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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 – Subaru

After revamping their volume models like the Legacy/Outback and the Forester in the last couple years, Subaru has turned to fixing up their performance models, using the NY show to unveil their updated WRX and STI.

Telling the difference between the two is gonna be harder for everyone from now on, since the WRX received a wide-body makeover causing it to look nearly identical to its more powerful sibling. And the number of doors is no longer a good indication either, as a new four-door STI was unveiled to a cacaphony of Linkin Park-like music and a series of compressed air blasts to tease the sheet off the car.

Of course, the giant new wing exclusive to the STI sedan could be a good way to tell them apart – except I’m sure WRX owners will be bolting the same wing onto their cars as soon as the new STI hits showrooms. Only testing will tell whether this updated STI will prove faster than its ostensibly wimpier brother…or whether the WRX will continue to render the STI all but obsolete.

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A Burst of News – Cheap Sports Cars from Kia, Nissan and Mazda, Aston Martin Cygnet Revealed, and Two Unusual Ferrari 599s

For the last Burst of News of 2009, we’ve decided to keep things short, since, let’s face it, you’re still playing with your new Christmas toys and already pre-gaming for New Year’s Eve.

First out of the gate, some excellent news for all fans of cheap speed (and apart from drug dealers and overprotective mothers, who isn’t?). With Toyota and Subaru’s jointly developed rear-wheel-drive coupe coming down the pipe, other Asian automakers are scrambling to pump out small, inexpensive sports cars to compete with the Toyobaru. (While Toyota is now calling the concept version the FT-86, we still prefer the portmanteau.)

According to Inside Line, Nissan is considering a new small sports car for the 2011-2012 time frame, to slot under the 370Z. Should the coupe receive the green light, it will likely pack a 200-horsepower, 1.8 liter turbo four cylinder, along with the same six-speed manual/seven-speed auto choices from the Z. Insiders say styling may resemble the company’s 2005 Foria concept – which would be a shame, ’cause the Foria is kinda homely to our eyes. As for a name, we’re hoping Nissan axes the 240SX moniker for our shores. (Note to Nissan: don’t use the letters “S” and “X” next to each other in your car’s name.)

"I shall call it...MINI-Z!"

Okay, fine, here's the Foria.

While Mazda would seem to already have a strong foe for the Toyobaru in the Miata, it seems they’re not content to place all their hopes on The Car That Saved The Roadster. Instead, they’re replacing the Jack LaLanne-like RX-8 with a new RX-7. Given the name change, it’s likely the new car will ditch the tiny suicide doors of the RX-8 and return to the two-door layout of the prior RX-7. A new version of Mazda’s Renesis rotary engine will be plopped under the hood, likely pumping out between 200 and 250 horsepower. According to Inside Line, Mazda hopes to keep the price around $25,000 when the car hits the streets – hopefully as early as 2011.

Adieu, wacky RX-8. You will be missed.

However, Toyota and Subaru are facing threats from across the Sea of Japan, as well. AutoCar claims Kia is drafting up plans for a RWD sports car based off the Hyundai Genesis Coupe’s platform, and featuring styling similar to the Kee Coupe Concept. However, in a surprisingly earnest admission, Kia design director Peter Schreyer says the company needs to “grow a little more in stature” before the marketplace would be ready to accept such a sporty Kia, adding the car could be ready in around five years. We say: Kia, grow a pair and put this baby on the market in two. Charge a grand less than Toyota and Nissan, and with the Genesis Coupe’s chassis and a cleaned-up version of the Kee body, you’ll sell every one you can crate over here.

This is of course in addition to the Honda CR-Z Hybrid headed for our shores in latter 2010; while the CR-Z’s front-drive hybrid layout means it won’t exactly be a direct competitor for the spate of RWD coupes, you can bet at least a few people will be cross-shopping the Toyobaru and Co. with the Honda.

Thanks to Temple Of VTEC for this leaked CR-Z image.

For some folks out there, though, cost isn’t an issue when it comes to buying a car. We here at CCO, sadly, don’t belong to that fraternity of rock stars, trust fund babies, and un-dateable social media founders; however, should our platinum-plated ship come in (a Powerball ticket also would do it), most of us would put the Ferrari 599 Fiorano right at the top of our list of purchases. (As in, we’ve figured out how long it would take to get to Miller Motorcars of Greenwich, CT and place our order.)

So when we saw what one wealthy bastard fellow had done to a perfectly good 599, we wanted to pull an Elvis and put a couple .44 Magnum hollow-points through our television. No, we don’t browse the Web on our TV – it’s just that the prick gentleman in question happens to be the son of John Walson, inventor of cable television.

"Hello, U.N.? I'd like to report a crime against humanity."

Edward Walson (bet he doesn’t like being called Eddie, either) used a portion of his shit-tastically huge inheritance to commission Ferrari’s Special Projects Division (Motto: “Cooler Than Your Job”) to whip up this golden turd after being inspired by a one-off Ferrari from the 1968 Federico Fellini film Tony Dammit. This is like asking Lockheed’s Skunk Works to take an F-22 Raptor and attach two extra wings because you always wanted an X-Wing starfighter.

While Walson and Ferrari call it the P540 Superfast Aperta, the rest of us would rather just call it  a mistake. So if you happen to see this monstrosity parked on the street, please, do every car lover (and person with sight) a favor and drive your car into it at high speed. (Safety first, though – reverse into it, please.) If this 599 could talk, it would be begging to be put down. Don’t make it suffer.

Blessedly, our other piece of Ferrari news today is much sunnier. According to Quattroruote (the article’s in Italian), the Italian automaker will be unveiling its new hybrid system in a 599-based concept at the 2010 Geneva Motor Show. Fuel economy is expected to receive a 35 percent bump, allllll the way up to 14 miles per gallon. Should the electric motor power the front wheels as we previously reported, Geneva will be unveiling a 599 with all-wheel-drive, improved handling and more miles per gallon. It’s as though God heard the prayers of every Ferrari-lover in New England.

A Ferrari 599 GTB, in what is obviously New Hampshire.

Finally, Aston Martin has released a few images of the completed version of its Cygnet concept, and it looks as adorable as a cartoon owl. Which is to say, pretty damned un-Aston Martin like.

The Aston Martin Cygnet

Owly

The Cygnet – which we remind you is pretty much a Toyota iQ under those pretty headlights – remains a concept for the moment, though Aston’s press release reiterated the company’s desire for the car to “become a production reality,” in an apparent effort to negate the machismo imbued upon the brand from the last three Bond movies. (And that Daniel Crag musk doesn’t come off easily.)

If Aston really wants an environmentally friendly micro-car for their line, we’d like to make the same suggestion we made to Mercedes-Benz when they brought to Smart over here (and by “made,” we mean “yelled at a billboard”): MAKE IT ELECTRIC. Yank out that dinky gas engine and strap in an electric motor with enough torque to chirp the tires. If it’s supposed to be a city car, low-speed performance is far more important than top speed. You only need enough juice to make it 50-75 miles, anyway; any further than that, and your driver will probably want to take their other Aston anyway.

Anyway, that’s it for us this year! Happy New Year, and here’s to an exciting and successful 2010!

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A Burst of News – Hot Supercar Designs, Toyobaru Revealed, an electric Audi and a new Porsche 928?

Welcome one and all to another burst of automotive news, straight from the broken faucet of the Internet and into your unsuspectingly open eyes!

Let’s start off with something sexy. Over the last couple of weeks, no fewer than three boner-inducing artist’s concepts have appeared for potential supercars from some of the world’s foremost makers of excitiong cars. Now, unfortunately, none of these are anywhere near cleared for production – they’re just artistic visions of potential supercars. But at least we can imagine ourselves in them – which is all most of us would be doing if they were real, anyway.

First up is a concept for a successor to the former fastest car in the world, the McLaren F1. McLaren recently unveiled their first all-new car since the F1; named the MP4-12C, it’s designed to fight in the highly competitive supercar middleweight category, against such Worthy Opponents as the Ferrari 458 Italia, the Porsche 911 Turbo/GT2, the Audi R8 5.2, the successor to the Lamborghini Gallardo, and Stephen Colbert.

McLaren has stated the MP4-12C (which sounds more like a submachine gun than a car to us) will occupy the middle of their three-supercar lineup, leaving room above and below it. With that in mind, Coventry University student Matt Williams whipped up this concept called the LM5, a hypercar to fit above the MP4 and challenge the Bugatti Veyron for global supremacy. (Imaginary power comes from a 700-horsepower version of the BMW M5’s V10.)

mclaren_lm5_renderings_mw_images_005

Next up comes a design for a potential Porsche supercar to succeed the Carrera GT of a few years ago. Crafted by an Iranian designer named Emil Baddal, this exotic-looking machine currently goes without any imaginary powertrain at all. (It also goes without a name, so I guess Baddal is one of those artists who likes to title his works “Untitled” because he thinks it’s avant-garde.)

Since Baddal apparently wants to leave the details up to the imagination, I’m going to call it the “Rapier,” after the runner-up name for the F-22 fighter, and pretend it’s powered by a 745-horsepower 6.8 liter turbocharged V12 based off the Panamera’s V8, connected to an all-wheel-drive system by a seven-speed PDK transmission. Then I will pretend to drive it across the country to Jennifer Aniston’s house and take her out for a fancy dinner before parking on Mulholland Drive and getting busy on the hood.

porsche_supercar_baddal_images_003

Baddal also brings us the third in our list of imaginary playthings, a real-life version of the BMW Vision EfficientDynamics concept from this year’s Frankfurt show. That concept was “propelled” by a 163-horsepower turbodiesel 1.5 liter three cylinder connected to a pair of electric motors; sources claim the production version, rumored to go by “Z10,” would run a 450-horsepower twin-turbocharged inline six-cylinder engine (also rumored to be the engine of the next M3). Combined with a low curb weight, the Z10 ought to be as ballsy as a triple shout of Jåger.

bmw_sportscar_concept_study_images_main-1

But enough fiction. If you’ve been following this site for a while, you’ve probably read our posts on the “Toyobaru,” the sport coupe under joint development by Toyota and Subaru. Well, the wraps have finally come off, and it looks pretty sweet.

toyota_ft_86_concept_images_main

Currently going by the name of the Toyota FT-86 Concept (excitement fail), the car is powered by Subaru’s 2.0 liter boxer four-cylinder engine, hopefully putting out at least 200 horsepower. Supposedly, the car will be rear-wheel-drive only; whether that’ll preclude it being sold as a Subaru in the States remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see an AWD system slung under there for the U.S. market.

The production FT-86 will reportedly be coming our way in 2011, hopefully priced around $20,000. RWD or AWD, it looks like it’ll be a great car – it’s about time manufacturers started making more small, fun cars for less money.

toyota_ft_86_concept_images_006

Vying for the FT-86’s recession-paralyzed youth, though, will be a similarly priced sports coupe from Honda – and it’s a hybrid, which scores you bonus points but means you have to scrape Ed Begley Jr. off your car more often. (He’s like a starfish!)

2009_honda_crz_hybrid_concept_images_002-1

Successor to the beloved CR-X hatch of eons ago, the CR-Z (I guess CR-Y just sounded too sad) will only pack a hybrid powerplant, so don’t expect many smoky burnouts. Rumor has it the powertrain will be a 1.5 liter four-cylinder connected to Honda’s usual hybrid gear and your choice of six-speed stick or CVT automatic; expect somewhere around 125-150 combined horsepower, a 0-60 time of around seven seconds, and moderate-to-heavy smug levels.

2009_honda_crz_hybrid_concept_images_main

But there’s more news from Subie-land these days – and this next tidbit is a bit…unexpected. Apparently, Motor Trend has named the 2010 Subaru Outback its SUV of the Year. To which we at CCO respond…really?

2010-subaru-outback-front-side-588x413

As readers know, we really like Subarus. They’ve been making tremendous strides in quality without sacrificing their core values, and remain some of the best cars in their price range. And the Outback, with its elevated stance and versatile AWD, does offer most of the ability of a sport-ute while retaining most of the virtues of a car.

But that’s because it is a car.

Now, I’m sure Motor Trend will say the line between cars and SUVs is blurrier than ever, and that the newest Outback features enough differences from the regular Legacy that it should qualify as a separate category.  Sorry, MT. We love ya, but the Outback is a car. To paraphrase our well-spoken president, you can put all the lipstick you want on a pig, but she’s still Sarah Palin – and you can put all the off-road trappings you want on a car, but it’s still a station wagon. In our minds, the winner should have been the Audi Q5.

Speaking of Audi, some good news from our friends in Ingolstadt. According to AutoExpress, Audi will be bringing the electric e-tron concept from the Frankfurt show to production as a new smaller sports car called the R4.

audi_etron_concept_main_a

Reportedly, the R4 will be based on the production version of VW’s Concept BlueSport, a small diesel-powered roadster from this year’s Detroit show. No idea what sort of output we should expect from the production electric R4, but given that the concept’s 3,319 lb-ft of torque could probably fling the space shuttle into orbit, it’ll probably be a mite less when it lands on our shores around 2012. (There will likely also be gas-powered version, for those of us lucky enough to still have access to fossil fuels after the zombiocalypse of 2011 price of gas goes up.)

But if electric-powered sports cars aren’t your bag, how about a convertible Porsche Panamera? No, the Germans aren’t bringing back the four-door convertible. That’s not coming back until somebody goes back in time and saves JFK. But according to Automotive News, a topless two-door version of the Panamera will be hitting the streets sometime in the next couple of years. No word yet on whether they’ll also offer a two-door coupe version to combat the Mercedes-Benz CL and BMW 6-series, but given Porsche’s 928 filled a similar GT coupe role from 1978 to 1995, you’d probably be safe putting down a deposit…just in case.

normal

Or, if you’d prefer something equally luxurious but a bit more insane sensible, Automotive News also says Aston Martin is considering putting its Toyota/Scion-based Cygnet runabout into production. For around $32,000, drivers could have an Aston Martin the size of a Smart car with the same Toyota suspension and drivetrain as the iQ upon which it’s based. Aston Martin engineers say they got the idea after watching Daniel Craig get whipped in the balls in Casino Royale.

"The world is gonna know you died designing a ridiculous car!"

"The world is gonna know you died designing a ridiculous car!"

Still, if you decide to spend your thirty-two grand on a Cygnet instead of, say, a Mustang GT, at the very least you’re less likely to see one of Chevrolet’s new Caprice police cars in your rear view mirror. For those of you who just exploded at the thought of a Chevy version of the wonderful Pontiac G8, sorry to burst your bubble, but the G8’s still marked for termination as of this writing.

2011 Chevrolet Caprice Police Patrol Vehicle (PPV)

Those of you who’re envisioning a four-door Camaro, though, are much closer to the mark – like the Camaro, the Caprice is based off GM’s Zeta platform. However, don’t get too caught up in dreams of drag-racing with the wife and kids; the Caprice will only be available to police here in the States. (It’s available for civilians in the Middle East, because apparently GM easily confuses that region with the Mid-West.)

Loaded with a 355-hp 6.0 liter V8 mated to a six-speed auto, the Caprice should run 0-60 in the mid five-second range while driving up police academy recruitment from Pennsylvania to Nevada. Expect to be checking your six for them in 2011; V6 powered versions will be available in 2012, but…why?

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A Burst of News – Hybrid Toyota Supra, the next Ferrari, and the Toyobaru Coupe

It’s once again time for one of our semi-regular bursts of news, where we bring you up-to-date on interesting things happening in and around the automotive world that you’re probably not going to read about in the newspaper. (If you actually read the paper, that is.)

Let’s start off with two bits of sports car news regarding vehicles that, like Misters Plessy and Ferguson, are quite separate but of equal importance.

First up comes news that despite several public denials, Toyota is hard at work on a successor to the much-loved Supra sports car. Rumor has it the next-gen car will pack a hybrid V6 drivetrain putting out a total of 400 horses; however, they’ll also be offering a non-hybrid version for people who’d rather screw the planet over, thank you very much. Rear-wheel-drive will almost certainly be a given; styling inspired by the FT-HS concept car is a possibility. Expect to see a concept car version sometime next year, with production models coming in the fall of 2011.

Toyota FT-HS Concept

Toyota FT-HS Concept

Given the success Nissan has had with its Z, it’s surprising Toyota has waited this long to bring out their own middleweight sports car. It should be interesting to see how the hybrid technology holds up in a performance car – especially since Toyota’s hardly the only manufacturer exploring the tech’s sports-car potential. (More on that further down.)

The other sports car news from Japan regards the much-rumored “Toyobaru” – the cheap sports car being jointly developed by Subaru and Toyota. According to 7Tune, Subaru will be making a sportier STI variant of the car, even if Toyota only chooses to offer the car with one engine.

toyota_subaru_086a_1

The insiders’ report reveals the Toyobaru will also feature styling similar to the Lexus LF-A supercar that’s been taunting car enthusiasts for years as a concept, a prototype and even a subtly disguised race car. Supposedly, the Toyobaru joint task force (I don’t know what they call themselves, I just like the sound of that) wants to keep the price under 2 million yen – as of today, a little more than $20,000.

The LF-A attempts to hide by closing its eyes and pretending it's invisible.

The LF-A attempts to hide by closing its eyes and pretending it's invisible.

If they can bring it stateside for that price, equipped with the rumored 200-horsepower four-cylinder engine and six-speed manual, they can start the line right behind me. If you want in, we’ll be lining up sometime in 2011.

In other sports-car related news, Ferrari told AutoCar they may be unveiling their successor to the F430 at this year’s Los Angeles Auto Show in December – as a hybrid. Go on, take a second to clean away that coffee you just spit-taked onto your monitor, I’ll wait.

ferrari-f450-render-ft

Yes, folks, Ferrari – who usually rank between Bentley and Pratt & Whitney in terms of environmentally-friendly engines – want to start nudging forward the idea that, hey, maybe hybrids can be fun! Indeed, they recently filed patents for an all-wheel-drive hybrid system, among other environmentally-friendly technologies that seem as bizarre as George Clooney’s bat-suit nipples.

However, don’t expect to see a hybrid AWD system under your brand-new F450, as everyone is referring to the new mid-engined Ferrari until they unveil the actual name. The company is understandably concerned about whether customers are ready for “green” Ferraris – hence the “concept” moniker attached to the hybrid version set to be unveiled this winter. Production F450 Hybrids should become available sometime in the middle of the next decade.

Few concrete details are known about the F450, but don’t expect much departure from the formula that made the 360 Modena and F430 successful – a high-revving V8, two seats, and a sleek design. Power will probably be in the 500-550 horsepower range, with the California’s seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox.

In addition, the folks at CzechFerrari.cz have posted some pictures they claim to be the F450. The pictures don’t reveal much, since the prototype in them is missing its front end…and its back end…and wheels…and most of the interior. But if nothing else, they hint at the overall shape of the car – and it looks pretty good so far. (For some reason, the images won’t seem to save, so we can’t show you them, but we can point you to the CzechFerrari page with all the images.)

Finally, Kelley Blue Book has just released a list of what they consider this year’s coolest cars for under $18,000. While we don’t like to be nitpicky (oh, who am I kidding – I live to pick nits), there are a couple worth mentioning. First off, Kelley, I think you mean cars for less than $18,000, unless you’re literally referring to cars with 18 grand of cash plopped on the roof. Secondly, some of those picks seem like padding. The Focus’s SYNC system may read your incoming Tweets aloud, but it doesn’t change the fact that beneath the skin it’s pretty much the same car that went on sale a decade ago.

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Review – 2009 Subaru Impreza 2.5i Premium

The Good: Solid fit and finish, all-wheel-drive security and handling, hatchback looks good and adds space, too.

The Bad: Four-speed auto just doesn’t cut it, a little sluggish off the line, fuel economy suffers in-town.

The Verdict: A great all-around economy car – if you know how to use a clutch.

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For those of you who read the site regularly, this car might seem rather familiar. The Impreza Premium, as tested in five-door form, is nearly identical to the Outback Sport we reviewed last June. This shorter review, as a result, will mostly focus on the differences between the cars; for a more complete summary, please check out our Outback Sport post.

Plopping down into the Impreza, it’s not hard to see why Subaru was the only carmaker to see U.S. sales rise in 2008; their cars have reached the highest levels of quality in the econocar segment. Fit and finish inside are top-notch, with soft-touch plastics and smooth lines abounding inside. The doors slam shut with a cast-iron thunk far more satisfying than the tinny sound of, say, the Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart I tested a couple weeks ago.

In large part due to its quality, the Subie’s interior proves a very pleasant place to be. The tan fabric and plastic is a sunny antidote to the charcoal tones all too common in cars these days; for some reason, interior designers in the automotive industry seem to think people want the inside of their car to resemble a well-used pizza oven. (I assume people like the dark colors because they make stains harder to see – but why don’t manufacturers just Scotchguard their cars?)

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The interior is reasonably roomy for the segment. The front seats work well for short trips or long ones; the backseat isn’t about to be confused with a Maybach’s, but I was able to cram three medium-size adults into it for a two-hour drive to a New Jersey barbecue. Trunk room is adequate, with 19 cubic feet available behind the rear seats (though don’t count on using more than 3/4 of that if you want to see out the rear window). It proved more than enough for five people’s overnight gear, with room to spare for the plastic-bagged skeleton of a pig. (Don’t ask.)

Mechanically, the Impreza is solid as well – its 170-horsepower 2.5 liter boxer four-cylinder engine moves the car along with verve, if not excitement, and the all-wheel-drive combines with the suspension to give the car great handling for its class. However, all this makes for a heavy compact car – and it proved too much for the four-speed automatic transmission affixed to my tester. The manumatic function just seemed silly, given the scarce number of gears; four speeds just doesn’t cut it in this day and age, when most automatics have at least five, and six is becoming the norm.

As a result, acceleration suffers; accelerating up inclines can be a struggle, especially with the car loaded down, and passing on two-lane roads requires equal parts runway-length straightaways and blind faith. Fuel economy takes a hit, too; while Subaru claims 20 mpg city/26 mpg highway, the car’s trip computer (which proved accurate on the Outback Sport) told me I averaged a craptastic 21.3 mpg over 222 miles. (However, much of that was New York City parking-space-hunting, while the rest was highway driving in a laden car. Expect your mileage to be better.)

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But apart from the automatic transmission, there’s little to complain about here. Even when it comes time to pay the piper (or your bank, if you’re found one still giving out car loans – in which case, let me know, would you?), the Impreza treats you well. The base Impreza five-door gives you AWD, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, keyless entry, power windows/locks/mirrors, A/C, cruise control and a CD stereo for $18,690 (with destination charge). The four-door sedan version costs $500 less, but it’s less attractive and less accommodating; the hatchback/miniwagon is worth the extra money.

My tester also had the Premium Package, which brings the car pretty much even in terms of features with the Outback Sport: moonroof, 10-speaker six-disc stereo, fog lamps, leather steering wheel with audio controls, and alloy wheels. Combined with the $1000 automatic tranny and a $249 “Popular Equipment Group” (two cargo nets and an armrest extender), the car MSRP’ed for $21,939.

So which is the better buy – the Outback Sport or the Impreza Premium? In all honesty, it comes down to taste. The only difference between them is whether you want a moonroof (Impreza) or heated seats (Outback). In my mind, the Outback Sport looks better, so I’d probably pick it; but if you like the sun on your face, the Impreza Premium will treat you just fine.

Base Price/Price As Tested: $18,690/$21,939

0-60: 8.4 seconds (manual transmission; courtesy Car and Driver)

EPA Fuel Economy: 20/26 miles per gallon

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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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