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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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Review – 2009 Infiniti G37 Coupe AWD

The Good: Stylish enough to be Italian, powerful enough to be American, and packing enough geekery to be true to its Japanese heritage.

The Bad: A little soft in the turns, can’t have Sport Package and AWD, audio overkill.

The Verdict: The poor(er) man’s Maserati.

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In the analog automotive world, the term gran turismo usually refers to sleek, powerful cars designed for crossing continents. The term hearkens back to an age when road trips were romantic things, before the minivan and the rear-seat DVD player turned thousand-mile drives into things to be endured, rather than savored.

But those great touring cars are still around today, and while the term is usually thrown around in the context of six-figure exotics, there are plenty of less expensive cars ideal for endless road trips along both highways and byways.

The Infiniti G37 coupe is one of those cars. Leave its four-door brother for the “responsible” middle-managers with kids and jobs they detest; the two-door G37 is for those whose souls cry for the endless road trip, wanderers who need only a fine machine around them and an endless supply of rock and roll to be happy.

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And the G37 coupe delivers on both those counts. Equipped with the Premium and Navigation Packages, as my tester was, the G37 offers as many varieties of audio as your local Best Buy – AM/FM radio, Sirius XM satellite radio, CD player, iPod-specific connector, internal hard drive, and flash memory slot. Play it right, and you won’t hear the same song twice until James T. Kirk is left fatherless after birth, causing him to develop into a more dickish yet more svelte adult than he would have been otherwise.

All those tunes flow through an 11-speaker Bose audio system dubbed the “Infiniti Studio on Wheels.” While this “studio” won’t let you cut an acoustic version of “Waking Up In Vegas” (thank God), it will let you properly memorialize Michael Jackson with clean, crisp sound. Whether it’s worth the $3,000 for the Premium package is up to you; however, if it makes the choice any easier, it comes bundled with a moonroof and Bluetooth (which refused to work in my car, for some reason).

But to spend all your time listening to the radio would deprive you of the roar of the 3.7 liter V6 – and that would be a shame. Floor the throttle, and the engine (shared with pretty much every vehicle in the Infiniti lineup, and quite a few in the Nissan line as well) cuts loose with a throaty growl certain to make teenagers and dogs look your way. If you blindfolded the average person and asked them to identify what sort of car it came from, they’d probably be more likely to pick something from Italy than Japan.

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However, pull that blindfold off, and they might still make the same mistake. With curves and lines that could have been penned by Pininfarina, the G37 Coupe oozes the sex appeal of a much more expensive car. Admittedly, the tail end looks may have gone under the knife one time too many, but the front view sends blood places usually reserved for a Maserati – or Megan Fox – sighting.

The stylishness continues inside the cabin, where brushed aluminum sweeps across the dashboard and down the waterfall-like center console. It’s a good thing that console looks so nice, because your eyes will be glancing that way quite a bit; housed atop it is the large, vivid touchscreen display for the navigation and stereo.

The navigation system offers no fewer than three ways to control it – by touching the screen, using the control buttons below the screen, or via voice commands. While three control methods might seem redundant, they each have distinct benefits – for example, scrolling is best accomplished with the physical scroll knob, while voice control is great for times when you need both hands on the wheel.

The nav system itself is easy to follow and loaded with helpful features, such as real-time traffic conditions and lane diagrams to point you in the right direction during complex intersections. However, the system isn’t flawless – driving up the New Jersey turnpike, it inexplicably directed me through the long-term parking lot at Newark Airport on the way to the Holland Tunnel. And is it really necessary for the system to tell you not to take every exit on the highway?

Aside from the navigation, the other big techno gun in the G37’s road-trip arsenal is its laser cruise control. Sadly, this doesn’t involve vaporizing slower-moving traffic, but rather using an invisible laser beam to judge the distance from the car in front of you. If the Infiniti gets too close, it automatically slows to maintain the set distance.

The default, longest setting is strictly for driver’s ed class; people will be cutting in front of you so often, you’ll be in a constant state of slowing down. (Though as George Carlin said, given all the toll booths, that’s really all you do in New Jersey anyway.) Luckily, there are two shorter settings – or you can turn the laser off altogether.

But with 330 horsepower under the hood, you probably won’t want to use the cruise control very much. Putting it simply – this baby hauls. Car and Driver recorded a 0-60 time of 5.3 seconds for the Sport model, and you’ll probably want to try and break that every chance you can. It almost made the $45 I spent on tolls driving from NYC to D.C. worth it, just the floor the car out of the gate and rip up to speed across the broad post-toll expanse.

However, the stock suspension doesn’t live up to the engine’s promise; the tires squeal around cloverleaves, and while “sportiness” is obviously on the car’s list of priorities, it’s a couple slots lower than enthusiasts would like. The Sport Package, which gets a 6-speed manual (or paddle shifters for the 7-speed auto, if you fail at driving), sport suspension, and stronger brakes, would probably make all the difference; however, my tester instead came with all-wheel-drive, and Infiniti doesn’t offer the two packages together. (BMW lets you get AWD and the Sport Package on the 3-series – so what’s up, Infiniti?)

The AWD certainly increases the car’s capabilities as a real-world vehicle, rendering it all but unstoppable; the car never slipped or faltered, even taking a tight uphill turn in the midst of a torrential rain storm. Personally, I’d rather grab the Sport package and drive a little more carefully during bad weather in exchange for the added performance and fun most of the time; but if you live somewhere where inclement weather is a concern, the AWD would make the G37 an ideal two-person car.

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Two people, mind you, not more – at least, not on a regular basis. Calling the car a four-seater isn’t quite a lie, but you might want to think twice about saying that in court. While there are two seats in back, they’re best reserved for people you really don’t like. Legroom is tight for anyone over 5’6”, headroom even tighter, and the low roof and small windows render the space rather claustrophobic. Four adults could squeeze into the car for a crosstown jaunt, but anything beyond ten miles would be cruel and unusual.

Cargo space is surprisingly adequate; I was able to squeeze most of a two-person Costco run into the trunk, with the rest comfortably residing in the back seat. And anyone who’s ever had a cat will appreciate the G37’s “butt button” – press it, and the trunk lid rises, just like when you touch the base of a feline tail.

Bottom line, the G37 Coupe makes for a great gran turismo; it’s gorgeous, flies along open roads, fits two people’s luggage easily, and offers enough music options to allow you to drive from Bangor to San Diego without hearing the same song twice. The AWD is a nice insurance policy, but by making it and the Sport Package mutually exclusive, the Infiniti lacks the performance bits needed to make the car into a true sport coupe.

If you consider yourself a real driver – someone who owns dedicated driving shoes and knew Clive Owen before he was cool from the BMW Films – you’ll want to take the Sport Package. However, anyone with a love for the open road (and $39,515) won’t be disappointed with the G37 Coupe in any form. It’s the sort of car you could drive forever and a day, from one new town to the next on an endless adventure. And for all the fun there is to be had on a race track, isn’t that the real magic of the automobile?

Base Price/Price As Tested: $39,515/$46,195

0-60: 5.3 seconds (Sport model; courtesy Car and Driver)

Fuel Economy: 18/25 city/highway (EPA)/ 22.6 (observed)

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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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