Category Archives: Previews

Upcoming and rumored cars.

Preview – 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Gullwing

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Every automaker needs a halo car – a vehicle that embodies the best aspects of the brand. It’s usually fast, often rare, and it’s almost always very pricey. And while the car may not necessarily make a profit, it draws plebes like you and I into showrooms where salespeople can try and convince drooling gawkers to buy something less exciting, simply because it shares a few minor parts with your dream car. (“Actually, the Malibu uses the exact same lug nuts as the ZR1 Corvette!”)

At first glance, it might seem like Mercedes-Benz already has more halo models than a Macy’s in Heaven. Between the super-luxurious Maybach, the Batmobile-like SLR, the teeth-rattlingly-powerful SL65 AMG Black Series and a veritable army of V-12 and AMG V-8 powered sedans, coupes and roadsters, why would they need another mouth-watering ride to suck in passers-by?

But read between the lines, and the need for a true halo car becomes clear. The Maybach models are sold under another brand name designed to distance themselves from “commonplace” Mercedeses. The SL65 Black Series, in spite of its hypertuned engine and Kirstie Alley-worthy crash diet, still looks more or less like a pimped-out everyday SL550 – and you can’t go two blocks in Beverly Hills without seeing one of those. And while the SLR’s McLaren-Mercedes parentage and Gotham City looks made it seem like a promising halo car, it never really caught on; its half-million-dollar price tag didn’t seem worth it, considering a Porsche 911 Turbo could blow it away for one-quarter the price. Besides, the SLR’s production run ends this year.

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So what’s a luxury automaker to do? Correct the problems of the last halo car and try again. Hence, the SLS. Successor to the SLR in both position and alphabetical order, the SLS will supposedly be faster, cheaper and easier to love than its predecessor. Instead of aiming for the miniscule hypercar market the SLR was designed for, the SLS will battle against the cream of the crop in the roughly $200,000 range. Expect to see it facing off against everything from the Nissan GT-R to the Porsche 911 GT3 to the Ferrari F430 in both magazine comparisons and bonus-toting executives’ minds.

For the money, the SLS should pack a punch. Power will come from a version of AMG’s 6.2 liter V8 making 563 horsepower and 479 pound-feet of torque, running though a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission. However, should you want something a little more eco-friendly, Mercedes will be unveiling a 526 horsepower all-wheel-drive electric version…but not until 2015.

To stand out from the pack, the SLS will come with gullwing doors that rise upwards on roof-mounted hinges, just like Mercedes’s 300SL sports car from half a century ago. (Noob alert: be sure not to confuse gullwing doors with scissor, or “Lamborghini,” doors, which also open vertically but have hinges near the base of the windshield. Also note the difference between gullwings and butterfly doors, which open both upwards and outwards in a hybrid movement between scissor doors and conventional doors. Clear?)

Photo by Konstantin Tschovikov, from Edmunds Inside Line. Thanks, Konstantin!

Photo by Konstantin Tschovikov, from Edmunds Inside Line.

Of course, the gullwing doors won’t be available on the convertible version which will follow the coupe into production, but as everyone knows, sometimes you have to forsake a little class if you want to go topless in public.

While Mercedes hasn’t yet pulled the wraps off the car’s styling, they have seen fit to tease us with plenty of pix (and even some video) of the disguised SLS kicking ass and taking names all around the world – including a video of the car lapping the famed Nurburgring racetrack. Plus, one lucky bastard journalist from Edmunds was allowed to take a lap or two around a German proving ground, which you can read about here.

The  car is reportedly scheduled to be unveiled at the Frankfurt Auto Show in September, with vehicles rolling off the production line and into the driveways of the rich and awesome next year. Should you be one of those with the means and desire to snatch up an SLS, we’d suggest beelining for your Mercedes-Benz dealer as soon as you get. Thanks to some sneaky soul, a copy of the dealer’s ordering guide has appeared on the web, giving you a chance to see just what sort of money you might need to throw down. (Ceramic brakes run $12,000, while a 1000-watt Bang & Olufsen stereo goes for $6,400.)

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All told, expect to pay somewhere in the range of $175-185,000 for starters; add on a few fun options, like the sound system and special leather seats, and you could easily see the bill hit $200,000. Not too bad, for the world’s greatest Mercedes.

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Preview – Tesla Model S

If people could invest in automotive powertrains, the handful of people out there with electric car stocks would be seeing those very-long-term investments finally begin to pay off. Back in the early years of the 20th century, electric motors were plenty popular among the nascent automobile industry; of course, so was steam power.

Tesla Model S

But while the days of water-vapor driven cars cruising down Main Street are as defunct as sock hops and Molly Ringwald’s career, the electric car is undergoing something of a renaissance. Between last year’s hair-tearing increase in gas prices and the sudden awareness of global warming as more than a conspiracy theory, people are starting to reconsider the benefits of electric cars.

Some of this interest, unsurprisingly, has come from the world’s big automotive manufacturers – for example, GM’s Volt and Chrysler’s ENVI family, such as the 200C sedan. However, other ventures have been put forward by companies you’ve never heard of – Fisker’s Karma sedan, for example.

Fisker Karma

Fisker Karma

But Tesla – the manufacturer of today’s Preview subject – sets itself apart by being the first to put boots on the ground – or rather, tires on the pavement. While Fisker, Chevrolet, Chrysler and a slew of other manufacturers large and small have been touting upcoming models, Tesla has been selling its loosely-Lotus Elise-based roadster since last year. Leonardo DiCaprio, George Clooney, and Cameron Diaz are among the greenies who’ve unloaded around 100 grand to say goodbye to gas forever!

Tesla Roadster

Tesla Roadster

Well, only if they’re planning on driving less than 220 miles, because then the batteries run out of juice and you have to spend seven or eight hours recharging. (You can get a higher-ampere home charging station that’ll top off your battery with electrons in about three and a half hours, but plugging into a regular old outlet means a full night, more or less.) And only if you’re planning on carrying one other person, since it’s a two-seater. And only if you don’t need a whole lot of luggage – hey, it IS based on a Lotus Elise.

But the good folks at Tesla Motors (named after Serbian inventor and alternating current enthusiast Nikolai Tesla, whose last impact on the zeitgeist was when David Bowie portrayed him as a Hugh Jackman-duplicating scientist in The Prestige) are no fools; while a sexy convertible may draw in attention (and venture capital bucks), to take the company to the next level of profitability, they needed something more practical.

Hence, the Model S. A mid-sized luxury sedan designed and priced to take on the BMW 5-series, the Mercedes-Benz S-class, and the Jaguar XF, Tesla’s new model promises gasoline-car range and performance, greater seating capacity and superior versatility – all for less than the competition, once fuel costs are rolled into the equation.

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As John Travolta noted in Pulp Fiction, “That’s a bold statement.”

Let’s take a quick look at those claims. Better yet, let’s see how it really stacks up against the competition. For argument’s sake, let’s weight it against the standard 2009 Jaguar XF sedan – among the newest of the mid-sized luxury sedan class, and already acclaimed as a class-leader by quite a few factions in the motoring press.

Jaguar XF

Jaguar XF

Range: Tesla claims the Model S achieves a 300-mile range with its optional high-capacity battery; regular models can roam a mere 160-miles before seeking sweet, sweet current. The naturally aspirated 4.2 liter V8 in the Jag has an 18.4 gallon fuel tank, and is rated at 16 mpg city/24 mpg highway. So one tank of gas in the XF will get you somewhere between 294 and 460 miles; figure an average range of about 375 miles. Plus, fueling up the Jaguar only take about five minutes. Advantage: Jaguar

Performance: Tesla isn’t mentioning horsepower figures yet, but claims the Model S will do the 0-60 sprint in 5.6 seconds, the quarter-mile in 14 flat, and tops out at 120 mph. The XF, by Jaguar’s numbers, does 0-60 in 6.2 seconds, with the party ending at 121 mph. Advantage: Tesla

Practicality: The Jaguar, while inordinately pretty, is a fairly normal mid-sized sedan in terms of packaging. Four adults will fit in comfort, five if the three people in the back seats would help the others move out of their apartments. 17.7 cubic feet of packing peanuts will fit in the trunk. The Tesla, on the other hand, claims 7-passenger capability – or rather, 5+2 capability, since the two seats in the way back are about as suitable for adults as those in the back of a Porsche 911. Still, it’s a handy feature to have, especially given the tendency of most people to buy heavy, gas-slurping SUVs when they have to transport more than three kids. Due to the low-lying nature of the powertrain, there’s a second trunk up front as well, a la Porsche Boxster. Advantage: Tesla

Price: The XF starts at $49,975. The Tesla starts out a bit higher – $57,400 – but should be eligible for a $7500 federal tax credit, lining it up nicely with the Jaguar. Of course, that’s without the extended-range battery, so expect any saving from that tax credit to vaporize pretty quickly if you foresee your life taking you more than 80 miles from your house. (The company claims you can also swap the battery in 5 minutes for a fresh one, but doesn’t say how easy this might be or how much a spare battery costs.)

But the Model S does have a couple neat features the Jaguar lacks – a 17″ touch screen on the console (yikes!), along with claimed 3G wireless capability, which I simply don’t understand. Is there a cell phone tower built into the car? A panoramic sunroof, xenon headlights, smart-key technology, and a few other goodies will either be standard or optional – the press release isn’t clear. You should probably expect to pay a few grand more than a comparably-equipped XF if you want that extra range.

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The Tesla’s big cost advantage, however, should come not at the initial check-writing phase, but as the years trickle by. Depending on how much you’re paying your electric company, filling the extended range 70-kilowatt battery might cost less than $10, which certainly beats the hell out of the $36.80 it’ll take to fill up the XF at $2 a gallon. Even if your electric company decides to be a pain and it costs you $20 per full charge, you’ll still save $315 or so for every 10,000 miles you drive. Tesla predicts the Roadster’s battery should last about 7 years or 100,000 miles; if the Model S follows a similar price structure, so long as the battery costs less than $3150, you’ll save money by going green. (Tesla currently quotes a jaw-dropping $36,000 fee for battery replacement on the Roadster; hopefully they can knock that down a few dozen percent for the sedan.)

(However, in the ethical spirit of journalism, I have to remind you that the Tesla’s numbers will vary greatly depending on how much your electric company charges. If you’re only paying $7 per 300 miles, you’ll save $748 per 10K over the Jag, and Tesla can charge $7479 for your new battery while still claiming you save money.)

So value-wise, I’m gonna have to go Advantage: Jaguar. While going electric saves money from day-to-day, the battery replacement fee probably negates it. And (hopefully) the engine on the Jag will last more than 100,000 miles.

Of course, all of this is still rather academic, as the Model S won’t be plugging into consumers’ garages until the summer of 2011 or so. Given the billions of dollars being sunk into lithium-ion batteries for cars, the price should come down quite a bit over the next few years – and by 2016, when the first wave of Model S’s starts rolling over that 100K mile mark, the batteries might well cost a tenth what they do today.

So in the end, is the Model S a real car, or simply a curiosity? Well, it certainly plays the part of real car well enough. Until people from outside the company can test it out, we won’t know for sure, but if they can live up to their claims, it will probably hold its own well with its gasoline-powered competitors.

But its major flaw lies in the time it takes to power up. One of the things that makes internal combustion engines so wonderful is the miniscule amount of time it takes to refuel – a car or truck can drive for hundreds of hours straight, so long as fuel is put into the tank very now and again (although you really should turn it off while filling up, folks). As long as you have to stop for three to eight hours every 300 miles or so, pure electric vehicles will have difficulty catching on as a family’s “first” car.

Chrysler 200C concept

Chrysler 200C concept

So what’s the solution? Well, it’s the one seen under the hoods of the Fisker Karma, the Chevy Volt, and Chrysler’s ENVI vehicles – hook up a small gasoline engine as a range-extending generator for the batteries. The “plug-in series hybrids” being touted by these companies will run about 40 miles on plug-in electric power, then several hundred more as the engine recharges the battery – just like plugging your laptop into a gasoline generator. Using the gas engine as a generator means greater fuel efficiency – somewhere between 50 and 150 mpg for a car like the Volt – and for shorter trips, no gasoline will be used at all.

Chevrolet Volt

Chevrolet Volt

That’s not to say pure electric cars don’t have a place or a future. If we can figure out how to charge the batteries in five minutes instead of three hours – maybe a nationwide network of high-amp stations to replace today’s gas stations – electric cars might be all we drive, fifty years from now. And they make sense today for most day-to-day travel people take. But as long as Americans have a love for the open road and a desire to follow it day and night, pure electric cars like the Tesla will simply have to find a place as very capable bedfellows in a two-car garage.

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Preview – 2012 Subaru-Toyota Sports Car

The universe, it’s been said, tends to balance itself out pretty well. When one thing goes bad, something good comes along. For example: several months ago, there was an article here on the site about a possible Subaru Impreza Coupe. Since then, however, there’s been pretty much zip in the way of news about this car, unfortunately. Only the good folks at Fuji Heavy Industries know whether the citizens of Portland (both Maine and Oregon) will be able to drift their way through rain-swept streets in an all-wheel-drive WRX two-door.

Courtsey 7Tune.com

Courtsey 7Tune.com

However, if God has closed one long coupe door, he’s opened a frameless window. (Wait – Subies don’t have frameless windows anymore, do they? Damn…well, screw it, I’m keeping the line. It’s the only thing saving this metaphor from complete cliche. Oh, crap – are you still reading this? Whoops – sorry. Got a little off track. Anyway, back we go…)

Yes, folks, like Godzilla and Rodan before them, it appears Japanese titans Subaru and Toyota are joining forces to use their combined power for the good of humanity. And while their combined offspring might not be a flying monster with atomic fire-breath (which would be awesome), it is likely to make the automotive world take notice.

Not too much is known about the mutant Subota (Toyaru?) at this point. It will be a compact rear-drive vehicle, making it the first Subaru in the states without all-wheel-drive in decades. It will likely be driven by a 2.0 liter, 200-horsepower 4-cylinder boxer engine, and will not be replacing the Impreza in Subaru’s lineup. And, perhaps most importantly, Subaru’s version (which should arrive stateside first) is likely to base under $20,000.

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Now, Toyota and Subaru apparently are both planning on selling versions of the car here in the U.S., which means there’s likely to be some overlap. Now, you might be wondering, “Where’s the logic in that?” And you would not be alone in thinking that.

However, keep in mind each of these brands plans on using this car for a different purpose in their lineup. For Subaru, the cross-bred car reclaims the low-end sporty car market they once had well-covered; while WRXs once were the supreme kind of cheap speed, their prices have been creeping skyward – you can’t get into one these days for less than 25 grand.

As for Toyota, while the world’s largest automaker boasts an expansive U.S. model range, there’s a conspicuous lack of sporty fun present in their showroom. The closest thing to two-door excitement is the Camry Solara, and even if it wasn’t the Japanese equivalent of the Chrysler Sebring, for God’s sake, it’s got Camry in the name. At least call it something cooler. Throwing a cheap, flighty two-door into the mix would not only do a lot to bring in people who traditionally associate Toyota with heavy, hoggish SUVs (seriously, they have six SUV models in America), but it would finally fill the sports-car gap left vacant since 2004, with the departure of the MR2.

(Quick Fact: The MR2 happens to have two of the best nicknames in the car world. Originally known as the MR-S, it was known as “The Missus” by Brits. Toyota changed it to MR2 so it would be taken seriously; however, in French, its alphanumeric name effectively translates to “The Shit.”)

In any case, expect to see at least some styling difference between the Subie and the Toyota versions when they arrive. Toyota’s played this game before, sharing its Matrix hatchback with Pontiac as the Vibe; apart from a few artistic differentiations, the cars are identical. (However, this doesn’t stop the Vibe from suffering significantly worse resale values. GM quality rules!) The pictures in this article are just conceptual, so don’t be surprised if it looks nothing like them when it comes out. (Although let’s hope it looks more like the blue model than the orange one.)

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Preview – 2010 Honda Insight

After letting Toyota dominate the U.S. hybrid market for the last decade or so, Honda is finally striking back with their new Insight, announced in concept form last week before its official unveiling October 2nd at the Paris Auto Show.

Honda says the Insight will go on sale on Earth Day 2009 (that’s April 22, for those of you with last names other than Gore). More importantly, they say it will be priced significantly cheaper than other hybrid cars on the market today, thanks in part due to revised (i.e. cheaper) hybrid technology.

However, don’t expect the car to do everything for you; among the snazzy features Honda lists (like folding rear seats!) is “a function to assist customers in achieving more fuel efficient driving habits.” (Don’t be surprised if it’s just a small light on the dashboard that blinks nervously if you use more than 50 percent of the throttle.)

This isn’t Honda’s first foray into the hybrid market; it already sells the Civic Hybrid here, and the last generation Accord featured a hybrid model that nonsensically strapped a tiny electric motor to the larger V-6 engine. From 1999 to 2006, however, the company also sold the first-generation Insight, a tiny two-seater that could get 70 miles per gallon, far better than the first generation of Toyota Prius it was competing with; however, the Insight never sold as well as the Prius – partly because the Prius had twice as many seats, and party because the Insight looked like the top half of a Viagra capsule.

 

When Bob Dole sits in his Insight, he gets half an erection.

When Bob Dole sits in his Insight, he gets half an erection.

 

Judging by the looks of the car, it’s pretty obvious Honda’s hoping to steal some Prius buyers by making it so hard for them to tell the cars apart they’ll climb into an Insight by accident and find themselves impressed with the fit and finish. I’m sort of disappointed by the looks of it, to be honest; Honda had a chance to make a car that was cheaper and better looking than its competitor, but chose to go the conservative route. It’s especially sad considering Honda claims the Insight’s styling was inspired by the hydrogen-powered FCX Clarity sedan (a car harder to get into than Jessica Biel’s pants), which happens to look much, much better. 

 

Sadly, I couldn't find a picture of Jessica Biel and the FCX. All I could get was Jaime Lee Curtis. I'm disappointed too.

Not Jessica Biel. Best I could do.

 

(Also pictured in the publicity shot with the new Insight and FCX Clarity is the CR-Z concept, a lightweight sports cars with a hybrid drive-train that might sell for around $20,000 if it ever goes on sale in the states. See it better at the bottom.)

Car and Driver estimates the Insight will go on sale for around $19,000, undercutting the Prius by three grand or so; it wouldn’t surprise me if they manage to bring the price down a little lower than that, even. Honda modestly hopes to sell 200,000 of them a year, half of that in North America, but don’t be surprised if they manage to sell quite a few more – especially if the production version looks a little more streamlined, and if it keeps some of the driving fun that makes Honda the poor man’s BMW.

Welcome back to the serious hybrid game, Honda. Now how about that CR-Z?

  

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Preview – 2011 Chevrolet Cruze

I posted a while back about the new Chevrolet compact, the Cruze, but now that General Motors has unveiled the model, let’s take a second look at it.

The Cruze is fairly large for a small car, stretching about 181 inches from tip to tail; compare this to about 177 inches for the Honda Civic and 178.8 inches for the Toyota Corolla. It doesn’t seem like much, but we’ll have to see if GM was smart enough to stick this extra distance where it counts and give the backseat useable legroom.

Engine choices for the U.S. haven’t been confirmed by GM, but Motor Trend is guessing the Cruze will pack a 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder pumping out between 150 and 170 horsepower. Meanwhile, Car and Driver is saying the Cruze’s engines should be getting at least 40 miles per gallon; six-speed automatic transmissions should improve fuel economy, but don’t hold your breath to be passing Prii (the plural of Prius) at the pumps. 

Europeans will be getting a new 2.0-liter turbodiesel cranking out 150 horses and 236 pound-feet of torque, but don’t expect to see that engine over here, especially while diesel still costs more than a dollar per gallon more than good old gas.

Personally, I don’t think Chevy’s going to have much trouble moving these things out the showroom door. If the interior manages similar quality levels as the Malibu (not perfect, but much better than most other American cars), a car with looks like these that gets highway mileage in the high 30s and has enough room for four people is gonna do just fine. Let’s just hope the Cruze is as much fun to cruise in (there’s the damn pun! Almost made it without one) as it is to look at – or else GM may be in serious trouble.

More pics (click to supersize):

  

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Preview – 2011 Chevrolet Cruze

The new Chevrolet Cruze, replacement for the compact Cobalt, should be coming our way come 2010, according to Motor Authority.

The website says the new compact Chevy will be built off a new platform that should form the basis of many small future General Motors cars. It is expected to be Chevy’s new “global car,” designed to be successful in markets all around the world – that is, mostly in places where gas is pricier (yes, they exist) and the roads smaller than in the U.S., making Impala ownership impractical.

Our version in the states should be powered by a turbocharged 1.4 liter four-cylinder that may pump out around 140 horsepower, and will supposedly get around 40 miles per gallon on the highway. City mileage should be close to 30 mpg, according to the site.

Our friends in Europe, ironically, may get the newest Chevy before we do; Chevrolet communications representative Nancy Libby told Automotive News the Cruze would go on sale there in the latter part of 2009. The car is scheduled to be unveiled at the Paris Auto Show this October, which seems to support that idea; however, given the recent increase in interest in small cars stateside, don’t be too surprised if the premiere gets bumped back to the 2009 Detroit show in January, or the December L.A. Auto Show.

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Preview – 2011 Subaru Impreza Coupe

British magazine Auto Express claims Subaru will be wheeling out a two-door version of its Impreza by 2010, presumably making it a 2011 model. 

The magazine says the car, being co-developed with Toyota, will use a 180 horsepower boxer four-cylinder (presumably the same engine currently making 170 horsepower in the Impreza) and a turbocharged version from the extra-high-performance WRX STi, making around 300 horsepower.

They also claim that base-level models will be rear-wheel-drive, but this seems doubtful over here, considering Subaru’s main selling point in the U.S. is its all-wheel-drive reputation. Besides, Auto Express says the high-performance version will offer all-wheel-drive, so why take it off to put it back on?

Expect to see the base coupe go for around $23,000 when it comes to the States, with the turbocharged version priced just below $30,000. It looks pretty hot in the picture, but keep in mind it’s just a drawing at this point. You can read the Auto Express article here.

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