The v in Prius v stands for versatility. Here's the long-awaited 2012 Prius wagon. The v uses the same powertrain as the sedan, with a few improvements to Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive system. The v is all about the new wagon body that provides a 58 percent increase in cargo space.
It's 230 pounds heavier than the sedan, and loses 8 miles per gallon; the EPA rating drops to 44/40 city/highway from 51/48, on 91 octane fuel. It also loses acceleration, from 0 to 60 mph in 10.4 seconds, the sedan in 9.8 seconds.
So the new Prius v is slower and thirstier than the sedan, and at $26,400 base, it costs $3300 more. The price was just announced, less than what they said it was going to be, back in June when it was introduced. Capitalism. Ongoing rotten economy. More optimism in June.
So for $3300, what you gain is family functionality. And style, finally. The Prius sedan thing has gotten old.
The v is handsome, like a swoopy small minivan. Itís 6 inches longer than the sedan, 3.3 inches higher, and 1.1 inches wider, on the same track. Nearly as wind-slicing as they come, with a 0.29 coefficient of drag.
Power comes from the 98-horsepower 1.8-liter 4-cylinder Atkinson cycle gas engine with an 80-hp electric motor utilizing a nickel-metal hydride battery pack. Combined horsepower is 134, and combined torque 105 pound-feet. Transmission is by CVT (continuously variable transaxle), functional but boring without the capability to shift manually like others. Around town you're not aware the CVT is there.
The v handles and corners well, much like the Lexus CT200H. Itís easier to drive around town than the sedan, being nimble and having good visibility. Unfortunately the ride doesnít match the handling. You can feel every bump, and itís soon irritating. It seems to be a Prius thing.
Prius v offers more cargo space than three-fourths of the compact SUVs and midsize wagons on the market. Thereís an optional panoramic roof for sky-watching. The front seat folds flat, like the Honda Fit or Jeep Patriot.
There's a Prius v Two, Prius v Three, and Prius v Five. Standard equipment in the Two leaves little to want in the cabin, too bad the fabric seats aren't sporty or rugged-looking. It's surprisingly buzzy in there, mostly engine noise but also road noise. Surprising because the Prius sedan is like that, and you'd think Toyota would have fixed it.
Bottom line is, glad the v is here, as a good alternative to the Volkswagen Jetta TDI Sportwagen. Two good cars, hybrid or diesel, make your choice.
Almost all new cars nowadays display average fuel mileage and distance to empty, or DTE, among other bits of information that need a gauge. DTE is important, because it's a basis for travel planning, and it's about time and money management. DTE should be easy to find on a car, but often it's not.
Distraction. Manufacturers today are not solving the problem, they're contributing to it. I pick on Acura here, but it could be BMW, Audi, Jaguar/Land Rover, Ford, right off the top of my head. Volvos drive me crazy with their safety warnings, they beep at me like I'm a menace. Twice already this year a 2011 GM car has locked the keys in itself, and I think I recall cursing a Lexus, but then I curse them all.
DTE is just one small thing. But as an example, here’s how Acura thinks finding DTE in the ZDX should be done. The ZDX, btw, is that odd fastback SUV sedan on steroids. It's another story. Master of the Universe theme.
Driving to Portland on the twisty and hilly I84, I began looking for the button that would give me a digital display of DTE. I see a button on the steering wheel with the universal information icon and two triangles, one for up and one for down. I click for info, and the saga begins.
There are 15 buttons on the Acura steering wheel. Either they are intuitive, or you have to learn the schematic above, scanned out of the 625-page ZDX manual.
It’s the face of a nightmare. I wake up screaming with such visions (but doncha just love *2).
The future of automobile instrument panels is stuck on that word “intuitive.” What the word means to me is that pretty much anyone can do something without an instruction manual. But it seems that’s not what it means to carmakers.
Carmakers say, “It’s true that you might have to refer to the manual to learn how to tune the radio the first time, but anyone who owns the car will learn how.” Maybe true, maybe not; I’d like to take a poll of rich wives in BMWs and Land Rovers to see how many have mastered the controls.
But let’s say carmakers are right about that. That means their car is not designed for anyone to drive but the owner.
Back to searching for DTE on the ZDX. I never found it, all the way into Portland and back; parked in a mall in front of Trader Joe's, still searching for DTE on the ZDX. Home in my driveway 120 miles later, I broke out the 625-page manual.
Where do I look, in the index? Let’s try F for Fuel.
No, not that. Page 460, Fuel Economy, appears to have been written by the federal government. It defines fuel economy, including EPA city and highway mpg, combined, and estimated annual fuel cost, and offers a dot-gov website. It says nothing about the car.
Page 461 is worse. It tells you what to do or not do as a car owner and driver, 13 times. It’s all correct, and the world would be a better place if every car owner and driver did those 13 things, but it says nothing about the car.
And I’m still just searching for DTE, in the ZDX.
Back to the Index. Some cars call it a Driver Information Center. No, nothing in there between "Disposal of Used Oil," and more "Driving Guidelines."
So I start flipping through the 625 pages, backward, scanning the 10 chapter titles and 32 sub-titles with my eyes. After thumbing through 547 pages, I see what I’m after, on page 78: Multi-Information Display.
Of course, totally intuitive, finding DTE in the ZDX under M.
It begins, “The multi-information display consists of an upper segment and a lower segment. In the normal display mode, the upper segment displays trip computer information, such as fuel economy or average speed.”
That one sentence raised four questions. Normal mode as opposed to what other mode(s)? Am I in the normal display mode? If not, how would I get in it? If so, would DTE be considered “such as” fuel economy or average speed?
So now I have to find the button that gets the Multi-Information Display into the normal display mode. Ah, there it is, a button that says Mode. But no, it’s not the Mode button, that’s for the radio.
Later, after more trial and error, I discover it’s the button that says Main. When you press this button, it goes back and forth between Cruise Mode, which is identified on the display, and normal mode, which isn't.
Back to the manual. There are 67 pages devoted to Multi-Information Display. Somewhere in there, it convolutedly says that after pressing the Main button to get into the normal display mode, you press the button with the info icon and the up-down triangles. You scroll through the ups or downs until the display says Trip Computer, which the manual says “calculates” Average Fuel Economy, Average Vehicle Speed, Elapsed Time, Instant Fuel Economy, and Range.
Finally, there it is: Range. Distance to Empty.
I won't get into the reasons "range" is both grammatically and mechanically incorrect.
But we still haven’t found DTE in the ZDX. We’ve only found that it exists in the 625-page ZDX manual.
It’s taken me a three more tries as I’ve written this, back and forth from my desk upstairs in my loft and down to the car in the driveway, to finally figure it out. It goes like this:
From Trip Computer, press a third button among the 15 on the steering wheel, called SEL RESET. This takes you to Avg. Fuel A. Now go back to the info-icon button, and press the down (not up) triangle. This takes you to Avg. Fuel B. Press it again, to Inst. MPG. Then one more press and you have Range.
All I can say is: Who invented this, and what were they thinking? How many people approved this design before it went into production? Sometimes you ask these questions as if reason were in the saddle. Wouldn't surprise me if this method was dictated by electronics, the human brain being a lower priority.
I don’t know if this means Acura is in trouble, or we are.
And like I said, it's not just Acura. It's ... luxury-think, and it's creeping downward like a virus, now into the Explorer. The good news is that so far it affects mostly only rich people.
BTW ... The Acura media website is the best I've ever seen, for putting the information you need right in your hands. Acura should promote the media website designer to design the controls of their next car.
Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet: the $47k alternative to chopping the top off your Blazer
Structurally, the new Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet is far more than a Murano SUV with the top chopped off, but basically it’s not. Introduced at the LA Auto Show last November, it was met with skepticism and cruel jokes, accused of solving a problem nobody knew they had. The story goes that the CrossCabriolet was the brainchild of Nissan’s dynamic president, Carlos Ghosn; the idea was met with disbelief, but whatever Carlos wants, Carlos gets.
So here it is, and only time will tell if it’s too much of a stretch or if it’s the “reinvention of versatility,” as Nissan marketing now calls it. The market for the CrossCabriolet is mostly the Northeast, for those who need four-wheel-drive traction in blizzards and to be baked by the sun and blown by the breeze in heat waves. Come to think of it that’s me.
You could call it the first climate change car, built for our new weather extremes.
Nissan made it simple. One model, one price ($47,200 including freight), fully loaded with power everything, leather, Bose 8-speaker audio system with all the tricks, 7-inch display screen with navigation, Bluetooth, and 9.3GB MusicBox hard drive.
The Nissan design team wanted to express a feeling of “sky and earth,” and they have. It’s distinctive with the cloth top lowered. At the introduction in San Diego, my co-driver and I got lots of looks as we drove it around town with the top down. Regardless of any ribbing Nissan has been taking, when a carmaker comes up with a car that everybody looks and smiles at, they’ve done something right.
The CrossCabriolet maintains the silhouette of a Murano, but all the sheetmetal except the hood and front fenders is new. Two of the Murano doors have been lost in order to keep the chassis structure strong, without its roof. The remaining two doors have been widened by 8 inches, in order to allow easier access to the rear seat.
And it’s now a four-seater, instead of the Murano’s five. And rear legroom has been lost, as space had to be made for the top when it’s down. It’s a pretty slim 32.7 inches now.
Because of the car’s high beltline, the cabin feels “confined and protected,” says Nissan, correctly. With the top down at 75 mph, even with the windows lowered, there isn’t much buffeting from the wind. With the windows raised, it’s whisper quiet. Sporty-looking brushed aluminum rollbars rise behind the back seat, and pop up another six inches if triggered by rollover sensors.
The ride is very smooth, while handling around-town isn’t exactly nimble, but neither is it heavy. It feels like it’s pulling a lot of weight, when you accelerate uphill using its 248 pound-feet of torque. That’s because it is: 4438 pounds, or 230 pounds more than the Murano. That knocks 1 mpg off the fuel mileage, down to 17 highway and 22 city.
But when you get out on the freeway and boot it, all 265 horses under the hood pull you smoothly and effortlessly up to 80 miles per hour. The Murano CrossCabriolet uses the exceptional Nissan 3.5-liter DOHC V6 engine that’s smooth and powerful, mated to a second-generation CVT with good logic control, but no manual mode. This engine has won countless awards. And it's even better in the latest 3.7-liter version, as in the Nissan 370Z and Infiniti G37. What's next, a crossoverandover: sports car/roadster/SUV?
Lexus LFA Supercar: $400k buys you 202 mph Let’s jump to the heart of the matter. The engine. Lexus has built an incredible engine for the 202-mph LFA supercar. It’s a 4.8-liter V10 that makes 552 horsepower and screams to 9000 rpm. I shifted it at redline, from 3rd to 4th gears, a dozen times during my 6 hot laps around Infineon Raceway on Friday. Got goosebumps now, thinking about it. I’ve driven a race-prepped V12 Lamborghini Diablo at Sebring, and a V12 Ferrari 333 prototype racer at Daytona (hit 190 on the banking), both of them mid-engined cars. Despite the LFA being front-engined, its sound in the cockpit rivals those Italian V12s with the engine right behind the driver’s ears. But the exhaust note is actually sharper and sweeter standing still, when its driver gives the throttle a big blip. With 10 electronic throttle bodies, the throttle response is so quick it can blip from idle to 9000 rpm in 0.6 seconds. Bystanders on the sidewalk watching a showoff driver at a redlight will howl with glee. The cockpit sound is no accident. There has never been a car designed with this much attention to engine/eardrum interface. Under the hood, there’s an intake surge tank that “borrows from the design of an actual musical instrument,” says Lexus. There are three “acoustically optimized” channels that carry sound into the cabin from strategic intake and exhaust locations. “These sound channels ensure the driver sits at the center of a 3-D surround sound concert performance,” continues the Lexus hype. Two big exhaust pipes run through sub-mufflers and into a dual-stage titanium silencer that pops out the back of the car with three holes like a robot face with startled eyes and a round mouth going ooh! The silencer has a valve that keeps the sound quiet at idle, but at 3000 rpm the valve opens to allow the exhaust note to “enter the world in the form of a high-octane soprano.” I don't quite think they mean that the LFA sounds like a vodka-chugging fat lady, however. Astonishingly, brilliantly, the 4.8-liter V10 is lighter and more compact than the 2.5-liter V6 that powers the small Lexus sedan. It uses a dry sump lubrication system, and has titanium valves and connecting rods, among other things. The chassis around the cabin is carbon fiber, as is much of the body. And the gigantic brake rotors, 15.4 inches (390mm) in front, are carbon ceramic. Weighing just 3263 pounds, and propelled by those 552 ponies with 354 pound-feet of torque at a peaky 6800 rpm, the LFA will sprint from zero to 60 in 3.7 seconds, and keep accelerating all the way to 202 mph. At Infineon, I forgot to look at the speedometer, although I glanced at the tach in the esses and got a rush when I saw 8200 rpm in 3rd gear. I’ve also tested the Audi R8 there, and I’ve driven the Mercedes SLS AMG Gullwing and a Ferrari F430 on great backroads in the Northwest. Comparison test results: Mercedes, Ferrari, Lexus, Audi. Should say I haven’t driven the Audi R10 or the Ferrari 458, let alone the Enzo. The Mercedes wins on its fantastic twin-clutch 7-speed Getrag transmission, if not V8 horsepower and torque of 563 hp and 479 foot-pounds. Ferrari second on its quick light handling. The LFA uses a 6-speed electro-hydraulic sequential manual transmission with paddle shifters. Lexus says a twin-clutch like the Mercedes wasn’t possible because the V10 revs so quickly. They call the twin-clutch smoothness “almost artificial.” Sorry, I call such smoothness brilliant engineering, especially when it means speed. Electro-hydraulic single-clutch transmissions, like the Audi R8 as well as the LFA, shift slower and harsher. Lexus calls that “making the driver aware of machined parts working together in harmony when changing gears for a satisfying sense of mechanical engagement.” I call it getting your head snapped and the car’s momentum upset. But remember, we’re talking about full-on racetrack performance. I didn’t get to drive the LFA on the street, where the shifts might be smoother when less is asked of them. There are four settings for modes—Auto, Sport, Normal, and Wet—and no less than seven speeds to set the transmission. I had the LFA set only on Sport and 7 for the fastest shifts, and they weren’t fast enough. Supposedly the shifts happen in .2 seconds, but it sure didn’t feel like it. As for the price, I guess it doesn’t matter. The Mercedes SLS AMG is only about $200,000 and the Audi R8 about $150,000. Lexus is targeting buyers among those men who have a stable of cars, plus a spare $375,000, plus luxury tax plus gas guzzler tax. It takes some luster off the engineering when the buyer just wants to own the car like a trophy testifying to their bank account, and not fully appreciate it.
Hotrod stretch Cadillac Escalade: So shoot me
Master of the Universe, Destroyer of the Planet, one or the other or both, that is the question. All I know is I’m glad it’s my job to test these things, not own them, so I don’t have to feel guilty about 12.6 miles per gallon. I didn’t even feel guilty about running over other cars at 90 mph on the Interstate, so shoot me. I was late. And I’m a sucker for a rumbling V8 exhaust, 403 horsepower, and honkin’ acceleration in a three-ton vehicle that feels like a locomotive with bucket seats, in plush black leather.
You can shoot me, but don’t stick that $88,295 window sticker in my face, I won’t see it.
Here’s the thing: GM engineers have made the stretch Escalade handle. Can you believe it? With government work like this, we’ll be back on top in no time. This is one vehicle the Chinese aren’t going to know how to build for a long, long time. GM is already selling more Buicks in China than they do here, just wait’ll those Chinamen (as we used to call them when we were kids) get a load of the Escalade ESV, 21 inches longer than the regular Escalade.
Then there’s Magnetic Ride Control, that measures the needs of the suspension 1000 times per second, and adjusts the damping with alchemy, changing the thickness of the magnetic fluid in the shock absorbers. It works for the Corvette, and now the Escalade.
I drove an ESV for a week, 335 miles, and loved it, except when it tried to lock me out, as the GMC Denali pickup truck succeeded in doing, last month. Don’t leave the keys in the cupholder, some genius brain in the car will protect against theft by locking you out. With the Denali, I called OnStar, read them the VIN through the windshield, and presto like magic the doors unlocked, following a command sent from Texas via satellite.
Now all we need is that technology adapted so we can get our kids to follow commands sent from home via satellite. Plant a receiver in their butt.
With the Escalade, I was standing 10 feet away when I heard the locks go click; it honked at me, as if to say, Haha gotcha! But I fooled it by leaving the liftgate open, and crawled back in, through the back.
The stacked LED headlights are kind of cool. “Kind of like Las Vegas,” as the guy who delivered the Escalade said.
But the thing about the Escalade is you gotta like chrome. It’s a Cadillac, after all. There’s a horizontal chunk on the tailgate over the license plate that’s about 10 inches high and 30 inches wide. Trim. Never even mind the 22-inch chrome wheels. Twenty-twos! Shiny chrome! Do people with $88,000 to spend on a car all think like 20-year-olds?
2012 Ford Focus: Would you like fries with that?
Totally redesigned for model year 2012, the Ford Focus looks, feels, and smells like the future. It makes its claim as the technology and fuel-mileage leader in the compact car class, a crowded and competitive field full of good cars with base prices in the mid $16k range: VW Jetta, Chevy Cruze, Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Subaru Impreza, Hyundai Elantra, Mazda3, Mitsubishi Lancer, Kia Forte, and Dodge Cobalt.
Ford says the Focus will get 40 highway miles per gallon, although I’ve found “highway” to mean a steady 60 mph in a parallel universe beyond the real world. I got about 25 mpg, during my Focus drive.
It looks like a big Fiesta, with an unmistakable Ford shape. It’s lower, longer, and wider than the old Focus, and way more aerodynamic, with a steeply raked windshield and rear liftgate glass, making about as much of a teardrop as a chopped hatchback can be. Thank heavens the giant wide-mouthed grille is black and not in-your-face chrome like some other Ford models.
There’s an all-new 2.0-liter engine with direct injection and twin variable valve timing that’s super smooth and makes 170 horsepower. Too bad the new 6-speed automatic with a manual mode is quirky, shifting in weird places and at inconsistent times.
There’s good room in front, but 3 inches less legroom in the rear than the old Focus, despite the car being 3.5 inches longer. What on earth was Ford thinking? That it doesn’t matter? To be exact, rear legroom is down to 33.2 inches, when it used to be 36.1 inches, a big difference, about like the difference between 5 inches and 8. Especially when the stylish Volkswagen Jetta has 38.1 inches of rear legroom with the same wheelbase.
MyFord Touch powered by SYNC is the driver-car interface system that Ford is touting with its new cars. It seems like a nightmare to me. As I said in my review on www.newcartestdrive.com, “With all its bells and whistles, geeks will love it, drivin’ down the highway feelin’ like an airplane pilot, all those switches right nearby, LED ambient lighting in a choice of seven colors ‘to suit his or her mood,’ controls that feel like they wrap around to the elbows on the centerstack, displays to set and adjust with dials and buttons, readouts to read and scroll through, maps to follow, touch-screens to touch, voices to talk to, giving commands and following directions. All right there at your fingertips and the ends of your over-reaching brain tentacles. Like Facebook, Focus offers you a choice of moods!”
Ford says the system is “designed to be simple and completely intuitive for the driver,” and maybe it is designed to be that way, but that doesn’t mean it actually works that way. The chief engineer of Driver Controls and Infotainment (I am not making his title up) says it can “empower drivers without demanding their attention,” but baloney I say, about the attention part.
During Ford’s presentation there was an electronics guy there, and MyFord Touch powered by SYNC didn’t work without trial-and-error for him. During part of my drive of the Focus there was a high-level Ford rep riding shotgun, and the voice command for navigation and climate control didn’t understand him any better than it understood me. I would say, “Climate control, 70 degrees,” and the lady in the dashboard would reply, “Would you like fries with that?”
Fiat 500 (a.k.a Cinquecento)
I just got back from Chrysler’s introduction of the exciting new Fiat 500, more affectionately known by insiders who can pronounce it as the “Cinquecento,” or chin-kway-chento. They absolutely nailed it, “they” being the Italian designers and engineers at Fiat when it made its debut in 2007, and the Americans at Chrysler for redesigning it in 2011 for the North American market. The Cinquecento, and the all-new Ford Explorer, are the two most exciting cars from any country, that I’ve seen at least, in a year-long flurry of new car introductions—although I fear that Ford might have blown it with the Explorer, for trying too hard with the razzle-dazzle electronics, but that’s another story.
We’re here to talk about the Fiat, a totally different kind of car, but every bit as practical in its own way. I declare it the around-town fun-factor champ, after driving all three models—although versions would be a better word than models, because they’re so different, in a slight but meaningful way.
So many adjectives, so little time.
The Sport really means it. The Pop is that rare if not unique model, both the cheapest ($16k otd) and most desirable, practically speaking. The Lounge is for those who want their Cinquecento to feel more like a real car, with a softened ride, added chrome, and leather-not seats that beat real leather.
Know that, and take a test ride of all three before you buy. Which might not be possible for a while, as Chrysler dealerships have to ramp up to sell it, and Fiat is just beginning to build them, down in Mexico.
You want a totally cool sports car that gets 34 mpg and can move four young people around? The Sport. Ride is firm, brakes are firm, steering is quick and gearbox is brilliant, so use it all or live with it. For $2000 less, the Pop is less aggressive with a better ride. But the extra sport equipment in the Sport is a great $2000 value. Decide what you want, and you’ll be a winner either way.
You can get an automatic transmission in the Pop, as well. You lose some Italian flavor, but not having to constantly work your left leg in the city (or God forbid traffic jams) is a relief, everyone agrees. Again, know what you want to be winner either way. The 5-speed gearbox is fantabulous, track-ready, viva Italia! The 6-speed automatic with manual mode is sharp and fun, shifted with the same basic lever as the 5-speed.
The brakes are amazing on the Sport. The turn-in is quick. The ride is firm. Ready for track days, as is. Get 5 or 6 guys and gals, doing track days together, talk about fun! Can’t get much more bang for the buck out of a car than that.
By summer there will be a convertible. And next year an Abarth version, yeehaw!
It uses a new 1.4-liter engine with a reinvention of the cylinder head that’s called MultiAir technology and sounds brilliant, with 101 horsepower and 98 pounds of torque. Testing it over great roads from San Diego to Alpine and back, and passing on two-lanes, I’d say there’s enough acceleration to work with. Shifting gears to stay in the powerband makes it fun. It comes on at 4000 rpm and redlines at 7000, yee-haw (this is a two-yeehaw review)! You get 30-38 mpg, maybe better because I got 34.2 mpg running it hard.
I don’t need to describe the looks; I’ll post changing pics here. Let’s just say it’s cool. They aced the design, and rarely does any manufacturer understand what clean really means. Italians do, and for that reason alone we need them back in North America, to be a good influence.
The Fiat 500 is like the Mini or Volkswagen New Beetle, being a modern recreation of a classic. It was introduced in Italy on the 50th anniversary of the 1957 500cc original. In Europe, there’s as much familiarity with the car as we have with the VW bug.
You won’t find many people who have one of the originals in their family history, but I do. In 1960, my father bought one for my older sister on her 16th birthday—he liked Fiats, already owning a Fiat 1500 roadster that he raced. Barbara drove it to high school and took her girlfriends. They used to chip in gas money. It wasn’t much, at 50 mpg and 25 cents per gallon. I took the bus. A 13-year-old boy riding in that tiny car with 16-year-old girls was not right.
GMC Sierra Denali with the big new Duramax diesel
Last week I put 640 miles on a 2011 GMC Sierra Denali 2500 4WD Crew Cab pickup truck, with the new 6.6-liter Duramax V8 turbodiesel engine. This is the first year of the fifth generation for that tried-and-true diesel, mated to a new Allison 6-speed automatic transmission that’s been beefed up and sharpened, to handle the 395 horsepower and humongous 765 pound-feet of torque of the engine.
It’s all good. Real good. The truck is quiet (almost gone is that diesel rattle) and the ride is firm but smooth and comfortable. The transmission is tight and programmed carefully. The new independent front suspension makes handling easy. The cabin with leather seats is terrific, especially the seating position. The previous week I had a Ford XLT Super Duty diesel, and in my book the Denali beats it in ride, handling, comfort, and powertrain.
Neither truck exactly came off the bargain rack, however; the Denali was $58,144 otd (out the door) after $11,300 in options including $8400 for the Duramax diesel and Allison 6-speed; and the Ford was $56,435, without leather.
For about 200 of those miles I towed my Toyota MR2 racecar, over the winding and mountainous interstate through the Columbia River Gorge, as well as in the city. The big diesel never broke a sweat, its big torque and horsepower easily enabling the rig to maintain 65 mph, even uphill. The long wheelbase and three-quarter-ton chassis kept everything stable as a rock. I made one 60-mile run on the dark, rainy, and winding freeway and felt totally secure.
I averaged 14.5 miles per gallon. GM says it’ll do 18.5 mpg at a steady 60 mph without towing, and it probably will.
The Allison 6-speed automatic transmission contributed to the ease of towing. Its tow/haul mode, unlike others that merely lock out overdrive, completely remaps the shifting pattern, and makes all the right decisions. For example, when slowing to a stop down a hill, the transmission will downshift with blips, using a special mode that optimizes engine braking. And its upshifts are sharp. In fact, 0-60 acceleration has improved with the new transmission.
The rearview camera makes hooking up to the trailer a piece of cake. Watch the hitch ball in its small screen in the rearview mirror, and when the last glint of chrome disappears under the trailer hitch, you’re perfectly aligned.
The day will come when we’ll wonder how we got along without it. Till then, I know how. We get out of the truck a bunch of times and tweak the steering and guess at backward inches until the ball fits. That’s if we’re alone. When we have someone to guide us, like our teenager, we yell at them to at least give hand signals that are understandable. And if it’s our ex-wife we accept misguidance with a sigh.
2011 Dodge Charger
It’s been important to Chrysler to succeed with its overdue new cars, and so far so good. The all-new 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee aced its rebound, an impressive achievement considering that during its redesign it had three different masters speaking in three different tongues: German (Mercedes), American banker(Cerebrus), and now Italian (Fiat, or maybe more precisely Sergio Marchionne).
The 2011 Dodge Charger will bring smiles to the faces of fans of muscle cars. It gets the engineering right. And the price double-right.
At its foundation, the base 2011 Charger offers a new 292-horsepower V6 and new five-speed automatic Autostick transmission for about $25,000, same price as the previous base Charger whose powertrain used a much smaller V6 with a four-speed.
And there will still be the heavyweight musclecar Charger SRT8 with the big Hemi, expected to top 500 horsepower when it comes out this year, with a 6-speed manual gearbox, same as that in the Viper.
The all-new V6 is the big news, as the redesigned 2011 Charger moves history forward. Chrysler’s line of double-overhead-cam, variable-valve-timing Pentastar V6 engines makes its debut in 2011 (first with the Grand Cherokee), planned for many more models by 2014, when turbocharging and direct injection will be the standard for cars like the Charger. The Pentastar engines are designed for that future.
The Charger has an all-new body as well, much improved; an all-new chassis and suspension, much improved; and all-new interior, much improved.
Chrysler calls the Charger design a four-door fastback, but others are saying coke-bottle coupe. Its roofline looks like a coupe and its hourglass coke-bottle figure has been accentuated in 2011, pinched by six inches, with scallops on the sides and wide front and rear fenders. Charger fans are saying Yes! The new crosshair grille is darker and squared more, the front overhang is radically truncated, and the aluminum hood bulges.
The new chassis uses advanced steels and nylon composites to achieve very high structural stiffness and torsional strength, which contributes to tighter handling and safety. The ride is more solid and more comfortable.
Nothing has gone untouched in the suspension. The Charger is lower and now uses 19-inch wheels with all-season performance tires, and electro-hydraulic power steering that’s 25 percent quicker. It’s set up for high-speed cornering with more aggressive steering geometry, and has been tested on the skid pad at a grippy 0.90 G’s.
Significantly, the Charger is the only muscle car offering all-wheel drive. It uses new control arms, shock absorbers, and half shafts with high-precision sealed bearings. There’s an active transfer case that disconnects the front-wheel drive when it’s not needed, improving fuel economy by 15 percent. The rear-wheel-drive Charger gets 25 mpg on the highway, and that’s with the Hemi engine.
The 2011 Charger reaches for perfection, and gets way past the previous good model. And by keeping the price near the same, Chrysler proves it means business. They're gonna be contenders again.
Desite the name of this blog there hasn’t been much true snark, maybe it’s just not me. I found this book in the library called “The Snark Handbook,” by Lawrence Dorfman and Skyhorse Publishing, and it’s reeally good. Open it anywhere, like I just did, and you get stuff like this: “Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” Mark Twain. It figures. Elevated the art.
With cars, I can bring myself to be snarky over design or engineering, but not over wild ideas, like the Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet. Jalopnik snarkily says it’s the result of a tequila-fueled night in Tijuana between a Murano SUV and hot 370Z roadster, although I cleaned it up a bit.
But sometimes you just have to say: Now we’re getting somewhere. Who would have thought, when they came up with the term “crossover” for vehicles that were half car and half SUV, that it would head off under a convertible top? As in, cross over and over again, from truck to car to cabriolet capable of anything. The world’s first Gorilla Cabriolet.
At the LA Show where it was revealed in November, Carlos Tavares, chairman of Nissan Americas, put it into fair perspective when he said, "This new CrossCabriolet takes Murano to the next dimension. This first-ever crossover convertible represents not only our commitment to innovative new forms but also the boldness of our decision making."
It was speculated by the jaded at the LA Show that the CrossCabriolet is an answer in search of a question: Who needs it? Well, those who love real convertibles (this one has a canvas top), who want all-wheel drive, who need a back seat and reasonable trunk, and who have gotten used to a high seating position with good command of the road, and don’t want to give that up. For them, the one-of-a-kind Murano has it all. Including high ground clearance to go bouncing over the boonies and spittin’ tobacco over the door with their friends in old Chevy Blazers who’ve taken a Sawzall to the roof.
Add a silky and wonderfully fast high-revving V6 that makes 265 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque, and a CVT with manual shifting, and you’ve got yourself a car. Or a ragtop sportscar truck. Whatever. It will be cool whether it’s popular or not. It might go down in flames, and still be cool.
There will be one price for the CrossCabriolet: $46,390, more than a fully loaded Murano. Oops, there goes your cool. No options. They’re already included. Can’t delete them. Leather and wood trim, 20-inch alloy wheels finished in titanium, hard drive navigation with 9.3 gb music storage, rearview monitor, Bose audio system, Bluetooth, heated seats and steering wheel, HID bi-xenon headlamps and LED taillamps, and more.
The trunk will hold a decent 12.3 cubic feet when the soft top is up, 7.6 cubic feet when it’s down. The chassis has been strengthened, for sure, and lengthened nearly 8 inches in the doors (because there are only two of them), but the wheelbase hasn’t been stretched so there’s not much legroom in the rear, with the seat moved forward a bit to make room for soft-top stowage.
Then there’s the problem with car’s body. What’s made for loving at 5’9" is chubby at 5’5" (who me, snarky?). It’s shaped like an SUV. It is what it is, a round Murano with the top chopped off. Said one guy from London on a forum, “It’s like a bathtub on wheels,” but he added, “and I like it.”
I just like the idea, of having a lifestyle where the best car to suit it would be a convertible SUV.
Highlander Hits the Ice
All the snow and ice we’ve been having in the Pacific Northwest has been fabulous for testing cars. I just did back-to-back weeks in two Toyota Highlanders, the Hybrid and V6, a lot of runs up and down the steep street I live on. It’s a small town with one big truck and a snowplow blade, so my road outside the city limits stays white for a while. I’d be happy if they never plowed it at all.
I get good experience with all-wheel-drive systems and tires. If the awd is good enough, winter tires aren’t as critical as they used to be. It was amazing what the Highlanders could do with the tires they had, so-called all-season tires. I think it was Subaru’s full-time awd and Audi with its quattro system that enabled the relatively recent invention of all-season tires. But awd and actual winter tires would be the safest setup. That’s what I have on my 2000 Impreza, a set of BF Goodrich Winter Slaloms, which bite really well. Btw, studded tires are STUPID!
All-wheel-drive systems are all different. Some work better than others. Lexus is usually the brainiest, that is the most electronically capable. Sensors in each wheel take traction readings 500 (or so) times a second, and make decisions about cutting the gas, cutting the spark, or hitting and releasing the brakes at individual wheels. For example, hypothetically, if you wanted to cut a clockwise donut (and your awd knew it), it would put the right front wheel on full brake with no gas, and the left front wheel on full throttle.
The Highlander awd system does a full-time 50/50 torque split in the gas model, but the Hybrid is almost all fwd until a wheel slips and an electric motor kicks in to deliver 25 percent to the rear wheels.
The Hybrid was brilliant on the ice, both to provide traction and to stop safely. Going up my steep icy hill, the awd did its thing to keep moving the car forward without noticeable slipping. I charged downhill and floored the brake pedal, and the anti-lock brakes stopped the Highlander as quickly as possible. I tested the steering during ABS braking by making S turns while it was sliding on the ice. The Highlander’s control was perfect. It defies physics to steer when the wheels are locked, but with ABS you can.
The Hybrid was fitted with Toyo A20 Open Country HT tires, P245/55R19, not even the Open Country tire for snow. It had the $1020 option for the handsome 10-spoke 19-inch alloy wheels. Skip that option and get all-terrain tires, if you want the best winter traction. Don’t confuse all-season with all-terrain.
The V6 Highlander used similar 19-inch Bridgestone tires, the Dueler H/L brand, not the winter Blizzak models. At one point sliding down icy Spring Street with the ABS fully engaged, I tried to steer away from the snow-filled ditch at the side of the road, but the front wheels continued to slide and not steer, so apparently there is a limit to how much physics can be defied. But I merely tapped the DAC button by the shift lever, and Downhill Assist Control kicked in. It’s standard equipment on the Highlander awd models. With no input from the driver except to steer straight ahead, the car maintained a safe 4-mph crawl to the bottom of the icy hill. Look Ma, no feet.
After bombing up and down Spring Street, I hung it out on nearby icy curves, while the electronic stability control kept the Highlander from spinning out. When it starts to slide, you just take your feet off the pedals and let the car throttle and brake itself, while you just steer in the corrected direction it takes you. What a wonderful feeling of security the two Highlanders offered.
If not great gas mileage. Would you believe the Highlander Hybrid only got 18.2 miles per gallon, driving for a week and only once exceeding 35 mph? So what if all the accessories were running full blast.
Nov. 20 Edgy Run
It was a fast round trip to Battleground, on a dark Saturday evening, carrying nine hundred-dollar bills to my friend Ronnie and his bro, waiting on the corner of 138th and Mill Plain. We’d scored a ’92 Mustang LX, 302 with a 5-speed, racing green, big dent on the left rear fender where there had been some rubbing, and a darlington stripe on the passenger door. Talked two Mexican guys down from $1200, plus we give them back the air conditioner to sell on craigslist, Ronnie’s chopping all that stuff anyhow. They were from Brownsville, Texas, a bordertown, been there. We did the deal in the rain in the parking lot of their apartment complex. Car was titled in some girl’s name, but it was signed, so it’s mine now. Ronnie’s building a Chump Car out of the Mustang, we’re after 300 hp.
So I made the quick edgy run, 120 miles, in the new Ford Edge. It was Tuxedo Black Metallic, with a wide profile and 22-inch wheels, black and aluminum. Six-speed sequential automatic with paddle shifters. Tinted glass, rich black leather, voice command, spaceship information glowing blue and red from the dash. Springsteen from 12 speakers, satellite radio, all bruce all the time.
In the old days it would have been a V8, now it’s a 305-hp V6 that blows the old V8 away. Ford engines leading the way, you betcha. It don’t rumble, but gawd it’s fast. Columbia River Gorge at night is something, narrow-twisty-climbing-diving on I84. Dark as moonshiners ever run. I ran 75, racing to get back, driven by fear of shambles. Left three teenage boys alone in the house.
Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart
The Ralliart is like a junior Evo, which is a legend already. It uses a detuned version of the Evo’s 2.0-liter turbo, plus the same magic twin-clutch transmission, like a six-speed gearbox without a clutch pedal. Great if you live out in the country and drive hard on backroads all the time.
My racy long-legged friend Sally Nemeth, during her brief shining time as an automotive journalist (she’s otherwise a YA author and playwright), tested a Ralliart for one week around Los Angeles and her neighborhood, where there’s a hill that’s as steep as anything you’ve ever seen in San Francisco. She wrote:
"The gorgeous copper color of my test Ralliart was called Rotor Glow, and the car got lots of attention, even in L.A., land of exotic cars. The interior has plenty of room for partners in crime. The Recaro front seats have wonderful support and are great for taking corners at top speed, but if you try to gracefully exit the car wearing a skirt any shorter than knee length, you're guaranteeing a revealing experience.
"I have two snarks about the car. First, the twin-clutch transmission needs to be warm to shift properly. And it's not exactly cold in Los Angeles. If you lived somewhere truly frigid, it would be a while before the car warmed up enough to shift smoothly. Second, if you’re not a flatlander, you’ll find that the car doesn't like to climb steep hills, with the transmission in Drive Normal. It struggles uphill before finally downshifting, and then on the downslope, it doesn't upshift. But when I put the car in Manual and used the paddle shifters, it felt like it could climb a tree.
"If I ever need a getaway car, I'll definitely consider the Ralliart. It's hot looking, a blast to drive, and frankly, I do think someone of my vintage belongs behind the wheel. But always in a ladylike skirt."
This photo by John Vincent was taken at Run to the Sun (see photo essay below), in the Pacific Northwest. You can’t really tell it, but I’m taking a curve at nearly 90 mph and 6000 rpm in 4th gear. Sally’s right, it IS a blast to drive.
I scooped the automotive journalism world, on the debut of the Nissan 370Z. It was unveiled at the LA Auto Show on a Thursday, but I asked Tim Gallagher at Nissan if there were a car that I could drive on Wednesday, and he said yes and I took off. Drove 500 miles in one day in a big triangle over LA, 370 of them on remote and curvy two-lanes (the number 370 was coincidental, only symbolic later). I’m not telling the route because this blog might go viral and when I go back the road will be full of tourists gawking at cowboys and windmills.
At on the day that the 370Z was shown to the world, my review of the car was posted at www.oncars.com.
The 3.7-liter V6 has been proven brilliant many times over. It features VVEL (Variable Valve Event and Lift Control) technology, like having four camshafts, two for torque (270 pound-feet @ 5200 rpm) and two for top end (332 hp @ 7000 rpm). Redline 7500 rpm is reached with little effort. It loves to linger at 6000 rpm, where it feels like it can run all day, although you almost have to run it up there to hear it, because the cabin is so well insulated for sound.
The engine and exhaust produce a unique deep pitch. Imagine a screaming straight-six BMW merging voices with a throaty V8 Audi, and you have the song of the V6 370Z. Or you might say the 370Z sounds like a junkyard dog howling into a concrete culvert, especially if you’re driving through canyons.
I look through the windshield over the long aluminum hood with a subtle hump, gorgeous in metallic blue. The green pastures turn to scrub oak as the farms disappear in my mirror and the twists begin. This is what I’m here for, driving opportunities like this.
The rotational pivot point in the chassis, the spot where the spinout begins, called the “moment of intertia” by engineers, is in the ideal position on the 370Z, right under the driver’s butt. It’s key to the responsive and secure handling.
The Z turns where you might expect any sports car to dance, hard cornering on uneven pavement. It grips like it has claws. It steers with precision and turns in decisively. It changes directions dynamically. It encourages smooth driving. It’s like a spouse that brings out the best in you: not always easy but worth it.
I come down into a wide flat valley nearly 20 miles long, and up ahead see two weathered wooden windmills behind a silver water tank that’s no longer shiny, and some 30-year-old Ford trucks, abandoned or for sale or both. After that, nothing. A straightaway as far as the eye can see.
Sixth gear is a super overdrive to achieve 26 highway mpg, while making high-speed cruising understated. One hundred miles per hour is only 4000 rpm; even in fifth gear, 120 is relatively mellow at that sweet spot, 6000 rpm.
The long straight ends with a sudden S curve behind a 35-mph sign. No worries about the brakes not bringing you down, especially if they’re the 13.4-inch rotors with Brembo calipers.
The 370Z is a steal among high-performance sports cars, on the bang-for-buck scale; its base price is $31,200, and you don’t have to spend more than that. There’s a Sport package for $3000, but it’s not necessary to get sport out of your driving. The 350-horsepower track-ready Nismo Z, with its big brakes and fat tires and aero kit, adds $8000 to the base price, but you don’t need it unless you do track days.
The 2011 Nissan 370Z is in its third successful year of a long run spanning six generations. It comes in either a Coupe or Roadster, with styling that adheres to tradition and history, although it’s shorter, wider, and less nubile than the 350Z, although from the driver’s point of view, the long humped aluminum hood looks cool out the windshield.The current shape is driven by aerodynamics, delivering a low 0.30 coefficient of drag.
The Roadster has a power cloth top that looks good in standard black. Great bucket seats, carefully designed for support during hard cornering. The standard black fabric looks and feels so sporty that the optional perforated leather might not be missed, beautiful as it is. There’s also a synthetic suede.
The chassis is 22 percent more rigid in front and 30 percent in rear, by use of ultra high-tensile steel, a triangular brace over the engine and aluminum cradle under it, carbon-fiber box around the radiator, and inverted struts in the cargo area. Despite the added weight of the steel and braces, the curb weight has been reduced by 88 pounds thanks largely to the aluminum hood, doors, and hatch. The front suspension has also been changed to a double wishbone.
Cornering is supremely tight, on a short 100-inch wheelbase, with the rotational pivot point in the chassis in its ideal position of balance, right under the driver’s seat. It’s called the “moment of inertia,” or in layman’s words, the spot where the spinout starts.
The rigid chassis uses ultra high-tensile steel, a triangular brace over the engine and aluminum cradle under it, a carbon-fiber box around the radiator, and inverted struts and a crossbrace in the cargo area. So in those places and situations where you might expect a car to dance around, the 370Z turns. For example during hard cornering on uneven pavement, it grips like a cat. If it responds this way to big challenges, it can breeze through others.
It changes directions dynamically. It encourages smooth driving. The threshold of grip on the outside of a curve (your own lane) is impressive. It feels like a big go-cart, and doesn’t need much road.
Redline 7500 rpm is reached with little effort, and the rev limiter strikes softly, after a convenient red light in the tachometer starts blinking at 7000 rpm, where horsepower peaks at 332. There are greedy few who will pine for more, because 332 feels just right, given the car’s size.
The Z accelerates from 0 to 60 in 5.2 seconds. Its 270 pound-feet of torque peaks at 5200 rpm, quite high, but there’s still plenty of torque down low, enough torque to easily spin the rear wheels coming off a second-gear corner with the stability control turned off. The VDC (Vehicle Dynamic Control) is fairly sensitive in a straight line, and will barely let the wheels bounce under acceleration if the road is bumpy, but it leaves sideways room to kick out the tail without interfering.
With that torque, third gear has a broad range, to take the work out of cruising. Sixth gear is a super overdrive to achieve 26 highway miles per gallon, while making 75-mph cruising understated.
The rigid chassis uses ultra high-tensile steel, a triangular brace over the engine and aluminum cradle under it, a carbon-fiber box around the radiator, and inverted struts and a crossbrace in the cargo area. It’s still 88 pounds lighter than the 350Z, thanks to the double-wishbone suspension and aluminum hood, doors, and hatch.
The Roadster is inherently less rigid than the Coupe, but it’s exceptionally solid. It’s beefed up at the A pillars, side sills and behind the seats, and adds a brace under the body. Drivers who don't regularly push the car near its limits won’t notice any difference in the handling between the Roadster and Coupe, but if ultimate performance is the goal, the Coupe is the choice.
The threshold of grip on the outside of a curve (your own lane) is impressive. Feels like a big go-cart. Doesn’t need much road.
The long high-speed straight ends with a sudden S curve behind a 35-mph sign. No worries about the brakes not bringing you down. Especially the big brakes on the Sport package, 4-inch rotors in front, 13.8 inches in rear (12.6-inch rotors are standard). But you have to release the brakes smoothly, especially at turn-in, because the car responds so quickly.
In manual mode, the7-speed automatic shifts quickly, .5 seconds, as fast as some sports cars costing two and three times as much. Drivers can use the paddles or lever. The shifts feel direct, like a manual transmission, thanks to what Nissan calls torque converter lock-up logic.
With the 6-speed manual transmission, heel-and-toe downshifting easy. The clutch, gearbox and pedals work well together. So it’s ironic that the Z is the first car equipped with a computer-controlled throttle blip during the downshift, called SynchroRev Match; it comes with the Sport package.
However there is a debate: Maybe you don’t want the car to take over your right foot during downshifting; only dolts need it. However, it’s moot because: If you don’t like it, or if it gets in the way, you can turn it off.
Mechanically, it only makes sense. During aggressive downshifting, four limbs have to do five things. Left hand steers, right hand shifts, left foot clutches, right foot brakes and blips the throttle. SynchroRev relieves your right foot of multi-tasking.
We tested SynchroRev on the track, and if we can’t say we like it, we can say its timing was perfect.
We also got seat time in a Nismo 370Z, whose suspension tuning makes the ride too harsh for the street, if you care about a comfortable ride. But it sure is great on the track, where we tested it. It’s totally confidence-inspiring. At Willow Springs in California, we ran a couple laps on the tail of a Mustang Shelby GT driven by a racer, and it was the best four minutes of a day full of testing hot cars.
Great power, light weight, fantastic handling, beefy brakes, slick aerodynamics, bold styling, good fuel mileage, great 6-speed gearbox; optional 7-speed automatic with paddle shifters, even a Roadster. Base price $32k out the door, whale of a performance bargain.
I make a promise in the intro that this blog will go places regular reviews don’t go. For example the following, which proves itself objective (assuming I didn’t make it all up), because being a personal email it’s evidence...
I’m living down here in my trailer in an RV Park on the Sea of Cortez in Baja for a couple more weeks, working on “Senor Madre, the Joy of Homemaking, My Life with the AngloArabAsian Brothers,” or whatever I’m finally going...
I’m proud to admit that I’m a track-time hog. One of the reasons I’m an automotive journalist is to get on the track with the latest high-performance cars. Every minute I’m on the track makes me feel a day...
I know that people don’t drive around off-road all day in their Subaru Foresters, but I gotta tell you how good the Forester is in the dirt. It’s fantastic in the dirt. How they get a suspension to work that well both on the road...
Here's the trouble with life: You sometimes don't know whether you should do a lot of preparation or none, or whether you should listen to a lot of people or nobody. Not that the opportunity to drive a Ferrari 333S P at Daytona could ever under any...