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Saturday, 13 November 2010

2011 Volkswagen Passat for Europe - First Drive Review

A new Volkswagen Passat is coming, but we won’t see it in the U.S. Instead, we’ll get a yet-unnamed replacement currently known only as the “new mid-size sedan” and likely to be called, uh, Passat. But it won’t be the same as the Passat the rest of the world drives. Are we missing out?

Visual ties between everyone else’s new Passat and the previous car are obvious. The daylight opening, with its BMW-like kink, carries over, and the wheelbase remains virtually identical. But the design team has managed to transform the look into something rather more angular and substantial. The side panels now have creases with smaller radii, the shoulder line stretches through the C-pillar, the front overhang is shorter, and the rear overhang has been elongated.
The shortened front end was made possible by using the CC’s crash structure. The dashing side mirrors are another donation from the CC parts bin. The new Passat’s somewhat bulky front grille and lighting units evoke the Phaeton, as do the taillights. The standard lights look fine to us, but ordering xenon bulbs up front also nets LEDs in the rear, like those on the Phaeton. In Europe, the new car is also available as a station wagon called the Passat Variant.

The interior carries over with few changes. Most notable are the beautifully executed wood trim and the arrangement of buttons around the shifter knob. VW needed more space for buttons—on the previous model, certain options were excluded because there was nowhere to put the associated controls. However, as in the new U.S.-market Jetta, there is evidence of cost cutting inside. The lower dashboard is made of hard plastic, and the stitching on the door armrests is fake.
Slow Motion Doesn’t Feel Slow

VW put a lot of effort into improving the sound deadening, and it paid off. We sampled the Passat with three of the 10 or so engines that will eventually be available globally, and it exceeds class standards with any of them. Perhaps the most surprising is the extremely efficient BlueMotion, powered by a 103-hp, 1.6-liter turbo-diesel. It gets 55 mpg in the (hugely optimistic) European cycle—compared with 59 mpg for a Toyota Prius—and doesn’t feel horrendously slow, despite its anticipated 12.2-second crawl to 60 mph. It will actually cruise at speeds upwards of 100 mph, although not far beyond.

To reach deeper into that range, the top diesel is a 168-hp, 2.0-liter TDI that offers 258 lb-ft of torque coupled to a six-speed dual-clutch transmission. Top speed is 139 mph, and the engine rips the car forward in any gear. The soundtrack is recognizably diesel but is subdued and not intrusive. A 200-hp version of this engine is a possibility in the future.

Cooking with Gas

We also drove the 1.8-liter TSI, with a 158-hp gasoline engine coupled to a seven-speed dry dual-clutch gearbox, and it excelled, too. Although it doesn’t pull as strongly as the 2.0-liter diesel, we have no reason to doubt VW’s modest claims of a 0-to-62-mph sprint in 8.5 seconds and a 137-mph top speed. We do wish this engine had more energy at higher revs, though. Fuel economy is 34 mpg in the European cycle.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have a chance to drive the uplevel gasoline engines. VW offers the 2.0 TSI, with the 208-hp EA888 engine that’s also used in the European GTI. The top-of-the-line model is the V-6 4Motion, with a 300-hp, 3.6-liter VR6, which transmits its power to all four wheels through the six-speed DQ250 wet dual-clutch transmission. This engine was heretofore confined to the Passat R36, a sporty derivative that is being killed off. “An R model has no priority” now, says VW engineering chief Ulrich Hackenberg.

Scratch Golf

Although the Passat’s PQ46 platform is essentially a variation of the Golf underpinnings, it doesn’t drive that small, instead feeling every bit the bigger car. But the accompanying serenity doesn’t come at the cost of agility. The power steering is light but nicely weighted, there’s lots of grip, and the stability-control system executes its corrections so quickly that it usually preserves corner-exit speeds. The available XDS system, taken from the GTI, uses the brakes to approximate a limited-slip differential and makes hustling through turns less of an understeering mess.

VW boasts no fewer than 19 assistance systems designed to chaperone you and steer you clear of harm in just about any situation—like parking your car, being tired, or staying in your lane. The Passat will self-park, warn you when it thinks you are sleepy, monitor your driving, and even pop the trunk open if you move your foot under the rear bumper so you don’t have to put down those cases of beer.

Yes, it’s a loss that we won’t get this Passat here. But U.S. customers have proven time and time again that they are not ready to pay a premium for this kind of engineering—not this side of Audi, BMW, or Mercedes-Benz. Instead, we will get that “new mid-size sedan” that is bigger and has a longer wheelbase but is somewhat decontented. Since we can do without most of the nanny systems, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but we hope the Germanic driving manners and feel of the Passat translate to the “NMSS.”

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2011 Saab 9-5 Aero XWD - Road Test

Saab’s 11th-hour rescue at the hands of Spyker recalls one of our favorite stories of redemption. Although few would call GM’s stewardship of Saab “excellent,” it was certainly an adventure, and the parallels to the 1989 cinematic masterpiece Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure are strong. The heroes in both stories coasted for 20 years or so before being saved from the brink of disaster: Bill and Ted by a time-traveling rock groupie from 700 years in the future, Saab by an equally unlikely Dutch supercar maker. And forecasts for Saab’s future under Spyker are dubious—“Bogus Journey” may turn out to be as apt a descriptor for the follow-up to Saab’s GM interlude as it was for the Bill and Ted sequel. Spyker scooped up the gasping Saab for a $74-million song, plus $326 million in shares of the newly formed Saab Spyker Automobiles.
Saab Spyker CEO Victor Muller says that, by 2012, the company will break even, with worldwide sales totaling just 85,000. Saab sold fewer than 18,000 cars in the U.S. in 2008, but its global sales total actually exceeded the magical 85,000 by roughly 10,000 units. And this was with mostly outdated and/or badge-engineered products. Prior to this 2011 model, the 9-5 had gone 13 years without a redesign—twice as long as most cars today.

And then along comes this knockout. The taut styling invites long stares, and the aggressively tapered greenhouse and blacked-out pillars identify this as a Saab—the first in a while that doesn’t look like a ’90s model. Two trim levels ultimately will be available. The base model will be powered by a 220-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four and will be offered with a choice of six-speed manual or automatic transmission and front- or all-wheel drive. For now, only  the uplevel Aero is available, powered by a turbocharged 2.8-liter V-6 that churns out 300 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. This is paired exclusively with a six-speed auto and Saab’s XWD all-wheel drive.

Cool touches abound inside, neutralizing the sea of black plastic in which they swim: The IP needles are rendered in neon-slime green; the shifting-matrix air vents look likethey were inspired by the same ’80s music videos that Bill and Ted watched; and the start button is mounted in Saab’s traditional ignition-switch location on the center console. Nestled into the middle of the speedometer is a high-resolution display showing supplementary  vehicle, navigation, or audio information; a head-up display is optional. In a nod to Saab’s aeronautical past, the IP display can show speed in an altimeter-style scrolling readout that, combined with the traditional speedometer surrounding it and the head-up display, results in triplicate reporting of velocity and zero convenient alibis for the question, “Do you know how fast you were going?”
A chassis controller that Saab calls ­DriveSense is standard on Aero cars, optional on the upcoming 2.0T. It offers three positions: comfort, intelligent, and sport, with intelligent being the default. In sport mode, the steering gets heavier, the throttle and the shift mapping become more aggressive, and the shocks firm up. “Intelligent” is the same as “comfort,” but it mimics the sport mode’s shock and steering settings under hard cornering.

Even widely available gadgets and functions are executed here with an extra degree of thought. For example, Saab’s lane-departure warning chime is particularly shrill when the car drifts over a line, but it is programmed not to beep if it detects steering input. So, while most systems scold the driver for making unsignaled lane changes, the Saab does a better job of detecting the driver’s intentions and spares most of  the nannying.

It’s comfortable inside, too. The fantastic bolstering of the front seats had some staffers suggesting that GM keep these thrones and install them in the Corvette. Firm bottom cushions keep them comfortable all day long. Those confined to the back seat will be pleased, too, as the Saab offers more space than the BMW 5-series and Mercedes-Benz E-class. Saab may not enjoy the cachet of those cars, but comfort doesn’t care.

What appears to be a haphazard scattering of  buttons across the center stack turns out to be highly intuitive, and specific functions are easy to locate. Most tasks are controlled via an eight-inch display, navigated either by poking the screen or twirling a knob below it. The menu structure is logical and the range of options offered is impressive, allowing drivers to tailor exactly what differs, for example, between DriveSense’s comfort and sport modes.
Although the 9-5 tested here is the top-of-the-line Aero model with a turbocharged 2.8-liter V-6, its speed is only middle-of-the-road. Zero to 60 in 6.3 seconds isn’t slow, but we expect a bit more from a 300-hp, $50K luxury car. This is the same engine we savaged for its nonlinear power delivery in our review of a Cadillac SRX [August 2010] and the same V-6 that Saab has been using for years. With the 9-5, we noted nowhere near the dissatisfaction we found with the SRX and attribute that to the Cadillac’s extra 400 pounds and resultant slower acceleration magnifying the fluctuations. However, this aging engine is far less linear than the latest direct-injection turbo mills.

Still, power builds so quickly that, in first gear, you need to grab the paddle to upshift by 5500 rpm if  you don’t want to crash into the fuel cutoff at 6500. Turbo lag isn’t much of an issue—it’s just one continuous pull unless you’re slow on a shift and hit the redline. Then the drivetrain takes a second to collect itself, shift, and spool back up before you get full acceleration.

The automatic has paddle shifters mounted to the back of the steering wheel, and in manual mode refuses to upshift until ordered to do so. There’s an attempt at mimicking rev-matched downshifts, but the result is obviously an automatic transmission falling down a gear.

The 9-5 rides on GM’s Epsilon II platform, architecture it shares with the Buick LaCrosse and Regal as well as assorted GM products. Up front, Aero models pack GM’s new-for-2010 “HiPer Strut” suspension, a sort of modified MacPherson strut that GM says better maintains negative camber under hard cornering (resulting in a more consistent contact patch) and also reduces torque steer; 2.0T models get conventional struts. Out back, both cars ride on a multilink arrangement. Our results are a testimony to the efficacy of the setup, as the 9-5 was utterly free of torque steer, although all-wheel drive tends to help minimize that, too. It stuck to the skidpad with 0.89 g, a number that matches the last 335i sedan we tested. Braking from 70 mph also approaches the 335i’s, taking 173 feet, just five feet more than the BMW. Saab’s XWD mitigates understeer in the front-heavy 9-5, though the nose still leads the way at the limit.
The 9-5’s steering is heavier than the LaCrosse’s and weights up nicely as cornering forces build, but the wheel offers only slightly more feedback than the Buick’s. The car’s cornering ability, however, comes at the expense of ride. Even with DriveSense in comfort mode, the driver feels—and hears—a lot of movement from below. Rotate the knob to the sport setting, and the car’s body is tied even more directly to the road surface. Body movements are much more restrained, but surface imperfections send sharp jolts through the structure. Unless the asphalt is still steaming, it’s better to leave the car in comfort mode.

At the 2.0T model’s expected starting price of about $40,000, the 9-5 is a compelling luxury alternative. But an Aero version loaded up like the one tested here crests $50,000. That price nets a fully loaded 335i, a car that is pretty much perfect. Or, if you need the back-seat space, a comparo-champ Audi A6 3.0T.

Compared with the pedigreed European luxury marques, Saab is all but invisible to consumers who don’t think it’s already dead. Spyker’s first task is to proclaim to the masses that Saab is indeed destined to survive—and is about to do so with the marque’s best-looking frontman in a long time. While we can’t see the new 9-5 stealing many sales from the German elite, if Saab can keep that break-even point low, the handsome new sedan ought to divert enough sales from GM and other mid-luxury players to keep this new adventure from turning out to be way bogus.


Iconic AC Roadster - First Drive Review

This story is familiar in so many ways but unique in one: Claudio Ballard, founder of Iconic Motors, has actually built a car. He let us drive it, and not only did it not catch fire, lose a wheel, or otherwise attempt to self-destruct, it also drove pretty well.

Ballard’s ambitions are big. He says he wants to build “the world’s most refined sports car.” His first entry into the fierce arena of megabuck sports cars is the $425,000 Iconic AC Roadster, and he hopes to build 100 copies. Riding the coattails of the venerated AC name and Shelby Cobra styling, the roadster’s co-opted heritage and specifications—825 hp pushing around only 2400 pounds—suggest something other than refinement.

Powerful Friends, Powerful Motor

The roadster came about with help from some prestigious partners, namely, concept-vehicle development maven Bob Nowakowski of Technosports in Livonia, Michigan—a company whose portfolio includes work on such projects as the Shelby GR1 concept and the Ford GT—and Ernie Elliott, NASCAR engine builder extraordinaire. The car itself is more upper-crust hot rod than production car. Much of the roadster has been CNC milled from blocks of billet aluminum, ranging from chassis bits down to the monogrammed grillwork in the intake ducts. There are cool engineering tricks, too, like passages drilled in the upper control arms for brake fluid so no brake lines clutter the view of the suspension.

Key the NASCAR-inspired Ford V-8, and it snarls to life, a lumpy cam ensuring the fuel-injected mill sounds appropriately menacing. With a super-heavy clutch and 4000 rpm required to take off from a standstill, it’s easy to forget you’re in a “refined sports car,” and it’s even easier to believe you’re in a ride on the grid ready to fight for the checker at the 24 Hours of Daytona. The performance claims would be competitive on a racetrack—Iconic claims the car will reach 60 mph in three seconds and top out over 200.
With carbon-ceramic brakes, no ABS, and contact patches wide enough to make a Viper jealous, it’s all g-force and anxiety behind the wheel—thrilling, but thank goodness our drive was extremely brief. There’s no pretense of civility: Madness is what the Iconic AC Roadster is all about. In an age of ultra-high-performance but zero-work sports cars aided entirely by computers, it’s refreshing to have a car try to kill you every now and again. The brake pedal, although incredibly stiff, offers gobs of feedback. The manual steering rack is laser-precise, as is the six-speed Tremec gearbox.


The AC Roadster isn’t all caveman grunts and wooden clubs, though. This car also serves as the demonstration piece for Iconic’s sister company, VEEDIMS Corporation, which takes its name from its Virtual Electrical Electronic Device Interface Management System. In an easier-to-digest nugget, VEEDIMS basically replaces the traditional CAN-bus system that various in-vehicle modules use to communicate, instead utilizing good new-fashioned ethernet. It is supposed to make maintenance and monitoring of the vehicle’s vital signs much easier, although we haven’t heard much complaining about the current onboard diagnostic system.
This is where the story turns familiar again. Although the car we drove didn’t break and didn’t try to kill us in any way that suggested it wasn’t well engineered, it was not without its glaring faults. This is a prototype, but some parts that were claimed to be production spec—such as some interior switchgear—were obviously cobbled together. (Notice that many of the images are renderings.) Then, of course, there’s the issue of the styling. To us, Iconic’s AC Roadster looks like a Chinese knockoff of the Cobra it emulates.

Although the car is competent, at its price, our attitude toward the Iconic AC Roadster changes completely. We’d take a couple of the world’s most refined sports cars from one of the world’s established sports-car builders—or, heck, an original Cobra—rather than some upstart’s science-fair copy of one of the most celebrated, brutal, and rewarding cars in history.


2012 Bentley Continental GT - First Drive Review

What Bentley is asking you to do with the 2012 Continental GT is block out all the pink-over-white-quilted-leather GTCs you’ve seen on TMZ and all the murdered-out, 24-inch-rim-wearing Supersports at the SEMA show and instead think of its coupe as a timeless icon of ultra-refined performance. In its bid for immortality, the Continental GT changes very little for its first full makeover in seven years, as its bodywork—a bit crisper, a bit wider, and a bit more wide-eyed—evolves at a decidedly Porsche 911–like crawl.

Where’s the Wolfsburg?

Beneath the Conti GT’s louche associations was always a car that hewed to Bentley tradition, with hand-stitched leathers, book-matched veneers, and a roguish sportiness. And beneath that car was always a Volkswagen Phaeton. Although the Continental’s Phaeton platform carries over, all outward evidence of German involvement is gone, as a new center stack replaces the outgoing car’s Wolfsburgian HVAC buttons and much maligned, mildly reskinned VW infotainment system. Central to the interior is a new eight-inch touchscreen that fluidly guides you through Google Maps, a 30-gig hard drive, and the $7015 optional 11-speaker Naim stereo that is to sonic clarity what Ronald Reagan was to capitalism—defender, protector, and deshackler.
Around the screen are subtle improvements to the hide- and millwork. The biggest change inside is the more comfortable fluted- or quilted-leather seats, which are 77 pounds lighter in total than those of the old car. Overall, the GT shaves a commendable 143 pounds off the outgoing model’s weight, but it’s still very heavy at 5115 pounds. “This is our market position,” says Bentley chairman and CEO Franz-Josef Paefgen. “Let others build light cars.”

Continental Divide? Not Really

Does it drive differently? Hardly. It is still the same werewolf in a tuxedo, the same savage and powerful brute who dotes on his thimble collection. Its inscrutable combination of muscle and finesse bears evidence of endless tweaking. As in the Supersports, the final and enduring version of the old Conti GT, the Torsen-based AWD system has a 40/60 torque split that helps to dial out some of the GT’s fun-killing understeer. Also as in the Supersports, its ESP system will prevent itself from throttling back if it senses you’re serious about an upcoming corner. But the car is still grossly nose-heavy with the big twin-turbo W-12 hanging over the front axle.
Look under the hood, and you’ll marvel that the Conti GT turns at all. Yet turn it does, even if it is better suited to long sweepers than tight first-gear corners. The steering comes off-center predictably but weights up dramatically toward full lock. Slowing for a curve, the car dives forward and the brakes reveal a grabby spot in the middle of their travel. Grab a downshift from the column-mounted paddles, and all is forgiven: The six-speed ZF trans will let you plunge two gears in an instant to put you in the middle of the flex-fuel 6.0-liter W-12’s power band, an expletive-rife zone that begins at 1500 rpm and doesn’t let up until the horizon. This engine didn’t need any more power, but it gets some: 15 more hp, for a total of 567; and 37 more lb-ft, pegging the total at 516. Bentley expects the 0-to-60-mph sprint to take 4.4 seconds.
Entry V-8 on the Way

There’s a V-8 version coming later this year, with a 4.0-liter direct-injection engine shared with the Audi A8 mated to an eight-speed transmission. It will bring the Continental GT experience to a lower price point that is yet to be revealed, but perhaps it will be closer to the $150,000 mark than our test car’s optioned-up $226,975 (from a base price of $192,495). We hope it will be cheap enough to ward off any remaining Hollywood types.