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Quick Drive – BMW 550i Gran Turismo

The Good: Supernatural power and handling for its size, more comfortable than most living rooms.

The Bad: Seriously dense, not as pretty as the 5-series sedan.

The Verdict: The penultimate car for the all-American road trip.

At first glance, BMW’s 5-series Gran Turismo seems anachronistic. It’s bigger than a station wagon outside, but offers a smaller place for gear. The higher seating position of an SUV without any implication of off-road prowess or obvious badassery. A very large car with room for only four. It doesn’t seem to make sense.

Until you drive it.

Because BMW has a way of making the illogical seem surprisingly sensible. Hop in the GT, jump on the highway and crank the tunes, and it all seems to make sense. Bimmer’s longtime slogan, “The Ultimate Driving Machine,” is too vague; this is the Ultimate Road Tripping Machine.

With 4,938 pounds (not including gasoline or the average American’s Cinnabon-scarfing ass) squeezing the tires to the road (almost 600 pounds more than the 550i sedan), the 550i GT doesn’t leap and scramble through the curves like a Miata – the driver is always aware how much the car weighs – but it cuts them apart just fine anyway. Like a defensive lineman who can double as a runningback in a pinch, the GT is more than capable of running circles around smaller, lighter cars not prepared for the turns. Likewise, the company’s trademark heavy steering (at least at low velocities) is exacerbated by the car’s size in parking lots, but once the 550i is moving along, the wheels slide wherever you want them to go as if on greased rails.

But it’s the straightaways and the slow sweeping turns where the GT is most at home. The 4.4 liter twin turbo V8 makes all and more of its claimed 400 horses, and the eight-speed automatic doesn’t trip over its own feet, kicking down four or more gears in an instant when the throttle is pinned. The car feels just as responsive from 60 to 80 as it does between 20 and 40.

Inside, the driver lords over the road from the Goldilocks height for a 1000 mile drive – not road-huggingly low, not Freightliner high. Several generations of evolution have refined the infamous iDrive into a control system that’s surprisingly easy to understand. The seats (power-adjustable in a ridiculous number of ways) ensconsce all four inhabitants like La-Z-Boys, sacrificing some lateral support for unidirectional comfort. Backseat passengers aren’t forced to suffer, either; their thrones make the most of the GT’s 7-series-spawned lengthy wheelbase, and rear occupants can recline to a perfect position for napping. The dual-opening hatch sacrifices some storage space for the sake of the car’s swoopy lines, but there’s still enough room for four or five duffel bags. As for those looks – well, the 5-series GT certainly looks better in person than in photos (much like its fellow luxo-hatch, the Porsche Panamera), it suffers when placed next to the leaner, muscularly cut 2011 5-series sedan.

Which could be said about many aspects of the Gran Turismo. The lighter, lower sedan would probably fulfill the needs of most 5-series GT buyers, while performing even more impressively. But for those occasions when three or four people need to take a long road trip – be it a tall family looking at colleges, buddies fulfilling a Kerouacian fantasy or a fellowship of travelers driving to a volcano to throw a ring into its caldera – the 5-series GT is as good as it gets.

Base Price/Estimated Price As Tested*: $65,775/$75,975

0-60: 5.2 seconds (courtesy Car and Driver)

Fuel Economy: 15 city/21 highway (EPA estimate)

Key Competitors: Porsche Panamera S, Audi A6 Avant, Mercedes-Benz R350

*Actual price of tested vehicle not available; estimation made by approximating features on car using BMW USA’s online configurator. Which is always a fun way to pass the time.

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2010 Beijing Auto Show Recap

Ah, Beijing in April! Where the sweet, noxious smell of pollution fills the air with the sounds of thousands of coughing Chinese children. For reasons that had nothing to do with the eruption of Mount Overanalyzed (it’s just a volcano, folks – it didn’t erupt because of global warming, and it doesn’t mean the end of air travel, so calm down), we were unable to make it to Beijing; however, we did go down to Chinatown and suck on the tailpipe of a ’62 Dodge Dart for a while, which is pretty much the same thing.

However, neither our lack of airfare nor our sudden racking cough is enough to keep us from bringing you the highlights from this year’s Beijing Auto Show. Since China has become to automakers what Jerusalem was to Moses, the show this year (barely worth covering two or three years ago) played host to several world premieres of cars you’d actually want to own. So, in no particular order, here we go!

2011 Ferrari 599 GTO

We’re gonna turn this over to special guest contributor Garth Algar for our thoughts on the 599 GTO:

Are we clear on this? The 599 GTB is already one of the top three most incredible Ferraris in history, and ranks firmly atop our Powerball Car Pavilion. Compared with the GTB, the GTO is stripped of 200 pounds and packs an extra 49 horsepower to make what Ferrari calls its “fastest-ever road car.” (Not sure how they quantify that, given the Enzo topped out at 209 mph versus the 599’s 208, but hey, who really cares?) 0-60 should come in less than 3.4 seconds, and the company’s single-clutch six-speed automated manual is the only transmission. While a stripped-down interior means the GTO is probably a bit less livable than its GTB sibling, it’s a faster, more ferocious version of an already fast and ferocious machine. And it sounds like this. There’s only one word for that:

Schwing indeed.

Mercedes-Benz Shooting Break Concept

Somehow, the bizarre evolutionary arms war between BMW and Mercedes-Benz keeps resulting in more and more perplexing (and seemingly redundant) models. For example – take Mercedes’s midsize lineup. With the Shooting Break (basically a wagon version of the next CLS), Mercedes will have three separate wagons of similar size for around the same price: the E-class wagon, the R-class, and this bad boy. Confused? So are we.

But clearly they’re selling, since the company keeps wheeling out new versions. Right now it doesn’t look like the production CLS wagon will be hitting U.S. shores, sticking to markets like, well, China. Which is kinda sad, since this is a pretty enticing shaggin’ wagon. Still, if you like the look and are willing to show restraint at Whole Foods, the 2011 CLS should look almost identical, except for a more conventional trunk.

The Shooting Break also holds the first example of M-B’s new family of engines, represented here by a 3.5 liter V6 with 306 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque. Presumably channeled through a seven-speed automatic, this engine should become the new entry-level motor for the E-, R-, CLS-, and ML-classes…at least until they make a four-cylinder engine capable of providing the power we Americans deserve. (Arf arf arf!)

BMW Concept Gran Coupé

Remember BMW’s Concept CS of a couple years back, a sleeker 7-series-based four-door-coupe in the CLS persuasion with a paint job that shone like the T-1000 emerging from a fiery wreck? It was reportedly slated for production as the company’s range-topper (presumably called the 8-series), but the Great Recession blew the hell out of that plan.

John Connor is really getting pissed about the popularity of this color.

However, good ideas never die, they just go into hibernation – and the folks at BMW have decided it’s time to wake up their stylish little cub. The Gran Coupé will likely be coming to life as the next 6-series – probably a good business move, as it allows the model to go from being a bulky, sedan-based runner-up in the  Porsche 911/Maserati GranTurismo category to the sharpest, most exciting competitor in the CLS/Jaguar XF segment.

Powertrain details weren’t released, but we figure the new 5-series’s engines and transmissions will carry over all but unchanged. No one outside of Bimmer has seen inside, but we’re imagining a plush, comfy cabin with four bucket seats. (And in said daydream, we’re in the driver’s seat, flooring the 400 horsepower V8 and rowing through the six-speed stick. Don’t let us down, BMW…)

2011 Audi A8L W12

Should you prefer the rear-right seat of a car to the front-left, the A8L makes a convincing argument to be your vehicle of choice. With five extra inches of wheelbase over the already commodious A8, the L offers a combination of space and luxury usually found only in a Bombardier Global Express jet. For chauffeured corporate titans who need that extra bit of penis enhancement acceleration, the 6.3 liter W12 spits out 500 horsepower and 460 lb-ft of torque – less than the competing Mercedes-Benz S600 and BMW 760Li, but still enough to motivate the enormous sedan from naught to 60 in 4.9 seconds or so. (The short-wheelbase A8’s 372 horse 4.2 liter V8 provides motivation for the standard A8L; both engines send power to all four wheels via an eight-speed automatic.)

For reasons we’re not entirely sure about, the long-wheelbase A8 offers a rear-facing jumpseat that folds out of the back of the front passenger’s seat, forcing both back-right passengers to share legrooms. We think it’s actually a perch for for your cat. There’s also a center console in back that can be equipped with a fridge; no word yet whether it’ll be big enough for a bottle of Moet. (Or Donaghy Estates, if you’re so inclined.)

Chevrolet Volt MPV5 Electric Concept

Chevy’s Volt, dubbed the “Jesus of Detroit” by, well, us while writing for someone else, is finally coming to fruition; the four-door plug-in electric car-with-a-gas generator will be rolling along U.S. streets by this fall, barring any hiccups. But for all its benefits, the Volt is still a small car with a $35,000 price tag. GM swears the Volt will be profitable, but a lot of that depends on finding a way to sell as many cars with the technology as possible.

So why not throw the powertrain into something a bit more utilitarian? That seems to be the idea behind the awkwardly named Volt MPV5 Electric Concept. (How about a bit of abbreviation/Roman numeralization, and we call it the V-MPV-V?) With a 150 horsepower, 370 lb-ft electric motor for propulsion and 1.4 liter gasoline engine for recharging, the MPV5 is quoted as having an electric-only range of 32 miles and a gas-assisted range of 300; top speed is 100 miles per hour.

Not quite a minivan (the rear doors don’t slide) nor a station wagon (too tall), the MPV5 has room for five (hence the name) and an impressive 30.5 cubic feet of storage in back with all the seats up. It looks pretty cool, too – an impressive feat for an electric people-mover. Expect to see a production version fairly similar to this concept around this time next year.

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New York Auto Show – Thoughts and Judgements (Oh So Much Judgement)

The grueling two days making up the New York Auto Show press preview have finally come to a close (so many free cappuccinos…), so it’s time to reflect on just what happened. Overall, it was a pretty average show, but my gut seems to indicate the overall event was actually one of the more exciting, involving shows of late. Maybe it’s because of the infinitesimal indications that the economy is starting to climb out of the pit so large, Gerard Butler uses it for overly dramatic drop-kickings. Or maybe it was just the free beer.

Let’s talk press conferences. There were a few notable stunts and oddities this year. Mercedes-Benz chose the American 2010 Olympic gold medalist bobsled team to drive out their new, mildly updated R-class. Sadly, this was the first I’d heard of the U.S. victory. I just assumed the Jamaicans always won.

"If they make one Cool Runnings joke, we're getting back in and driving away."

Infiniti put on a brief Cirque du Soleil show before yanking the sheet off their new truck-based QX56 sport-ute. At first, I thought it was just some CDS-style dancers, but, nope, turns out Infiniti actually pulled some real performers from the famed Canadian dance-circus. All they had to do was pay a shitton of money and become the official vehicle of Cirque du Soleil, as both the dancers and the car company represent “inspired performance.” (I couldn’t make that up.) I don’t know about anyone else, but the whole thing gave me a wicked acid flashback.

Scion unveiled their new iQ and tC coupes in what can best be described as a rave setting, if most raves featured a thirty-foot tall mesh projection screen with a car behind it and house music imploring the listener to “jam it in your hole” over and over again. (Then again, maybe raves do these days. I haven’t been in a while.)

Roger Sterling takes a minute from banging his secretary to introduce the new Scions.

Unsurprisingly for anyone who’s seen one of their “cheeky” ads, Mini took full advantage of the date of their press conference to play an April Fools Day prank on the audience; touting their square, cloaked concept as a concept called the “Mini Excel,” the sheet was ripped off to reveal a large SUV-shaped plywood box with “April Fools” written on the sides. Then several roadies (Minies?) converged on the stage, each grabbing a piece of the box and removing it to reveal the Mini Countryman underneath. Incidentally, Mini’s spokesperson was the only one of the days not wearing a collared shirt; beneath his suit coat was a black T-shirt with MINI written in white print. However, his closed jacket concealed about half the word, so I spent most of the show thinking he was just a big Nine Inch Nails fan.

Of course, at any event involving a large group of competitors, there will be winners and losers. In many cases, determining which is which is pretty easy; in the event of an auto show, it’s entirely subjective. Which means it’s perfect for this site. Presenting the 2010 New York Auto Show Winners and Losers!

Winner: Hyundai. Five years ago, the idea of a Hyundai competing against Mercedes-Benz would have been much, much funnier than anything Dane Cook had ever performed. But unlike Cook, Hyundai has spent the last few years improving themselves. The Genesis sedan introduced the world to the concept of a luxury Hyundai – and the new Equus sedan sets that idea in stone.

Offering quality nearly even with Mercedes, BMW and Lexus, the Equus sets out to fight the luxury brands’ top-level sedans at a much lower price point. Fun-to-drive isn’t really the game here – leave that to the Panamera – but for those looking for a relaxed, brisk full-sized luxury sedan with oodles of comfort (and yes, an oodle is the basic unit of comfort), this Hyundai will probably be a perfect fit. It’ll probably poach Lexus LS sales like an ivory hunter with a Holland & Holland .600. Starting between $50,ooo and $60,000, and with features its competitors either charge heavily for (reclining rear right-side seat, rear fridge) or don’t offer at all (nose-mounted camera for seeing around corners, standard iPad in lie of a paper owner’s manual), the Equus will almost certainly clean up the lower end of this market.

You know how Hyundai is serious about this car? Their traditional “H” doesn’t appear on it. Instead, buyers get an abstract Y-shaped logo that looks like a weird-but-I’ve-seen-weirder sex toy.

Recline function, yes. Legroom to use it, no.

Loser: Dodge/Chrysler. Unable to muster up the energy for a press conference, the closest thing the company managed to excitement were a pair of tiny Fiat 500s from their new parent company, along with a duo of identical twins to show them off.

Otherwise, the whole display was pretty flaccid. (Yes, folks, that’s a dick joke.) Chrysler’s business plan these days seems to consist of trying to sell two-tone special editions of the 300, while Dodge is relegated to selling musclecars to the Provincetown set.

Come on, Chrysler! You used to make such great concept cars. Even had a good stretch of production models there, with the PT Cruiser and the 300. This is just sad. If Hyundai can throw two separate press conferences, you can summon up five minutes to show off something. Subaru threw a new wing on the STI and called it a day – can’t you do that to the Viper?

The model budget doesn't seem to have taken much of a hit.

Winner: BMW. Pulling the sheets off five models at the show is a pretty good way to get on this list. (Not four, Kia. Five.) Consistently building some of the most fun-to-drive cars on the road helps, too. Granted, three of the reveals were just tweaks, but if loading a 3-series with 20 extra horses and a seven-speed DSG is what ladies call “freshening up,” I understand why they do it so often and it takes so long. Same goes for the mods to the Z4 and X5. Improvements on the 7-series – like the road-going ICE train called the B7 Alpina, now brilliantly available with xDrive AWD, and the ActiveHybrid 7 capable of going 0-60 in 4.7 seconds while still allowing you to be incredibly smug – are more than appreciated as well.

Who wants to race to Alaska?

But the new 5-series could be my new “realistic” dream car. Especially in 550i form, equipped with the company’s magical 4.4 liter twin turbo V8 cranking out 400 horses – an engine capable of moving the 5200-lb X6 from 0 to 60 in 5 seconds flat – and the available six-speed manual! (Though living in the city, I might just test-drive that eight-speed automatic. Though I’d feel like a poseur every day if I bought one.) The new 5 is handsome (much more so in person than in pictures), exceedingly comfortable, and quite big inside – big enough I could fit quite comfortably in the back seat, even with my 36″ inseam. (And I’ll just say it – comfier back seat than the new Bentley Mulsanne. No one else will say it, ’cause they don’t want to get booted off the Bentley gravy train, but I speak the truth!) Hell, the trunk is huge, too. I’ll take mine in Deep Sea Blue, please.

Winner: Cadillac. They surprised all of us with a CTS-V Sport Wagon, going on sale this fall by order only. I just need a nice juicy raise by Christmas.

Loser: Toyota/Lexus. Apparently shamed by the whole “AAAAAAUUUUUUGGGGHHHH!!!” problem (also known as JESUSFUCKINGCHRISTTHECARWON’TSTOP-gate), Toyota and its luxury brand were silent for the whole show. No apologies, no on-stage seppuku, no carefully choreographed bawling. Which was unfortunate, because at the very least, Lexus had a couple models worth mentioning. The LFA supercar made its New York debut in a matte-black shade that suggests Lexus is courting Bruce Wayne and the rest of the billionaire vigilante market. The CT 200h hybrid compact showed up for the first time too, complete with an ad for an interactive BMWFilm-like promo featuring a “Driver” played by the Boondock Saint Who Isn’t Young Indiana Jones. But no one told us anything about it.

Winner: The Lotus Elise. Because I discovered, while it takes about 30 seconds of gymnastics, I can actually fit inside it. Even with the hard top on.

Loser: The Subaru WRX STI. First, Subaru bumped up the power of the regular, cheaper WRX so it actually became quicker than the big-ticket STI. Now, the company has outfitted the WRX with a new, tough-guy look rendering it all but identical to the STI. Granted, four-door STIs (a new model, by the way) receive an Airbus-grade wing on the rear spoiler, but how long ’til some dude in an Ed Hardy T-shirt sticks one on his WRX?

While fun to drive, the WRX STI can result in other people correctly assuming you're a douchebag.

Winner: The backseat of the Rolls-Royce Ghost. It’s like sitting on a cloud made of dead cattle. (Wait, that came out wrong.)

"Would you like to see my Rolls-Royce?" is ranked #6 on the list of Top 10 Pick-Up Lines.

Loser: the asshole cameraman who spent a good five solid minutes filming the back seat of the Hyundai Equus through its open door, preventing the rest of us from sitting in it. Then, when I asked him if he was going to be much longer, simply snarked, “Yes.” By far, biggest loser of the show.

We’ll have more photos – and probably some snarky remarks of our own to go with them – coming soon! So stay tuned.

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New York Auto Show – BMW

BMW’s mandate this year was more about presenting an array of new and improved well-established models than showing off, and it worked well for them.

BMW North American VP Jack Pitney (who rode in on the company’s new 193 horsepower superbike) walked the audience through five models. The 3-series and Z4 both received new, sportier models to top out their model range (not counting M cars, of course). Likewise, the X5 got an upgrade, with an eight-speed automatic and new engines capable of 25 mpg highway.

But the 5- and 7-series models were the press conference’s biggest stars. The new Alpina B7 made its stateside debut, with a 500 horsepower twin turbo V8 – and surprisingly, available AWD. While not present, the ActiveHybrid 7 also was mentioned – specifically, the fact that the 455-hp hybrid can do 0-60 in 4.7 seconds.

2011 Alpina B7 xDrive

The new 2011 5-series also showed up. While most of the details were known far and wide before the show due to its earlier Euro unveiling, it was nice to see it in the metal; even nicer was the news that BMW will bring both 535i and 550i versions to the States with a six-speed stick at no cost. (This announcement sent a wave of unsolicited applause through the crowd.) If you’re lame, you can still get one with an eight-speed auto…but don’t tell your fellow Bimmerphiles.

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Review – 2010 Audi S4 quattro

The Good: Sports-car performance, sedan convenience, inspires Kobe Bryant-levels of confidence.

The Bad: Not as fuel-efficient as the EPA would have you think, transmission a bit rebellious.

The Verdict: A near-perfect harmony of speed, style and substance.

The best automobiles are more than transportation appliances. Sure, they move you from place to place just as well as any car, truck, golf cart or Segway – but they do so much more. They inspire passion. They inspire lust. And, like Hugh Grant in any number of estrogen-tastic romantic comedies, despite their flaws, you ultimately come to love them wholeheartedly.

The Audi S4 is one of those cars.

On the surface, the S4 doesn’t seem very different from the A4 on which it’s based. While the S4 receives unique bumpers, a mildly different grille and quad tailpipes in lieu of the A4’s twin pipes, only the hardest core of enthusiasts are likely to notice. It’s a stealthy approach to speed – in stark contrast to the in-your-face aggression of potential competitors like the BMW M3 or the Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG.

(Of course, Audi insists the S4 doesn’t compete with those macho models, instead preferring to stack its stealth sports sedan against the “regular” six-cylinder entry-level luxury sedans – specifically, the BMW 335i, which the S4 is locked onto like a Tomahawk cruise missile.)

The trend of stylish subtlety continues inside, where the biggest variation from the A4 are a pair of sport bucket seats up front – though a handful of other differentiators, such as S4-branded gauges and steering wheel, pop up around the interior. But lack of style was never really a problem with the A4 (at least from my point of view), and the S4’s differences, though minor, add a bit of panache to the car’s looks.

Pop the hood, though, and the changes become a lot more apparent. Instead of the turbocharged 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder in the A4, the S4 runs wild with a 333-horsepower supercharged 3.0 liter V6 capable of propelling the S4 from 0 to 60 in 4.9 seconds, according to both Audi and Car and Driver.

But those numbers seem so cold and abstract compared to those 333 horses. This car is fast. Whee! Fast. The supercharger has effectively no lag (a major advantage blowers have over turbochargers) – punch the throttle, and you’re thrown back into your seat and on your way to that inevitable court date. (“Reckless driving,” my ass…)

While the S4 is based off a front-drive platform (indeed, you can buy a FWD A4 if you really want, but good luck finding one), it thankfully comes with standard all-wheel-drive, which harnesses those gallivanting ponies and sticks them to the ground with the expected Germanic efficiency. Between it and the electronic stability control, even the slipperiest Vermont roads were easily negotiable.

That said, though, click off the ESP, and the S4 will hang its tail out in curves all day long if you want it too (especially on those aforementioned icy dirt roads). I spend the better part of ten minutes baking donuts in the fresh snow of an Asian fusion restaurant parking lot – including several continuous loops around a blue spruce in the middle of the lot. (And I don’t regret it one bit, Ma.)

While a six-speed manual transmission comes standard, my tester put the power down through a seven-speed dual clutch transmission. In the past, I’ve been quite happy with this type of transmission (both in the Audi TT-S and the Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart), and the S4 was no exception – in automatic mode, shifts are as smooth as a slushbox, while in manual mode, it cracks off shifts with Barry Allen speed.

Adding a seventh, higher gear to the mix adds some virtue to the car’s hefty serving of vice, allowing the S4 to reach an EPA-claimed 28 mpg on the highway and 18 mpg in town. Of course, the EPA test cycle was designed by an engineer who drives like Ralph Nader in a snowstorm, so real-world mileage is a bit lower; I averaged 22.45 miles per gallon over a week of mostly highway driving.

The dual clutch ‘box isn’t perfect, however. Even in manual mode, flooring the throttle in high gear causes the car to drop down several cogs to put you in the heart of the powerband again. In automatic mode, this certainly makes sense, but presumably any driver who’s enabled manual mode wants to make his or her own decisions – and if he/she wants to, say, test top-gear acceleration along the New Jersey Turnpike without being unexpectedly flung towards the Pennsylvania state line, that’s his or her perogative.

Less startling but more annoying, the aluminum paddles on the back of the steering wheel are on the small side – small enough to be all but invisible behind the spokes at 9 and 3 o’clock. I presume this was an intentional move to keep them out of the way for drivers who don’t want to be bothered with shifting for themselves – but it seems kind of a burn to the enthusiasts who, presumably, make up a hefty percentage of the S4’s clientele.

Quibbles aside, the S4’s powertrain makes for one hell of a fun ride; luckily, when the road turns curvy, the suspension and chassis proves more than capable of cashing the checks the supercharged V6 loves to write all over the pavement. As with true sports cars, the S4’s limits will almost always lie beyond those of your nerves (at least on public roads).

Push the car into turns, and it urges you on, encouraging and emboldening you. While the steering can be heavy at low speeds, it lightens up as the car builds velocity, never feeling floaty or disconnected. Few cars instill as much confidence in their drivers as the S4 does.

On a side note, this was the first Audi I’ve tested lacking the Audi Drive Select system, which allows the driver to adjust the suspension, steering and drivetrain’s responsiveness. To what degree the ADS improves non-“S” models, I’m still unsure, but given my experience with the S4, I’d be hard-pressed to imagine how the system could improve on the car’s dynamics – at least, not enough to warrant its $3,950 price.

Of course, sport sedans promise a measure of convenience along with performance – after all, as Mitt Romney learned, society tends to frown on strapping your dog to the roof of your car; there will be times you need that extra room. Not surprisingly, the S4 offers all the convenience of the A4 it’s based on – it just goes faster. Granted, it’s still on the smaller end of the sedan spectrum; it’s possible to fit three adults and a week’s worth of luggage into the car, but let’s just say my backseat-dwelling father would probably not enjoy repeating that drive from Boston to New York City anytime soon. (Especially since he had to share the rear bench with several large bags.)

The Bottom Line:

For anyone seeking maximum driving excitement for around $50,000 without sacrificing utility, the S4 is as good as it gets. It’ll take winding back roads like a sports car at noon and let you drive octogenarian ladies to and from dinner at night. The S4 packs 95 percent of the fun of a sports car with 100 percent of the comfort and handiness of a four-door luxury sedan.

As an automotive journalist, people often ask, “If you could have one car, regardless of price, what would it be?” Usually, I’ll respond with my supercar crush du jour, then offer a quippy remark about the fun factor overwhelming the little inconveniences – crappy gas mileage, hefty insurance rates, lack of room, tricky behavior in town, and so forth.

But today? I might just tell them, “Audi S4.”

Base Price/Price As Tested: $48,125/$53,450

0-60: 4.9 seconds (courtesy Car and Driver)

Fuel Economy: 18 city/28 highway (EPA estimate); 22.45 mpg (observed)

Key Competitors: BMW 335i/335xi, Ford Taurus SHO, Cadillac CTS

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2010 Detroit Auto Show Recap

Well, it’s mid-January again, and all you car nuts out there know exactly what that means – it’s Detroit Auto Show time! Because as the Detroit Tourism Board will tell you, there’s no better time to venture to America’s home-grown Thunderdome than when it’s cold enough to freeze mercury.

Still, so long as the heat in the Cobo Center works, journalists from across the globe will cram their North Face parkas and .357 Magnum Colt Pythons into overnight bags and journey to Motor City for one of the largest auto shows in the world. This year was a bittersweet one for the three home-team automakers: bitter for GM, who saw four divisions exorcised from its corporate ranks after tossing all its self-respect into Lake Michigan by declaring bankruptcy and taking federal bailout money; but sweet for Ford, who managed to avoid Chapter 11 and saw its first profitable quarter in nearly two years.

And Chrysler? Well, they’re owned by Fiat now. Actually, do they even count as one of the Big Three anymore?

Regardless of whether Chrysler considers their home in The Boot of Italy or The Mitten of Michigan, in the minds of most people, they still count as a good ol’ American boys. Unfortunately, Chrysler/Fiat considered new model revelations and press conferences excessive expenditures this year, and simply left their models out on the floor for perusal. (At least they showed up, unlike Porsche and Nissan. Uncool, guys.) Luckily, though, plenty of other new models and concepts came into the light at the show. Here are the best.

Audi e-tron concept

Astute readers of this blog may be thinking, “Didn’t I already see the e-tron?” And the short answer is, yes, you did. But not this one. Audi has, somewhat inexplicably, decided to use the exact same name for this smaller electric sports car concept as they used for their larger, R8-based version. The difference, you see, is that the R8-based original is just called “e-tron,” while this new concept is…the “e-tron.” Come on, Audi! You’re German – Germans make up new words all the time by smashing them together. Couldn’t you call it the “Smallersilverelectricsportscar?”

Regardless of what you call it, the baby e-tron will reportedly run from 0-60 in 5.9 seconds with a top speed of 124 mph, thanks to a pair of electric motors with a combined output of 204 horsepower. Of course, since the baby e-tron is just a concept, this could be entirely hypothetical; the show car may well be powered by a hamster on a wheel for all we know.

More importantly for car fans, the e-tron 2-seater’s design may be a preview of Audi’s rumored upcoming R4 sports car. There’s no way to know for sure, but Audi could do a lot worse than pattern the R4 on this aggressive-looking concept. Slap the S4’s 333-hp supercharged V6 in there and stack it up against the Porsche Cayman (Whoops! VW owns Porsche now) – er, BMW Z4, and they could have a winner on their hands.

2011 BMW 740i/740Li

This isn’t the first time BMW has sold a 740i in the States – two generations of 7-series ago, it was the mainstay of the lineup – but it is the first time since 1992 that Americans can order a six-cylinder engine in the car. The last version, the 735i, made do with a mere 208 horsepower; the new 740i packs BMW’s sublime turbocharged 3.0 liter inline six making 315 horsepower.

The 740i looks pretty much like any other 7, so feast your eyes on the 500-hp BMW Alpina B7.

Presumably, Bimmer is bringing the six-cylinder 7 our way in order to improve its fuel-economy standings; odds are, if you can afford the $71,025 base price, you’re probably not too concerned with saving cash at the pumps, and if you really wanted to be green, you’d buy a loaded Prius and pocket the extra $40,000. Still, for the handful of high-powered executives who don’t care about power (Do I see one standing in the back? No? Okay.), the 740 offers pretty much all the luxury features of its pricier brethren for a nice discount.

Buick Regal GS Concept

From the land of seemingly oxymoronical concepts comes this high-performance Buick. Okay, “high-performance” is a bit of an exaggeration – the all-wheel-drive GS runs with a turbocharged 2.0 liter four-cylinder making 260 horsepower, a mere 40 more than the current top-of-the-line Regal. But the GS has a six-speed stick shift! I don’t think there’s been a manual Buick since Clint Eastwood was a sex symbol.

Buick promises the GS achieves 60 in less than 6 seconds, which probably means 5.9. What they haven’t promised is a production version; however, it seems pretty likely, as it would give Buick a strong card to play against Acura and Lexus. Buick has made impressive strides in the last few years in making their cars more attractive and elevating their quality towards the levels of other luxury makes; adding high(er) performance models would be a logical next step. It’s probably safe to expect the GS in the showrooms by spring 2011.

2011 Cadillac CTS-V Coupe

It wasn’t long ago that the idea of a high-performance Caddy would have seemed just as paradoxical as a fun-to-drive Buick; however, since the first-generation CTS and the introduction of the V-Series line of kickass Caddies, the idea has latched onto the car enthusiast population like an alien face-hugger.

U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

And the new CTS-V Coupe is probably the sweetest Cadillac yet.

Everything you love about the regular CTS-V, just in a sleeker two-door package. Same 556 horsepower supercharged V8, same choice of six-speed stick or auto – just two fewer doors. Sure, there’s less room in the back, but come on – how often do you use those rear doors anyway? Besides, chicks dig coupes. Just ask Batman.

Pricing will probably be a few grand more than the CTS-V sedan, so figure a base one will set you back around $67,000 when they land in showrooms this summer – a few grand more than its main competitor, the BMW M3. But the Caddy has 142 more horses. And, like George Thorogood, it’s American Made. So give it a little love.

Cadillac XTS Platinum Concept

The last ten years or so have been lean times for folks interested in full-sized American luxury cars. Mafia dons, Fortune 500 executives, and your Grandpa Larry have watched with sadness as their beloved Town Cars, Park Avenues and DeVilles drifted off into the ether, leaving them with a difficult choice – buy European (I ain’t buying no Nazi car!), downsize (I don’t feel safe in this thing!) or move into a luxury mega-SUV (I can’t see my grandson behind me in the driveway!).

Luckily, it looks like CEOs and coots alike will be able to breathe a sigh of relief soon. While technically a concept, the XTS is likely a very strong indicator of Cadillac’s upcoming full-sized sedan, slated to replace the STS and the DTS – both of which, remarkably, are still available at your local Caddy dealership.

In concept form, the XTS is powered by Cadillac’s 3.6 liter V6 direct injection V6 coupled to a plug-in hybrid system; combined, the car puts out 350 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque through a six-speed auto. It’s unclear from the press release how the electric and gasoline powertrains interact exactly, but we’d bet both can be used to drive the wheels – unlike the Chevy Volt, where the gas engine is used simply as a generator for the batteries and electric motor.

Hopefully, any production version of the XTS won’t differ significantly from the show car’s sleek lines, which (in our eyes) meld the CTS with the Mercedes-Benz S-class. Plan on a choice of V6 and V8 powerplants upon launch, with a hybrid option soon afterwards. As for when it lands in dealerships – summer or fall 2011 seems like a safe bet.

And on a side note, GM’s vice-chairman and Main Car Bro Bob Lutz announced Cadillac will indeed be producing its own version of the Chevrolet Volt, based on the Converj. It won’t be hitting the streets until sometime after 2012 (assuming we’re still alive by then! DUM DE DUM!), and will probably be pretty faithful to the concept – two doors and edgy styling over the Volt’s four doors and slightly bland looks. And it’ll probably cost more than $50,000. But I’d still buy one.

Mmm...eco-friendly.

Chevrolet Aveo RS Concept

Like the looks of this Aveo RS? Then you’ll probably like the regular Aveo when it hits the ground next year. Just strip off the spoilers, the ground effects, and throw on some more conventional headlamps. With its sights locked squarely on the Honda Fit, the Aveo will take the bottom rung in Chevy’s lineup.

The concept has a turbocharged 1.4 liter inline four-cylinder engine under the hood pumping out 138 horsepower, and routing it to the front wheels through a six-speed manual. If they’re smart, Chevy will actually produce a high-performance version of the Aveo; we’ve been wishing Honda would do a Fit Si for years, and if the Chevy is anywhere near as fun to drive as the Fit, they could sell a boatload. Hell, we’d probably buy one.

2012 Ford Focus

Not to be outdone in the small-car department by their arch-foes at GM, Ford unveiled the next-generation Focus in Detroit – and as Peter Griffin would say, it seems freakin’ sweet. For the first time, the Focus sold here in the States will be nearly identical to the version sold in Europe, which should mean European-style (i.e. better) handling and materials when it lands here early next year.

Equipped with a 2.0 liter inline four-cylinder making 155 horsepower and 145 lb-ft of torque, the Focus comes with your choice of six-speed transmissions – manual or “dry-clutch automatic,” which is just a fancy term for the sort of dual-clutch gearbox found in everything from the Ferrari 458 Italia to the Volkswagen Golf. Ford also announced a electric-powered version, which should be coming our way in later 2011.

Coming in both five-door hatchback and four-door sedan forms, the new Focus boasts a bevy of cool features most people probably wouldn’t expect on a compact car, from an assisted parallel-parking system (complete with rearview camera) and an eight-inch dash-mounted touch screen. Pricing hasn’t been announced, but expect it to be pretty much in line with its competitors – the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sentra, and upcoming Chevy Cruze.

2011 Ford Mustang GT

Hot on the heels of upgrading the V6-powered Mustang to 315 horsepower, Ford is throwing a new 5.0 liter V8 under the hood of the ‘Stang GT, bumping power up to 412 horses. While still down a few ponies  to the Camaro SS and Challenger SRT8, the revised ‘Stang should be lighter than its fellow muscle cars, giving it an edge in the curves (and probably on the straights too).

Pricing is still unknown, but since the installation of the new V6 didn’t jack up the base Mustang’s price very much, expect to pay around the same amount for the 5.0 as the old 4.6 liter V8. (Anal-retentives, please not the emphasis placed on the word around. There, did it once more just to ensure you understood.)

GMC Granite Concept

As the first American entrant into the “funky box”category of small cars pioneered here by the Scion xB, the Granite raises the style bar a few notches higher. Up ’til now, the small boxes like the xB, Kia Soul and Nissan Cube had convenience in spades, but good looks weren’t part of the deal.

But the Granite manages to make boxy look badass. Running the same engine as the Aveo RS Concept in a more utilitarian package, performance isn’t really the name of the game here – 138 horses is adequate, nothing more, nothing less.

However, GMC insisted on extolling the Granite as a “flexible, functional social space…equally at home at the cabin or the club.” News flash, PR flaks – any place with more than one person is a social space.

2011 Honda CR-Z

Though we’ve already seen it in leaked brochure photos, it was nice to finally see Honda’s new sporty hybrid coupe in the metal for the first time at the show. Looking pretty much like what you’d expect the Insight to be had it remained a coupe,  the tiny Honda promises to be a pretty fun drive.

While we're not entirely sure this image isn't a computer graphic, rest assured, the real CR-Z is probably solid.

With a 1.5 liter inline four under the hood connected to Honda’s “Integrated Motor Assist” hybrid bits, the CR-Z (the “Crazy?”) puts down 122 horsepower and either 128 or 123 lb-ft of torque, depending on whether you choose the six-speed manual or the CVT. (The manual has the higher torque figure, because manuals are awesome that way.) Fuel economy is estimated at 31 mpg city/37 mpg highway for the stick, and 36/38 mpg for the CVT – so if you do a lot of city driving, it might be worth it to go auto. Maybe.

The CRaZy will go on sale here in the latter part of 2010, in two forms – base and EX. The base model will hardly be a stripper, as it will reportedly feature a six-speaker CD/USB stereo, automatic climate control, stability control, power everything, keyless entry and cruise control. Should you feel compelled to move to the EX, you’ll add a 360-watt seven-speaker stereo, xenon headlights, and Bluetooth, among other features. The base sounds pretty good to us, honestly. No details on price yet, but our fingers are crossed for the base model to land under $20,000.

2012 (?) Mercedes-Benz CLS

Sadly, the next-generation of Mercedes’s four-door “coupe” wasn’t really at the show. However, M-B did have a model showing off the basic shape of the new CLS. From the looks of it, it seems Mercedes was trying to replicate the shape of the car under a sheet; however, the guys at egmCarTech thought it looked more like Robert Patrick’s liquid-metal T-1000 oozing into the shape of a car, and quite frankly, we have to agree. But if the car is as pretty as the display implies, it won’t need to shape-shift to snare people’s attention.

Image courtesy Omar Rana - egmCarTech

Mini Beachcomber Concept

Do you miss the Mini Moke? (Hell, do you even know what the Mini Moke is?) Well, for those of you with a fondness for the old pseudo-off-roader still found carving up beaches on St. Barts, Mini has just the car for you.

Well, you can’t actually buy the Beachcomber. It’s more of a concept version of Mini’s upcoming small SUV, which will probably be called the “Countryman.” (We’re still pulling for the “Countrymouse,” but only if they rename the Cooper the “Citymouse.”) When the actual Mini-SUV hits the dirt roads, don’t expect to see the Beachcomber’s removable doors or spare-tire-like “backpack;” do expect the elevated ride-height, knobbier tires and available all-wheel-drive. Hopefully we’ll be seeing the production version sometime this year.

Volkswagen New Compact Coupe Hybrid Concept

No, we didn’t add the “new” to the name – Volkswagen did. Frankly, we’re not sure why, since so far as we remember, there wasn’t an Old Compact Coupe Hybrid Concept. But whatever they call it, we’re grateful, because the NCCHC promises to be a pretty sweet little ride.

Coming across like a Honda CR-Z Plus, the NCCHC packs a 1.5 liter turbocharged and supercharged inline four connected to enough hybrid pieces to provide a combined 177 horsepower and 45 miles per gallon. I believe the technical term for that is “win/win.”

While the car may be called a concept, it looks pretty damn production ready to us. Of course, VW’s thrown us curveballs before – remember the Nardo supercar concept? – but there’s a world of difference between producing a quarter-million-dollar supercar and an inexpensive hybrid sports car. Hell, just ask Honda – who canned the new NSX most of the way through its production cycle. Luckily, rumor has it the NCCHC will be heading stateside as a coupe version of the new Jetta – hopefully with hybrid powertrain intact.

All in all, it wasn’t a huge year for the Detroit show. No show-stopping concepts, no earth-shaking revelations – just a whole bunch of pretty exciting new cars. And to be frank, we’re okay with that. Given the last couple years in the automotive world, a little piece and quiet seems rather nice, doesn’t it?

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A Burst of News – Hyper Lamborghinis, AWD Ferraris, Electric Rolls-Royces, two new luxury sedans and one less Italian cop car…

We at CCO would like to welcome you to a special Holiday Burst of News. It’s pretty much the same as any other Burst, except our hearts are filled with the unique form of adrenaline brought on by massive amounts of Thanksgiving food, Black Friday debt, and ChristmuHanuKwanzaa excitement/stress. So you’ll excuse us if we occasionally pause to scream our heads off.

Our first gift this holiday season, however, comes from the good folks at Lamborghini. According to company sources speaking to CarsUK.net, Lambo is summoning up their very own hypercar capable of competing with the Ferrari Enzo and the rest of the highest echelon of automotive performance. Rumor has it the car, which will be based off the Murcielago-replacing Jota, will be named Urus, after the enormous primordial ancestor of modern cattle. (That’s not a joke.)

They really could just cut and paste the Reventon body on the Jota chassis, and I don't think any of us would mind.

While the Jota’s suspected 700+ horsepower 6.0 liter V12 and carbon fiber/aluminum chassis mean it probably won’t be much of a slouch, the Urus should blow it away, thanks to intensive weight-reducing strategies and the introduction of an 800+ horsepower V12. Price hasn’t been announced, but if you’re hoping for less than half a million bucks, you’d be better off praying for JFK’s resurrection.

But while Lamborghini is trying to out-muscle Ferrari’s old hypercars, the folks in Maranello are working on something quite different. The company confirmed last month they are developing an electric-powered all-wheel-drive system for their future vehicles.

That’s right, folks. Not only will the Ferrari of Tomorrow have four-wheel-drive…it’ll be a hybrid.

The 458 probably won't get the hybrid system. We just wanted to look at it again.

Company insiders told AutoCar the system’s first use will be driving the front wheels of the company’s front-engined GTs, effectively giving each axle a separate powertrain – the electric motor up front, and a gasoline-powered V12 powering the rear. But the system is designed to improve handling and acceleration, not fuel economy – so we don’t have to worry about Ferrari drivers getting all smug or anything.

The system will probably first be used in the successor to the 612, which will probably be breaking cover sometime in the next year or two. Don’t expect to see any hybrid Ferraris on the streets until 2014 or so, which still sounds ridiculously futuristic whenever we think about it. When they do come, the hybrid system will probably add a hefty tithe to the Monroney – but if you can afford a four-seat Ferrari, you probably ain’t too worried about it.

Speaking of mansion-priced cars, Rolls-Royce is hoping to take the wraps off an electric version of its Phantom uber-sedan sometime in the next year or so, also according to AutoCar. The Powers That Be at Rolls want to have the car on the road by 2012, in time for the London Olympics – which, entirely coincidentally, happen to be sponsored by Rolls-Royce’s parent company, BMW!

While it appears stoic, the Phantom is silently judging you for being too poor to afford it.

Rolls employees claim they aren’t particularly concerned about the added mass of the lithium-ion batteries needed to hold the car’s juice, as the conventional Phantom already pushes three tons. And while you could certainly argue a 6,000 pound sedan decorated with twenty-seven cows’ worth of leather and more wood than a freshman class trip to the Playboy Mansion is hardly eco-friendly, don’t bother telling the electric Rolls’ owners – because while they can certainly hear you, they just don’t care.

If you’re in the market for a more modest luxury sedan, however, there’s no need to fret. BMW and Audi both have unveiled the newest members of their families in the last couple weeks – BMW brought out its new 5-series, while Audi rolled out the new A8.

First up: the 5, which continues BMW’s recent trend back towards more conventional styling. The “flame surfacing” of the Bangle years admittedly remains, but at least the front end no longer appears surprised and the rear no longer frustrated.

Here in the States, only two models will be available at launch – the 550i, powered by a 407-horsepower version of Bimmer’s blissful turbocharged 4.4-liter V8, and the 535i, which comes with the latest turbocharged, 306-horsepower version of the company’s equally sweet 3.0-liter inline six. The best-selling-yet-least-arousing 528i will arrive a couple months later; however, BMW makes up for it by boosting power to 258 horses and 228 lb-ft of torque – gains of 28 for both figures over the current models. ZF’s new eight-speed automatic comes standard on the 550i, and optional on the six-cylinder models.

After debating it over several rounds of drinks at the local bar, we here at CCO ultimately came down in favor of the new 5er’s looks. (Also, we unanimously agreed that “Livin’ On A Prayer” is, like, the greatest song in human history.) While it seems almost a tad forgettable from certain angles (at least in pictures), it certainly bears a strong resemblance to the 3- and 7-series – and given that that was presumably the idea, it’s safe to call this one a success.

However, we aren’t particularly fond of the look of Audi’s new A8.  From the front, the car seems oddly reminiscent of the current Hyundai Sonata, and the LED running lights – which lend the A4/A5 family a futuristic strength, like the glowing eyes of Iron Man – angle down in just the wrong place, giving the A8 a strange resemblance to Droopy Dog. Audi is trumpeting the new A8 as the front line of its new designed theme, dubbed “Vorsprung durch Technik;” while our German is a little rusty, we can only assume said phrase translates to, “Let’s just make the A4 bigger and go pound a beer.”

"I always come to mope in front of the Brooklyn Bridge, because I'm artsy."

Thankfully, though, the interior looks like all you’d expect and more from Audi’s most luxurious model. The design is beautiful, and while we’ve heard some mixed opinions on the Interwebs about the A8’s handlebar shifter, we rather like it. And considering that shifter connects to the same eight-speed automatic as in the 5-series – and that the transmission connects all four wheels to a 372-horsepower 4.2 liter V8 – the A8 ought to be a pretty sweet drive for such a large car.

Of course, if you’re not thrilled with the A8’s styling and are willing to sacrifice a bit of space for it, Audi will be more than willing to take a deposit on their upcoming A7 four-door-coupe. According to AutoCar, the long-rumored A6-based pseudo-coupe will be unveiled at the Moscow Auto Show in August 2010.

When the A7 hits the U.S. streets sometime in late 2010 or early 2011 to engage the Mercedes-Benz CLS and BMW X6 in a Teutonic battle of “Bizarro-world coupes,” expect it to come equipped with similar engines to the A6 – naturally aspirated and supercharged V-6s, and if Audi’s feeling generous and gas is still cheap, the 372-hp V8 from the A8. According to Audi design director Stefan Sielaff, there will even be an S7 – likely featuring a turbo/supercharged V8 – for those of you who like testing the patience of law enforcement.

This is Audi's Sportback Concept. Expect the A7 to look like this, except with more Orange Country trophy wives behind the wheel.

Rumor has it U.S. prices should start somewhere around $46,000, but since the A6 starts at $45,200, we wouldn’t be surprised to see the A7 on the painful side of $50K when it hits our shores. Mercedes and BMW both charge significantly more for their faux coupes than the sedans/SUVs they’re based on, so Audi will probably follow the same logic – even if AutoCar claims there will only be a “small price premium.”

But while Audi is chopping up the higher end of the luxury car market into ever-smaller slices, BMW wants to slot yet another model into its rapidly burgeoning M line. According to AutoCar (who seem to have more anonymous sources than Seymour Hersh), someone in BMW’s high-performance division claims creating a more affordable model to slot in under the M3 is a top priority.

Details are few and far between at this point, but since the car would be based on the next-gen 1-series, there’s plenty of time for info to leak out. However, we do know two things: the car will (hopefully) be priced in the mid-$40K range, and BMW may dust off the old M1 badge for it. We’ve got our fingers crossed for a 365+ horsepower version of the company’s turbo I6 under the hood…

Of course, if Audi and BMW are hard at work crafting fun new toys for us to play with, the good folks at Mercedes-Benz can’t be far behind. In this case, rumor has it the company is working on whipping up a smaller sports car based on the new SLS.

At least from this angle, we don't have to look at its ass.

According to PistonHeads, the new model would be designed to compete against the Porsche 911. The ‘Heads claim the follow-up to the SLS – can we call it the SaLT? – will use a V8 of somewhere between 5.8 and 6.2 liters, complete with cylinder cut-off. Given that AMG spent a shit-ton of cash developing its current 6.2 liter engine and said engine has proven suitable in everything from C-class compacts to R-class megawagons, it’s probably safe to assume the Salt will just use a revised version of that engine. Expect to see the finished product in about five years.

Finally, we have another piece of tragic supercar news to round out this update. After a year of service, the Italian State Police’s Lamborghini Gallardo LP560-4 was totaled a couple weeks ago near the northern city of Cremona. Thankfully, neither of the officers inside were injured when the Lambo swerved to avoid a car and slammed into a group of parked vehicles.

NOOOOOOOOOOOO!

(Photo courtesy autoblog.it)

Before the accident, the Gallardo was primarily used to provide rapid response to accidents and for high-speed organ transport – because while a helicopter might be faster, the doctors wouldn’t be able to say, “They’re driving your new heart here in a Lamborghini.” No word yet on whether Lamborghini will replace the vehicle, but here’s hoping they will. In fact, here’s hoping automakers here in the States decide to follow suit and donate some choice vehicles to our local police forces. How ’bout a couple Corvette ZR1s for the Michigan State Troopers?

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