Quick Spin auto news
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07/31/2014 [Original: Autoblog]
Category: Sports/GTs, Crossovers/CUVs, Porsche, Luxury, Quick Spin
I'd be willing to bet that 99 percent of all Porsche Macan owners will never take their vehicle on a track or see any more off-roading than a dirt path to a summer cottage, yet I maintain that there is no better venue to explore the absolute outer limits of the automaker's newest small family transport than on a racing circuit and an off-road course. It's testing at each extreme of the vehicle's operating envelope, with both challenges requiring very different capabilities. With that in mind, and looking forward to dirty floor mats and corded tires, I jumped at the opportunity from Porsche to wring out its new Macan S at Willow Springs International Raceway, located in Southern California's high desert.
The range-topping Macan Turbo (base price $72,300 plus $995 destination), with its 400 horsepower twin-turbocharged 3.6-liter V6 gets most of the glory these days. But many, including myself, would argue that its slightly less powerful sibling, the Macan S, is actually the pick of the new litter. Despite having 60 fewer horses under the hood and giving up six-tenths of a second in the sprint to 60 miles per hour, it costs a massive $22,400 less - money better spent on equipment that improves the crossover's ride comfort and capability, or perhaps a well-used Boxster for weekends.
Despite a reasonably attractive starting price of $49,900 (plus destination), very few Porsche buyers will leave the showroom with a base model. My Dark Blue Metallic Macan S tester was equipped with a slew of mechanical upgrades, including air suspension with Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM), Porsche Torque Vectoring Plus (PTV Plus), Sport Chrono Package and 21-inch 911 Turbo Design wheels. A Premium Package and a few other miscellaneous options bloated its price to $69,870. That's a very steep price for the premium compact crossover segment, but it's still less than a base Macan Turbo.
Rather than toss us keys in the Willow Springs paddock, Porsche delivered its Macan models to us scribes in Pasadena and then routed us over Angeles Crest Highway towards the track, which is located near Edwards Air Force Base. This generously provided me with another three or so hours behind the wheel, most of it on twisty two-lane mountain roads that were a nice preamble before our track and off-road excursions.
- In real-world driving on smooth pavement, it's hard not to be impressed with this crossover's road manners. Whether negotiating sweeping corners or short straights, the compact five-passenger Macan feels as planted as a two-passenger sports coupe half its height. I have nothing but praise for its engine, brakes and suspension on the public roads - quite honestly, each are a bit overkill for the actual task at hand, especially on heavily patrolled American roads.
- If forced to muster a complaint, I'd lodge it at the electrically assisted steering, which feels a bit light for my tastes (Porsche uses the same basic steering rack as the Audi Q5, but its ratios and boost have been altered to suit its higher-performance badge). I prefer my steering a bit heavier, especially mid-corner when the front wheels are heavily loaded.
- Despite sharing its Modular Longitudinal Platform (MLP) with the aforementioned Audi and a half-dozen other VW Group siblings, the engineers from Stuttgart have meticulously reworked every component to ensure i's pure Porsche - meaning in stock form it is every bit as capable on a track as it is on public roads. Competitors may offer crossovers with sport packages and oversized wheels and tires, but nobody (not even Audi's range-topping SQ5, which weighs nearly 300 pounds more) can touch the powertrain on today's entry-level Macan S, which arrives with a standard twin-turbocharged V6, dual-clutch (PDK) gearbox, six-piston front calipers and 19-inch alloys in staggered sizes, the latter of which can be good for performance but may be irksome come rotation or replacement time. Most of those are firsts for the segment.
- Track time was configured as a lead-follow event, behind a Cayman piloted by a talented Porsche Sport Driving School instructor. Although most would believe the sports car would leave a much larger crossover eating its dust (of course, its lap times were quicker), the Macan S wasn't far off the coupe's pace. The 4,112-pound crossover (the S model is about 130 pounds lighter than the Macan Turbo), with electronics configured in Sport Plus mode for aggressive track duty, made excellent use of its PASM and PTV Plus on the tight circuit. The standard all-wheel-drive system is shared with the automaker's 911 Carrera 4, meaning the Macan S genuinely behaves like a sports car, clawing its way around each corner with minimal body roll. With four very active contact patches, I was able to actually pull out of the corners quicker than the fleeing rear-wheel-drive Cayman. I tossed and threw this crossover around at ridiculously fast speeds and it maintained its composure in spectacular manner.
- The twin-turbocharged V6 and PDK twin-clutch gearbox deserve praise, too. The engine generates plenty of torque down low, and it doesn't mind running up to its 6,700-rpm redline. The transmission operates in lightning-quick fashion when the Sport Plus button is engaged, and it intuitively downshifts into turns and holds its gear when tenaciously cornering. This Porsche would never be even my tenth choice as a track car - it's still too big and heavy - but it has the capability to really scoot when prodded. "Mechanically sound" and "technically brilliant" - two phrases I'd use to describe the on-track performance of the Macan S.
- To prove itself equally as capable off-road, Porsche later led us up a short, but challenging, dirt trail in the mountains surrounding the track. Despite rolling on high-performance Continental summer tires that lacked aggressive tread blocks, the determined Macan S used its electronically controlled all-wheel drive system to slowly creep up some very steep inclines (there's no low range transfer case, so the traction control automatically brakes a spinning wheel to send power to the axle with the most grip). Hill Descent Control worked its magic on the way down. Ground clearance seemed to be the limiting factor, as expected, but my tester was able to use its air suspension to raise the chassis and gain some additional space beneath its rails when the going got tough. I'd personally choose something less expensive to scrape and dent on the Rubicon (a Jeep Wrangler comes to mind, or even a Cherokee or Grand Cherokee), but the outing on the loose trails convinced me that the Macan S has billy goat genes beneath its slick bodywork.
- A day behind the wheel of the entry-level Macan S demonstrated that Porsche has raised the dynamics bar in the compact crossover segment, much as it did with the Cayenne a decade ago, delivering a model that is competent and comfortable on the street and extraordinarily capable (maybe unnecessarily so?) on track and dirt. It remains to be seen how many people will pony up this sort of money for a compact CUV, but so far, the Range Rover Evoque has proven to be a masterstroke for Land Rover, which suggests that the Macan could be a huge success. In any case, Porsche's new baby leaves the less-costly BMW X3, Mercedes-Benz GLK and the Audi SQ5 chasing taillights and inhaling dust - at least until we see each of them answering the new challenge.
07/30/2014 [Original: Autoblog]
Category: Trucks/Pickups, Nissan, Diesel, Off-Road, Quick Spin
Last August, Nissan shook the truck world when it officially announced plans to source a diesel option from Cummins for its long-overdue Titan replacement, its full-size pickup that's slated to drop this January at the Detroit Auto Show. The 5.0-liter V8 turbodiesel is expected to make somewhere around 300 horsepower and north of 500 pound-feet of torque. This combination of an all-new truck with this new powerplant promises to dramatically change the competitive landscape, splitting the difference between the heavy-duty goliaths from the Detroit Three and the Ram 1500 Ecodiesel. And the intrigue moved a step further when the Frontier Diesel Runner Concept showed up at February's Chicago Auto Show, as it displayed a growing relationship between Nissan and Cummins in a very interesting potential future product.
That concept would melt its clear acrylic hood if the engine ran too long, but this month, we got a chance to test drive a production mule, an otherwise normal Frontier with a Cummins 2.8-liter diesel four-pot under the hood and a ZF eight-speed automatic changing gears. The powertrain figures to be a direct competitor to the 2.8-liter Duramax promised for General Motors' Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon twins, but will Nissan build it? All signs point to probably. Officially, Nissan is taking no position on the future of this program, but a concept followed by putting journalists into a test mule suggests the company is considering the option very seriously. Here's what we gleaned from a brief drive around the posh suburbs of Nashville:
Keep an eye on this space. A modernized Cummins ISF in the next-gen Frontier would offer buyers good power and fuel economy without needing a step stool to reach the seats. It all comes down to price.
- Before we get too deep into this Quick Spin, realize this Frontier is absolutely a mule, not a prototype. More or less cobbled together with duct tape and baling wire, it's not meant to be representative of a finished product, or even a started product. The transmission and shifter is straight out of a Chrysler 300 and the shifter surround is cut out of a panel of plastic. The "Low Sulfur Diesel Only" sticker is, well, just stuck on. We're looking at a "What if?" mockup.
- The engine is essentially a tweaked version of a Chinese-built, gray-iron 2.8-liter four cylinder. With 16 valves, the obligatory turbocharger and common-rail injection, this Cummins engine is already used for on- and off-highway applications. In things like generators, small earth-moving machines and large turf-management equipment (giant lawnmowers) it carries the "QSF" label, and for cabover trucks in Asia and other on-road applications, it's dubbed ISF. Some tunes offer as few as 49 hp, but it'll run until the sun explodes.
- This truck gets an intercooler up front wedged behind the grille, and combined with the base software, it develops 200 horses and a stout 350 lb-ft of torque, but this is not yet the smooth, quiet modern diesel we've come to expect. She's a rough character, albeit with a caveat: There has been zero software tuning done for the Frontier mule. Smoothness in a diesel comes from precisely controlling combustion, and while the engine is capable of eight fuel-injection events per cycle, there are only two with this software. Clatter, clatter, clatter, clatter.
- It may be loud at idle and under acceleration, but this dog offers bite to match its bark. Tons of torque and eager throttle response at times overwhelms the ZF gearbox (which also hasn't really been tuned) and a "ka-chunk!" shift squawks the rear tires. Midway through full-throttle acceleration, the turbo's wastegate locks closed and the engine really takes off, revving ahead quicker than the bottom of the range.
- At cruising speed, though, this is a surprisingly smooth and easygoing engine, almost quiet even. That shouldn't really be a surprise since tugging the weight of a truck and passengers is akin to a quarter horse pulling a little red wagon.
- Although nobody ever confirmed the product plan before Nissan's PR team put the clamps on its engineering staff, we were able to gather a few juicy tidbits about the program. One unnamed official let slip that engineers are targeting 2019 diesel emissions and particulate requirements for the rig, which may indicate potential production timing. Another interesting item is Cummins would consider shifting to a compacted graphite iron block with an aluminum head to cut down on weight and improve performance. Finally, Cummins prefers to build where it sells, so US domestic production for the engine would be seriously considered if a Frontier Diesel gets a green light.
07/18/2014 [Original: Autoblog]
Category: Sports/GTs, Euro, Hatchbacks, Renault, Quick Spin
America may be better known for its muscle cars than its hot hatches, but those who prefer their power sent to the front wheels with a liftgate at the back aren't exactly hurting for choices these days. Americans can stop by their local dealership and put in an order for a Ford Fiesta ST or Focus ST, Fiat 500 Abarth, Mini Cooper S or Volkswagen GTI or Golf R - excellent choices all, but that's still only a fraction of what our European compatriots have at their disposal. Automakers like Seat, Opel and Citroën (to name just a few) all offer hot hatches American buyers can only admire from afar. Few of them, however, can hold a candle to Renault.
With its Renaultsport line, Nissan's European ally has been at the forefront of the hot hatch game for decades, producing successive performance versions of the Mégane, Clio and even the Twingo. But this latest Clio RS 200 marks a change of direction for the French performance studio. Instead of a naturally aspirated engine, the new Clio RS is turbocharged. Instead of a manual transmission, it has a dual-clutch gearbox. And instead of three doors, it has five. In other words, it's nothing like the Renaultsport Clios that came before - or for that matter, anything Renault has made until now. But does that mean the French have lost their edge? We headed to England's Millbrook Proving Ground to find out.
- Breaking with a tradition set down by the first-gen Clio 16V and Clio Williams, the second-gen Clio RS 172 and 182 (not to mention the bonkers mid-engined Clio V6), and the third-gen Clio RS 197 and 200, the new Clio RS 200 Turbo is powered by a 1.6-liter turbocharged inline-four that's smaller than its predecessors' naturally aspirated engines, yet it's more potent.
- Driving 200 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque to front wheels through a six-speed DCT (another first in Renaultsport territory), this car takes 6.7 seconds to reach 62 miles per hour and tops out at 143 mph. While purists may balk at the death of their favorite hot hatch's linearity, it's hard to argue with the results, because with the best power-to-weight ratio yet, the latest Clio RS is both the quickest and fastest one to date.
- Numbers aside, the turbo Clio feels like a proper hot hatch, its engine pulling with tenacity even from low revs. The dual-clutch gearbox may not be the quickest unit out there, but it still swaps cogs more urgently than anyone could with a manual.
- The exhaust note may be muffled by the escargot attached to the engine, Renault has done little (if anything) to mask its turbo whine. In fact, it even piped the sound acoustically into the cabin. Those embracing the digitality of the new Clio RS, however, can select a pre-programmed, simulated exhaust note from a series of more bellowing engines - from a classic Alpine A110 to a modern Nissan GT-R - on the infotainment touchscreen to be played through the speakers (inside, not out).
- We were a little surprised to look down the spec sheet and find that our tester was fitted with the optional Cup chassis traditionally favored by enthusiasts. Not that it couldn't handle everything Millbrook had to throw at it - and believe us when we say that's a whole lot - or rode too harshly. In fact, this is the setup we would probably choose for ourselves. We just couldn't help but feel that this should be the standard suspension on a hot hatch like this, and that the Cup setup should be even more focused. Here's hoping a more hardcore Trophy suspension is in the works.
- The 12.6-inch front and 10.2-inch rear brake discs do an excellent job of keeping everything in check. In concert with the Clio's other dynamic elements, it's clear how steeped Renaultsport is in the world of circuit racing.
- Looking at a stock Clio hatchback on the street on our way back to London, one area where we're sorry to say Renault seems to have dropped the ball is in the styling department. The Clio RS looks fine - solid, if a little bulbous for our tastes - but despite the meatier 17-inch wheels, larger front air dam and extended rear spoiler, the Renaultsport version just doesn't look different enough from the standard econo-hatch on which it's based.
- Inside is a different story, with well-bolstered seats, a beefy steering wheel rim, aluminum pedals, oversized shift paddles and red stitching and trim to top it all off. Those who like flying under the radar in a sleeper, first of all, maybe shouldn't order it in yellow. But in a subtler color, it's not likely to grab much attention, for better or worse. Those who miss the more overt go-fast bolt-ons from previous Renaultsport upgrades may be disappointed, though.
- At the end of a regrettably short drive in Renaultsport's latest, we're left suitably impressed by this Clio. Push come to turbocharged shove, it delivers the goods - even if it does so in a decidedly different way than its predecessors and stablemates. Renaultsport has clearly gone for a broader appeal with this latest Clio, but after driving "warm" hatches like the Volkswagen Golf GT TDI and Kia Cee'd GT, we're left in no doubt that the Renault Clio RS 200 Turbo is still stronger than the gruyère on top of a bowl of onion soup - and just as hot... even if its predecessors somehow seemed hotter.
07/17/2014 [Original: Autoblog]
Category: Crossovers/CUVs, Dodge, Quick Spin
Watchers of the auto industry will notice a theme among the formerly bankrupted American automakers, General Motors and Chrysler. There are the post-bankruptcy vehicles, and the pre-bankruptcy vehicles. The former, in the case of Chrysler, include the Jeep Grand Cherokee, as well as the 200 and 300. For GM, there's the Cadillac ATS, Chevrolet Impala and Buick Encore, among others. These vehicles have the freshest styling, with sharp exteriors and well-crafted interiors, as well as advanced powertrains and well-sorted chassis.
As for the pre-bankruptcy vehicles, they tend to be easy to spot. Most suffer from inferior driving dynamics, cheaper interiors, poorer fuel economy and often homely looks (we know, there were some decent cars before the bankruptcy, but they were pretty heavily outweighed by the bad ones). Think late, last-generation Chevrolet Impala or Chrysler 200. Increasingly, though, we're seeing vehicles that split the balance between pre- and post-bankruptcy. Vehicles like the Dodge Journey.
The Journey debuted in 2007 as a 2008 model year vehicle, meaning it should fall into the latter category. But heavily breathed upon in 2011, it now enjoys a new, 3.6-liter Pentastar V6, a big, critically acclaimed touchscreen display and in the case of today's tester, a new-for-2014 Crossroad spec.
So which is it? Is its pre-Fiat DNA too much to overcome, or is the Journey Crossroad the ugly duckling that became a less ugly duckling? Naturally, we had to find out.
Mainstream family rigs don't get much older than the Dodge Journey. Having first debuted in 2007 as a 2008 model, and last getting a refresh in 2011, it's one of Dodge's oldest offerings. More worryingly, it's a vehicle the brand is going to need to rely on once the Dodge Caravan is put out to pasture. It's not a bad vehicle now - and compared to some pre-bankruptcy vehicles, it's easily one of the better ones. But in a segment where consumers are extremely picky and competition is seriously intense, the Dodge Journey may be a good value, but it's still hard to recommend, tough new looks or no.
- The Crossroad builds on the well-equipped success of the mid-level Journey SXT Plus, and includes Chrysler's excellent 8.4-inch UConnect infotainment system with Bluetooth and satellite radio, as well as dual-zone climate control.
- While the Crossroad doesn't add any new tech to the package, it butches up the looks of the mostly inconspicuous Journey body with off-road-inspired front and rear fascias that give the model more of a crossover look (the standard model can still look a lot like a minivan or wagon). That newfound attitude is furthered by the inclusion of 19-inch black-finish five-spoke wheels, dark chrome grille surrounds, smoked taillights and black headlight housings.
- The Crossroad's cabin includes leather seats with "sport mesh" inserts, while liquid graphite trim pieces add some flash to the plasticky cabin. While they're largely from the Chrysler parts bin, the addition of a leather-wrapped wheel and gearshift knob (both part of the Crossroad trim) help elevate the cabin to a somewhat more premium feel.
- Dodge offers a prehistoric 2.4-liter engine and four-speed automatic on the Journey, but we feel confident in saying you really don't want this. Instead, upgrade to the aforementioned 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 ($1,700 on the front-wheel-drive model, or $3,400 for the all-wheel-drive six-cylinder). This V6 sings to the tune of 283 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, which is plenty of grunt for the 4,238-pounder. Adding the Pentastar also adds a six-speed automatic. The downside of this package, though, is that you'll be netting mediocre fuel economy - the best the Pentastar/AWD Journey can hope for is a dismal 16 miles per gallon in the city and 24 on the highway.
- We shouldn't be surprised, but the Pentastar/6AT combination is still very good to drive several years after its debut. Power is abundant, and the V6's revvy nature makes it a surprising bit of fun. It sounds quite nice, too. The six-speed is quick on upshifts, although we found the Crossroad's unit to be slower than we remember on downshifts.
- The ride isn't too objectionable. Secondary impacts (body shuddering and whatnot) can be present, but they only really popped up on some of the worst roads we came across. On smoother thoroughfares, there is nothing terribly offensive about the ride, aside from a excess of vertical movement, and the addition of 19-inch wheels has done surprisingly little to hurt the ride much, either.
- The Journey's driving environment is a fairly typical one for the CUV market. The driver rides high, and the range of adjustment on the six-way power driver's seat is just fine. The seats themselves aren't heavily bolstered (a plus for easy ingress/egress), but we still think they'd be quite comfortable for long hauls.
- Of course, the folks who buy the Journey aren't likely to be too interested in dynamic driving impressions. As a family vehicle, there's little reason to think that the Crossroad wouldn't make a suitable companion for those who need two rows everyday, but who appreciate the additional utility provided by an extra pair of seats. Space in the second row is certainly manageable for the longer-legged, although not surprisingly, the optional third row is somewhat cramped. Opting for the third row, though, does add a tilt/slide function to the second row and a recline function to the third, both of which are rather nice.
- The third row does, however, have a big impact on cargo volume, as it shrinks from 37 cubic feet to just 10.7 cu ft when the back seats aren't stowed.
- Prices for the Journey Crossroad start at a very reasonable $24,995 for a front-drive model, although the sticker will read at least $28,395 if you want something like our all-wheel-drive, V6-powered tester. From there, things can increase quickly. There are eight different optional packages that add everything from the aforementioned third-row seats, to a backup camera, upgraded stereo and heated seats. In our case, we had all of that, and then some.
- With an as-tested price of $32,315, our Journey included a sunroof ($1,095), upgraded 368-watt, six-speaker stereo ($395), a navigation and backup camera pack ($995), a Popular Equipment package (heated seats and steering wheel, plus automatic headlamps for $995), a rear-seat entertainment system ($1,195) and the optional third-row seats, which added a tilt and sliding function for the second row ($1,500). As we mentioned earlier, we'd strongly recommend opting for the $3,400 AWD/Pentastar combo.
07/16/2014 [Original: Autoblog]
Category: Coupes, Sports/GTs, Nissan, Quick Spin
If you blinked, you missed the opportunity to pick up the last iteration of the 370Z Nismo, because after just a touch over a year of availability, Nissan is replacing it with this updated 2015 model - the third 370-based iteration from the brand's in-house tuner. Consider this version to be the 370Z's swan song. An all-new version is expected soon with a downsized turbo mill (something in the vein of a 240Z would not be impossible). That reality aside, the latest 370Z Nismo is a compelling package. It looks like a million bucks, takes a corner with verve, and gets belated tech goodies. Here are our impressions from a drive we took last week near Nissan's US headquarters in Tennessee.
The 370Z has always had one crucial fault: a starting price about five thousand dollars too rich. Nissan undoubtedly has very good reasons for the model's price point, but it always feels like there's just not quite enough bang for the buck. Pricing for the refreshed Nismo version hasn't dropped yet, but the old car started at around $43,830 and we wouldn't expect it to budge much. Does it look cooler, go a bit quicker in a straight line and around corners, and have a better interior? Yes. Is it worth almost $8,000 over the base car's starting price? Probably not. But that doesn't make it any less fun.
- The Recaro seats are wonderful (shocker!). In fact, the interior in general has a much more strapped-down feel about it. A run-of-the-mill 370Z feels pretty great, although it's not a place for the big-boned. As with past Nismos, upgrades include contrasting colors on the faux-suede seat inserts, the gauge hood, the ten and two positions on the steering wheel, and a red centering stripe on the wheel. The upgraded materials are all nicely chosen and the cabin is a very sexy place to live - weirdly practical, too, considering the huge cargo area. Checking the "Tech" model option box brings a 7.0-inch nav screen in place of the upward swinging door over a storage cubby, a much-needed backup camera, an impressively good Bose stereo, and de riguer Bluetooth connectivity with audio streaming. Everything seems to work as advertised.
- This is probably the best-realized version of the 370Z's styling. The car looks finished in a way that can only come with - get this - six years of refinement (believe it or not the 370Z debuted in 2008). The nose and tail have been given a more purposeful look that's also less street-racer. A side benefit is improved aero performance with more downforce and a whopping three inches of reduced overall length. Muy bueno. The side skirts claim to improve aero, but we think they just look cool. Also, we dig that Porsche 911 RS-style ducktail spoiler and restyled 19-inch Rays Engineering alloys.
- The 3.7-liter V6 engine remains one of the gems of the auto industry: quick to rev, gutsy torque curve, and a bit more power than the standard car, although the same as the last model - still up by 18 horsepower and 6 pound-feet of torque versus the standard Z, to 350 hp and 276 lb-ft. The exhaust note is a delight, offering just the right amount of raspy crackle without even a hint of fart cannon.
- Straight-line acceleration can get into illegal territory really quickly, but it's the other elements of performance that shine. Stomp the brakes too often and you may walk away with a chest bruise, for instance. The Nismo benefits from chassis bracing and increased spring rates that provide a machine that's more tool than car - it's only as good as the driver wielding it, so in the hands of a master, it turns out beautiful work.
- Most of our complaints have nothing to do with the Nismo-ness of the car and everything with the Z itself: the weird gauges for fuel level and engine temp, aging interior plastics, terrible - terrible - rear visibility, and less than stellar steering response. This platform is really showing its age.
- Although we will always prefer manuals, we're beginning to turn the corner on the paddle-shifters versus the row-your-own manual - the best dual-clutch boxes are just quicker. However, in the 370Z Nismo the traditional hydraulic autobox still can't respond quite urgently enough. With anything but full throttle, there's too much of a delay.
- The manual box is simply a delight to work. Pleasingly notchy shifter, well-placed gears and rev-matching for the normals, but optimal heel-toe pedal placement for experienced drivers. Even better news for true believers who buy the manual is a shorter final drive ratio, bumped from 3.69:1 to 3.92:1. Automatic cars get stuck with a 3:36. Of course, it's all in the trans gearing choices, but we'd by lying if the manual didn't feel a lot more responsive in the all-important second and third gear ratios.
07/14/2014 [Original: Autoblog]
Category: Hybrids/Alternative, Crossovers/CUVs, Lexus, Luxury, Quick Spin
With so much hullabaloo being made over the first gasoline turbocharged engine produced by Lexus, it's easy to forget that there's another option for those who'd rather (barely) hear the whirring of electric motors than the high-pitched whizzing of turbos. That's too bad, because we think the NX 300h is one of the more interesting hybrids on the market, due in large part to its innovative all-wheel-drive system and relatively sporty driving dynamics. We spent several hours with the brand-new hybrid crossover from Lexus, and we came away with plenty to talk about.
- Of course, the big thing that differentiates the 300h from the 200t is its drivetrain. In place of the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder sits a 2.5-liter gasoline engine that runs exclusively on the Atkinson cycle to save fuel, augmented by a pair of electric motors and mated to an electronic continuously variable transmission. Lexus is no stranger to hybrids, buoyed by parent company Toyota's expertise, and the basic setup used by the NX 300h is a well-known quantity shared with the ES 300h.
- First thing's first: Lexus estimates that the NX 300h will score 35 miles per gallon in the city, 31 on the highway and 33 combined with front-wheel drive, and 33/30/32 with the brand's new E-Four all-wheel drive. That's quite a bit better than the 200t AWD's 21/28/24 figures, and it ought to put it at the very front of the luxury compact crossover market, though it will be engaged in a who-can-sip less battle with diesel entrants from the likes of Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
- There is no mechanical connection between the front-mounted engine/motor combination and the rear wheels on AWD models. Instead, this is a through-the-road system, wherein a completely separate motor/generator unit, rated at a peak of 67 horsepower, is housed in a unique transaxle that sends power to the rear wheels as needed. We didn't find many areas to test this setup up in Whistler, British Columbia, outside of a gravel parking lot, but that was enough to confirm that power does indeed flow to the rear when called upon, as it isn't all that apparent under normal dry driving conditions.
- Interestingly, Lexus tells us that electricity from the battery pack is diverted from the front-mounted electric motors to the rear motor when slip is detected from the front wheels. In this way, the all-wheel-drive system is used only when called upon, thereby saving fuel, and total system horsepower remains unchanged. The majority of the time, the rear-mounted motor sits idle or is used to recapture more energy during periods of regenerative braking.
- Yaw-rate sensors allow the rear motor/generator unit to be used as a handling aid, similar to the Dynamic Torque Control system used in the turbocharged NX 200t.
- A total of 204 individual nickel-metal hydride cells are used in the NX 300h, split into two packs that weigh 44 pounds each. The units are mounted on either side of the rear seat, close to the car's center of gravity, says Lexus.
- The P314 transmission is new for the NX, and it brings with it the brand's first use of a kick-down feature in a hybrid. As its name implies, the kick-down is called upon when the driver's right foot mashes down on the throttle, and it basically just forces the transmission into full-speed-ahead behavior.
- Kick-down or not, nobody is going to mistake the 2015 NX 300h for its turbocharged sibling when it comes to all-out acceleration. Whereas Lexus claims a 0-60 run of 7.0 seconds for the AWD 200t, the same task takes the 300h about 9.0 seconds. In other words, the hybrid is very much tuned for efficiency over maximum performance.
- Still, driving the NX 300h can be fun. Lexus has included steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters that mimic the ratios of a standard automatic transmission, like that of the 200t. These allow drivers to hold the hybrid's engine at predetermined rev points, providing quicker response on curvy roads, uphill and downhill grades, or anywhere else its pilot deems their use desirable. We used them extensively, and they work fine.
- Maximum fuel savings can be found using the Eco driving mode, which dulls the CUV's responses in exchange for improved consumption. There's also an EV Mode button that allows the NX 300h to run using electricity only at speeds up to 25 miles per hour for as much as half a mile. Again, we tested it, and it works, so long as there's sufficient charge in the battery.
- Besides the reduction in outright accelerative performance and a corresponding increase in fuel efficiency, the NX 300h driver isn't asked to give up much of the full NX experience. Handling seemed roughly equivalent between the two models, both were quiet and composed out on the road. The biggest hybrid-related gripe is the brakes, which feel awkward in certain stopping situations due to the fight between regen and the standard disc brakes.
- The F Sport package can be had along with the hybrid, and this is the way we think we'd order an NX, if we were so inclined to buy one. We prefer the looks of the F Sport over the standard bodywork (non-F Sport seen above), and we're suckers for the cool stitching of the revised interior in that model, too. We honestly didn't find the 2.0 turbo all that convincing as an enthusiast-grade engine - the BMW X3 28i offers a superior driving experience when going quickly is of paramount concern - and the Hybrid's Sport Mode, combined with its paddle shifters, offered us just enough driving enjoyment to make the Hybrid F Sport with E-Four AWD our personal NX of choice. Plus, lowered gas bills leaves more money for other enjoyable endeavors, right?
- That said, remember: Your mileage will most definitely vary, and the quirks of a hybrid powertrain aren't to everyone's tastes. Test drive 'em both, we say, if you're in the market for an entry-level luxury crossover, but don't forget that this is a crowded segment with a bevy of compelling options from the US, Europe and Japan.
07/11/2014 [Original: Autoblog]
Category: Trucks/Pickups, Euro, Volkswagen, UK, Quick Spin
There are those European automakers that compete in the North American market and those which don't. Volkswagen, for its part, may stand firmly in the former category, but there are still entire model lines that remain out of reach for American buyers: diminutive hatchbacks like the Up! and the Polo, of course, but also entire brands like Seat and Skoda which (unlike Audi, Porsche, Bentley, Bugatti and Lamborghini) aren't offered Stateside altogether. But there's another brand within the Volkswagen Group whose products don't, in Wolfsburg's estimation, warrant shipping to the United States - one that would be all too easy to forget. And that's Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles.
Though its products wear the familiar VW emblem, Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles stands essentially as another brand within Europe's largest and most successful auto group. It mostly produces vans like the Caddy, Transporter, Crafter and Caravelle, but is also responsible for the only pickup truck built in Germany: the Volkswagen Amarok. Like its van stablemates, the Amarok isn't offered in North America, so we crossed the pond to drive it for ourselves (and, of course, for you) to see what we were missing out on.
- Previewed by the Robust concept back in 2008, the Amarok has been on the market (certain markets, anyway) since 2010. Assembled both in Argentina and in Hannover, Germany, the Amarok is similar in form to other short-bed, four-door pickups like the Mitsubishi Triton (similarly not available in America) and the Honda Ridgeline.
- The version we drove on both paved and off-road sections of the Milbrook Proving Ground in the UK was the Amarok Canyon, a special edition that's based on the mid-spec Trendline (not on the base Startline or top-spec Highline) but upgrades with more bells and whistles, from 19-inch alloys and running boards (which are mounted too close to the body to actually use as a step) to tinted glass and two-tone upholstery. As a result of all the extra equipment, the relatively reasonable 20,000-pound UK starting price (before tax) balloons to a comparatively enormous as-tested price of 37,841 pounds (including VAT). That makes this fully-loaded pickup about the same price in the UK as an entry-level Touareg, which starts at nearly $45k in the US. Significantly more, for comparison's sake, than the Honda Ridgeline that starts here at just under $30k and tops out at $37,505.
- Powering the Amarok Canyon - an interesting trim name considering the GMC pickup of similar size and nameplate - is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder TDI packing 178 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque. (A scrawnier 138hp version available on base models.) It's mated to either a six-speed manual or eight-speed automatic transmission, and drives through VW's 4Motion all-wheel drive system. We drove both versions, and found ourselves wondering why more pickups aren't available with stick-shifts back in America, because the combination of rough-and-tumble truck with manual transmission, quite frankly, proved intoxicating. (Last we checked, for reference, you could still get three pedals on the Chevy Colorado/GMC Canyon, Ram HD, Nissan Frontier and Toyota Tacoma, but that's about it.)
- With the six-speed manual, the Amarok Canyon will run from 0-62 miles per hour in 11.0 seconds and top out at 110 mph. (Add another 0.3 seconds and cut two mph for the automatic.) In other words, the Amarok is not one of Volkswagen's more performance-oriented models, but then it's not designed to be.
- Driving the Amarok on a variety of surfaces, we were, however, impressed with the combination of truck attributes and German engineering - a rare combination considering that every pickup available Stateside is a product of either an American automaker or a Japanese one. Their trucks may be able to haul more than VW's, but if you've ever stepped into a pickup and felt a bit of a disconnect between the ruggedness of its construction and that of its fit-and-finish, the Amarok would likely surprise you with its German build quality. The overall feeling is of a truck - inside, out and underneath, right down to the knobs and interior trim - that has been hewn from sturdy materials.
- What you shouldn't expect, however, is for the Amarok to drive like a Touareg with a pickup bed at the back. It's not a crossover - it's a truck, and it drives that way (even if it exhibits more car-like refinement than most). But after a day of piloting nimble hot hatches and cossetting diesel luxury sedans (more on those to follow if you watch this space), the Amarok proved a breath of fresh, earnest air and left us with a big smile across our faces. This writer never considered himself much of a truck guy, and in truth has not driven many pickups; it took the Amarok's unique combination of go-anywhere capability coupled with German engineering to really see the attraction (especially where necessity doesn't dictate the form).
- Which only raises the question: should Volkswagen bring the Amarok to North America? We don't doubt that it would find a fair few customers in American dealerships (and maybe a few more in Canada, where European tastes often prevail), but the Amarok was never designed with the US market in mind. And four years since its introduction overseas, the opportunity may have passed VW as the Amarok soldiers along. But sooner or later, Volkswagen will have to replace the Amarok with a new model. When it does, we hope it at least takes American tastes and potential demand into account. Because as it stands, we're missing out.
07/10/2014 [Original: Autoblog]
Category: Trucks/Pickups, Toyota, Off-Road, Quick Spin
Introduced at the end of 2006, this is the last year for the Toyota FJ Cruiser, the reincarnated FJ40-series Land Cruiser that will shortly journey to Takama-ga-hara, the Plain of High Heaven. In its first model year, we drove it to SEMA and found it, shall we say, coarse. It bobbled on the freeway and droned in the cabin, its boxy interior providing four bounce-boards for unpleasant frequencies. Tall mirrors helped one work around the eclipse of vision aft of the B-pillars, but navigating traffic required forethought and technique. Its turning circle was measured in kilometers. For the first two years of its life, it needed premium gas. It may have been fun to look at, but we couldn't wait to get out of it.
That's not the case anymore, and now the FJ Cruiser is poised to join a long list of vehicles that got better and better, then got axed.
With the Hummer H3 gone and the FJ Cruiser in hospice, the Jeep Wrangler will once again be left alone in the US market as the ideal post-nuclear, go-anywhere truck for the misanthropic survivalist. One of the most popular games in the off-road party is to take sides as vehemently as Union and Confederate when it comes to one's choice in rig, but no matter which side you're on the party is a lot more fun when there's more choice. For that reason and more, and turning 180 degrees from our first experience in 2006, we say it's a shame the FJ has to go.
- The current FJ is rugged, and surprisingly it's not really all that coarse dynamically. We drove into the California desert, spent nearly a week playing around off-road, drove it back and then did a lazy Sunday drive to Santa Barbara, all in amiable comfort. That could have to do with our Ultimate Edition being fitted lots of Toyota Racing Development parts, like the TRD coils wrapped about Bilstein shocks affixed to handsome 16-inch TRD wheels on 265/75 R16 BF Goodrich All Terrain T/A tires. The bellow from the TRD-engraved tailpipe is totally copacetic at steady throttle, but gets a touch frenzied if you bury the accelerator.
- Moving is not a problem, though. The 4.0-liter V6 puts out 260 horsepower and 271 pound-feet, not a raging amount of go for a 4,343-pound truck, but plenty to do whatever you need to do as long as you remember you're in an SUV. (When the FJ first came along, it had 239 hp / 278 lb-ft).
- Beyond its quadratic styling - that we still think looks good - the FJ remains full of quirks, like the three miniature windshield wipers, the sun visors for the side windows, the backup camera screen in the rearview mirror, the fact it's available in two-wheel drive and, on the 4x4 versions, with a six-speed manual transmission.
- It still feels like Toyota knew this was only going to be a fling and not a love story, so it didn't lavish its heart nor its wallet on the relationship. The FJ Cruiser only ever received incremental improvements, the interior is barely different now than it was in 2007. You can't get factory navigation or automatic climate control, the audio system's dot matrix and glowing orange display take us back to 90s-era Sony Walkmans, and the giant HVAC dials are useful for those who wear wearing welder's gloves while they drive.
- The interior is likely a big part of the reason sales have declined from more than 56,000 in its first year to just over 13,000 for the last two years. It can't be the off-road ability - the FJ digs dirt like hippos love mud. In addition to the trail-specific suspension, there's a two-speed transfer case, locking rear differential, hill descent control, a quarter-inch aluminum skid plate and rock rails outside, the triptych of compass, clock and inclinometer completing the feature set inside. It will do its fair share of rock crawling, and it will happily dine on rocky stretches of desert and covers pure desert ground with the calm of an ostrich.
- We'd take the manual, preferring to have full control in the tricky bits, but the five-speed automatic puts on a good performance.
- Many complain about interior room, but we didn't find it problematic. Once you get past the shoebox ambience, it's easy to get in through the giant front doors, and although your grandfather might make a mess of getting into the back seats, we couldn't see how it would be a problem for anyone purchasing the FJ Cruiser for its intended purpose - off-roading. Open the rear-hinged back doors, slide the front seats up, haul in. A deep cutout in the back of the front seat left swinging-knee room for us, and that was with the front seat as far back as it would go. Bonus points for the genuinely adjustable armrest on the driver's seat, a feature we're not used to seeing outside of a Land Rover.
- There are only 2,500 Ultimate Edition FJ Cruisers on offer this year, all in Heritage Blue and sporting the white headlight surround mimicking the FJ40 face that launched a squillion off-road adventures.
06/24/2014 [Original: Autoblog]
Category: Convertibles, Sports/GTs, Bentley, Luxury, Quick Spin
There are few things in this world I enjoy more than an enthusiastic drive down tree-lined backroads on a warm summer evening. If you're familiar with the geographic location of Detroit, you won't be shocked to learn that we don't have the sort of very-involving roads found all throughout California and other gorgeous parts of the country, but we still have some stretches of pavement that can be pretty darn fun when driven in the right car. The vast majority of our scenic roads, however, are of a more relaxed nature. And that's why, despite my tendency to prefer high-strung hot hatches above all, I will never say no to a big, fast convertible during the warm season.
As far as said big, fast convertibles go, perhaps none is more exquisite than the 2014 Bentley Continental GT V8 S Convertible, pictured here in the striking shade of St. James Red. Not long after returning from my trip across the pond to drive Bentley's V8-powered Flying Spur sedan, I was given the chance to sample another one of its eight-cylinder wares, this one carrying less heft, offering a smidge more power, and, oh yeah, a roof that neatly stows behind the rear seats.
As luck would have it, the weather for my Conti weekend was the absolute definition of perfection. And so I took to those sweeping, tree-lined roads way outside of Detroit to see how this Bentley's "S" badge improves upon the lovely GT V8 Convertible I drove last year. Hard work, but somebody's gotta do it.
- By the numbers, the differences between the V8 and V8 S aren't that significant. Power from the twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V8 increases from 521 horsepower and 502 pound-feet of torque - increases of 21 and 15, respectively, versus the non-S model. This makes the 5,445-pound, all-wheel-drive convertible a bit quicker off the line, with Bentley estimating a 0-60 time of 4.5 seconds, compared to the 4.7 of the standard droptop.
- But the power increase isn't the point here. Specific changes for the V8 S turn this already exquisite Grand Tourer into a much more precise, nimble machine - words I've never used to describe one of the creations from Crewe before. Front and rear spring rates have been increased by 56 percent and 18 percent, respectively, versus the normal GT Convertible. Bushing stiffness is up by 70 percent. The ride height has been lowered by 10 millimeters. The rear anti-roll bar is 54 percent stiffer.
- Numbers, shmumbers - when all that data comes together on the road, you've got a Bentley that's one of the better cruisers the company has ever produced. I've always found these cars to be completely unflappable, but the GT V8 S hauls with a far more focused attack. There's an eternity of grip available from the 20-inch wheels and 275/40ZR20 Pirelli PZero tires, not to mention the all-wheel-drive system keeping the power delivery under control. But that characteristic boat-like float that occasionally marred the GT's comportment is gone. The V8 S stays totally poised through the corners, and on the more involving stretches of my sun-drenched drive route, it truly felt lighter and more agile than its nearly three-ton heft would suggest. Feedback through the steering wheel is improved versus the non-S model. The large brakes keep everything in check with supreme force. This is truly one of the best-driving Bentleys I've ever tested.
- One of the greatest sounding, too. The 4.0-liter V8 used here is an engine truly tuned for performance, whereas the larger W12 is just, well, very powerful on its own. But here in the S, the aural stimulation from the twin-turbo eight-pot is improved, and with the roof folded back, it's a delight. There's a low, throaty growl bellowing from the figure-eight-shaped pipes out back, with a sort of percussive bass line that makes you feel like you can hear each individual piston pumping. I know Bentleys are all about being quiet and refined - and with the roof affixed, you barely hear anything - but this improved tone does wonders for the whole motoring experience. It's fantastic.
- Speaking of the roof, it's a solid, thick, nicely upholstered bit of work that'll easily shield you and yours from the elements. Beyond that, the Conti GT V8 S Convertible's interior is just as nice as it is in the coupe, or the Flying Spur sedan. Is the tech outdated? Yep. I've complained about that before. But like every other Continental with which this interior is shared, I've got nothing but praise for the craftsmanship and material selection. It's really hard to beat a Bentley in terms of comfort and refinement.
- Compared to the standard GT V8 Convertible, the S adds a premium of $13,100 - a solid chunk, no doubt, but that's chump change for the Bentley connoisseur. That sneaky little "S" really does change things for the better, here, making the Continental Convertible a genuinely involving, wonderful car.
- The Continental GT V8 S Convertible is still the same big, luxurious Grand Tourer it always was - comfortable, tight as a drum, damn sexy and plush. The changes to this S model aren't immediately noticeable in the city, or even while straight-line highway cruising. But on a beautiful day, on a tree-lined, lazy backroad, the Big B comes into its own with far more precision than before. It's an easy car to love, and one I'd happily steer every day until the summer fades away.
06/18/2014 [Original: Autoblog]
Category: Crossovers/CUVs, Hyundai, Special/Limited Editions, Electric, Quick Spin
Hyundai leased its first Tucson Fuel Cell crossover last week, which the automaker claims makes it the first mass-produced fuel cell vehicle (FCV) that has been offered to the public (Honda may have something to say about that...). The vehicle, which consumes hydrogen and emits only clean water vapor from its exhaust pipe, will initially only be offered for lease in Los Angeles and Orange Counties - two regions with the greatest density of approved hydrogen stations in the country - at a monthly fee of $499. Since the Tucson FCV rolls down the same Ulsan, Korea, production line as its gasoline-powered relative, production is scalable based on customer demand.
We attended the festivities with the dignitaries and elected officials - clapping until our hands hurt. But once it was over, we grabbed a set of keys and took the new FCV for a half-hour jaunt. According to the press materials, written with a welcomed sense of humor, Hyundai will offer it in three colors: white, white and optional white. Our test model was the latter.
I've driven a handful of FCVs from a variety of manufacturers, and each seems to trump the one before it as the technology is refined. With the Tucson Fuel Cell crossover, Hyundai has impressively crossed its T's and dotted its I's - there are no range issues, drivability concerns, fuel costs, or maintenance worries to speak of.
- The outside of the FCV is difficult to distinguish from the combustion version, until one gets close enough to see the "Hydrogen EV" cladding on the sides, the "Blue Drive" on the front doors or the "Fuel Cell" on the rear liftgate. The lack of exhaust pipe (one exists, but it is tucked out of view) is another giveaway. Subtle aero improvements have dropped the coefficient of drag from 0.37 to 0.35 (overall length, width and height are essentially identical between the models).
- Hyundai has hidden two 10,000-psi Kevlar-wrapped tanks inside the Tucson Fuel Cell. The larger tank is just aft of the rear axle, with its dome raising the rear decklid floor by a couple inches (nearly imperceptible). The smaller tank is located just in front of the rear axle, beneath the passenger seats in the space normally occupied by a gasoline tank. The tanks are bulletproof - literally - having been tested for burst, drop, and gunfire resistance. If there is a leak, hydrogen sensors will alert occupants (there is a flush rectangular sensor on the roof of the cabin, just behind the driver's head near the dome light). If there is a fire, a pressure-release valve will vent the hydrogen in a controlled manner to prevent damage from overpressure.
- In operation, a fuel cell vehicle acts and drives much like an electric vehicle. The Tucson Fuel Cell driver faces a familiar two-pod instrument cluster, with an analog charge/power dial on the left and an analog speedometer on the right. Set inside the power dial is a digital segment temperature gauge for the coolant. While electric vehicles typically don't have coolant, the FCV uses the liquid to cool its fuel stack and electronics. The digital segment fuel level gauge, set inside the speedometer, displays the balance of hydrogen in the tank. A digital multifunction display, between the two dials, offers trip computer information and instant MPGe readings.
- The standard Tucson Limited FWD, with a 2.4-liter combustion engine, tips the scales at 3,294 pounds. Brace yourself, as the Tucson Fuel Cell is a whopping 807 pounds heavier. Hyundai engineers note swapping the gasoline engine for a fuel stack under the front hood is virtually a wash, and the two Kevlar-wrapped fuel tanks don't add much weight. The bulk of the added mass comes from the 24-kW lithium polymer battery pack. Normally, packing on that much weight has negative effects on driving dynamics - but not this time. The low-slung and compact weight (all situated below the passenger cabin) acts like a ballast inertia damper, countering the bouncing and jarring effects of driving down the road. Unlike its combustion-powered sibling, which can follow undulations in the pavement, the Tucson Fuel Cell glides like a silent electric limousine.
- Compared to its combustion sibling, the Tucson Fuel Cell falls 48 horsepower shy, and it has all of that aforementioned mass to lug around. Have no worries, as the FCV's torque output is 44 pound-feet greater, and it's available right off the bat. While a 0-60 time of about 11.5 seconds won't cause whiplash, the emission-free crossover feels rather zippy between 15 and 45 miles per hour, which is likely where it will spend most of its time. It is expectedly lethargic off the line, and overtaking at highway speeds requires a bit of planning, but if you keep it in the sweet spot, it's rather enjoyable.
- Hyundai fits the FCV with slightly larger front disc brakes (to accommodate the increased curb weight) that are part of a regenerative braking system that pumps energy back into the battery pack. Brake feel is okay, but the driver is definitely aware of the two-tons beneath his jeans. The steering, with slightly different ratios, is overboosted, light and uncommunicative - but it adds to the sense of isolation, so many will approve. Transitional handling is safe and predictable, but unexciting - anyone who shows up at an autocross with a Tucson Fuel Cell crossover is lost.
- Government officials in California haven't figured out how to properly charge for hydrogen fuel (once they develop a pump that can reliably weigh the fuel while dispensing, expect it to be sold by the kilogram), so Tucson Fuel Cell owners enjoy free fuel from six Los Angeles-area stations during the term of their lease. The programs are capped at 12,000 miles a year, so owners won't break the bank. Each of the stations is equipped with a 700-bar pump fitted with a WEH TK17 pistol-grip nozzle that is held just like a common gasoline/diesel nozzle. Once the female nozzle is connected securely to the male nipple on the vehicle, an infrared ring around the nozzle communicates data wirelessly with the vehicle during fueling - it is clean and very high tech. At today's dispensing rates, it takes about 10 minutes to fill an empty "tank" (two tanks, actually). A full tank, which is 12.4 pounds of hydrogen, delivers a range of about 265 miles.
If you are an Angelino seeking a no-compromise emissions-free vehicle, the Koreans may have just written your hydrogen song.
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