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Review – 2010 Mercury Milan Hybrid

The Good: Excellent gas mileage, high quality inside and out, makes driving efficiently fun.

The Bad: $32 grand for a family car, not long for this world.

The Verdict: Mercury finally has a sedan people want—too late to make a difference.

Watch our video review too!

A moment of silence, please, for Mercury.

Decades ago, Ford’s midlevel brand had panache. During the Heyday of America (1945-1968), the brand was a step on the ladder to success; driving a Mercury meant while you may not be able to afford a Lincoln just yet, you’d pulled yourself up high enough by your bootstraps to graduate from those run-of-the-mill Fords.  Much like Buick over at GM, Mercurys were just fancy enough to make their drivers feel slightly superior.

However, much like Buick, the brand lost their way in the last few decades of the 20th century, and spent much of recent history cranking out mildly gussied-up versions of Ford vehicles. (The last Mercury to differ in more than badging from a Ford product was the Cougar—and that cat went extinct in 2002.) So it was no surprise when Ford announced on June 2nd they’d be euthanizing the nameplate this year. While Buick escaped the executioner’s block by virtue of its immense popularity in China, the 72-year-old Mercury remained unloved by any rapidly expanding consumer nations, and so we bid it adieu.

But come December, don’t be surprised if the last Mercury to ever roll off the assembly line is a Milan Hybrid—because this is the first Mercury in a long time to instill in its owners that tiny feeling of supremacy. Sure, the car’s pretty much a clone of the Ford Fusion Hybrid (though a bit less plebian to my eyes), but who cares? This car makes you feel just a bit better than all those clods in their Foci.

But in this eco-conscious age, those feelings stem less from the car’s price (though if you can afford a car that costs more than $30,000 in this economy, you can probably pat yourself on the back) and more from the impressive fuel economy figures eked out by the gasoline-electric powertrain. By mating a 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine to a 275-volt nickel-metal hydride battery, the Milan achieves 41 miles per gallon around town and 36 mpg on the open road, according to the EPA. (Fast fact: at a combined 39 mpg, you could drive the Milan hybrid 1,111,500,000 miles on the amount of gasoline that could have been made from the crude leaked so far by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill! That’s 2,326 round trips to the Moon!)

However, unlike some hybrids, the Mercury doesn’t sacrifice much power on the altar of efficiency; the engine-motor combo creates a combined maximum of 191 horsepower, par for the midsized hybrid sedan segment where it competes. (The comparable Nissan Altima Hybrid and Toyota Camry Hybrid make 198 and 187 horses, respectively.) With the power traveling to the front wheels through a continuously variable transmission, the dash from 0 to 60 arrives in 8.5 seconds, according to a Car and Driver test of the mechanically identical Fusion Hybrid.

The trunk's interior latch appears aimed at kidnappees.

Impressively, the Milan/Fusion duo of hybrids can reach a claimed top speed of 47 miles per hour on electricity alone; I never quite reached that mark just on juice, but did once make it up to about 45 only on electrons. As John Mellencamp said, that’s close enough for rock and roll. However, making maximum mpg means driving like a rock star is out of the question; a feathery touch on the accelerator is required to keep the inline four from leaping into action. Remember when your parents/driver’s ed teacher/arresting police officer told you to imagine there was an egg under the pedal? If your aim is to use as little gasoline as possible in the Milan, it’s best to picture a helium balloon tied to your right foot. Or better yet, actually tie a helium balloon to your right foot.

But there’s an unexpected side effect to this: it makes driving slow fun. Instead of seeing how quickly you can swoop through the turns or bomb the quarter mile, the joy comes from toying with the formerly-known-as-the-gas pedal, trying to use as little energy as possible to move about without risking incoming gunfire from drivers behind you. (That’s not a joke here in New York City.) In an increasingly common burst of creativity and wisdom, the folks at Ford Motor Company included multiple means of informing the driver just how eco-friendly s/he is being—most inventively, by including a virtual patch of vines on the digital instrument panel, which grows leaves when the car is driven efficiently and sheds them when you’re pissing off the planet. Sounds stupid, but I found it surprisingly effective—and guilt inducing. (“NOOOOOO! THE LEAVES ARE DYING!”)

Apart from the powertrain, the Milan is pretty much standard Ford material—which is to say, a lot better than it was five or more years ago. (Maybe it’s time to reanimate that old “Have you driven a Ford lately?” tagline.) The gray leather seats in my tester were comfy on long hauls, but not particularly well-bolstered; of course, the hybrid Milan really isn’t aimed at those who’re big into hauling ass and taking license plate numbers, so this comes as little surprise. But the leather was soft, the plastic on the dashboard pleasant to the touch, and the interior proved quite appealing to at least four senses. (I did not lick it.)

This Milan was also equipped with Ford’s Sync system, designed by Microsoft to make ease integrating your cell phone/iPod/microwave oven with the car’s computer. It let me play music from my iPhone through Bluetooth, but wouldn’t read my incoming text messages to me because my phone was “incompatible.” Plus, Sync repeatedly “lost” my phone’s signal, forcing me to dive into the car’s submenus to manually reconnect. (I imagine the car did this passive-aggressively as part of a “I’m a Mac / And I’m a PC” interaction.)

But the rest of the car’s tech proved well above and beyond what I expect from family sedans. The rearview camera and parking sensors were, as always, handy, and the navigation system never steered me wrong. (It does leave “bread crumbs” on the screen to track where you’ve been; after several days driving around New York City, however, it was starting to look like Little Billy’s dotted line from The Family Circus.) The Sony-designed 12 speaker, 390-watt stereo knocked my ears out of the park; I never had to turn it up past 30 percent power. And having two 12-volt cigarette lighter-style and one household-style 110-volt three-prong outlets was quite nice. Finally, I could use my MacBook, my iPhone and my iPad all at once without fear of low batteries—while driving!

[Editor’s note: he did not actually do this. But if Apple wants to give us some freebies so our passengers can try it, we won’t say no.]

The Bottom Line:

The Milan will all but certainly be the last new car made by this septuagenarian brand, unless Ford decides to reward the brand’s tiny audience of fans and unveils a Mercury version of the Mustang. (The Pegasus?) But this hybrid’s virtues have earned it a place in the brand’s history—not just because it was the last in a long line of Mercurys, but because it was the last Mercury anyone could drive and feel proud that they were doing so. Death will guarantee the Milan Hybrid shall remain a rarity on our roads; the company sold only 1, 486 in 2009, and pre-extinction-purchase-fever aside, I doubt the company will sell more than that this year. (In contrast, the Fusion Hybrid sold 15,554 units last year.)  But those 3,000 owners can take pride in knowing they’re driving a unique version of the best family sedan Detroit has made in a very long time—and that’s starting to mean something again.

So with that, we say goodbye to the brand with a phrase most apt for a car company named after the messenger of the gods:

Godspeed, Mercury.

Base Price/Price As Tested: $31,980/$32,980

0-60: 8.5 seconds (courtesy Car and Driver)

Fuel Economy: 41 city/36 highway (EPA estimate)

Key Competitors: Toyota Camry Hybrid, Nissan Altima Hybrid, Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid

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A Fiesta Parks in Brooklyn

We apologize for the lengthy delay between posts (things have been hectic at CCO these days, including a change of location and the accompanying 10 day lack of Internet); we’ll have a full review of the Mercury Milan Hybrid posted soon, though. (Yes, folks, Mercury still makes cars. And this one is pretty good.)

To whet your thirst in the meantime, though, here’s another FoMoCo novelty for you. We spotted this Ford Fiesta in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the epicenter of douchy coolness in America. While you’ve probably already started seeing ads for the Fiesta, this example is part of the “Fiesta Movement” – the group of young hip people chosen to be brand ambassadors for the car before its full launch. These Movement Fiestas are more rare than Ferrari Enzos, so we’re pretty excited to have seen one today. (Also, we’re kinda surprised Ford hasn’t taken them back by now.)

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New York Auto Show – Ford

Ford’s press con was devoted to touting their eco-friendly lineup and future. Among the cars they showed off was an electric Focus “produced for the Jay Leno Show” (I came very close to heckling, “I’m with Coco!”).

But the “big” news was devoted to the company’s hybrids. They boasted of their four current hybrids – however, given that two of those are Mercury twins identical to their Ford counterparts, this is like having Red Delicious and Macintosh apples and claiming you have two kinds of fruit.

So to no one’s surprise, Ford brought out a Granny Smith – a hybrid version of the Lincoln MKZ. Pretty much the same as its Ford Focus and Mercury Milan triplets, the MKZ differs in that not only does its digital gauge grow leaves…it also grows apple blossoms.

Seriously. That was it.

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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 – $99 Smart Cars, an Aston Martin Scion, BMW X1 Revealed and Mazda’s Micro Miata

This week’s burst of news, for the most part, concerns a segment of the automotive industry we’ll be seeing quite a bit more of in the near future – small cars. Now that the Obama administration has signed stricter fuel economy standards into effect, automakers will be forced to find ways to bump up the average mileage of their lineup – and the easiest way to do that is to add on dainty, fuel-sipping models at the lower end of the range.

Perhaps the oddest example of this is the Aston Martin Cygnet concept, an Aston-designed version of the Toyota iQ microcar. We know how ridiculous it sounds, so before we go any further, take a look at the picture so you know we’re not just yanking your chain.

aston_martin_cygnet_images_001

If whipping you in the balls doesn't work, Le Chiffre shows you this picture.

Aston CEO Dr. Ulrich Bez says this joint project will provide “customers a distinctive, intelligent and exclusive solution for urban travel in style and luxury,” and believes it could go into production “in the not too distant future.” (Daniel Craig is praying that means “once someone else is playing James Bond.”)

The iQ, for the record, is powered by a 1.3 liter four-cylinder making 93 horsepower, and should be coming (in Scion form) to the States in 2011. No word on what engine might motivate the Cygnet, but we doubt they can fit the DBS’s V12 under that hood.

But Aston Martin isn’t the only one considering smaller vehicles. According to AutoExpress, Mazda, who have managed to carve out a nice niche for themselves in the U.S. as Honda’s fun roommate, will be bringing out a smaller version of the MX-5 Miata convertible sometime around 2012.

Photo courtsey AutoExpress. Thanks, guys!

Photo courtesy AutoExpress. Thanks, guys!

Little is known about the Mini-Miata so far, but it will probably be called the MX-2. According to company insiders, the MX-2 will have styling similar to the current Miata, and feature normally aspirated and turbocharged 1.6 liter four-cylinder engines. No word on whether this means the MX-5 will jump up in size, but it seems likely.

In other downsizing news, after weeks of blurry images and extreme, detail-free closeups posted on the BMW X1’s Facebook account, official images of the finished product have snuck onto the web. So far, reaction on the web to the styling has been mixed, but we think it actually looks pretty good.

hbsjerbo_pxgen_r_1100xa

The only engine available at launch here in the States will be the 3.0 liter inline six, making 231 horses and 199 lb-ft of torque; however, a 300-horsepower turbocharged model will probably be along not long after, given that every other BMW model with the base six also offers the turbo version. A larger replacement for the aging X3 (which is around the same size as the X1) based off this architecture is probably likely in the next two years.

hbtwbbrj_pxgen_r_1100xa

Our last piece of small car news comes from Smart, who announced that qualified buyers with a “Cash For Clunkers” trade-in will be able to lease a ForTwo for a mere $99 a month – meaning you can drive a new car for less than your monthly iPhone bill. (“Cash for Clunkers” is a new federal rebate program offering between $3,500 and $4,500 to buyers who trade in an old, gas-sucking vehicle for a new, fuel-efficient ride.)

"You shut up!" "No, you shut up!"

"You shut up!" "No, you shut up!"

The good news is, this offer is a pretty good deal if you want to get out of your old, junky ride and into something not likely to shed parts every mile or two; there’s no money down, and while that $99/month price applies only for the cheapest Smart, even if you upgrade to a higher trim level, you’ll still probably get a good deal.

The bad news is…you’re still getting a Smart. Which means only two seats, a herky-jerky transmission,  a 0-60 time of around 14 seconds, and only 41 mpg on the highway (and that’s if you never use most of the car’s meager 70 horsepower) for your $13,355. In comparison, a Honda Fit gives you seating for four (five if you have one friend who’s an elf), 117 horsepower, 33 mpg highway and several times as much driving fun for $15,460.

But if all this talk of tiny, fuel-efficient cars is making your enthusiast mojo shrivel up, fear not – the sleek, powerful machines that make us Andy Samberg in our pants aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. So, for your trouser-staining pleasure, Shelby is unveiling two Super Snake packages for the Ford Shelby GT500.

Car porn: still legal in 49 states. (Thanks for nothing, Oregon.)

Car porn: still legal in 49 states. (Thanks for nothing, Oregon.)

$29,495 will buy you an upgrade to 630 horsepower, while true Tim Allens and Jay Lenos of the world can get the whole-hog 725 horses for $33,495. (Not including the $46,325 for a new GT500, of course.) Improved handling and stopping hardware gets thrown in for good measure, too.

And finally, we reported a couple weeks ago on an M Performance version of BMW’s 7-series sedan. Turns out BMW is denying any such car, claiming the photographed tester was just an example of the new Sport Package for the 7-series. But we still wouldn’t be surprised to see an M7 sometime soon – after all, if they’re making an X5 M, they clearly aren’t too picky about M-ing out their vehicles anymore.

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Review – 2009 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart

The Good: Dual-clutch transmission more appliance than gimmick, good mid-range power, the badass looks of an Evolution for a discount.

The Bad: Economy car interior, a backseat only children could love, and it’s not that much of a discount.

The Verdict: The Coke Zero Evo.

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The trouble with jacks-of-all-trades is, as the aphorism points out, they don’t usually master any of them. This is just as true in the automotive world as anywhere else. For example, minivans promise the space of a van and the driving experience of a car, but end up giving you a top-heavy ride and room for only seven people. Same with sports sedans – they promise the comfort and convenience of a sedan with the performance of a sports car, but often end up compromising on one of those goals in favor of the other.

The Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart is a compound compromise. Not only is it a sports sedan, it’s the reduced-calorie version of Mitsubishi’s gonzo Lancer Evolution. The Evo gets a twin-turbo 291-horsepower 2.0-liter inline-four; the Ralliart makes do with a single-turbo version making 237 horses. The Evo also receives some heftier go-fast parts – bigger brakes, tighter suspension, and so forth. In exchange for all this, the Ralliart shaves a few grand off the sticker price.

However, Mitsu deserves a lot of credit for not shaving off two handy performance bits during the cost-cutting: the Evo’s all-wheel-drive system and its dual-clutch automated manual transmission, known at Mitsubishi by the Air Force-grade acronym TC-SST. While the former feature is rather common these days (see our featurette on all-wheel-drive), the dual-clutch transmission has mostly remained the provenance of high-priced sports cars; the Ralliart is the cheapest car in America to offer it as standard equipment. (Seriously, who ever thought of Mitsubishi as leading the charge to bring racing technology to the people?)

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It doesn’t take much time behind the wheel to see why Mitsu felt confident plopping this tranny into every Ralliart. (Sorry, RuPaul, not you.) While the transmission’s automatic mode isn’t as consistently smooth as a traditional torque-converter automatic transmission, I never had any problems with it, even in New York City stop-and-go traffic. It’s good enough you could leave it in auto all the time without complaint…

…but you’d be doing yourself a disservice. No, this transmission shines brightest when you slide the gearshift over into the manual notch and let your fingers do the driving. Steering-column-mounted paddles behind the wheel let you flick through the gears without taking your hands off the leather-wrapped rim; slap the right paddle to upshift, pull the left to downshift. Suddenly, merging onto the freeway feels like coming out of the pit lane at Indy – floor the gas and flick your right fingers three times, and you’re ten over the limit by the time you hit your blinker.

And if you forget to uphift, don’t worry; the transmission is smart enough to know you’d rather bounce off the limiter and upshifts all by itself rather than introduce your forehead to the steering wheel. Should you prefer the forearm-strengthening motion of a regular manual transmission, you can also shift with the lever. Whether you use the paddles or the gearshift, it’s a logical, intuitive system. Porsche could learn a thing or two from Mitsubishi here.

Wait, did I just say Porsche could learn something…from Mitsubishi?

BOOM! (That’s the sound of my brain exploding.)

Swiffering.

As a whole, the Ralliart performs impressively. Performance isn’t quite at the balls-to-the-wall level of the Evo, but the lesser Lancer grips turns like a 15-year-old grabbing second base for the first time and hurls itself down the road fast enough to put a devilish smile on your face. The sole turbo pumps the engine without significant turbo lag; unlike some cars, you won’t be constantly reminded of the engine’s forced induction by a sudden burst of whoa! halfway through the rev range. That said, strong midrange power is the engine’s best characteristic – you’ll never need to worry about whether you’ve got enough oomph for a (reasonably sane) passing maneuver.

Unfortunately, you can’t spend all your life driving switchbacks and idyllic back roads – and if you could, you’d buy a Lotus, not a sedan. And it’s when you start considering day-to-day life in the Ralliart that the luster starts to fade.

Stock photo - my tester wasn't equipped with a navigation system.

Stock photo - my tester wasn't equipped with a navigation system.

For example, those optional Recaro front bucket seats that hold you so well in the turns start to get a little uncomfortable after a few hours in the saddle. It’s far from a dealbreaker – the seats are still awesome, and given that they come packaged with the 650-watt Rockford Fosgate stereo and xenon headlights, I wouldn’t buy this car without them. But my gangly-assed legs were too long to fit comfortably under the steering wheel, so I had to kink my throttle leg out to the side – causing the bolster to render much of my quadriceps numb. Those seats are nice, but they’re not worth getting deep-vein thrombosis over.

But bolsters aside, the Recaros are the best thing about the interior. Sadly, that’s not so much praise for the front seats as it is unhappiness with the rest of the inside of the car. The back seats seem better suited for the 12-and-under set; for the rest of us, its tight quarters will likely turn games of shotgun into scrums as people claw for the only decent passenger seat.

Interior quality needs some improving as well. The Ralliart’s hard plastics and fake-fur headliner would seem cheap in the $15,000 base Lancer; at twice that price, it just seems inexcusable. I’m glad Mitsubishi decided to spend the money on the performance bits, but it’s hard to justify a 30 grand car with this kind of interior.

The other major annoyance inside the Ralliart was the red, Atari-grade digital information cluster between the speedometer and the tach. It was perfectly legible, day or night – but the blocky low-fi graphics are so dated and cheesy, I half expected to find Pong in the trip computer functions.

It wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for the fact that ALL secondary information (beyond speed and rpm) is displayed on this – including the gas gauge. Due to its pixellated nature, I was never sure how much gas I had left; the “miles to empty” feature on the trip computer would tell me I had used up three-quarters of the distance I’d started with, but the gauge seemed to be informing me I still had half a tank. Note to Mitsubishi: the gas gauge is probably not a good place to experiment with new ideas.

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Luckily, the outside of the car does a lot to restore the badass image Mitsubishi wants this car to have. Thankfully, they didn’t water down the Evo effect for the Ralliart; the two cars look similar enough to be easily confused (indeed, I overheard a few passersby who mistook it for the tougher model). The enormous grill is done right – it looks menacing and hungry, as opposed to some Audi models that sport the slack-jawed look of Luke Skywalker after Darth Vader dropped a certain paternity bombshell.

But the Ralliart’s similarity to the Evo just draws out the identity crisis this little Mitsubishi faces. It’s trying to be a cut-rate performance car, and to a large extent, it succeeds – it has all the performance anybody would ever need. Problem is, the people who buy cars like this want all the performance they can get; if they didn’t, they’d spend the money on a nice Camry instead. The people who would buy this car are probably gonna be people who aspire to an Evolution – but an Evo starts at $33,685, and my Ralliart cost $30,065. (All prices here and below include destination charges.) It’s hard to imagine people not trying to stretch into the Evo.

But intra-brand competition aside, it’s still hard to know where the Ralliart is trying to belong. At that price, it’s facing some pretty stiff competition on both the “sport” and the “sedan” ends of the spectrum. If someone were looking for a kickass performance car, a Ford Mustang GT with Track Pack runs $30,340, while a base Nissan 370Z goes for for $30,650. Sure, each gives up some back seat room, but they’ll both rip off 0-60 times at least half a second quicker than the Ralliart, and look much better doing it.

On the other hand, if someone’s looking for a sedan that happens to be fun to drive, an Acura TSX retails for $30,120. It’s not as fast as the Ralliart, but it’s tossable, fun-to-drive and comes with an interior that looks like it belongs in a car costing $50,000.

But of course, the Ralliart’s real foe lies in the Subaru dealerships. The Ralliart exists almost entirely due to the Subaru WRX; to put it in SAT terms, Ralliart:Evolution::WRX:STI. The STI and the Evo have been butting bumpers for half a decade, but until now, Mitsubishi hasn’t stacked up a challenger to the lesser WRX.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like this first shot at the Rex will be the one to claim the prize. The WRX packs 265 horsepower, roughly 10 percent more than the Ralliart; Car and Driver ran one from 0 to 60 in a slightly ridiculous 4.7 seconds. In addition, assuming the WRX’s interior is like the Impreza I just drove (stay tuned for that review next week), it’s a far nicer place to spend time than the Ralliart. And the Subaru is cheaper to boot: the Premium model equivalant to my Ralliart goes out the door for $28,190, but a stripper model with all the go-fast bits can be bought for $25,690 – $1,475 less than the Ralliart. (Subaru also offers a choice between sedan and hatchback/miniwagon body styles).

So in the end, the Ralliart, in spite of its twin clutches and ripped shitless exterior, is all about compromise – between utility and performance, between econocar Lancer and bat-outta-hell Evolution. But in trying to compromise, it ends up looking like a perennial runner-up no matter what angle you’re looking at it from. To make this car a winner, Mitsubishi either needs to compromise a little less on the quality – or compromise a little more on price.

Base Price/Price as Tested (inc. destination): $27,165/$30,065

0-60: 5.4 seconds (courtesy Car and Driver)

EPA Fuel Economy: 17/25 miles per gallon

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Spy Shots and Curiosities

It’s been a while since we featured any spy shots here on CCO, so we thought we’d take the opportunity to throw a couple interesting ones your way.

First up, the 2010 Honda Accord Crosstour. Now, that name is still just a rumor at this point, but that will probably be what it’s called when it rolls into showrooms this fall. (At least it’s better than BMW’s name for their similar 5-series-based car, the Gran Turismo. Sorry, BMW – we love ya, but calling a wagon a gran turismo doesn’t make it a gran turismo. I can call myself Tom Brady all I want, but that won’t get me Gisele Bundchen.)

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Between this car, BMW’s Gran Turismo, and a few other examples, it seems as though the Next Big Thing in car design is to blend the hatchback/wagon bodystyles – much in the way the blending of coupe and sedan has proven popular since the Mercedes-Benz CLS appeared a few years ago.

Rumors have bounced around regarding the…miniwagon‘s platform and powertrain, but figure it’ll be pretty much based on the Accord beneath the skin – after all, the Accord’s platform serves as the basis for the Pilot SUV, so it’s proven quite flexible. As on the Pilot, all-wheel-drive will probably be an option. In terms of engines, we’d expect Honda’s corporate 3.5-liter V6, making somewhere around 275 horsepower; there have been rumors of a 200-hp turbo four as well, but seeing as how Honda already makes a 201-hp naturally aspirated I4 for the TSX, it seems more likely they’ll throw that under the hood.

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Next up, we have the BMW X1, part of the German automaker’s plan to craft a vehicle for every single niche, no matter how razor-thin. The aforementioned 5-series GT is another example of this phenomenon; when it is released next year, the 5-series line will include a sedan, a wagon, a miniwagon/hatchback, a coupe, a convertible, a sport-utility vehicle, and a sport utility coupe. Overkill: not just for nuclear weapons anymore!

Anyway, the X1 will be BMW’s smallest SUV, slotting alongside the 1-series coupes and convertibles at the cheap end of the lineup. Frankly, we’re not sure what the X1 is supposed to compete against, given the X3 already competes against the smallest SUVs offered by other luxury manufacturers; perhaps BMW is hoping they can steal away Subaru Forester owners. And given that Mini will soon be introducing their own tiny SUV, it’s hard to see how the X1 is worth the trouble.

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Still, it should be a hoot to drive, especially since it’ll be coming Stateside with a 272-hp 3.0L inline-six. (BMW offers a 204-hp diesel model in Europe that supposedly gets around 37 mpg; however, as usual, it hasn’t been confirmed for the States yet.) Expect to see it in BMW showrooms next year; a correspondingly larger X3 will probably be along less than a year later.

(By the way, those psychedelic swirls you see on these spy shots are all the rage in the car disguising business these days. They’re supposed to make it harder for the human eye to pick out distinguishing characteristics – though it seems just as likely to cause acid flashbacks in passing drivers.)P90047890

Our third and final spy shot of the day is of the long-rumored BMW M7. Now, for nearly the last decade or so, Mercedes-Benz has cornered the market on souped-up full-size luxury sedans with the AMG versions of the S-class. (They currently offer two – the V8-powered, 518-hp S63 and the turbocharged V12-powered, 604-hp S65.) Surprisingly, BMW hasn’t seen fit to challenge these cars directly through their M performance division as they do in the compact and mid-size luxury markets; rather, they’ve let their semi-affiliated tuner Alpina fight back with their B7 sedan.

However, with the M division (and BMW in general) moving towards turbocharged engines, it appears they’ve decided to pull up their lederhosen and man up by sticking the twin-turbo 4.4-liter V8 from the X5 M and X6 M into a 7-series. Expect 550 horsepower, a 0-60 time of under 4.5 seconds and some heated competition between it and the Porsche Panamera Turbo around the Nurburgring.

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Finally, we want to wrap things up with a couple of unusual vehicles. Galpin Auto Sports, or GAS (a.k.a the guys from Pimp My Ride) have just unveiled a pair of cars the Air Force commissioned them to make (for recruitment purposes, not warfare), and…holy shit. These things may be the coolest cars we’ve ever seen…and we’ve seen pretty much everything.

First up is the GAS X-1. As is pretty obvious, it’s based on a Ford Mustang – but it has about as much in common with those cars in the Hertz Fun Collection as Pierce Brosnan’s Vanquish in Die Another Day had with a stock Aston Martin. How badass is this car? Well, let me put it this way: in place of the twin buckets in most Mustangs, this one has a single ejection seat.

Yes. That’s right. An ejection seat.

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There’s also a GPS transponder, night and thermal vision cameras with in-cockpit touch-screen displays, and an actual flight stick in place of the steering wheel. Oh, yeah, and the 4.6-liter V8’s been played with to make 500 horsepower, but that’s a footnote at this point. Nobody’s gonna listen past “ejection seat.”

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The second car, based on the Doge Challenger, is called the Vapor – apparently because the Air Force wanted everyone to think they were building a lame, unsubstantial vehicle when they were actually putting together a car that could kick Optimus Prime’s ass.

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Take the matte-black paint job. Looks like the same stuff on every “murdered out” car on the road, right? Well, it’s too bad you can’t see radio waves – because then you’d realize this sucker’s paint job absorbs radar. It also packs a roof-mounted 360-degree-rotating camera with night and thermal visions, which can be displayed on the twin instrument panel screens.

Of course, there’s also the full-windshield head-up display, the proximity sensors, the dual yoke controls (yes, the passenger can steer the car too), a stealth exhaust that allows the car to drive around in complete silence, and an advanced computer system that allows the car to be driven remotely from anywhere on Earth using the Internet.

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We don’t know about the rest of you, but to us at CCO, this black bastard screams one thing: Batmobile. All it needs is some bulletproofing and a Hennessey HPE800 engine upgrade (800 horsepower should offset that added weight nicely), and you’re ready to clean the scum off the streets of Gotham City. \

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But what do you think? Let us know below!

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