Friday, January 25, 2008

2008 Nissan GT-R - Seven Year Itch

Nothing shakes off transatlantic jet lag like jumping into an unfamiliar sports car, merging onto an unrestricted section of German autobahn, and accelerating across the flawless tarmac until reaching an indicated 300 kph (186 mph). This is especially true if the car is right-hand drive and has most of its gauges draped in cheap, black vinyl--and there's a Nissan engineer riding shotgun while monitoring test instruments and, most likely, wondering whether this will be the journalist who ruins his day by heading off into the trees.

Still settling into the car, we discover that the steering-column stalk we just engaged controls the windshield wipers, not the turn signals, as we merge into the passing lane at 100 mph. Quickly, very quickly, the mind focuses, senses go on high alert, and palms go damp as the German landscape, luxuriant in the textures of spring, goes by in a green blur.

Yes, we were in Germany to sample one of the year's most anticipated vehicles. The GT-R we drove there was a semidisguised preproduction car, but Nissan claims that, in dynamic terms, it was very close to production-spec. Our brief drive left us panting for more. (Go to to read about our drive of the production version shown here).

We were in Nürburg, where GT-R development engineers have spent months--and more than 3000 miles--on the Nordschleife, or north loop, of the original Nürburgring racetrack. Nissan has a rich history at the 'Ring, since the last-generation GT-R, the R34-series, held the production-car lap record (eight minutes, twenty-eight seconds) in the late 1990s.

When we arrived, back in April, Nissan reported that its new GT-R had achieved a time of 7:44 around the 12.9-mile track, but by September, it had been reduced to 7:38, beating the Porsche 911 Turbo's 7:40 and coming dangerously close to even the Porsche Carrera GT supercar's record of 7:32.

As soon as we climbed into the GT-R prototype, it was clear that this is a serious sports car, not simply a gussied-up 350Z trying to cash in on GT-R heritage. The well-bolstered seats are covered in black Alcantara fabric with a special antislip finish to keep your body in place during hard cornering. The steering wheel is small, like a racing car's, feels good in your hands, and is decorated with the famous GT-R logo. Our right-hand-drive car had a sizable dead pedal. The paddles for the six-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox are fixed to the steering column rather than to the steering wheel, just like they are in a Ferrari. Naturally, you start the GT-R with a red button that sits in the center console just behind the gearshift lever--no self-respecting performance car can be started with the simple twist of a key these days.

It's also immediately evident that technology is an important part of this car's package, as the center stack is a tech geek's dream. The large, multifunction display was designed in collaboration with Polyphony Digital, the company behind the Gran Turismo video games for Sony's PlayStation. The system, which has nine modes, can be accessed either by touching the screen or by twisting a knob. It will track speed; acceleration, cornering, and braking g-forces; steering angles; and lap times for two different drivers. It also shows the standard all-wheel-drive system's front-to-rear torque distribution, oil pressure, turbo boost, and the like, all in an intuitive and easy-to-use display. Three rocker switches in the center stack allow the driver to control the transmission's shift characteristics; adjust the suspension's dampers to Comfort, Sport, or Race mode; and turn off stability control.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

2008 Porsche 911 GT2 - Lean Mean Machine

In the case of the latest Porsche 911, the GT suffix stands for anything but Gran Turismo. Guaranteed Trauma is more like it, at least when the beast is not treated with due competence and caution. The new 911 GT2 combines elements of the GT3 (lightweight components, rear-wheel drive) and the Turbo (turbocharged engine, stability control), resulting in the fastest roadgoing Porsche ever.

The GT2 looks about as subtle as a smiling Count Dracula. The front end combines 911 Turbo overtones such as the bright LED turn signals with new extralarge air intakes that are required to cool the brakes and the heat exchangers. The side view features beefed-up sills, ground-hugging aprons, and a set of prominent intake and brake-cooling inlets. But the most butch view is, without a doubt, the rear, which boasts more vertical slats, a pair of large-diameter exhausts, and a fixed biplane wing. The latter increases the downforce at high speeds and incorporates two circular ram-air induction scoops.

On the autobahn, the GT2 sports as much overtaking prestige as police, fire department, and paramedic vehicles combined--with lights flashing and sirens wailing. When lesser cars step aside, the GT2 can reach 204 mph. But you want the tarmac to be dry, reasonably smooth, and--ideally--arrow-straight. And you'd better get used to the car's high-speed potential in installments. In this Porsche, even 150 mph feels mind-bogglingly fast.

The noise level is intense, the chassis copies every detail of the road surface, the steering is a live wire covered with gray Alcantara, and directional stability is a challenge even when the wind speed is zero.

But like every 911, this car knows what it's doing, and it requires surprisingly little assistance to maintain the chosen flight path. Trouble is, it takes the driver days, if not weeks, to build up the confidence this car requires. There is so much information available to the eyes, ears, palms, fingers, legs, feet, and seat of the pants that the senses are soon overloaded. Velocity is a drug, and like every drug, it clouds and clarifies at the same time. In the GT2, one needs to learn a fresh set of responses, because, unlike the Turbo, this 200-mph 911 has only two driven wheels. The lighter GT2 turns in with more vigor, decelerates with enhanced determination, and corners with added sharpness. Most important, rear-wheel drive will never pull you out of trouble. And we all know that pushing out of trouble seldom works.

Further narrowing the increasingly slim line between drama and trauma are the semislick Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tires. On dry blacktop, this footwear might make sense for rich amateur racers who don't mind buying a new set of rear tires every two months. Even in the rain, the 325/30YR-19 rear rubber is OK--until there are wall-to-wall puddles on the road. Then the GT2 suddenly starts water skiing, even at speeds as low as 60 mph. Would it not be a good idea to offer at least the option of less extreme tires?

So we didn't see 200 mph. But we out-accelerated just about every mechanical device that crossed our route. Over the first fifty yards or so, the 530-hp, 3175-pound GT2 is actually not quite as quick as the 480-hp, 3572-pound 911 Turbo Tiptronic. From 0 to 62 mph, it's a dead heat at 3.7 seconds each. From 0 to 124 mph, however, the rear-wheel-drive GT2 will beat the four-wheel-drive Turbo, clocking 11.2 seconds against 12.2 seconds. And by the time these autobahn guerrillas pass the 185-mph mark, the GT2 will have carved out an impressive advantage. On damp ground, the GT2 will spin its wheels in first and second gear, especially between 2200 and 4500 rpm, when maximum torque of 502 lb-ft comes in.

The closely related 3.6-liter 911 Turbo engine can deliver just as much torque, but it's available only for about ten seconds in over-boost mode.

Pimped MkV GTI vs. R32

In response to Volkswagen's amusing "Pre-Pimped" GTI MkV ad-campaign, one of our bright interns pointed out that half the fun of owning a VW is modifying it. He would know - he had a Mk3 GTI that he lowered. And he knew he'd earn brownie points from me, because I've had two VWs with so many modifications that a simple list of the upgrades would crash this Web server.

It didn't take long for me to wonder: if our Four Seasons GTI is so quick, what would a chipped MkV be like?

As I pondered that question, Koni showed up at our editorial offices to tell us of a new kit that they developed with Eibach. The kit consists of Koni's acclaimed FSD shocks and a pair of Eibach Pro lowering springs.

I asked Koni for a kit, and headed straight for our favorite VW shop, Next Level Tuning, in Greensburg, PA. In just a few hours, they had installed the Koni/Eibach kit, re-flashed the ECU with custom APR programming, and installed a boost gauge.

I slowly drove out of the shop, and then laid 200 feet of tire up the hill.

2008 Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell

A few years back, General Motors was talking a lot about hydrogen fuel cells. Now, they're back at it with the Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell, the company's biggest effort to date. You can't roll down to your Chevy dealer and buy one, though. You have to self-identify, and then GM has to pick you to participate in what it's calling Project Driveway. Chevy has already selected more than 100 customers who visited Chevy's Web site and live near one of the country's handful of hydrogen filling stations. They're given a car, along with fuel, free of charge.

But only for three months, when the cars will be passed on. It's a market test, GM says, a way to learn from the public's experience and to demonstrate that hydrogen cars make sense.

We drove a fuel-cell Equinox, and it was smooth like an electric car (which it is) and eerily quiet on the interstate. And it was clean (like an electric car is, in theory, although ultimately this depends on where one gets one's hydrogen; not all sources are totally green).

Chevy claims the 0-to-60-mph run takes twelve seconds, a performance figure that doesn't sound so pitiful to anyone who drove in the 1980s and which in fact doesn't do the car justice. The most impressive thing about this Equinox is how sprightly it steps off. Its handling seems similar to that of a stock Equinox, despite its extra 500 pounds and a regenerative braking system that charges the batteries when you lift off the accelerator or apply the brakes.

The Equinox is the third GM hydrogen car we've driven, and it's the best yet. It felt like a decent SUV, only quieter. All things being equal - a big if - we can't see why someone wouldn't buy one in preference to a gasoline Equinox.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

2008 Ford Taurus X

When Ford killed the Taurus nameplate in favor of the Five Hundred and Freestyle, they acknowledged that years of neglect had tarnished a once mighty brand. By the time the last ovoid rental-fleet Taurus rolled off the line, it was hard to remember that there was a time when the Taurus was so cool and futuristic that it was the police car of choice in RoboCop.

Upon the Taurus' demise, Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" declared, "Ford canceled the Taurus this week, which means that thirtysomethings everywhere are going to need to find a new way to tell the world that they've given up on life." When SNL bothers to make fun of your car, it's probably a sign that it's best buried for good. Just ask the Dodge Stratus.

But Ford apparently put the Taurus in the pet cemetery, because it's back from the dead and stalking the streets looking for vengeance. The main problem with the Five Hundred/Freestyle was that its powertrain consisted of boiled turnips and rubber bands. Now there's a powerful 3.5-liter V6 hooked to a proper six-speed automatic.

To my mind, this upgrade vaults the Taurus X into position as one of the most underrated cars on the road, and it's why I gave it an All-Stars vote-it's a fine car on merit alone, but it also offers crazy value. Think about it: A base Audi A6 Avant has 255 horsepower, all-wheel-drive and a six-speed automatic for $49,000. The top-of-the-line Taurus X AWD Limited has 263 horsepower, all-wheel-drive and a six-speed automatic for $32,185. Is it more amazing that a Taurus wagon compares favorably with an Audi, or that the Taurus is good enough to prompt that comparison in the first place?

The Taurus X also has useable third row seating. It's handsome, inside and out. It's quiet and refined. They call it a crossover, but the Taurus X is really the great American station wagon that nobody admits to making anymore. T

he Taurus' main problem is the jarring disconnect between its moniker and its virtues-it's a kindly philanthropist named Adolf, an angelic, brilliant valedictorian named Anna Nicole. If you really can't imagine driving a Taurus, then go buy some Freestyle badges. I'll bet they still fit.

2008 Ferrari F430

We've called the Ferrari F430 the best Ferrari ever, but it's not an All-Star? Seems like an oversight to me. Perhaps it's just a presumed All-Star, so we don't have to mention it. Everybody already knows it's great, so no point in piling on.

2008 Cadillac CTS

It's time someone cheered for the home team. Cadillac has traipsed the path of righteousness for nearly a decade, systematically phasing out to its soft-riding, fat-laden cruisers in favor of cars and trucks that combine smart design with functional behavior. Clearly, Cadillac has dug fun-to-drive out of the advertising muck to make it a top engineering priority.

The 2008 CTS is Cadillac's best work. Building on the best attributes of the first generation sport sedan, the new edition is striking to behold, entertaining to drive, and a legitimate threat to the evil imports. With more than 300 horses in its arsenal, the CTS now has the firepower to counter the best Audi, BMW, Infiniti, Jaguar, Lexus, and Mercedes have to offer for $40,000.

I'm most impressed by the CTS's steering and handling gains. Thanks to a stiffer unibody, a new German-sourced rack-and-pinion steering system, and astute chassis tuning, this Cadillac is always game for an impromptu back-road chase.

After my dream garage was duly loaded with a sports car for each day of the week, I'd make room for a CTS, the Cadillac with an itch to smite the bluebloods.

2008 Audi A5/S5

I'm an Audi fan, maybe even a little nutty about Audis. My first All-Star thought after BMW 3-series was Audi S5. I had just driven the S5 test car, but it was in the office the week everyone - but Joe Lorio and I - was at the Frankfurt auto show. We had it to ourselves for five days. Actually, I think I drove it the entire week. That must have been the problem. No other editor or freelance contributor had driven it.

No one else had the sumptuous experience of slipping in behind the wheel and seeing the exquisitely sculpted dash for which Audi designers have become renowned. Every instrument binnacle, every gauge, every button, every knob is a work of art, a purposeful expression of luxury and precision. The buttons are not only beveled, but rows of buttons are beveled in sync, creating a single organic sweep across the dash. The simplicity of the MMI controller and the neat array of four buttons around it belie the complexity of the electronic functions (audio, navigation, climate control, other vehicle systems) it so naturally manages.

No one else had experienced the fantastically supportive drivers' seats, the perfectly placed foot pedals, the sublime gearing of the six-speed manual transmission, and the rush of power from the 345-hp, DOHC thirty-two-valve aluminum V-8 engine. Blessed with permanent four-wheel-drive (the sort of four-wheel drive that has nothing to do with dirt roads and everything to do with maximum high-performance tarmac traction), the S5 can manage sub-five-second 0-60 mph times despite its nearly two-ton curb weight. It's fast like a freight train, gorgeously sleek, and wears its strikingly large chrome grille more confidently, more perfectly than any Audi before it.

It feels like it's worth about 50% more than its sub-$60,000 (loaded) tag.

This is the car for which I long. My Private All-Star.

2008 Aston Martin V8 Vantage

How can our 2007 Design of the Year not be an All-Star now? Simple economics. A few of our readers (and you know who you are, even if we don't) can afford to buy any car on sale anywhere in the world, maybe even two or three of them. But most readers are pretty much like us; you have tastes that exceed your pocketbook's ability to transform desire to reality. We do not let vehicle pricing have undue influence on our decisions, but we do keep in mind that there is true value in attainability. It is not surprising that long-term dwellers on the All-Star list - early Mazda Miatas and perpetually desirable 3-series BMWs come to mind - are affordable to a wide range of our readers and ourselves.

So we love the Aston V8 less than we did last year? How could we? It is still a delight to the eye, a visceral pleasure to drive and a joy to hear in full cry.

But it is also very expensive, well beyond the means of all of us and most of you. Should the All-Star roster include only Ferrari FXX track cars, Bugatti Veyrons and Maybach limousines? We don't think so, and we believe that you don't think so either. We will never exclude a car because it costs a lot, but we will not keep it as an All-Star year after year when there are so many economically viable choices we can collectively embrace.

The Aston Martin V8 deserved its awards and accolades last year, and it merits our approval now. But it is not - it cannot be - an All-Star again this year. "Been there, done that, got the T-shirt" is a pretty profound philosophical statement if you really think about it.

All the same, we love the V8, we still want one, but we still can't have one. So it's not an All-Star this year. So there.

Nissan Altima Hybrid

Ann Arbor If the Accord Hybrid--Honda's quickest Accord--is the athlete of mid-size hybrid sedans and the Toyota Camry, with its technology-laden cabin and fuel-sipping efficiency, is the brainiac, then the new Altima Hybrid strives to be the multitalented golden child who pleases everyone. Everyone, that is, in the low-emissions states in which it will be sold: California, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, Vermont, and Rhode Island.

Unlike the lavishly equipped Honda and Toyota, the Altima Hybrid sacrifices standard equipment to keep its base price at about $22,000. Since Nissan borrowed its hybrid components from Toyota, the Altima can accelerate to nearly 40 mph using only electricity (key words: pedal finesse), just like the Camry Hybrid. Yet the 2.5-liter gasoline four outpowers the Camry's, and an estimated EPA city rating of 41 mpg is tops in this class.

The Altima's chassis is compliant on smooth, winding roads, but with an extra306 pounds of hybrid equipment to carry, the suspension stumbles over rough pavement and sometimes floats on the freeway. After some initial harshness at low speeds, the engine and the electric motors work in harmony with the slick, silent, planetary-type CVT, culminating in a surge of impressive passing power.

The Altima continues to make ground on the Camry and the Accord, but with borrowed components and a limited distribution area, the Altima Hybrid isn't exactly a tour de force

Mercedes-Benz CL65 AMG

You would think the ultra-lavish Mercedes Benz CL600, with all its bells, whistles, and 612 lb-ft of torque, would be enough to satisfy your average guy with a mild God complex and a grossly oversized bankroll. But is it?

For those fiends of power and decadence whose hankerings measure off the charts, Mercedes-Benz outright denigrates its top-tier two-door coupe with the new, scary-fast CL65. And adding those three, magical letters--AMG--the big rear-drive coupe catapults itself into a land of stratospheric power.

Its heartblood is pumped via a colossal 6.0-liter, twin-turbo V-12 yielding 604 horsepower and a frightening 738 lb-ft of torque. Good luck to the asphalt under its wheels--much less the wheels themselves--when peak torque hits at 2000 rpm and doesn't show mercy until about 4000.
With that, Benz claims this 5000-lb behemoth thrusts itself from zero to sixty mph in 4.2 seconds, making the CL65 AMG the automotive equivalent of a Defensive Tackle with the speed of a Cornerback.

Naturally, you have to ask yourself: Should something this large be able to move this fast? Regardless of your answer, momentum such as this must be handled with the utmost respect. And for that respect, the CL65 will pay you back big time, starting with the low, guttural hum of churning pistons--a sign of things to come.

That's when we enter the freeway, where vast stretches can, if you choose, be covered in an unreasonably short measurement of time. Passing is like taking candy from a baby: stab the pedal with your right foot and you go from being a blur in someone's periphery to an ink dot on the horizon quicker than you can say "Aufrecht! Melcher! Grossaspach!"

In a flat out, unrestricted run, the CL65 is geared to reach a harrowing 212 mph. But that point remains moot as all AMGs, including this one, are electronically limited to 155 mph.All of this energy feeds to an older five-speed automatic instead of the CL's more familiar seven-speed transmission. The 65's enormous torque output renders the two additional gears, for the most part, needless.

But it was driving this CL on the twisty canyon roads north of Los Angeles that revealed an interesting dichotomy of form and function. What you have is an agile, sport-like ride with spot-on steering and virtually no body roll. In short, it handles like a $200,000 super coupe should, thanks primarily to a revised suspension consisting of firm AMG struts and Benz's Active Body Control.

2008 BMW M3 Convertible

Just when we thought we'd heard all that BMW had to say during the 2008 Detroit auto show, the company confirmed that a convertible will be joining the M3 lineup. The car's official unveiling will take place at the Geneva show in early March.

A convertible M3 is nothing new, nor are we surprised that one will be arriving on the E93 platform. All three previous M3 generations have been available topless, two of which were brought to the U.S. market. This is, however, the first M3 to get a retractable hardtop in its convertible form.

Based on the 3-series hardtop convertible, the droptop M3 features the same 414-hp V-8 engine as the coupe and sedan. The M team has made improvements to the convertible to improve torsional stiffness, and they've fitted the car with unique suspension tuning.

Convertible-specific features include the same special leather that debuted on the 3-series hardtop convertible. The seats resist heating from the sun's rays when the car is in direct sunlight with the top down. An automatic climate control system that monitors outdoor temperature and sunlight is also standard.

But wait, that's not all. BMW also took the opportunity to tell us about the long-rumored dual-clutch automated manual transmission that will be an option on all three M3 variants. It's called M DCT (for dual-clutch transmission) and has seven speeds like BMW's single-clutch SMG that's an option on the M5 and M6. The M DCT should fix the jerkiness problems seen with the SMG and not only improve everyday comfort but performance as well.

The new gearbox has a system called Drivelogic that allows drivers to select from eleven different shift programs. There are five automatic and six manual programs, including one with launch control that takes advantage of all of the onboard electronics to make you look good in front of your friends.

To keep things smooth - and to hear the roar of the 8400-rpm engine - the transmission will blip the throttle between downshifts if necessary. When a manual program is selected, race-style shift lights illuminate above the tachometer to inform the driver of the optimum shift point. Gears can be selected either by the console-mounted shift lever or paddles behind the steering wheel.

So how quickly does this thing shift? There is a consistent two tenths of a second improvement on 0-to-62 mph times over the standard six-speed manual on all three M3 body styles. The convertible makes the dash in 5.1 seconds (versus 5.3 for the manual) and the coupe - the quickest of the M3 range - gets to 62 mph in 4.6 seconds when equipped with the M DCT.

If you must have all-out speed and wind in your hair, this may be the car for you. Since the convertible adds weight and becomes more flexy, we'll stick with the fixed-roof coupe or sedan M3s. Just make sure it has the slick new transmission.

2008 Saleen S302E Sterling Edition

Saleen Automotive is celebrating its twenty-fifth year in business by offering the first $100,000 new, nonracing Ford Mustang - the Sterling Edition S302E. The "302" refers to the 5.0-liter V-8's cubic-inch displacement, which was achieved by stroking the Mustang's stock twenty-four valve, 4.6-liter mill. An intercooled, twin-screw supercharger and reinforced internal components help the revised engine produce a mind-blowing 620 hp at an enhanced 6400 rpm and 600 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm. Saleen reports a 0-to-60-mph time of less than four seconds - about a second quicker than the 500-hp Ford Shelby GT500.

All S302Es will feature a six-speed manual transmission, twenty-inch wheels, and we-mean-business brakes. All those Benjamins also get you a custom-trimmed interior with nicely done leather and Alcantara seats, a sterling silver (yet tacky) serial-number badge, and a push-button starter. Unique touches on the exterior include beautiful silver paint, carbon-fiber front and rear diffusers, a Gone in 60 Seconds Eleanor-like face, and an aluminum hood.

Still, this Saleen doesn't feel or look like a $100,000 car. Exclusivity is a big part of the equation, though, since only twenty-five S302Es will be built. Buyers also receive a custom leather jacket (probably not Members Only, but it'll do) and a first-class plane ticket to Detroit, where they'll tour the factory (where the car was unveiled in January 2008) and dine with a Saleen executive.

For the man or woman who has everything, perhaps a six-figure Mustang makes sense. But we can think of a lot of other cars on which we'd rather blow $100 grand

Thursday, January 17, 2008

2008 Aston Martin DBS

The differences between a sports car and a GT car are subtle but undeniable. In the way it looks, the way it sounds, and the way it feels, a sports car telegraphs a message of outright performance. If you drive a car to its absolute limit down a challenging road and find yourself grinning from ear to ear, chances are you're in a sports car, something like a Lotus Elise or a Ferrari F430. A GT car's mission, on the other hand, is to provide effortless performance, driving pleasure, and comfort over long journeys driven at triple-digit speeds. During a drive from, say, London to the south of France, you should be able to remain relaxed yet inspired behind the wheel, while your passenger should feel pampered and at ease. Aston Martin does GT cars as well as any automaker. Its DB9 coupe features a powerful twelve-cylinder engine, a cosseting cabin, and gorgeous, understated styling. But now Aston has a new top-of-the-line model, the DBS. So, is it a GT, or is it a sports car?

When you first glance at the DBS--and at its spec sheet--you might think that it's a full-on sports car. After all, the DBS is adorned with all the typical sports car styling cues, including scoops and vents and a carbon-fiber front splitter and rear diffuser. European buyers can even specify sport seats with a carbon-fiber shell that help the car shed an additional 44 pounds. The DBS's V-12 sends 510 hp--60 hp more than the DB9--through a six-speed manual gearbox. To help stop it from its nearly 200-mph top speed, the DBS gets carbon-ceramic brake rotors, a first for a roadgoing Aston. At the Frankfurt auto show in September, Aston Martin CEO Ulrich Bez bragged about the DBS's lap times around the Nrburgring. Despite all the exotic hardware, however, when we saw the new DBS at Frankfurt, we couldn't stop thinking that it looks pretty much like a DB9 with a body kit. A rather good-looking and superbly executed body kit, to be sure. But perhaps our first drive of the top Aston would dispel such notions.

Slide the DBS's substantial sapphire and stainless steel key--sorry, the Emotion Control Unit, as Aston Martin insists on calling it--into the slot above the radio and hold it in for what seems like an eternity. The V-12 lights up, and you're greeted with an intoxicating exhaust note--part deep bass, part metallic riff--that makes you want to search out every tunnel within 100 miles just to hear the sound reverberate against the walls. Blip the throttle a few more times, and you'll be hooked. Dip the light clutch, notch the comically large shift knob into first gear, and pull away. As you ease into a pace where you're driving at seven- or eight-tenths, the sound of the V-12, the incredibly strong and responsive brakes, and the precise gearbox tell you that this is one impressive car. But when you really push the DBS on twisty and bumpy roads, the Aston shows that it's not the true sports car you were led to believe it would be. Sure, the twenty-inch Pirellis provide massive amounts of grip, but no matter what setting you choose for the adjustable dampers--another first for Aston--body control is lacking. The DBS feels big and heavy, not light and lithe, when you really hammer it.

Our disappointment with the DBS's behavior on France's back roads was just settling in when we came upon the entrance to the autoroute. This is where the Aston comes into its own: at 130 mph and beyond through the smooth sweepers of the French highway system, the DBS's V-12 calls on gloriously deep torque reserves yet revs freely to its 6800-rpm fuel cutoff. The steering and chassis both feel perfectly calibrated for such conditions, and it becomes evident that the DBS is an extremely good GT car. But so is the DB9, which costs a cool hundred grand less than the DBS, and therein lies the rub. If you need more proof of the DBS's GT character, look no further than the fact that Aston Martin will offer the DB9's smooth automatic transmission as an option later this year.

If we could build the ultimate Aston Martin, we'd plug the engine and the exhaust system from the DBS into a standard DB9, a car whose subtle, elegant styling perfectly reflects the character of an Aston. But there are surely some Aston Martin buyers who want a car that is more extroverted, and the DBS fits the bill. There also is no doubt that the DBS is a good (read: profitable) short-term business move for an automaker that is now independent of Ford. We're all for Aston Martin's future profitability, we just wish the DBS were less of a bejeweled DB9 and more of a true flagship for the British company, especially for $265,000.

2009 Toyota Corolla and Toyota Matrix

While we weren't watching, the Toyota Corolla became the modern Model T. Since the nameplate was coined in 1966, the Corolla has invaded 142 countries and evolved through nine model changes. More than 30 million have been sold, eclipsing both Ford's T (15 million) and Volkswagen's Beetle (21.5 million).

To celebrate the Corolla's fortieth birthday in the United States, its steadfast compact-class domination, and its second-place standing (after the Camry) in the Toyota lineup, a tenth-generation Corolla and Corolla-based Matrix arrive this spring.
The new duo comprises two body styles, five trim levels, two engines, and three transmissions. While the Corolla sedan continues with front-wheel drive only, the Matrix hatchback offers front- or optional all-wheel drive

The only significant dimensional changes are two-plus-inch increases in the sedan's width and wheel tracks, which boost hip and shoulder room a bit. Cargo room is down slightly for both cars, while base curb weight is up by 200 or more pounds. Underneath, there are struts suspending the front wheels and a rudimentary torsion beam carrying the rears (except in the Matrix XRS and the four-wheel-drive Matrix S, which ride on a more sophisticated multilink rear suspension). Electrically assisted rack-and-pinion steering and ABS are standard across the board.

The best news is a base 1.8-liter DOHC four-cylinder engine. Teamed with a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic, it delivers 30 mpg (EPA combined) in the Corolla and slightly less in the Matrix. The more muscular 2.4-liter DOHC four-cylinder powering the Corolla XRS and the Matrix S and XRS is a Camry hand-me-down that cranks out 158 hp. It's mated to a five-speed (automatic or manual) with front-wheel drive and a four-speed automatic with all-wheel drive.

2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 Preview

Every year there's a car that captures the hearts and attention of
This is the one that the crowds have been waiting for. It's the Return of the King. (Photo: Chevrolet)attendees at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Over the past couple of years, it's varied from Detroit's muscle revival to international solutions attempting to solve environmental concerns. This year, the star of the show looks to be the Chevrolet Corvette ZR1, America's addition to the list of world's fastest supercars.

What better way to start engineering a supercar than by basing it off a super car. The new ZR1 will share the same basic chassis and structure as the Z06, which in itself is a force to be reckoned with in the sports car world. Its hydroformed aluminum frame and magnesium engine cradle are carried over, but there are many major changes made to transform the Z06 into the ultimate supercar you see on these pages. Carbon fiber is the building material of choice when it comes to exotics, and the ZR1 has its fair share. While some of the car still contains the traditional fiberglass, there's a lot more of the extra-stiff weave. Besides offering stiffness without the premium of weight – the savings on the roof and roof supports alone save 15 pounds – it's also a feast for the eyes.

There's a lot of Carbon fiber galore... and it wasn't cheap for GM. (Photo: Chevrolet)woven composite on display, gracing its roof and surrounding the car in a thin, downforce-generating lip, plus some that is covered in paint such as the hood and the front fenders. To protect what's subjected to the elements, one of GM's suppliers whipped up a special coating to the tune of $2,000 per gallon to prevent the brilliant weave from yellowing or dulling.

Under the pricey skin the ZR1 makes its power the American way, with a small-block V8 engine. Unlike the original ZR-1 which featured a Lotus-developed V8 with quad cams and four valves per cylinder, the new ZR1 features pushrods to actuate its valves. But the thing about the ZR1 is that its engine isn't as big as the one featured in the Z06. The new LS9 engine measures in at only 6.2 liters versus the LS7's 7.0. The difference and the supercar-crushing power comes from the addition of a big (2.3-liter!) Roots-type supercharger from Eaton that is bolted on with a liquid-to-air charge cooler system to feed cool, fresh air into the engine.

Because superchargers are friction-based and drive off the engine, they consume power at full throttle. Eaton's new four-lobe supercharger rotor design is more efficient than its previous three-lobe design; it actually cuts back a significant amount of drag. Instead of sucking back 120 horsepower's worth of energy, the new system only consumes 80 hp. Aside from much stronger internals to deal with the extra power and the 10.5 psi boost of the supercharger, the ZR1's engine also receives dry-sump lubrication. Like the Z06's engine, the LS9 is built in Wixom, Michigan, by hand.

2009 Hyundai Genesis Preview

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of the word “genesis” is
as follows: the origin or coming into being of something. There couldn't be a better name or a more apt description of Hyundai's new flagship vehicle than Genesis. For years Hyundai has upped its game, focusing on quality, durability and reliability, and has succeeded. Now it's confident enough in its progress to charge into previously uncharted territory. This brand, which wasn't even much more than a bottom feeder in North America some twenty years ago, is now a major threat to the biggest and most established players in the industry. So, it's going to be a very important occasion when this brand launches its flagship car, a vehicle that will no doubt set the standard for affordable luxury.

The image that Hyundai has been building up recently has been more refined and sophisticated, and for its flagship? The styling, well, it's easy on the eyes, but it isn't exactly distinctive. From the front, there's a lot of Mercedes-Benz S-Class in the grille and quite a bit of Lexus LS 460 in the headlamps. From the side, it sort of looks like an Infiniti G, and from the rear there are hints of BMW 5- and 7-Series. Mind you, the fact that Hyundai
is drawing from some of the best-known brands in the luxury sector is no bad thing, it's just that the car doesn't have much Hyundai design character to it.

To be fair, however, after about 20 years of sales success, Toyota's Lexus division only just started offering cars with unique styling, with its initial cars paying much homage to Mercedes-Benz. Still, at least Lexus made it possible to distinguish its brand identity when an ES or LS was traveling toward you. To further confuse onlookers as to what the Genesis is, you probably have noticed that it's completely unbadged from the front. This is sure to raise questions. As one of our staff pointed out, what sort of flagship is too embarrassed to wear the company logo? This is the equivalent to a famous painter intentionally not signing his or her masterpiece, a mistake Hyundai previously made with its XG300 and 350, corrected with the Azera. A small, discreet badge centered on the grille's topmost chrome strip would be enough, and help change Hyundai's image on the street when pedestrians catch sight of the car while walking by.A different tone is set by the Genesis' interior, and a much more impressive one at that. The first thing that will catch most people's eyes is something that isn't found on any other Hyundai – a navigation screen. This will be the first Hyundai offered here in North America to get one, and bodes well for other Hyundai models that are currently lacking this feature. A series of controls sits below the screen, a similar layout to what can be found in the Infiniti G and M, although these controls do not operate the hi-fi system and navigation. To control these, Hyundai has conjured up its own version of iDrive, which is mounted behind the shifter.

We'll have
to wait to test it in order to judge how easy the system is to use. Next up, you'll find that there's a lot of quality material in the car. Hyundai has escalated its fit and finish and materials over the years, but this is set to be the finest car that they've made. The dashboard, door panels and other areas of trim are covered in leather, and stitched to create a first-class impression, and yes, there's plenty of authentic wood and aluminum trim too. Alhough Hyundai will compete against the Pontiac G8 and Chrysler 300 when it comes to pricing, it's got Lexus, BMW and Mercedes-Benz in its targets, and has engineered the Genesis to be competitive even though it will be priced tens of thousands of dollars cheaper than its rivals. The Genesis is Hyundai's first rear wheel drive car for North America, so they've developed it completely from scratch. Its body structure, constructed from high tensile steel, is reportedly more rigid yet lighter than a 5-Series or an E-Class, despite the fact that it's physically a much bigger car. Besides being rear wheel drive, the Genesis also features a five-link, multi-link rear
suspension and will be available with adaptive damping to deliver a supple yet sporty ride. How sporty? According to Hyundai Director, Product Planning Wayne Killen, discussing the car on the show floor with our exec editor Trevor Hofmann, the Genesis fits right in between the 5-Series and E-Class, with tighter handling that would be more appreciated by BMW drivers, adding, it's more Infiniti M than Lexus GS, if the Euro comparo wasn't enough. This certainly will have to be experienced first hand. The Genesis comes standard with 17-inch wheels, while 18-inchers are an option.The highlight of the Genesis is the brand new Tau V8 engine, and although it isn't the first V8 offered by for the brand (a previous, Korean domestic market car built with Mitsubishi offered V8-power), this is the first V8 the brand will be selling here in North America. The 32-valve engine is stated to make 368 horsepower and 324 lb-ft of torque. And if the thought of a Hyundai hitting 60 mph in less than six seconds isn't impressive enough, the fact that it's capable of doing all of this yet still running on regular unleaded should. If premium fuel is used, output is said to jump to 375 horsepower. You'll be seeing more of the Tau engine in the future, as Hyundai has designed it to be modular and to accept new technologies like forced aspiration and direct injection. The Tau's power and torque are connected to the rear wheels via a ZF six-speed gearbox with manual mode, the same transmission found in many high-end luxury cars.

Being that not everyone wants or needs V8 power, the Genesis will also be available with two alternative V6 engines, both of which are from the Lambda family. The sixes offer more power than the current versions of the same displacement they're derived from, thanks to revisions to their variable intake manifolds and the addition of advanced continuously variable valve timing. The midrange engine is the 3.8-liter V6 now found in the Azera and Veracruz, although in Genesis trim it puts out an impressive 290 horsepower and 264 lb-ft of torque. The entry level Genesis is powered by a smaller 3.3-liter V6 engine, currently available in the Sonata, Santa Fe and Veracruz, but for the Genesis it will make 268 horsepower and 233 lb-ft of torque - most likely these upgraded V6s will replace the current versions throughout the range; the smallest engine will most likely not make it to North America, mind you. And this is a big leap forward in performance, considering that the Azera's current 3.8-liter V6 makes 263 horsepower and the 3.3 puts out a max of 242. Like the V8, the V6 is linked to a six-speed automatic, unlike the current five-speed unit, although it is supplied by Aisin rather than ZF. Now that I'm talking Azera, it's important to note that the Genesis was not designed to replace the current front-wheel drive flagship, but to complement it. The Azera will continue on due to strong sales and it's ability to reach a different type of client than the Genesis will attract, kind of like how Lexus captures a larger share of the midsize luxury market with its ES 350 and LS 350 models.If luxury is defined by toys, the Genesis could very well be at the top of the heap. It has all the usual accoutrements like heated and ventilated seats, proximity sensing keyless access with pushbutton start, adaptive xenon headlamps and even an HD
Radio as standard equipment. Still, as impressive a list as this is, it's the less noticeable details that count for more in this game. Take for instance the leather on the steering wheel, which has been treated with UV-reflective dyes so that the surface doesn't become too hot to touch. If music is an important part of your drive the Genesis could be the car for you, as it can be had with an upgraded sound system that showcases 17 Lexicon speakers that are fed info from the Harman/Kardon Logic7 receiver with music selected from the six-disc CD player, the 30 gb hard drive, or your iPod via a USB slot.

Logic7 can be found in some of the world's finest cars, like the Range Rover, S-Class and 7-Series. Lexicon speakers can only be found in what's widely regarded as the finest luxury sedan in the world, the Rolls-Royce Phantom. And soon, of course, the Genesis. If it is possible to capture a brand's will and desire in automotive form, the Genesis is Hyundai's. Although it represents a standard never before seen in a Korean car, it has not lost forgotten the brand's core value proposition, delivering bang for the buck. The new Genesis will start at under $30,000 dollars, and will have an industry-leading warranty. Its introduction in Detroit will no doubt be a proud moment, but the real success will be when customers get behind the wheel and drive it this summer. We certainly look forward to doing likewise.

2008 Toyota 4Runner SR5 Sport Road Test

The wind, the snow, the cold, the reduced visibility, the snow... did I mention the snow? Contrary to our Northwest office, which has seen above seasonal temperatures and is currently having a Green Christmas, we here in the Midwest most certainly aren't. Old Man Winter is out in full force, and it's been quite some time since I've seen a storm like this. Well, to be honest, it wasn't that long ago - last week - that the weather was this frightful, but it's never a worry when you're in something as sturdy, as capable and as dead reliable as Toyota's 4Runner.

4Runners are hearty machines, tough, well-built and well-engineered. Little has changed conceptually since they first hit the market in the mid '80s, which might have a little something to do with this fact. So, the two-door body style isn't around anymore (it's been absent since '92, and there aren't any plans to bring it back), but the body-on-frame structure has lasted (it's significantly more modern though, with frame rails that are fully boxed for improved rigidity), and has its proper four wheel drive system, transfer case and solid rear axle. This latest 4Runner shares its underpinnings with a great number of different SUVs and pickup trucks, ranging from the Lexus GX / Land Cruiser Prado to the FJ Cruiser, some of the best off roading vehicles in the world. In fact, when you're at the far stretches of the earth, the vehicles you're most likely to see are Toyotas, and relatives of the 4Runner no less.

This year, Toyota has consolidated the range for 4Runners into fewer models. Both the V6 and V8 are available in SR5, Sport and Limited guises. V6 models outfitted with the Sport package are well worth the extra $4,585. It's much more than an appearance package which is the case for most Toyota products, as it includes bigger wheels and tires, a front skid plate, bigger brakes and a host of little features, but most importantly it includes the wonderful X-REAS suspension system. Unfortunately, it also features a really dorky fake hood scoop. Just about the only thing missing from the 4Runner is the availability of a heated seat on the cloth-trimmed buckets. Mind you, with cloth, the seats don't get as cold to begin with, so Toyota's reasoning for excluding them is understandable.

When snow covers the ground, it's usually playtime when it comes to vehicles - but not for the 4Runner. To it, slippery stuff is serious business. Under these conditions, it's easy to see the advantadoing so, and it also helps prevent the back end from slipping out easily even when rounding slight corners. With the exception of when the vehicle is in low-range settings, VSC stability control will always remain on. Even with traction control disengaged, VSC will kick in and prevent the tires from slipping, getting it out of slippery situations

For the time well being, as it stands, the 4Runner is a fantastic SUV. While change may be inevitable, there is something to be said for tried and tested techniques and equipment. Importantly, Toyota has built its name building tough as nails vehicles like this one. So don't let its classic suspension and tough physical demeanor get in your way of your consideration, as this is a seriously good SUV

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Futuristic Volvo C30 hits the road

It’s the most shocking new Volvo ever launched… And Auto Express is first behind the wheel. Part electric dream and part biofuel-powered hatchback, the C30 Recharge is the Swedish firm’s vision of the future, and it could go on sale as early as 2012.

Not content with building some of the safest cars on the road, bosses have created the Recharge as part of an effort to make the greenest, too.The newcomer is best described as an advanced hybrid, with power coming from four electric motors mounted in the wheels. However, unlike some other hi-tech concepts, this one promises some serious advantages.

That’s because the energy to propel the car comes from three distinct sources. Rather than relying solely on battery power, the C30 Recharge also has a 1.6-litre biodiesel under the bonnet. This is attached to a large alternator to give an extra boost to the power systems. There’s no physical link between the engine and wheels, however; only an electrical one.

The engine can therefore be run at its most efficient point to make power, rather than being forced to run to the very top of its rev range to provide forward motion. This not only improves real-world performance but also the kind of punch the electric motors need to keep up with fast-moving traffic.

Detroit 2008: 2009 Saturn Vue 2 Mode Hybrid

In 2006, the Saturn Vue Green Line became General Motors’ first production hybrid vehicle when it debuted with the company’s mild hybrid system. In fall 2007, a updated BAS-equipped Green Line version based on the second-generation Vue went into production.

GM has now added the second of three hybrid variants to the Vue lineup with the2009 Saturn Vue Green Line 2 Mode. The 2 Mode Vue is based on the same technology used in the award-winning Tahoe and Yukon full-size SUVs. The Vue has the first transverse mounted front-wheel drive application of the 2 Mode system.

The 2 Mode transmission is paired up in the Vue with GM’s 3.6L twin-cam V6 equipped with direct fuel injection. Like the big SUVs, the engine is equipped with a cylinder deactivation system that allows it to run on three cylinders under light load conditions. The combination of the advanced hybrid system and the V6 helps maintain the V6 Vue’s 3,500 tow rating while still achieving a fifty percent boost in urban fuel economy. There’s more on the 2 Mode Vue over at AutoblogGreen.

Gallery: Detroit 2008: 2009 Saturn Vue 2-Mode Hybrid
DETROIT – The all-new 2009 Saturn Vue Green Line 2 Mode, the first front-wheel-drive compact SUV in the world powered by General Motors’ two-mode hybrid technology, is designed for customers who want the outstanding fuel savings of an advanced hybrid and the full power and towing capability of an SUV. The Vue Green Line 2 Mode was unveiled today at the North American International