a grip of other goodies for just over $23,000 (base models start at about $18,000), it offers a a European-style premium subcompact flavor for relatively little money. No wonder Herr Winterkorn is worried about these guys.

Disclosure: Hyundai held the launch of the Veloster in my hometown of Portland, OR. In order to play up the “Gen Y” marketing angle, they provided three nights of free concerts and tickets to a football game at my alma mater (the University of Oregon) in addition to the usual lodging, food and drink. In other words, instead of feeling like I was tagging along on a wealthy grandparent’s vacation, as is the case on most press previews I attend, this junket felt like it was tailored specifically to me… which is a strangely flattering, if somewhat troubling feeling. Make of that what you will.

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