Sunday, January 24, 2010

Honda CR-Z

Recently a CarReview reader commented that he didn’t understand why the Honda Accord continued to make everyone’s ‘Best Choices’ list when the design and drivetrain appeared relatively conventional. The answer is execution and detail engineering. A car is more than the sum of its parts. Behind the wheel you realize that at its core Honda is an engineering company and knows how to make exceptional products – even the seemingly mundane volume selling sedans.

That said, what standout engineering and technology has Honda offered lately? Where’s the new VTEC? Or the lauded double wishbone suspension? The 2010 Fit was listed as one of CarReview’s ‘Best Choices” and is the current standard for packaging efficiency. The upcoming CR-Z is poised to be a similar dramatic hit. Drawing on the storied 80s and 90’s CRX styling, the Honda CR-Z will blend packaging efficiency and an innovative hybrid drivetrain to add a sporting flair previously unseen in hybrids. Honda’s engineering mojo is back and the CR-Z has many enthusiasts waiting in the wings for this sporty urban runabout.

Cadillac CTS Coupe

Every company needs a halo car. Lexus finally has its LFA. Mercedes has its SLS. Audi has the R8. GM has… the Corvette? GM has been struggling with the halo concept for years and has desperately tried to place it within its premium Cadillac brand. Starting with the misunderstood Allante and the recently cancelled XLR, GM and Cadillac desperately need something to get people into Cadillac showrooms. It has to be beautiful. It has to be powerful. It has to be well engineered and it has to be right for the times. The CTS Coupe, in base high-tech V6 or V-Series supercharged V8 form is that car. In the metal it is achingly beautiful and the thoughtful engineering that comes from the thorough engineering behind the sedan shines though.

Audi A4 S4

"Now," says the serene Audi chassis engineer sitting alongside me in the S4, pressing a button on the dash, "you shall understeer."

Through the rain, we pile into a tight left-hander on the drenched Mallorcan race circuit. Sure enough, the S4's nose pushes wide, resisting any effort to be wrestled into oversteer. Sensible. Locked down. Audi-ish.

"See?" continues the engineer in impassive Teutonic monotone. He presses the button a couple more times. "Now you shall oversteer."

We hit a similarly tight-radius right-hander, and the S4 launches sideways into a lurid, tail-happy drift. A fraction before we reach that critical backwards-into-barrier moment, the rear end catches, and the S4 barrels out on to the straight. Most un-Audi.

It's quite a party trick, and one that rapidly dispels TG's biggest criticism of the old S4: that it simply wasn't engaging enough to justify the premium over a top-spec diesel A4.

But this is the all-new S4, and that magical button is controlling Audi's new 'drive select' system which adjusts the steering, dampers and, most importantly, the quattro's new 'sport differential'. Similar to the torque vectoring on the BMW X6, it varies the amount of torque distributed to each driven wheel. Audi calls it 'inverse ESP' - instead of braking a spinning wheel, the diff pumps more power to the wheel that can use it best.

In 'Comfort' mode, it's set to safety-first understeer, but in 'Dynamic' mode - and in the right road conditions - it'll let you get quite spectacularly crossed up before deciding to put a halt to all the fun.

It's a similarly bipolar story with the engine: Audi has ditched its tried-and-tested V8 in favour of an all-new supercharged 3.0-litre V6. Power is fractionally down on the old S4 - 328bhp plays 339bhp - but torque is up by 22lb ft to a mighty respectable 324lb ft. That's good news for acceleration - the S4's 0-62mph time is down to 5.1 seconds, a full half-second quicker than the previous generation - and even better news for economy, up to 29.1mpg from 21.2mpg. That's nigh-on BMW M3 pace with 40 per cent more economy, and vital ammunition against those who feel it might not be in the best taste to launch a big new petrol supersaloon into the current climate.

Sadly, the new V6 just isn't as visceral as an M3's V8 - or, for that matter, the V8 it replaces. Despite a pleasingly off-beat thrum at idle, the engine is subtle and muted at any revs, the supercharger whine registering as little more than a whispering hiss.

That's in keeping with the performance, though. There's a silky smooth delivery of power throughout the rev range - no hammer-blow of torque, but instead a flat, urgent, linear wave of acceleration. It's the sort of engine that lulls you unwarily into triple figures rather than scares the bejesus out of you.

Volkswagen Scirocco

Difficult to buy anything these days without some sort of phony justification, isn't it? That big leather sofa you just bought? Well it was half price, so you had to. And that flatscreen telly? You'd lost the remote for your old one...

So how do you justify buying a quick petrol coupe in a high-ish tax band, at a time when the economy is flat on its arse and you can barely afford loo roll?

Easy, just put a diesel in it. Which is what VW has done with the Scirocco, therefore making it more accessible to more people. OK, so shoving a diesel in a desirable car is nothing new, but we're pleased one made it into a Scirocco - our Car of the Year 2008.

You get all the gorgeousness of the petrol version, with just a little less guilt and a few more notes in your wallet. Some might say that the 'Roc should stay pure to petrol, and that giving it a diesel somehow dilutes its brand.

It doesn't. It's obviously not as quick as the 2.0-litre TSI, which don't forget is just a Golf GTi in disguise, but it's just as sharp and certainly not slow. Throttle response is about as instant as it gets in a diesel, and it pulls quickly and cleanly through the gears - feeling more powerful than its quoted 138bhp and 236lb ft.

Yes, the driver in you will probably always want the petrol. But just remember, this one's 500 quid cheaper, two tax bands lower and cheaper to run. What more justification do you need?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Mazda CX-7

The 2.2-litre engine is taken from a Mazda6. On first impressions, it's a bit gravelly around the edges, but improves as you get going. There's a sharp clatter when it first fires, which smoothes as things warm up. It can bog down after upshifts and gearchanges aren't satisfyingly sweet, but stick to third and fourth and it soon feels more energetic.

Like the outgoing version, it drives more like a regular car than an SUV. The high floor and low-ish roof keep you neatly sandwiched so it doesn't feel porky. It also hides its size on the move as the independent (front) and multilink (rear) suspension does its thing. The result it a comfortable ride that isn't lollopy and can handle some pace.

But to chatter on about engines and handling rather avoids the big story here: the options list, or rather, the lack of it. Instead, you get everything as standard - full leather seats (heated and electric), cruise, electric folding mirrors, Bluetooth, a rear-view parking camera and satnav. The Bluetooth's voice recognition system may require your very best accent and the wheel-mounted satnav buttons are trickier than a jumbo's flight deck, but those are the sort of things you'll master as you absorb the car into your life.

More importantly, Mazda will charge you £25,785 for it. To equip rivals in a similar fashion - stuff like the Land Rover Freelander or perhaps the BMW X1 - you'd have to dip into £30k territory. Admittedly the materials aren't as plush as BMW's, but the CX-7 is hardly shoddy. It's like the difference between an M&S pullover and a cashmere sweater - both are quite posh and they definitely beat a cheap shiny one from Primark.

The exterior design changes can be dealt with swiftly as they are barely worth the effort: a bigger grille, a splash more chrome here and there, a bigger spoiler and a new wheel design.

Porsche Boxster Spyder

California, especially the northern bit, is purpose-built for driving romantics. Out here, you're the star in your own private movie.

It's happening right now, though we might have inadvertently cast ourselves in the wrong film. We're on the edge of the Sierra de Salinas mountain range, near Carmel Valley, where Clint Eastwood used to be mayor. There are vast tracts of farmland either side of us, with one long, bendy road spearing through the middle. We're in Porsche's new flyweight Boxster Spyder, which weighs 1,275kg. This isn't just 80kg lighter than the regular Boxster S, it makes it the lightest model in the current Porsche range. With 320bhp on tap, the power-to-weight ratio is what you might call promising.

There's a big, blue sky above us, and an orangey winter sun. We're following another Boxster Spyder, whose exhaust emits a fruity Porsche parp as its driver works his way through the 'box. Its back tyres kick up little curlicues of dust as it runs momentarily wide. Romantic, see?

Overtaking out here isn't the teeth-gnashing lottery that is, say, junction 19 of the M25 on a wet Wednesday evening. In fact, in 20 minutes we see just one other vehicle. Unfortunately, it's a vehicle that happens to be about 60ft long, and has mad Jack McMad behind the wheel with only his shotgun and whatever the US version of the Yorkie bar is for company.

Porsche no.1 blasts past. Porsche no.2 finds a 32-tonne artic in the middle of the road to be something of an impediment. We hang back, and lay off the fruity parping for a bit. He moves back over. But we've seen Duel enough times to wonder what's next. Do we really want to play chicken with a big rig? Maybe this guy's more of a 911 fan...

Porsche takes the business of saving weight pretty seriously. For example, the gudgeon pins on the 911 GT3's pistons are 180g lighter than standard, and making its connecting rods out of titanium saves another 150g. But that's the race-spec GT3, and though the Boxster Spyder shares some of its DNA, its role is completely different. This Porsche reboots a model line that goes right back to the company's roots, to cars like the '53 356 America Roadster but more significantly 1954's 550 Spyder (the one James Dean christened ‘little bastard', with good reason as it turned out). Rummage through the history books a bit further, and it's clear that the Spyder name is reserved for racing cars. Should we care that this latest one absolutely isn't?

It's also not an RS. Or a Clubsport. This is the third official and unlimited edition Boxster variant, the most powerful and, at £44,643, the most expensive. And in the time-honoured tradition, what that extra money buys you is... less. Specifically, less roof. In exchange for the standard car's perfectly useful electric folding roof, you now get a ‘thing', to fiddle into place above your head. They're geniuses, these people, they really are.

Mind you, ‘thing' or not, the Boxster Spyder looks fantastic, like a distilled Carrera GT. If not quite as rakish as some previous open-topped Porsche specials, the fairings on the newly extended rear deck are striking, and the body-side graphics are coolly retro (Google the 909 Bergspyder for proof). If it looks meaner and less effeminate than usual, that's because it's 20mm lower, with narrower, lighter side windows.

There's new engineering here too. While most of the Spyder is steel, the doors and single-piece rear deck are now made of aluminium, saving a total of 18kg. The new roof - which Porsche variously refers to as a sunsail or cap, which is why I will continue to call it ‘thing' - weighs less than 6kg, while the carbon-fibre frame that holds it in position is just 5kg.

There are new 10-spoke alloy wheels, which weigh less than 10kg each, qualifying them as the lightest 19in rims in Porsche's range. Inside, there are new lightweight carbon-fibre sports seats, which trim another 12kg from the overall kerbweight. There's a front bumper with LED daytime running lights, black plastic mesh inserts on the side air intakes, and a black double exhaust pipe. The standard Boxster Spyder does without a stereo system or air-conditioning, though tellingly every test car I looked at featured both items. There are fabric door-pulls, there's no cowl over the main instrument binnacle (how much weight must that have saved?), and the wind-deflector's plastic. The centre console and dash facings are finished in the exterior body colour, and the gear lever shift pattern and seatbelts are red. This isn't the place for modern life's rubbish, either; the cup-holders and door pockets have been deleted.

Modern life being what it is, most of these things are still available as options. As are things like Porsche's Sport Chrono pack, which buys you the dash-mounted stopwatch, and a button on the centre console that sharpens up throttle response (cost: £520). Go for the dual-shift PDK transmission, and you'll get a Sport Plus button, that speeds up shift times and oversees a launch-control system (that'll be a total of £1,920).

And that's just the tip of one expensive iceberg. The fact is, the whole options thing is a bit of a conundrum. What looks at first glance like a Boxster unplugged has the potential to be anything but. You can have regular leather seats and the full audio system as a no-cost option, or the full-on PCM ‘communication module' with the touchscreen. Order that and aircon, and a good chunk of the 80kg weight-saving must surely pile straight back on.

Ceramic brakes are another pricey option (£5,235), but more in keeping with the car's lightweight ethos because they reduce its unsprung mass. The sports exhaust, which gives the Boxster a rasping character boost, is another option that should surely be standard here, but isn't (£1,249). In other words, an idiot Spyder buyer could easily send this supposedly lo-cal Porsche to the all-you-can-eat buffet, or simply tick the wrong boxes, and ruin it. In fact, a fat idiot Spyder buyer would ruin it simply by getting into it.

Though ruin in this context is a relative term. Because even a poorly specified Boxster Spyder is still a very, very good thing. The Spyder gets Porsche's brilliant direct injection 3.4-litre flat-six power unit, with Variocam Plus variable valve timing. It's almost identical to the Boxster S but for a few important differences. With 320bhp to call on, it's 10bhp more powerful. Peak power is at 7,200rpm, 950rpm higher than in the regular car. It has more grunt too, and a slightly flatter torque curve.

This means it laps the 'Ring seven seconds faster than the standard car. It also means our time exposed to mental trucker man is pretty minimal, thank God. We head deeper into the valley, and by now we're having so much fun I honestly can't think of anything that would work better out here. As much power as any sane individual could ever need, magnificent drivetrain, easily exploitable chassis... It's quite a thing, this car - especially with the roofy ‘thing' stowed away and the breeze aerating us.