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Review: 2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid

Wednesday October 16th, 2013 at 8:1010 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

By David Colman

Hypes: Best Hybrid For Enthusiasts
Gripes: Poor Brake Feel

“There are Hybrids and there are Turbo Hybrids” intones the commercial for VW’s latest offering in the Hybrid field, concluding that this Jetta is “The first Hybrid that you’ll actually want to drive.” For once, the advertising is right. Given this Jetta’s proclivity for balanced handling, gratifying surge, and seamless transitions between gas and electric modes, the Jetta Hybrid is way more fun to drive than a Prius or a Volt. This Jetta’s turbocharged, 140hp, 1.4 liter, inline 4 will stuff you smartly into your sport seat when the auxiliary electric motor kicks in to generate a combined output of 170hp and 184 lb.-ft. of torque.

Despite the fact that VW has slapped a set of ultra hard (Treadwear rating: 500) ContiSportContact 205/50R17 tires on distinctive looking sluice-gate alloys, the Jetta Hybrid grips the pavement surprisingly well. Just one quick blast through a set of S-curves will convince you that the Jetta is geared more to driving fun than any other Hybrid currently available. Adding to the enjoyment is a real, 7-speed DSG transmission, with manual override available at the flip of the stick. With most other Hybrids, you must contend with the disconcerting whine and bumpy shifts of a continuously variable transmission. On the minus side, the Jetta’s regenerative brakes feel grabby and imprecise, a first-generation Hybrid trait that other brands have long since eliminated.

Thankfully, VW has spared you the self-congratulatory encomiums so prevalent in other Hybrid instrumentation. You’ll see no falling leaves to document wastefulness here, no confusing charts requiring you to take your eyes off the road. If you need to regale yourself with such corroboration, look elsewhere because this VW barely bothers with such self-aggrandizement. Instead of shrines to virtue, you’ll find a simple 10,000 rpm tachometer, which also doubles as an engine status indicator with colored zones for “charge” (green), “eco” (blue) and “boost” (white). Indeed, the cockpit of the Jetta is pretty much what you’ve come to expect from this company: top quality materials, expertly assembled into an environment that stresses keeping your eyes on the road rather than on the dash.

To be sure, there’s a standard touchscreen navigation system, but because that screen does not subsume all other control functions, you needn’t bother with it when you just want to adjust temperature or fan speed. For those needs, VW provides good, old fashioned ribbed knobs that look great, and work better than any touchscreen embedded pictograph. In keeping with the businesslike demeanor of the driving environment, the steering wheel is fat rimmed, with recesses cut at 9 and 3 o’clock for thumb grips. Understated matte aluminum appliqués to the door panels and dash look just right in this Bauhaus minimalist cabin.

Of course the bottom line to the Jetta Hybrid equation is neither Euro centric design, nor turbo zing, nor gearbox splendor, but its EPA/DOT Fuel Economy rating of 42 MPG City and 48 MPG Highway. The Combined figure of 45MPG is so good that the government estimates your annual fuel expense at just $1,250. Compared to the average new vehicle, the Feds claim you’ll save $5,350 in fuel costs over 5 years. Our bit to run the Jetta Hybrid dry ran out of time because we simply couldn’t drive enough miles in 1 week to do a real mileage check. Suffice it to say that after driving it almost daily, we still had half a tank left with an estimated mileage range of 250 miles still showing.

The Jetta Hybrid is a remarkably stout product. Braking issues aside, it generates the same kind of driving enthusiasm you’ve come to expect from other VW products. There’s a basic honest and consistency at work here that will not disappoint longtime enthusiasts of this brand.

2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid

  • Engine: 1.4 liter in-line 4, turbocharged + electric motor
  • Horsepower: 170hp
  • Torque: 184 lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 42 MPG City/ 48 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $32,010
  • Star Rating: 8.5 out of 10 Stars

Posted in Expert Reviews, Feature Articles, hybrid, Volkswagen |Tags:, , , || No Comments »


Review: 2013 Nissan 370Z Touring

Tuesday October 15th, 2013 at 8:1010 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

By David Colman

Hypes: Arrive and Drive Racer
Gripes: Stick Shaker, Poor Rear Vision

The 370Z is a no-compromise sports car. If you aim to own one, be forewarned that it’s you that will be making the compromises, not the Z. For example, the simple act of climbing aboard the coupe version will present a physical challenge you may not enjoy. The roof line is so low that you will have to duck your head while you fold your torso in order to slide bottom end first into the seat. After repeated pretzel twist entries, I learned to grab the steering wheel while performing a butt thrust that made me look like flopping Dick Forsbury, the first high jumper to clear 7 feet backwards.

Of course, once you’re ensconced in the Z’s tight cabin, memories of your inglorious entry fade as you lavish your eyes on the magnificent instrument panel, which provides more information than you could ever use. A trio of angled gauges atop the dash crown, mimicking those of the first 240Z, inform you of water temp, battery charge and time of day. A 9,000 rpm tachometer zips to redline in front of your nose, while the adjacent speedometer reads to 180mph. The fat, perforated leather steering wheel responds with vernier precision to the most minute adjustments. It is also fitted with handy tabs for scanning your SiriusXM presets without having to reach for the radio faceplate.

The Z’s love-it-or-leave-it personality persists once you prepare to drive off. Should you need to back out of a parking slot, you will be stymied by your inability to see anything lurking behind or beside you. Tank commanders have a better rear view than do Z drivers. You’d be well advised to back into parking places first, in order to spare yourself the agony of reversing blind later. Almost all is forgiven, however, when you fire up the 332hp V-6, snick the rifle-bolt-precise 6-speed manual into first, and feed in just enough gas to launch the Z from a standing start. Unlike so many finicky manual clutch packages, the Z’s take-up is perfectly linear and free of drama. Even though the Z lacks a hill holder function, you can perform a hill start anywhere in San Francisco with no drama thanks to an immediate supply of 270 lb.-ft. of torque. A persistent drawback to the manual transmission is its proclivity to shake the stick when in neutral. This has been a problem since Nissan reintroduced the Z back in 2003, and their engineers haven’t figured out how to quell the annoyance in 10 years. Of course, you can eliminate the problem by opting for the paddle-shifted automatic gearbox which contains 7 speeds instead of 6. But you’ll pay an additional $1,300 for the convenience.

Given the long, proud racing heritage of the Z, this latest Nissan two seater handles with the precision and aplomb you’d expect of such a pure bred sports car. Helping in that regard are several improvements for 2013. If you order the Sports Package ($3,030), the RAYS forged wheels differ in appearance from earlier versions, with thinner spokes revealing newly painted red brake calipers. These ultra light 19 inch diameter RAYS replace the standard issue cast 18 inch alloys. The gunmetal finished RAYS measure 9.5 inches wide in front and 10.5 inches wide in back (versus 8 and 9 inch width for the 18 inch wheels). Our Sports Package equipped 370Z mounted Bridgestone’s best all-around performance tire, the RE050A, with front rubber measuring 245/40/R19 and rears 275/35/R19. Nissan has also modified the valving of its Sports Package shocks for a “Euro-tuned” firmer, more controlled ride that can feel downright harsh at times. The package also includes a Viscous Limited Slip Differential, so this as-delivered Z is ideally configured for fast street driving, or track day competition.

A prime factor in the Z equation has always been its big 6 cylinder motor. Today’s hot rodded 3.7 liter V-6 benefits from micro-polishing of the crankshaft and camshafts. With variable valve timing and lift, the motor makes 332hp and 270lb.-ft. of torque. Just be prepared to endure a lot of not particularly pleasant noise when you stretch the motor past 4,000rpm. Even so, with a base price of just $37,820, the 2013 Z is without question a best buy sports car. Even when equipped with the Sports Package and Navigation System ($2,150), the 370Z still posts an affordable bottom line of $43,905. If you’re a nascent racer willing to put up with the minor foibles of this hard-edged rocket, you can’t do better than the latest 370Z.

2013 Nissan 370Z Touring

  • Engine: 3.7 liter DOHC V-6 with VVEL
  • Horsepower: 332 hp
  • Torque: 270 lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 18 MPG City/26 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $43,905
  • Star Rating: 9.5 out of 10 Stars

Posted in Expert Reviews, Feature Articles, Nissan |Tags:, , || No Comments »


Review: 2013 Toyota Venza LTD AWD

Monday October 14th, 2013 at 11:1010 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

By David Colman

Hypes: More Useful Than a Swiss Army Knife
Gripes: Would-be Wood, Infuriating Customization Menu

Contrary to popular belief, “Veni, Vidi, Venza” does not mean “I came, I saw, I conquered” but “you asked for it, you got it, Toyota.” The Venza is Toyota’s gift to the family, a composite sedan, station wagon, and minivan offering seating for 5, or up to 70 cubic feet of storage with the back seats folded flat. In top line LTD trim, it lavishes enough nice touches to be confused with a Lexus. But it does so at the un-Lexus like base price of $38,870. Although our test Venza’s bottom line was burdened by an unnecessary $1,819 “Rear Seat Entertainment” system, its all-in total of $42,288 still constitutes a bargain for such wraparound family utility.

Though you could bargain hunt an all-wheel-drive, 181hp, 4 cylinder Venza for just $29,150, the 268hp AWD V-6 is the only one you’ll want to drive. The 3.5 liter engine strikes a good compromise between power and efficiency, returning 25 MPG on highway jaunts, and 21 MPG overall. Option your Venza with the bargain priced $220 Tow Prep Package (available only on the V-6), and you’ll add an engine oil cooler, oversized radiator fan, and heavy duty alternator which yield a tow rating of 3,500 pounds. Because the 6-speed automatic transmission is electronically controlled, you can select a gear range and hold the engine in its powerband without upshifting. If you’ve ever towed a loaded trailer over the Sierras, you’ll know how nice that feature can be.

The 60/40 folding rear seats retract with just the pull of a chairside lever. Doing so opens up a wealth of interior storage room that makes toting unwieldy objects a snap. For example, the rear threshold’s low height facilitates loading and unloading take-alongs like a mountain bike. No need to remove a wheel from the bike, nor hoist and bind it to a cumbersome roof rack. Just compress the springs of the removable privacy screen, stow the tubular screen behind the front seats, and you’ve got unlimited access to the Venza’s copious interior storage locker. Dark tinted privacy glass keeps prying eyes off your cargo.

The LTD’s standard 20 inch alloy rims, fitted with 245/50R20 Michelin Latitude tires, endow this crossover with a decidedly truck-like stance and appearance. The upside of the generous rubber allotment is impressive handling stability generated by unusually large contact patches at all 4 corners. The downside of the Venza’s stance is that it’s almost impossible to see anything to the front, sides or rear when you’re parking. The standard Backup Camera, which displays its video on a 6.1 inch dash screen, helps locate potential casualties to the rear. But the side view mirrors convey so little information about obstacles next to, or in front of the Venza, that you’ll find yourself bouncing off curbs you never saw.

The Venza’s interior could stand some refinement. The multiple bins dotting the console between the front seats are duplicative and cheap looking. Despite investing 30 minutes into reading the owner’s manual, I could never figure out how to stop the driver’s seat from sliding backwards every time I turned the Venza off. There are 2 different sources of menu customization available through dash buttons, with no apparent logic determining which button controls which series of features. Despite all the possibilities I never found the key to deselecting the annoying seat slide. On any Lexus, this is a 5 second deselection process.

In sum, the Venza offers such an array of travel possibilities that it will ping your sweet spot over and over. It’s easy to live with this mega- hauler because it looks like a beefy sedan but behaves like a brutish truck. Charming but butch, the Venza makes a lot of sense.

Toyota Venza LTD AWD

  • Engine: 3.5 liter V-6, DOHC with DUAL VVT-I
  • Horsepower: 268 hp
  • Torque: 246 lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 18 MPG City/25 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $42,288
  • Star Rating: 7.5 out of 10 Stars

Posted in Expert Reviews, Feature Articles, Toyota |Tags:, , || No Comments »


Review: 2013 Volkswagen Beetle Convertible Turbo

Saturday October 12th, 2013 at 8:1010 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

By David Colman

Hypes: Kal Kustom Leather, Turbo Scoot
Gripes: Annoying Trunk Release, Poor Top-Up Vision

The latest Beetle may look like the familiar face you’ve known forever, but don’t be fooled by appearances. First of all, this Beetle is built in Puebla, Mexico rather than Wolfsburg, Germany. Although clothed in sheet metal designed to deceive you into thinking this is a rear-engine, rear–wheel-drive derivative of Dr. Porsche’s original 1930s design, the second generation New Beetle (Newer Beetle?) is in actuality a front-engine, front-wheel-drive Golf GTI successfully masquerading as a very Old Beetle. Thus, you can validate your nostalgia quotient for traditional VW values without sacrificing comfort or performance to outdated (rear-engine, air-colled) engineering principles.

Under the front hood of this diminutive convertible lies the same turbocharged 4 cylinder engine you find in so many VW and Audi family products today. When VW stopped producing their jewel-like V-6 motor several years back, the 2 liter turbo became the default GTI engine. Now, with direct injection, it’s found its way into the turbo Convertible, where it produces 210hp, 207 lb.-ft. of torque, and returns overall fuel consumption of 24 MPG. Coupled to a delightfully responsive set of 6 closely spaced ratios in the manual transmission, the Beetle Convertible will scald back road apexes with nearly the same aplomb as a GTI. Although the Convertible gives up some structural rigidity to the hardtop GTI, the loss is hardly discernible when you’re close to the limit of adhesion. The fat contact patches of standard 235/45R18 Hankook Optimo H426 tires help this drop-top stay planted through the twisties.

VW has done a commendable job of fettling the convertible with appropriate go-fast hardware. Five spoke alloy rims, which look like updated versions of the classic Porsche Fuchs wheel, decorously display the low profile Hankook tires. Inside the cabin, the aluminum brake, clutch and throttle pedals provide rubber strips for better adhesion. The matte aluminum of the pedal faces match the same trim used on the instrument cluster face, the door grab handles and latches, and the trim ring surrounding the shift mechanism. A carbon fiber emulation faces the dash front, while matte pebbled vinyl surfaces the dash top and door panels. Piano black plastic door panel tops add some 40s era pizzazz to the interior, but the real star is the stunning, bi-color seating. The front buckets feature wide whale ribbed red leather seating surfaces set off by black leather bolsters on all sides. As a finishing touch, VW trims the black bolsters with double stitched red thread. The rear buckets match the fronts. The net effect is jaw dropping, especially considering that all this custom tailoring is part of the base package.

You can tuck a couple of adults into those rear buckets, and they won’t mind the crowded leg room so much if the top is down. But the rear seats produce claustrophobia when the heavily padded top is up. The small back side windows and rear glass panel also inhibit vision and make parking a chore with top up. Those of you who recall the days when English roadsters like the MG and Triumph came fitted with tonneau covers will get a kick out of discovering the same archaic piece in the Convertible’s trunk. It’s designed to hide the roof apparatus when the top is down. It takes a good 5 minutes to install, and will bring back fond memories of an earlier era of motoring.

At $32,665 delivered, the Beetle Convertible represents solid value, GTI-level driving fun. It also admits you to an enthusiastic ownership group that sets VW apart from any other car company. This Beetle is guaranteed to put a smile on your face. How many cars can do that?

2013 Volkswagen Beetle Convertible Turbo

  • Engine: 2.0 liter inline 4, Direct Injection, Turbocharged
  • Horsepower: 210hp
  • Torque: 207 lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 21 MPG City/30 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $32,665
  • Star Rating: 9 out of 10 Stars

Posted in Expert Reviews, Feature Articles, Volkswagen |Tags:, , , , || No Comments »


Review: 2013 Cadillac CTS-V Wagon

Friday October 11th, 2013 at 8:1010 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

By David Colman

Hypes: Pavement Ripper, Stealth Looks, Bargain Price
Gripes: No Shift Paddles, Hard & Flat Seats

This is one bad rad Cad. It’s the bad boy of all station wagons thanks to a supercharged V-8 making 556hp and 551lb.-ft. of torque. It’s rad because it resembles nothing else on this planet, a black banana that looks wilder than any Kustom Kruiser George Barris ever conceived. But because it’s a Cad, you can pretend that you’re driving the darling car of the senior set. After all, it’s practical, luxurious, ultra comfy, and big enough to carry everyone’s golf bag. Only your right foot and your insurance agent will know better.

If any car ever made an open and shut case for traction control, it’s this CTS-V. The factory delivers the wagon with a bevy of handling nannies including Stabilitrak Directional Control with Traction Control (TC). In keeping with General Motors’ thoughtful high performance philosophy, you can delete these aids by pressing the steering wheel mounted TC button for about 8 seconds. Do this at your peril. Although the CTS-V is equipped with commendably wide Michelin Pilot Sport tires (255/40ZR-19 f., 285/35ZR-19 r.), they are no match for the awesome torque of this motor when you tromp the throttle with TC disabled. Do so and you can burn rubber from a standstill through an entire quarter mile. If you sensibly leave TC engaged for your acceleration test, the Wagon will bullet through the standing start quarter mile in 12.7 seconds at 111mph without so much as a squeal of protest from the Michelins.

The $63,215 base price of the CTS-V Wagon makes it a sensational bargain. For comparable performance in a rear wheel drive luxury ride, you’d be spending $89,900 for a BMW M5 sedan, $138,650 for a Porsche Panamera Turbo, or $140,000 for a Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG sedan. None of these companies offer wagon versions of their musclecars. A handful of reasonably priced options enhance the V Wagon’s other worldly looks. Black Diamond Tricoat paint is a spectacular addition to the invoice at just $995 extra. Confetti-sized, clear-coated metallic particles juice up the looks of a Caddy that would otherwise look at home leading a funeral procession. Black-out grill trim ($870) and Satin Graphite alloys ($800) augment the V’s Punk Goth visage. Yellow painted Brembo brake calipers ($595) add just the right note of visual relief and levity to the otherwise monochromatic exterior.

If you can work past the exorbitant, $2,600 Gas Guzzler Tax appended to the sticker, and cope with the onus of a 14 MPG overall fuel consumption rating, the V Wagon is otherwise a most practical conveyance for large families. The interior space is well arranged to transport 5 adults in comfort, with enough wagon space left in back to store baggage for an overnight trip for the group. The leather-bolstered front seats feature “sueded” inserts on the seating surfaces, and include standard 3-temp level heating. But the seats don’t offer enough lateral support to retain you when the road gets twisty. Another chink in the armor is the lack of true paddleshifts to control the V’s 6-speed automatic gearbox. Cadillac simply provides a pair of small buttons on the backside of the steering wheel spokes to effect upshifts and downshifts. You can circumvent the lack of paddles by using the console-mounted bump stick to effect gear changes.

The CTS-V Wagon is unquestionably the most brilliant version of the CTS range Cadillac has yet devised. Capable of functioning as an under-the radar family bus, this sleek stealth missile also stands ready to perform the most heroic musclecar feats without batting a wiper. Since this unique package will never become a mass market commodity, there’s added incentive in buying one now for long term investment potential.

2013 Cadillac CTS-V Wagon

  • Engine: All Aluminum Supercharged OHV V-8
  • Horsepower: 556 @ 6,100rpm
  • Torque: 551lb.-ft. @ 3,800rpm
  • Fuel Consumption: 12 MPG City/ 18 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $71,120
  • Star Rating: 10 out of 10 Stars

Posted in Cadillac, Expert Reviews, Feature Articles |Tags:, , || No Comments »


Review: 2013 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport SE 2WD

Thursday October 10th, 2013 at 8:1010 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

By David Colman

Hypes: Based on Agile Lancer Chassis
Gripes: Saddled With CVT and Low HP

Now in its third year of production, the Outlander Sport gets a fresh face and rump for 2013, along with larger wheels and new color palette. The revised snout and upturned, spoiler-topped tail impart a hunting hound rake to this crossover SUV based on the Lancer chassis. In the SE model, more up market interior trimming than before belies the Sport’s modest $22,295 base price. After spending several hours in the manually adjustable driver’s seat, I had no complaints about lack of comfort or support. The steering wheel is also manually positionable for rake and reach. The leather trimmed wheel itself features useful audio volume and band controls on the left spoke and effective cruise controls on the right spoke.

An extra $2,050 Premium Package garnishes the Sport with an enormous glass roof which admits plenty of light to the interior but does not slide or open. But it does confer fantasy status on the interior at night thanks to a long row of orange LED bulbs that illuminate both sides of the roof opening. The package also includes black roof rails, rear view camera, and a knockout loud Rockford Fosgate 710 Watt, 9 speaker audio system with 5CD/MP3 dash-mounted head unit. Since Mitsubishi thoughtfully provides the Sport with standard SIRIUS radio, there’s no lack of choice in the infotainment department.

The Outlander Sport is one curvaceous beauty. Its interior design is so full of arcs and parabolas that you can’t lay anything on a flat surface. The exterior is equally sloping, so if you want to store your coffee cup while you fumble for your keys, your only choice is the ground. But the cabin’s severe tumble home has a positive effect on outward visibility. The side and rear windows are tall and informative, and the included rear view camera helps you check all the safety boxes when you back out of a parking place.

Given Mitsubishi’s years of success with Lancer on the World Rallye Championship, it should come as no surprise that the Sport’s handling is precise and informative. The new 8-spoke, 18 inch alloys plant 225/55R18 Toyo A24 tires at each corner. These all weather radials never lose their footing, even when the softly sprung Sport achieves some rather dramatic lean angles in tight corners. However, neither the refined chassis, the athletic suspension, nor the sticky tires will determine how effectively you cover ground in this Outlander. That final measure of performance is determined by the engine/transmission combo, and here the Sport is sorely lacking. The engine is an inline 4, making just 148hp and 145 lb.-ft. of torque. Given that the Sport weighs in at 3,032 pounds, the power-to-weight requires each horse to move 20.4 pounds. Further complicating the equation is the SE’s lethargic CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission), which is particularly hard put to find the right gear ratio when you most need passing power. Although Mitsubishi optimistically equips the Sport with large paddle shifts next to the steering wheel rim, these tools are rendered virtually useless by the engine’s lack of power and the vague speed ranges of the CVT’s stepped “gears.”

If you like the Sport for all its admirable qualities – looks, finish, utility – then forego the SE trim level and opt for the base model, $19,170 ES, which comes standard with a real 5-speed manual transmission. This transmission is not available on ES versions. In the long run, you’ll still get great mileage (25 MPG City/31 MPG Highway) without paying the performance surcharge that the CVT extracts.

2013 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport SE 2WD

  • Engine: 2.0 Liter Inline4, DOHC, 16 Valves
  • Horsepower: 148hp
  • Torque: 145 lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 24 MPG City/31 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $27,170
  • Star Rating: 7.5 out of 10 Stars

Posted in Expert Reviews, Feature Articles, Mitsubishi |Tags:, , || No Comments »


Review: 2013 Mini Cooper Hardtop

Wednesday October 9th, 2013 at 8:1010 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

By David Colman

Hypes: 420 Miles on a Tank, Motorcycle Base Price
Gripes: Hard To Reach Seatbelts, Pinchy Door Handles

Manufacturers usually load press fleet vehicles with every expensive option available, so it was quite unusual to spend a week with a Mini Cooper virtually bereft of extras. With a base price of just $19,700, the Cooper hardtop is good value for the money. Its fun-to-drive quotient places it in the top echelon of sub $20,000 sedans. What extras it did have were well chosen. Instead of the standard 175/65 R15 tires and wheels, ours was equipped with the very reasonably priced ($1,250) Sport Package which upped wheels to 16 inch, 6 star-spoked alloys shod with 195/55R16 Bridgestone Turanza ER300II run-flat rubber. The Sport Package, which brings the as-delivered price to $21,650, also includes traction control, sport seats, and rear spoiler. For the driving enthusiast on a budget, this Mini represents a stellar bargain.

The sports seats are more supportive and better looking than those of any car in this price range. Finished in ballistic nylon weave, they afford more latitudinal support than the tires can generate. Their center sections contain black-on-gray Op Art swirls reminiscent of checker flags. The seats are emblematic of the whimsical character of the interior, which looks like it was designed by Disney Imagineers in Toontown. Circles and ovals cover every square inch of the dash. The circular air vents echo the shape of the free standing 8,000rpm tachometer. The door handles, speaker grills, even the keyfob are perfect circles. Oval shapes dominate the pedals, mirrors, dash face and overhead console. Square edges hardly exist. Mini eschews cheap materials in favor of quality finishes. The pebble grained dash top and door panels are finished with a matte sheen that eliminates window reflections. The aluminum trim across the face of the dash matches the subdued finish of the dash. The Mini looks and feels like a BMW inside because BMW own Mini.

The Mini is rewarding to drive because its steering is so precise. It reacts to directional change like a go-kart. Although ride quality is choppy over pavement imperfections, the stiff springing pays dividends on twisty roads. When you feed lock into the fat rimmed steering wheel, the Mini instantly acknowledges your input. This 2,712 lb. hardtop is one of the lightest cars on the market, and its telepathic dexterity is a product of that minimal curb weight. The engine in the base model Mini is adequate, but not impressive. With just 121hp available, you’ll find yourself using the 6-speed manual gearbox like a jockey resorting to the whip. The anemic torque output of 114 lb.-ft. occurs at 4,250rpm, so you’ll work hard for your quotient of zip in the base Mini. A better option might be the 181hp, turbocharged Mini Cooper S, which turns this racing striped little box into a raging pit bull. Of course, you’ll pay substantially more for the privilege (Cooper S base price: $24,750), and you’ll forego the base Cooper’s excellent fuel economy of 32 MPG overall, for 27 MPG with the S model.

The Cooper has been a sales sensation for more than 10 years now. Customization is a large part of its attraction. You can order your Mini 10 million different ways. No other car comes close to matching this virtually unlimited differentiation. The Mini is very much the Swatch Watch of the car world. It’s high quality appearance belies its cheap price. Just when you think you’ve seen every Mini available, along comes a new combo that makes you marvel at this company’s endless design savvy. But the best part of the Mini experience comes from the maxi enjoyment you get out of driving one. Mini represents a throwback to an age of car design that depended on resourcefulness and imagination rather than tunnel vision. In that way, Mini puts the fun back in motoring.

2013 Mini Cooper Hardtop

  • Engine: 1.6 liter DOHC, 16 Valve inline 4 Cylinder
  • Horsepower: 121 @ 6,000 rpm
  • Torque: 114 lb.-ft. @ 4,250 rpm
  • Fuel Consumption: 29 MPG City/37 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $21,650
  • Star Rating: 8.5 out of 10 Stars

Posted in Expert Reviews, Feature Articles, MINI |Tags:, , || No Comments »


Review: 2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT 4×4

Tuesday October 8th, 2013 at 8:1010 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

By David Colman

Hypes: Beautifully Constructed Street Fighter
Gripes: Poor Detents on Center Console Gear Change Stick

Forget everything you thought you knew about Jeep quality. Long gone are the days when the interior of a Grand Cherokee resembled the lobby of a Motel 6. When you gain admittance to the cockpit of the new Grand Cherokee SRT, you’re more likely to think Ritz than 6. Chrysler has managed to elevate the SRT experience to a level of gratification previously reserved for Porsche Cayenne, BMW X5 and Audi Q7 owners. Swing open the door and you’ll observe a distinctly European mode of finish, trim and appointment that will stagger your sensibility. For example, almost every seam from the top of the dash to the bolsters of the seats is double stitched with white thread for a custom tailored look. Instead of phony wood dash inserts, Chrysler provides carbon fiber slashes to the door panels and dash face that look just right with the purposeful, supportive SRT-embroidered front seats. Best of all the competition inspired touches is the Launch Control panel on the center console which allows you to program the SRT for instant departure when the light turns green. Backing up the track-ready promise of this Jeep, Chrysler has provided a series of performance measurements available via steering-wheel toggled menu: 0-60mph; 1/8 and 1/4 mile acceleration times; peak lateral and longitudinal G-Forces; instant peak G-Forces; Braking Distance from 60mph to zero.

In case you’re wondering why a mass production 4×4 requires such meticulous performance documentation, think of the SRT version of the Cherokee as a race truck first and a passenger Jeep second. Just look at the specification sheet and you’ll get the idea. Instead of the base Cherokee ‘s 290hp V-6, or optional 360hp V-8, the SRT harnesses Chrysler’s top HEMI V-8, the 6.2 liter monster that produces 470hp and 465 lb.-ft. of torque. Couple that prodigious output to a paddle-shifted, 8HP70, 8-speed automatic gearbox that will hold any gear as long as you like when manual mode is selected. The gearbox also tunes itself to your preferred style of driving within the first 300 miles of operation. Adding to the joy of such extensive gear selection are the extra-large alloy paddles affixed to the superbly designed sports steering wheel. This SRT wheel features a tactile lower quadrant formed from buffed aluminum feeding into side grips of perforated leather with deep thumb indentations.

Jeep did not stint on premium suspension apparatus to cope with the engine’s humbling horsepower. The front geometry features independent short/long arm design modulated by adaptive Bilstein gas dampers, while rear architecture consists of multiple links, adaptive Bilsteins, and adjustable toe links. Front and rear sway bars maintain equilibrium, and Jeep’s patented Selec-Trac works with the Bilstein dampers to provide 5 ride settings: Tow/Snow/Normal/Sport/Track. These refined suspension bits feed thrust through new 5-spoke SRT-specific “Goliath” 20 inch diameter polished alloy rims supporting huge Pirelli P Zero run flat tires (295/45 ZR20 all around). Equally impressive Brembo disc brakes – 15 inch, 6 piston front, 13.78 inch, 4 piston rear – haul this monster truck down from its top speed of 160mph.

From the outside, the SRT is all nostrils and gill slits, meaner than a catfish, more purposeful than an MP. Yet the whole design blends together so successfully that unless you’re super-attuned to Cherokee variants, this super Jeep could easily pass muster as a common grocery getter. After all, it still has all the attributes to fulfill that prosaic occupation. The rear tailgate is power assisted to lift or shut at the press of your key fob remote. The rear seat will hold 3 in a pinch, 2 comfortably, and provide them with A/C outlets, heated seats, and reclining backrests to boot. The Panorama sunroof enlightens front and back seat occupants with its generous sweep, and visibility to the rear and sides is unusually informative for an SUV of this type.

The Grand Cherokee in SRT trim is expensive, at $69.470, but worth every dollar when you compare it to its competition. For an equivalent performer from Porsche, BMW or Audi, you’ll easily spend twice as much as the outlay for this Jeep. And to my eyes, none of these German canons look as good as the finely fluted, flying new Cherokee.

2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT 4×4

  • Engine: 6.2 liter HEMI V-8 with Fuel-Saver Technology
  • Horsepower: 470hp @ 6,000rpm
  • Torque: 465 lb.-ft. @4,300rpm
  • Fuel Consumption: 13 MPG City/19 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $69,470
  • Star Rating: 9.5 out of 10 Stars

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Review: 2013 Cadillac ATS 2.0T Premium Collection

Monday October 7th, 2013 at 8:1010 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

By David Colman

Hypes: Nuburgring Handling Prowess, Nicely Tailored
Gripes: Olympic Seat Belt Pull Effort, No Rear Wiper, Battery Buried in Trunk

It isn’t everyday you drive a car with a title longer than a British Count. But Cadillac has managed to append no less than 4 qualifiers to its newest offspring, the diminutive ATS 4-door sedan. “2.0T” refers to the fact that this is the first Caddy since the unlamented Cimarron to rely on just 4 cylinders for motivation, Granted, this is an impertinently perky foursome, depending on direct injection and a turbo to churn out 272hp. Those horses are wisely allocated by an ultra-responsive 6-speed automatic transmission featuring “Performance Algorithm Tapshifts” to control gear choice and rpm range. The “Premium Collection” descriptor stems from the handcrafted, cut and sewn interior leather seating surfaces, and the delicate contrasting stitching highlighting most dash and door panel seams. Everywhere you look, the ATS posits this question: why buy a BMW 3 or Audi A4 when you can select this premium small Cadillac instead?

This is a very tough market niche to crack, one which the German makes have owned for years now. Although Cadillac’s ATS isn’t quite on par with the leaders, it’s close enough to merit a look. It’s 8 inches longer than BMW’s 3, 5 inches longer than Audi’s A4. Like the BMW, the weight distribution of the ATS is perfectly split between front and rear axles at 50/50. And like the Audi A4, the ATS is available with all-wheel-drive. In fact, Cadillac offers a seemingly inexhaustible variety of ATS configurations. The base model with rear-wheel-drive, normally aspirated, 2.5 liter four carries an MSRP of $33,095. In AWD form, base cost jumps to $36,900. The rear-wheel-drive turbo ATS “Premium” I drove carries an MSRP of $44,895. The priciest version is the 3.6 liter, V-6 AWD Premium model which starts at $47,795. Cadillac offers an amazing 13 variants of the ATS, with plenty of options for each. Our test car priced out at a whopping $50,955, once these additions were added: the “Driver Assist Package” ($3,220) which you can definitely live without, “Crystal Red Tintcoat” ($995), “Polished Aluminum 18 Inch Wheels” ($850) and “Cold Weather Package” ($600).

Because Cadillac realizes that sports sedan customers hold handling and agility sacrosanct, they have tailored ATS suspension accordingly. There’s absolutely no mush in this lithe and athletic sedan, which in Premium Collection trim, boasts GM’s prized FE3 Suspension Package. From the contact patches of the sizeable (225/40R18 front and 255/35R18 rear) Bridgestone RE050A tires, through the Corvette-derived MR (magneto-rheological) shocks, the ATS generates enormous grip in corners. The finely calibrated ZF “Premium Electric Variable Steering” contributes to unalloyed confidence in handling precision. The automatic gearbox is perfectly configured for manual control, with elephant ear magnesium paddles set tight to the steering wheel for micro management when the floor console stick is positioned in manual mode. The turbo boost of the 2 liter engine, redlined at 6,400rpm, is always adequate to acceleration needs, especially when you pre-select the appropriate gear set. Unlike the latest 3 from BMW, there’s no annoying automatic start/stop device to annoy you at traffic lights. And the Caddy still manages to post a respectable 24MPG in combined city/highway driving.

The downfall of the ATS is its distressing Cadillac User Entertainment (CUE) system, which defies logic and refuses to cooperate with your commands. Apparently, someone in charge of GM dashboard design has decreed that knobs are passé. In their stead, a series of ill-defined digital control bars are arrayed to oversee cabin climate, fan operation and radio volume. These bars are supposed to offer haptic feedback when operated, but the feedback is more hapless than haptic. It takes forever to bridge the digital gulf from mute to loud or low to high fan, and all that while you’re taking your eyes off the road to accomplish what would be instant with a knob. CUE’s faceplate looks just like your cell phone’s. Only you won’t be bumping into other people when you use it, you’ll be bumping into other cars.

Other than that singular drawback, the ATS is a viable effort from Cadillac to penetrate the small sports sedan category. With the deletion of CUE and the addition of a few good knobs, this Cadillac could easily manage to breech the existing German hegemony.

2013 Cadillac ATS 2.0T Premium Collection

  • Engine: 2.0 liter inline 4, Direct Injection, Turbocharged
  • Horsepower: 272hp
  • Torque: N/A
  • Fuel Consumption: 21 MPG City/31 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $51,850
  • Star Rating: 8 out of 10 Stars

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Review: 2013 BMW Z4 sDrive35is

Sunday October 6th, 2013 at 8:1010 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

By David Colman

Hypes: “is” is German For Mega-Mover, Trick Folding Hardtop
Gripes: Tiny Rear Windows Don’t Auto-Erect When Top Is Raised

Bob Lutz, the storied car executive who helped remake Chrysler and GM, originally worked at BMW. Back in 1970, BMW wanted to change the way they named vehicles. Instead of the incredibly complicated system proposed by his boss, Lutz and his staff came up with the simplified “3 Series/5 Series/7 Series” nomenclature that survives to this day. Unfortunately, that clarity seems to have deserted BMW in the case of this fine sports roadster.

What we have here is the 4th iteration of BMW’s 2 seat sports car, hence Z4. So far, so good, but the appended “sDrive35is” muddies that clarity. Rear-wheel-drive BMW’s fitted with sporting accoutrements like special seats and aerokit styling qualify for “sDrive” status. Although you might assume that the “35is” designation describes a 3.5 liter motor, what you in fact get here is a 3.0 liter inline 6, with sport calibrated fuel injection (hence,“is” for injected sport). But the “is” tag doesn’t tell you that this Bimmer is also twin turbocharged. Time to bring back Bob Lutz.

Nameplate mysteries aside, this is one great sports car, built in Regensburg, Germany with traditional Bavarian craftsmanship. The cockpit is tight but accommodating. Flip-out door pockets and a narrow fenced shelf behind the seats ease oddment storage. In order to retain drink bottles between the seats, you need to flip up the lid of the shallow central storage bin, which is a bit inconvenient. The power sports seats, upholstered in glove soft, fancifully named “Canberra Beige Kansas Leather,” will treat you with the adulation you expect from your Barcalounger. Although the chunky “M” emblazoned steering wheel is equipped with sizeable paddle shifts, it lacks the nice perforated leather hand grips that distinguish “M” wheels in the X1 and X3. Still, there’s no mistaking the stripped purposefulness of this Z4’s décor. Simulated silver carbon surfaces on the dash face and door panels relieve the tedium of the matte black plastic dash top.

The interior’s sporting promise is signed, sealed and delivered by the Z4’s exceptional performance envelope. The keystone element is the seamless torque curve of the twin turbo 6, which maximizes intelligent intake and exhaust valve behavior through steplessly variable timing called “Double-VANOS.” Remember that “is” designator? In “is” trim, output of BMW’s 3.0 liter turbo 6 jumps from 300hp to 335hp, while torque peaks at 332 lb.-ft. (versus 300 lb.-ft. for the base 6). Coupled to a standard 7-speed double-clutch transmission, the traditional BMW straight 6 is never lacking for an appropriate gear ratio. You can leave the transmission in “D” range and forget about swapping cogs while the gearbox does all your work for you. On a 40 mile jaunt from Mill Valley to Point Reyes Station, I did just that, and found tackling the challenging road to be much more relaxing than if I had manually selected gears for each curve. Premium grade Bridgestone RE 050A tires (225/35R19 front, 255/30R19 rear) mounted on optional twin spoke alloys (a bargain at $1,200) made negotiating the twisties even more pleasurable. Of course, if you do choose to play racer, then the paddle shifters will make your trip even more swift and precise.

You can drop or erect the folding hardtop roof of the Z4 at speeds up to 35mph. This bit of latitude makes feasible open air motoring at the drop of a hat. And wind protection inside the seat-heated cabin is so good you won’t even need that hat. For complete mummification, BMW even provides a trunk-stored windblocker to snap into place behind your head. The trunk itself is reasonably large when the hardtop is up, but shrinks to a tiny slot-accessed bin when you drop the roof. If you pack according to the constraints of this tiny bin, you’ll never be caught out by storage woes on an overnight trip.

The Z4 iDrive35is is an attractive package. Visually, it’s flame-surfaced looks are appealingly different from anything else on the road. Its engine, gearbox, and suspension uphold the premise of those good looks. If you can stay away from the extensive, expensive option list, the Z4’s base price of $64,200 is more than reasonable for such a Bavarian built bomber.

2013 BMW Z4 sDrive35is

  • Engine: 3.0 Liter Inline 6, twin turbocharged Double-VANOShp
  • Horsepower: 335 hp
  • Torque: 332 lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 17 MPG City/24 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $69,745
  • Star Rating: 9 out of 10 Stars

Posted in BMW, Expert Reviews, Feature Articles |Tags:, , || No Comments »


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