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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.

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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.

RIP, OBD?

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.

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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.

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Thursday, 11 November 2010

2011 Ferrari 599 HGTE vs. 2012 Lexus LFA

You’ve got to admire the Toyota Motor Company’s cojones. Most carmakers usually  work their way up to producing a $400,000 supercar through the time-honored method of building expensive sports cars for decades and concurrently making their reputations while on the racetrack. Think Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz, Aston Martin, and Porsche.
Not Toyota. Before the Lexus LFA was announced, Toyota had only one truly fast, modern sports car to its credit: the Supra Turbo, which was sold here from 1987 to 1999. And even it was priced against the Porsche 968, not the 911. In the years since the Supra disappeared from the Toyota armory, the company has concentrated on shoring up profits with lots of worthy but stolid sedans, pickups, and SUVs, but it hasn’t made a seriously rapid sports car.

Until now. Akio Toyoda, grandson of the founder—and the man currently in charge of the company—is a racer and a sports-car fan. He wants to put some soul back into the organization. The LFA, which is positioned as a flagship for the F Performance line, was an on-off project for 10 years before it finally got the green light. Initially, it was going to use aluminum construction with a V-10 engine that drew on and reflected Toyota’s Formula 1 program. Over time, however, the goals changed. Toyota bailed out of F1 at the end of 2009, and the LFA ended up as a rolling test bed for the company’s new technologies, most notably the use of carbon fiber. The LFA has a carbon-fiber central chassis section with bolted-on aluminum subframes front and rear, which make crash repair easier and cheaper. Carbon-fiber composites account for about 65 percent of the body structure’s mass.

The rest of the LFA is relatively conventional. It has a front-mounted, Yamaha-developed 4.8-liter V-10 engine that makes 553 horsepower. Technical highlights include racing-style features such as a dry-sump oil system, titanium valves and connecting rods, an individual throttle body for each cylinder, magnesium-alloy cam covers, and carbon- and silicon-coated rocker arms with integrated oil jets. The rear-mounted transmission is a single-clutch automated manual, and the car, naturally, has carbon-ceramic brake rotors. Lexus is building just 500 LFAs for worldwide consumption, of which 50 will have a Nürburgring package that adds 10 horsepower, a stiffer suspension, a fixed rear spoiler, and—gulp!—$70,000 to the $375,875 sticker.

Ferrari has a bit more experience producing exotic two-place, front-engine coupes. Back in 1948, Carrozzeria Allemano made a coupe body for the 166 Sport chassis. Since then, there has been a long list of great front-engine, V-12 Ferrari two-seat coupes, including the 250GT, the 250GT Berlinetta Lusso, the 275GTB, the 365GTB/4 “Daytona,” and, more recently, the 550/575M Maranello range.
Ferrari’s current front-engine, V-12 two-seater, the 599GTB Fiorano, has been on sale in the U.S. since 2007. This successor to the 575M uses aluminum for its space frame and panelwork. As with the LFA, the engine is mounted back in the frame and takes drive to a single-clutch, automated manual transmission mounted in back, giving a slightly rear-biased weight distribution. The 6.0-liter V-12 engine is a derivation of the one in the Enzo supercar and makes a stout 612 horsepower.

During 2009, Ferrari addressed some slight concerns about the 599’s woolly at-limit behavior with a package called Handling Gran Turismo Evoluzione (HGTE). It features stiffer and shorter springs, a larger-diameter rear anti-roll bar, wider front wheels, and faster shifts and firmer magnetorheological shock settings when the steering-wheel-mounted manettino switch is set to the sportiest “race” mode. Inside, HGTEs receive every carbon-fiber option. The package adds $30,095 to the 599GTB’s sticker. With options, our HGTE-equipped car nearly hit $400,000.
Believe it or not, there was no HGTE test car in the U.S., so we had to make our way to Europe to conduct this comparo. We picked up the cars in England and drove to the hills and valleys of Wales, where the roads are lightly trafficked, lightly policed, and perfect for fast driving.

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Wednesday, 10 November 2010

2011 Ford S-Max Diesel - Quick Spin

One of the reasons for liking the Mazda 5 is that it’s actually a minivan, rather than a maxivan, which is what the likes of the Dodge Grand Caravan and Honda Odyssey have morphed into. The Mazda seats six and accepts plenty of luggage, but it doesn’t take up tons of space on the road and is actually pretty satisfying to drive.

In Europe, smaller minivans in the same vein are all the rage. And the best of them—according to critics over there—is the Ford S-Max, which shares its underpinnings with the Mondeo mid-size sedan. Ford CEO Alan Mulally agrees with the critics and was reportedly so impressed by the S-Max that he’s keen to bring the next-gen version to the U.S. (The smaller Focus-based C-Max is headed here for 2012.)

So, what are we missing out on? Well, the S-Max is a supremely comfortable, versatile vehicle that provides most of the utility of a full-size modern minivan with driving dynamics that are closer to a mid-size sedan’s. Plus, it has a smaller footprint, with an overall length of 187.9 inches compared with a Grand Caravan’s 202.5.
Loads of Options, Versatility for Loads

The high-spec Titanium edition we drove in England had all the requisite bells and whistles, including a rear-seat DVD entertainment system, seven-passenger seating, and a fancy navigation/infotainment system. Our car was powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine that makes 161 hp (114- and 138-hp versions are also available) and was mated to an optional six-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission. Performance is, one might say, “urban,” with 0 to 60 mph taking 9.8 seconds, according to Ford, and top speed coming in at 126 mph. However, our observed gas mileage, at 33 mpg, was pretty startling for a 3750-pound vehicle transporting a family of four and its myriad belongings.

You’d expect a vehicle of this type to have a great deal of interior versatility, and so it goes with the S-Max. The rear seats fold flat to the floor, and those in the middle row slide forward and fold. The vehicle takes seven passengers quite easily, although there’s not a lot of luggage space behind the third row in this configuration. As a five-seater, cargo space is voluminous. The exterior styling is, well, vanlike—but Euro-modern—and the interior has high-quality materials throughout; there’s no skimping in this segment in Europe.

But the best aspect of the vehicle is the way it goes down the road. The steering is faithful, there is minimal body roll, and the S-Max deftly copes with curving two-lane roads. The ride quality is excellent, too, compliant yet well controlled. The diesel engine gives superb midrange power, but upshifts occasionally occurred earlier than we wanted, which can be alarming in the middle of an ambitious overtaking maneuver.
We’ll Take It

Overall, we can see why the head honcho at Ford is so impressed with his company’s Euro offerings, including this one. But there is a rub: an S-Max equipped like our tester is frighteningly expensive at the equivalent of $53,350, or about $46,000 when shorn of the U.K.’s value-added tax. Even a base gasoline four-cylinder 2.0-liter Zetec model comes in at about $29,000, so if Ford wants to bring the vehicle here, it will have to find a way of taking cost out of the architecture.

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2011 MTM Audi S5 Cabriolet - Specialty File

With the last ergs of performance and efficiency already wrung out of today’s production engines, you’d have thought even the best independent tuning houses would have packed up their engine dynos and gone home. Instead, these conditions have bred a superstrain of tuner, resistant to the power war’s asymptotic virus. These shops—Dinan, Hennessey, and Alpina, for three—are able to keep squeezing out more juice without losing much of a car’s overall integrity. German tuner MTM aims for a place alongside them.

Former Audi engineer Roland Mayer founded MTM (Motoren Technik Mayer) in 1990; the turbocharged inline-five sits atop his résumé. Currently, Mayer’s firm tunes most of the VW Group brands, as well as Spyker, Ferrari, KTM, and Porsche cars. His newest product is the Cantronic system, a CAN (Controller Area Network)-bus-modification unit that bores into the vehicle’s brain and makes it do funny things.

Who You Calling Funny?

In the case of this MTM S5 3.0T cabrio, Cantronic infects the engine with an additional 97 hp (for a peak of 430) and 55 more lb-ft of torque (up to 380) by modifying boost pressure and fuel delivery. Unlike back-alley chip tuning, Cantronic maintains adaptive control of these parameters to balance power, efficiency, and engine life, and the unit can be removed easily. These guys are getting smarter.
With smarts come savings. The Stage 3 Cantronic on our test car costs barely more than $3000. (Stage 2 nets you 380 hp for $2500, and Stage 1 loosens the governor, allowing for a 171-mph top speed, for about a grand.) However, the package we drove came wearing about $15,000 worth of accessories in addition to the ECU lobotomy (all parts are available separately, either through Hoppen Motorsport of Sarasota, Florida, or MTM.) Our S5 wore 15-inch front brake discs pinched by four-piston calipers, 20-inch forged aluminum wheels wrapped in 265/30 Michelin Pilot Sport 2s, one-inch-shorter springs, and a 2.8-inch stainless-steel exhaust responsible for exactly zero of the extra hp. Which begs the question “Why?” until you hear it yelp.
Our test car was 39 pounds porkier than the softtop S5 3.0T we weighed last fall, but with better mass distribution (53.2/46.8 percent front to rear versus 54.5/45.5). It’s a significant 637 pounds lumpier than the nose-heavy S5 V-8 coupe we last put on the scales in 2008 (S5 coupes retain their 354-hp, 4.2-liter V-8s for 2011; all S5 cabrios come with blown sixes). When Audi swapped out the S4’s and S5 cab’s eights for sixes, it argued that the downsized engine’s lower weight and equivalent 325 lb-ft of torque would make 0-to-60 sprints a wash. MTM not only surpasses the cabrio’s acceleration but also brings the car into line with the lighter S5 coupe, managing the run in 4.7 seconds versus 4.8 in the big-engined car (the stock 3.0T cab hits 60 in 5.1 seconds). In the quarter-mile, the MTM cabrio matches the coupe’s elapsed time of 13.4 seconds but betters its trap speed by 2 mph: 107 to 105. Skidpad grip, at 0.91 g, fails to build on the stock cabrio’s excellent performance.

Mood: Enhanced

MTM’s mods change the character of the S5 more than these numbers might suggest. Whereas all varieties of Audi S5 come across as seamless and deliberate, the MTM is entirely flint and bark. It rides roughly over potato-chipped roads, and its brakes can be shrill. It makes up for this with astounding body control, tree-frog grip, a tendency to shoot out of corners like somebody called its momma a bad name, and the ability to release all its power in a great wave.

One thing about that power delivery, though: The Cantronic system shifts the torque peak from 2900 rpm in the stock engine to 4760. As a result, there’s some lugging at low revs in the normal transmission mode as the seven-speed DSG hunts for torque. Alas, Cantronic doesn’t change transmission programming. You’re much better off using the paddles behind the wheel or keeping the trans in sport mode. That way, you’ll keep the 3.0T humming. This engine is a puller, and MTM’s modified version rushes toward redline with even greater determination.

But is this car superior to the series S5? It’s certainly far more expensive: Our tester tickled $85,000—about $25,000 more than a base S5 cab—proof that nobody knows how to charge for horsepower like the Germans. There are a lot of cars we could have for that kind of money, and most of them start with a P, possibly an N. This particular car was not as fully realized as the base S5, or even the best from Alpina, et al. But $3000 for the intelligent, removable Cantronic system? That is totally worth it.

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Monday, 8 November 2010

Volkswagen New Beetle Turbo S

Here's a question almost all automotive product planners face from time to time: If you can't alter the basic shape, how do you sustain interest in an established model?

There are two answers: Cut off the top, or boost engine output, and with the New Beetle embarked on its fifth year, VW is applying both tactics. A convertible version is due this fall as a 2003 model, and a new hot-rod version, the Turbo S, is available as you read this.

These updates, as well as a variety of small cosmetic tweaks, show that current VW management hasn't forgotten the lessons of the original Beetle, which the company stuck with almost to the point of ruin. Volkswagen made hundreds of small engineering updates to the original Beetle throughout its half-century life span, but all were subtle, and most were invisible. Although the latter-day Beetle faces the same fundamental challenge—a profile that is essentially immutable—it also affords more latitude for tangible adjustments.

Consider the Turbo S, for example. Tramp on the gas, and it's instantly apparent that you're managing considerably more muscle than in any previous U.S.-market Beetle, old or new. This isn't entirely a good thing. The ballsier New Beetle hustles from stoplight to stoplight with more authority, for sure, but applying full throttle in a lower gear requires careful attention at the helm, because torque steer is far more of an issue here than in any previous iteration of this car. That is not to say that the New Beetle Turbo S will supplant the Saab 9-3 Viggen as the poster car for this front-drive malady. But the new powertrain contributes far more to the steering than its predecessor, despite the mitigating effect of its electronic stabilization program, standard equipment with this model.
The power increase is no surprise. VW has boosted output of its 1.8-liter DOHC 20-valve turbocharged, intercooled four in all its applications—Passat, Jetta, GTI, and New Beetle—and the New Beetle is the last to benefit. Boosted is the correct term, too. The Turbo S's increase—180 horsepower and 173 pound-feet of torque versus the base 1.8T models' 150 horsepower and 162 pound-feet—is mostly due to more turbo boost: 11.6 psi versus 8.7.

Allied with a new six-speed manual transmission—the only gearbox available with this package—Volkswagen engineers expect the Turbo S to shave 0.8 second off the 1.8T model's 0-to-60-mph times. Doing the arithmetic relative to our long-term New Beetle 1.8T would put the S in the mid-six-second range, with a quarter-mile time in the low 15s.
Beyond its extra punch, the Turbo S includes just about every goody in the New Beetle inventory—power sunroof, Monsoon audio with a six-disc CD changer, leather seats, power windows and mirrors, keyless remote entry, stainless-steel foot-pedal cladding, and tasty aluminum trim touches inside. We particularly approve of the white-on-black instrument lighting, which replaces the previous neonesque red and blue. The design of the 7.0-by-17-inch alloy wheels is unique to this package, although the P225/45R-17 all-season tires and slightly stiffer spring and damping rates are also available on GLS and GLX New Beetles with the 1.8 turbo motor.

Another element common to these three models is a deployable spoiler, which resides just above the rear window. When the New Beetle made its debut, this device was programmed to pop up at 93 mph. This seemed a bit extreme to VW's U.S. marketing people, who finally got their colleagues in Germany to reduce deployment speed to make the spoiler visible in everyday traffic. But the compromise—40-mph deployment, 10-mph retraction—creates a problem. Deployments and retractions are audible, sounding like pieces falling off the car, and in urban traffic they're also frequent.

Clearly, VW should rethink this element of the New Beetle, but aside from that—and the vast plastic mesa of the upper dashboard, another limiting factor that's baked into the design—the Turbo S is an engagingly lively Bug, delivering enough juice to run with some of the taller dogs in this class for about the same money: $23,950. Whether guys—and guys are what VW is looking for here, since some 60 percent of New Beetle buyers have been women—will perceive the Turbo S as a legitimate alternative to cars such as the Acura RSX and Toyota Celica GT-S remains to be seen.

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2011 BMW 535i - Long-Term Road Test Intro

When it comes to ordering long-term test vehicles, we often choose models that have fared well in previous evaluations, and we usually load them up with options—case in point: our $100,000-plus long-term BMW 750Li xDrive. The idea, of course, is to see if our infatuation with a new model can stand the test of time, and to test the newest and best gadgets and technologies.

Our long-term 5-series contradicts both conventions. Indeed, a 535i just finished behind an Audi A6 3.0T and an Infiniti M37 in a comparison test, and we didn’t go options crazy with this one. We selected two extras we couldn’t live without (the $2200 Sport package and the $2700 Dynamic Handling package) and two we could live without but didn’t want to (Cinnamon Brown leather for $1450 and an overpriced iPod connector for $400). We passed on the opportunity to test one piece of new technology by requesting a six-speed manual transmission over the new ZF eight-speed automatic, but we made sure to check the box for the new single-turbo inline-six because we haven’t had one for more than a couple of weeks at a time.
What we ended up with is a $57,225 sedan that many of us would actually purchase. Perhaps the only two options we regret not fitting to our car are heated seats and navigation, which would have added $2400.

New to Whom?

You might be wondering why our “new” long-term 535i has 18,000 miles on the clock. We are just getting around to this introduction because the 5 has barely stopped moving since we collected it from BMW’s North American home base in New Jersey last May. It has performed interstate duty en route to destinations as varied as Yellowstone National Park, Florida, and North Carolina. Nearly every weekend finds the car two to three hours from home.

The 5’s popularity for such trips is not difficult to explain. For starters, it rides well and is particularly smooth with the adjustable suspension set in comfort. The cabin might as well be a direct transplant from the 7-series—it is almost as roomy and has similar seats. Some staffers have bemoaned the lack of bolster adjustment, as in Sport-pack-equipped 3s and our long-term 750Li, but all are pleased with the articulated front seatbacks that adjust separately to support the upper back.
Perhaps the greatest long-haul attraction comes in the form of the single-turbo N55 inline-six, the details of which are chronicled here. With the cruise set near 80 mph, a few of us have seen efficiency in the low-30-mpg range—better than that of many smaller, less-luxurious vehicles. EPA ratings for the 535i are 19 mpg city and 28 highway compared with the twin-turbo 2010 car’s 17/26. Average in our less-thrifty around-town blitzes, and we’re traveling 24 miles for every gallon of gas burned.

We knew this car’s 4075-pound weight—nearly 200 pounds heftier than the old 535i—would hamper it in a drag race, but we were surprised by how much slower this car is. We clocked a 0.6-second increase in the 0-to-60 time, which grew to 5.8 seconds. The quarter-mile took an extra half-second, ticking past in 14.3 at 100 mph, 2 mph slower than the old 535i.

An Unfeeling Bavarian

Few complaints have made their way into the logbook. Among those that have, the overwhelmingly popular gripe centers around the 535i’s horrific steering—the same problem that cost it the aforementioned comparison test. There’s not even a hint of on-center feel, and it loads up artificially. The on-center vagueness seriously compromises the driver’s perception of the car’s capabilities. We’re holding out hope that BMW will remedy this soon, as the 5 uses an electric power-steering rack that can be reprogrammed with all the ease of updating Firefox on a PC.
The usual complaint with Bimmers—cost of ownership—has yet to affect us. As with all BMWs, service is free until 50,000 miles or four years pass. We’ve not had to take the 5 to the dealer once, although we do expect the onboard computer to request a service soon. The only additional cost we’ve endured thus far was adding a $9 quart of oil.
Judging by the rapid accumulation of miles on our long-term 535i, we should complete the 40,000-mile test in about nine months. Most long-termers need a year, perhaps a little longer, to hit 40K; talk about bucking conventions

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2012 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Roadster Images Leaked - Future Cars

It wasn't exactly a well-kept secret, and now it's officially out: Mercedes-Benz "is working on an SLS roadster," the company confirms. Stuttgart has simultaneously leaked pictures of a prototype that seems to be production-ready.

The open version of the SLS AMG, of course, loses not only its fixed top, but also its gullwing doors. The doors of the roadster version cut down deeper into the flanks and are operated with utterly conventional, Mercedes-sedan-style door handles, as opposed to the coupe’s pop-out pulls. In addition, the doors stretch farther forward than on the coupe, but the impression of an extremely long hood is still intact.

The photograph taken from above somewhat conceals the fact that the trunk lid is actually substantially taller, in order to cover the electrically operated convertible roof—and we don't believe there will be much space left for your luggage, either. Rollover protection is provided by two fixed roll hoops, and the seats don't look much different from those in the coupe. We doubt the leather-lined interior will be waterproof with the top down, despite the fact that the pictures were taken in the rain.

While AMG is starting to replace its high-revving, naturally aspirated 6.2-liter V-8 with the twin-turbocharged 5.5-liter V-8 (as seen in the S- and CL-classes), we suspect that the SLS roadster will keep the crazy 563-hp 6.2, which produces 479 lb-ft of torque. It is not only a trademark engine for the SLS, it fits the character of this sports car exceedingly well—and, with the top down, you will be even better able to listen to this engine's awesome soundtrack. With structural reinforcements and the convertible-top mechanism no doubt adding weight, performance could drop slightly.

Does the SLS AMG need an open-top version, since it is really defined by its gullwing doors? Well, this roadster proves that Mercedes is truly paying homage to the original 300SL, code-named W198; the gullwing W198 came in 1954, followed by a roadster version in 1957. Unlike its historical role model, however, the SLS AMG won't be entirely replaced by the roadster version. Rather, it will be complemented by it, with both cars being sold alongside each other.
While the SLS AMG coupe comes in at $185,750, the SLS roadster might break the $200,000 barrier. Mercedes-Benz could get away with it, as people are still lining up to get the revived gullwing coupe, so there is certainly no reason to sell this new variant at discount prices.

There's no rush for the carmaker, either: We don't expect to see the final car sans cover and tape before the Frankfurt show in September 2011, likely as a 2012 model. It will then compete with the Audi R8 Spyder, the Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder, and the top-level variations of the Porsche 911 Turbo cabrio.

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Sunday, 7 November 2010

Ford Announces Rally-Prep Kit, Race Series for Fiesta

Rallying and hatchback cars have never been as popular in the U.S. as in Europe, but Ford hopes to change that with the Fiesta R2 rally package unveiled at the SEMA show in Las Vegas. The R2 kit lets owners convert their factory Fiesta five-door into a rally-ready machine. It was developed by U.K.-based M-Sport, Ford’s official rallying partner since 1997, and debuted in Europe in March 2009.

The R2 treatment includes new pistons, connecting rods, valve springs, camshafts, fuel injectors, a louder exhaust, and a new air intake to bump the 1.6-liter engine’s output to 168 hp and 134 lb-ft of torque, versus 120 hp and 112 lb-ft in stock trim. Other components include larger brakes with AP four-piston calipers, Eibach and Reiger suspension components, a roll cage, race seats and harnesses, a limited-slip differential, a five-speed sequential transmission that permits full-throttle upshifts, and sundry other components needed for off-road racing.
There will also be a Stage 1 version of the kit for rally fans on a budget—the cars will still be eligible for the same rally series as full R2 cars, but will come with slightly less equipment. Speaking of which, Ford has yet to finalize the prices for either kit. In the U.K., the R2 kit costs ₤19,995, the equivalent of about $32K.

The kit is being distributed in the U.S. by Team O’Neil Motorsports in New Hampshire. Fiestas prepped by Team O’Neil will be eligible for the 2011 Fiesta Sport Trophy Championship, a one-make rally series organized by Rally America. (Team O’Neil also offers a Fiesta rally school for the uninitiated.) The winner of next year’s series will get a spot in a Fiesta R2 competing in the Wales Rally Great Britain and the chance to race in a shootout for a one-year placement working with M-Sport and the Ford World Rally team.

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Honda Announces Mugen Kit for CR-Z, Brings Two Concepts and a Bunch of Tuned CR-Zs to SEMA

Honda’s display at the SEMA show provides a slightly more convincing argument in favor of the “sport” part of the CR-Z’s “sport hybrid” moniker in the form of a pair of turbocharged concepts—we’ve found the standard car fun to drive, but feel its practicality trade-offs compromise the overall car. The display also features a CR-Z wearing Mugen components, as well as some CR-Zs tuned in the aftermarket.

The Mugen accessories (shown on the gray car above) comprise a new body kit, grille, rear wing, 17-inch multispoke wheels outside, and an aluminum oil-filler cap, with a black aluminum shift knob and new floor mats dressing up the interior. Just 300 such kits will be offered starting in spring 2011, each color-matched to the buyer’s CR-Z. Pricing will be set at a later date

We were more interested in the CR-Z Hybrid R (red, above) and CR-Z Racer (white, below) concepts. With turbochargers for the gasoline engine and upgraded IMA hybrid-drive components, the modified cars are said to produce up to 200 hp and 175 lb-ft of torque. (The stock combined power rating is 122 hp and 128 lb-ft.) A stronger clutch, a limited-slip differential, bigger brakes, and a firmer suspension are also on the agenda. The show cars scored new body kits, wheels, and big rear wings, too. Sadly, neither model is slated for production, though two race-spec CR-Zs will compete in the 25 Hours of Thunderhill race this December

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BMW to Launch EfficientDynamics Plug-In Hybrid Sports Car - Future Cars

We barely got started blogging about it, and now BMW is already taking the fun out of the speculation. The mysterious car with the front end of last year’s Vision EfficientDynamics concept and the rear of the outgoing 6-series will be built—predictably, without the retro butt.

Journalists got the opportunity to ride in a prototype today at an event in Leipzig, Germany. The two-door coupe is being developed for a market launch in late 2013 and will cost far less than the all-electric Audi e-tron or the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG E-Cell.
There are two 94-hp electric motors, one at the rear and the other coupled with the engine in front—a 161-hp, 1.5-liter, three-cylinder turbo-diesel—for total system power of 323 hp. The 0-to-62-mph dash is estimated at 4.8 seconds, and top speed is governed to 155 mph. There are 98 lithium-polymer cells, which allow the all-wheel-drive car to travel 30 miles on electricity alone. With its 6.3-gallon tank and a fully charged battery, it will supposedly go for 435 miles before you need to refuel or plug in. For series production, we suspect the diesel will be replaced by a less efficient gasoline engine to suit the tastes of U.S. and Asian customers (and, even more important, regulators).

This concept takes off silently but moves rapidly as soon as the internal-combustion engine comes alive. It's a new, artificial kind of sporty driving, but at a projected fuel economy of 63 mpg in the European cycle, we may be willing to compromise.

The new car is just 48.8 inches high and BMW makes "heavy" use of carbon fiber to keep weight down. The styling is polarizing, to say the least, but we like the daring and innovative approach. The front end gives you a good glimpse of the new face of BMW cars. If you thought the brand’s design was going to get more conservative after Chris Bangle's departure, you were clearly mistaken.


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Mazda Turbocharges Two 3 Sedans for SEMA

Since its introduction, the Mazdaspeed 3 has only been available as a five-door hatch and it remains the only way to get turbocharged fun from a Mazda 3. We’re not complaining, since it’s the more practical and—to most—better looking of the 3’s body styles. But we’re fans of sticking turbocharged engines where the factory doesn’t think they belong—Mazdaspeed 5, anyone?—so it’s cool to see Mazda getting in on the fun and dropping turbo fours into a pair of 3 sedans.

Mazda 3 Redline Time Attack

Looks aside, this is the kind of tuning we can get behind. The car may not exactly be pretty, but the Redline Time Attack Mazda 3’s 2.5-liter turbocharged MZR is putting out over 500 hp. To the wheels. That explains and makes up for the bone-through-the-nose front wing and shelf-type rear diffuser. It’s designed to run in the Redline Time Attack series’s Super Modified class wherein anything goes—in addition to the engine work-over, the car has been gutted, caged, and aerodynamicized. You can bet that all those tacked-on parts are functional, too, and necessary.
Mazda 3 Turbo Sedan

If ever there was a good looking Mazda 3 sedan, this is it. Subtle gray graphics over the white paint are supposed to mimic the Redline car’s paint scheme, which is itself an homage to the Le Mans–winning 1991 787B. The roof, mirror housings, grille, and fog-lamp surrounds are all gloss black. The taillights have been given an all-red treatment, which does a lot to clean up the sedan’s normally busy rear end.
And then there’s the engine: another 2.5-liter, this one breathed on by Tri-Point Engineering. A turbo kit supplies 10 psi of boost, bringing output to over 250 hp at the wheels—compare that to a crank-horsepower rating of 167 for the stock 2.5-liter and 263 for the Mazdaspeed 3’s turbo 2.3-liter. Front brakes and calipers come from a Speed 3, and the rears are off of a Mazda 5. The car also gets adjustable coil-overs and handsome 8- by 19-inch wheels.

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