A Stunning Value Proposition: the 981 Boxster

In 1997, Porsche gave the world the Boxster.  If you squint through the prism of the past just right, it was the first completely new car from the company in 19 years, dating back to the introduction of the 928 in 1978.  The Boxster reinvigorated the brand and launched the company into 15 years (and still counting) of absolutely astronomical success.

 

Price for the original Boxster was $39,950.  For that sum, the buyer got an all-new water-cooled 2.5-liter flat six making 201hp and 181 lb-ft, mated to a five-speed manual transmission.  The car weighed in at 2,822 pounds, svelte for a ragtop with the rigidity required to back up its sporting pretensions.  “Sexy” was the term almost universally utilized to describe its look.  It raked in awards almost immediately: one of C&D’s 10Best for 1997, Automobile Magazine’s Automobile of the Year, Motorweek’s Driver’s Choice for Best Sports Car, Autocar’s Best Roadster in the World—these were just a few.

The Boxster only got better with age, and many say that it was the strong sales numbers put up by the Boxster that kept Porsche financially strong enough to continue to operate independently and free from the threat of takeover, especially in the dot-com financial boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s.  Lest we go on too long praising the Boxster, suffice it to say that the car is utterly brilliant, has by this point won over even its most strident detractors, and has firmly entrenched itself in the annals of Porsche history.

But let’s get back to the beginning.  Let’s get back to that $39,950.  For that sum, you got the sexy shape, the Porsche badge, the signature flat-six howl.  But you also got (thanks to Porsche taking tips from Toyota on parts sharing) the nose, headlights, and the doors from the forthcoming 911 Carrera (996).  Some might say this was a steal, but some might have preferred the metal from the outgoing 993.  You got a plastic rear window which tended to scratch easily.  You got an intake vent on each side, but actually the vent on the right was an exhaust.  The interior quality was less than stunning, and there was no glovebox.

I test-drove a used first-gen Boxster in fall/winter 2002, and while it was amazing to feel the car pivot around my hip bone as I dialed in steering lock, in the end I settled on a new Acura RSX Type S.  The cockpit ambiance and overall interior quality of the RSX absolutely crushed those of the Porsche.  Between that fact, the fear of high maintenance costs (we whisper here of the dreaded rear main seal failure), and the fact that the ’03 Type S made almost exactly the same peak horsepower number as the Boxster, I had to go with the Acura.  Clearly, astounding driving dynamics, great looks, and Porsche badge aside, the very first iteration of the Boxster left a few things to be desired.  Especially for $39,950.

Now, let us play a numbers game.  If we take our year-1997 $39,950 and convert it to 2012 dollars with the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ CPI Inflation Calculator, we get $57,097.88.  The base price here and now, today, for the brilliant new Boxster 981 is $49,500.   In 1997 dollars, that $49.5k amounts to a mere $34,633.95.  Put another way, if you were to carry your 2012 $49,500 back to 1997, its value would dwindle so much that the salesman at your Porsche dealer would have to steer you to the trade-ins.  But stay in 2012 with that money and you get an absolutely stunning new car.  Point: the new 981 is actually cheaper than the new 986 was.  And it is a vastly better product in every worthwhile measure.

The 981 is a truly special thing to look at, with regard to both the design and the spec sheet.  Motive force to the tune of 265hp/206lb-ft is provided by a 2.7L flat six.  Curb weight is a mere 2,888 pounds, a scant 66 more than that of its 15-year-old ancestor.  This all means you’ll scoot from 0-60 in 5.5 seconds and top out at 164mph.  The interior is a work of art, incorporating the rising center console that is the new standard across the Porsche range, and overall quite honestly putting the 20th-century slabs of plastic in the 986 completely and utterly to shame.  Both of the intake vents are now actually intake vents, and the doors are bespoke—no more hand-me-downs from big brother 911.  Finally, if you don’t think every single other automaker is scrambling to somehow copy and incorporate the “subtle mechanical rear decklid spoiler that slashes into the taillights” design touch, you just don’t know how this business works.

Trust me, this is gonna be like when Audi put LEDs on the R8.

 

This description already adds up to an extremely desirable car that doesn’t need to lean on its badge and heritage to warrant sales, and yet we have hardly scratched the surface.

With the extra dough left over from our CPI-adjusted $39.5k, we can make our new Boxster even more awesome.  Throw on the twin-clutch PDK automatic tranny and the Sport Chrono option, and you’ve got a launch mode that shaves three tenths off the 0-60 time.  But that’s not all PDK is good for—aside from spectacularly fast power-on upshifts and perfect throttle-blip downshifts, it’ll also shift itself into neutral during lazy off-brake decelerations, allowing fuel-miserly coasting.  Additionally, both the PDK and the standard six-speed manual include automatic stop-start functions that will certainly save a great deal of fuel expense, especially when the commute features heavy traffic and/or stoplights.

 

Only after tacking on the above-mentioned PDK & Sport Chrono, plus the ‘Convenience Package’ (wind deflector, 2-zone A/C, seat heaters), does the 981’s window sticker manage to draw even with the equivalent inflation-adjusted price of its ancestor, the 1997 Boxster 986.  Without doubt, this is an astounding car–an open-top, mid-engined, 2.7L flat-six twin-clutch beauty of a Porsche–that is within the reach of lots of working professionals.  In fact, I’m trying to figure out how I can own one and still bring the kids along.  I’m thinking a tow hitch and parasail with a dual harness.  Done and done.

 

Evo X Mr Touring & Audi B8 S4 — Comparison

A few days back I caught up with a good friend of mine who’s owned a Mitsubishi Evo MR Touring since he bought it new two years ago.  While catching up and running some errands, we simultaneously gave the car a pretty thorough wringing out on the tumbleweed-swept B-roads on the outskirts of Las Cruces, NM.

Coincidentally, I was just a few days ago discussing respectable-looking, respectable-performing sedans with another friend.  His daily driver is on its last legs, and he’s looking for something not too expensive, not too boring, and not too impractical—he’s got a Boxster for the weekends.  Our discussion brought us to a 2010 Winding Road magazine comparison test pitting the Evo MR Touring against the B8 Audi S4.

I once drove the S4 as well, back in late 2010 after the loss of my beloved RS6 tossed me unhappily into the “without a performance car” pool.  I found the car barely used at a very small racing shop-slash-dealership in Anaheim, CA, where the owner himself was kind enough to offer me a test drive.  The experience was indelible, and I still recall vividly the sensations of driving what was at the time Audi’s newest, hottest sporting sedan.  There are only two reasons I do not own that S4 now—it was too new/hot for my budget, and honestly, I really wanted a 911 anyway.

But if you’re looking to spend more or less $40k and want front engine, four seats, and a trunk, plus daily-drivability, long-haul capability, and admirable all-weather on- and off-track performance, the S4 and MR Touring should be atop your list.  Let’s break ‘em down.

Disclaimers: the Evo I drove sits on Eibach Pro-Kit springs which drop it a little more than two inches, and is sporting Conti ExtremeContact DWS tires on the gorgeous BBS wheels instead of the stock Nittos.  Even after two years of ownership, it still showed less than 20k on the odometer (and everywhere else).   The S4 was bone stock with mileage in the low teens.

First, the Mitsubishi.  I always thought the interior feel of the Evo would turn me off to it.  But from the driver’s seat, the MR Touring looks far better than any photo had told me I could expect.  Sure, there’s an economy-car bit here and there if you look closely—the interior door handles are one example—but the overall fit and finish, inside and out, are easily on par for a $40k-new ride.  The look of the TC-SST transmission lever is especially stunning—one can tell that the Mitsu engineers were particularly proud of their work there and wanted the driver interface to match the competence of the invisible bits under the hood.  The paddles on the steering wheel are well-sculpted and properly weighted, as well.  The driver information graphics are very cool, presenting just the right data in just the right places with just the right amount of emphasis.  While there’s plenty of plastic visible, it’s all pebbled and textured in a way that keeps it looking inviting.  The Recaro seats are leather-wrapped, heated, grippy, comfortable…but they also limit blind-spot checking a bit with their wide-top one-piece design.

On the outside, the menacing stance brought on by the Eibach Pro-Kit helps the car out in a big way, working in concert with the classy, subtle trunk-lip spoiler to bring down the visual height of the car a bit (the Evo X always seemed very tall to me, especially compared to its predecessors) and minimize the fender-well gaps.  But even without the Pro-Kit, the MR Touring would still look great—the narrowed-eyes look of the front fascia planes smoothly into the side profile creases, which flow perfectly with the angular nature of the menacing BBS rolling stock.

Speaking of the BBS wheels, they wrap themselves nicely around red-painted Brembo calipers.  The brakes are vented discs and slow the car with serious authority, and the way I’ve seen Evos shredding tracks, I can’t imagine fade is a problem.

On the aural side, the Evo’s four-banger disappoints a bit.  If you were buying a car only for the pure joy of sitting in your driveway and revving it, the Evo would not be a good purchase.  On the positive side, the subtle sound of the spooling turbo never fails to send a thrilling crackle across your cerebral cortex, especially as you reapply the power on corner exit.

The MR Touring’s TC-SST twin-clutch auto is excellent, always shifting quickly and in the right place.  In fact—and this perhaps had something to do with being unfamiliar with how exactly the car works—I found myself clicking a paddle a split second before or after the transmission had already decided to do so itself, resulting in double upshifts.  It’s better to just let the car do its own thing.  I will say that with one additional ratio available in the transmission, the Evo would be even more usable as a tourer—the interior is a bit noisy at 80-mph cruise in top gear, with the engine making 3500 rpm.

The steering is light and lively in the driver’s hands.  It draws attention to how quickly the car responds to inputs.  It doesn’t grant a sense of authority by being weighty, but inspires trust by allowing the driver to feel like he can be oh-so precise with minimal effort, even midcorner.

When driven hard, the Evo exhibits a twinge of understeer for the briefest of moments…and then the computers step in and send power rearward.  The resulting neutrality of the car as you tear through a corner at seemingly impossible speed makes it hugely confidence-inspiring and incredibly easy to drive fast.  Just leave your foot on the gas and let the car sort itself out.  You won’t be complaining about the Recaros’ visibility issues anymore—you’ll be happy to have them holding you in place.

A nationwide search on cars.com at time of writing nets only three 2010-2011 MR Touring-spec Evos with asking prices ranging from $30,595 to $36,000, so this is a somewhat unusual car that you’re not likely to see every day on your commute.  A point for exclusivity there.

The Audi, contrary to what the market position might have you believe, is not so exclusive.  Another nationwide search on cars.com with the price cap at $45k, and you get 48 2010-2011 Audi S4s.  Cut out the manual gearboxes for equivalency and you’re down to 31 (all of the MR Touring Evos are twin-clutch auto TC-SSTs).  Except for two low outliers, the Audis all fall in the $40-45k range, so a used S4 commands a $10k premium over a similarly used Evo.

Is it worth it?

The Audi exudes a straightforward German seriousness of design and purpose.  The colors are black over black leather with white alcantara inserts, so putting on the seatbelt is akin to buttoning up a Teutonic metal tuxedo.  There’s a weight to everything—the doors, the steering, the knobs—indicating that harnessing all of the performance this car has to offer is a task not to be taken lightly.

The engine is a distant thrum-hum.  The S4 abandoned its 4.2L V8 with the B7-to-B8 redesign, and the heavenly signature burble of that beastly powerplant is gone.  The 3.0L supercharged V6 that replaces it is a wonder of technological achievement and has been put to use across the spectrum of VW brands, but it’s no more aurally arresting than the Evo’s 4-cylinder, except that it sounds more distant and refined, and therefore more expensive.

The Audi’s interior is quieter overall and the dash and console are a class up from the Evo.  Again, this is not because the Evo is lacking per se.  But not a single piece of non-conformist cost-cutting trim meets the driver’s eye, and that no doubt explains another big chunk of the ten extra grand you’ll shell out for the Audi.

The twin-clutch automatic transmission dubbed “S-tronic” in the S4 is almost unfathomably fast.  Mash the go pedal and watch the tach needle wind up (remember, there isn’t much of an aural clue as to how hard the engine is working).  As the needle reaches its’ height, there’s a near-imperceptible “clik!” (it leaves out the last “c” for brevity) and before your brain can comprehend it, the car is in the next gear.  The sensation is completely addictive.  You’ll find yourself at extralegal speeds very quickly and very often as a result of the incurable and insatiable desire to experience it over and over.

It’s almost okay, though, because the brakes are just as ridiculous as the power.  I had never before personally felt a braking action literally pull the skin forward off of my face with negative-acceleration-G until the day I drove the S4.  It was such an exercise in ruthless decelerative economy, I can liken it to nothing but the Death Star’s tractor beam.  Basing my analysis purely on the tactile sensation, the brakes in the Audi seem to be far and away better than those in the Evo.

Regrettably I didn’t get to corner the S4 hard enough to determine how or how well it handles.  Again, this S4 was a dealer’s car, not a friend’s.  Maybe someday.  In April.  At Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch in Pahrump, NV.  With the Audi Club of Southern California.  Maybe.  A guy can dream.

So again, is the Audi worth the extra dough?  Hate to straddle the fence here, but it’s hard to say.  You could crack open the magazine tests and point out that the Evo does this or that objectively better, or the S4 does that or this objectively better.  To my eye, the Audi looks a little more grown up, a little more mature, a little less boy-racer.  But the Evo is such a screaming deal for a no-kidding sporting sedan that it’s impossible to ignore, even if the old money at the country club might not smile at the sight of you cruising up to the valet stand.  Both of these cars command respect on the road and the track.  Both will happily do grocery runs with baby seats in the back.  Both will load up the lateral G, smoke their tires, and make their rotors glow with heat.  Both can be trusted in inclement weather.  So, really, I can’t tell you which of these is best for you.  All I can tell you is I’d be a little jealous of you if you owned either one.

Your Next Car Will Most Assuredly NOT Drive Itself

In the February 2012 issue of Wired, Tom Vanderbilt authored an article titled “Let the Robot Drive: The Autonomous Car of the Future Is Here.”  The front cover of the magazine featured a robotic arm grasping a 5-speed shift knob with the surrounding type proclaiming in all caps, “YOUR NEXT CAR WILL DRIVE ITSELF.”  Mr. Vanderbilt followed up his headlining article three weeks later with another related one, posted to the Wired website and titled “Five Reasons the Robo-Car Haters Are Wrong.”

Not wanting to dive into this fray without preparing, I Googled Mr. Vanderbilt and was delighted to find that he had also authored the book Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do (And What It Says About Us).  Traffic had received a round of recommendations in the car mags when it was first published, but I had since forgotten about it.  Hungry for knowledge, I tracked the book down, bought a copy, and devoured it at my first opportunity.

Traffic has nothing to do with robotic vehicles, but very much to do with the dangers of leaving your home in a motorized metal cocoon and merging with the flow of crazies, nearly all of them distracted, unprofessional, and unfamiliar with their cars’ limits, but equally convinced they are every one of them “above average” in the performance of the duties necessary to drive from point A to point B.

I highly recommend the book—just reading it will make you a better and safer driver.  However, Mr. Vanderbilt is wrong to claim in his Wired article that the autonomous car is “here,” and Wired is wrong to leap to the conclusion that all of their readers’ next cars will be self-driving.

First, let me rattle off the “Five Reasons” I would be wrong, were I a “Hater.”  Vanderbilt presents these by listing each of the haters’ arguments, and then refuting each one.  Hater Point #1: Autonomous vehicles will be inherently more unsafe than humans.  #2: People like driving.  #3: The infrastructure for autonomous cars does not exist.  #4: Autonomous cars won’t survive the litigious environment in the United States.  #5: When you ride in an autonomous car, you ride with Big Brother.

My reasoning has nothing to do with any of these.  After reading Traffic, one knows that these five arguments are factually and statistically invalid.  #1: Over 90% of vehicle accidents are caused by human error.  Remove humans from the driving process, and the majority of crashes simply do not happen.  #2: People by and large, do not like driving.  If they did, they wouldn’t be staring at their smartphones and/or paying through the nose for distracting in-car technology to in an attempt to mentally remove themselves from the road-going experience.  #3: Infrastructure is not a problem.  Autonomous cars make use of the existing transportation network—that is what makes them so attractive as a transportation alternative.  #4: The “litigious environment” argument is an admittedly strong one.  As Vanderbilt concedes in his Wired article, the automakers’ legal departments are at this point actually forcing conservatism on their engineers—they do not want to deal with the legal backlash that would most certainly accompany the sudden unleashing of massive amounts of automation onto an uneducated user market.  But lawyers cannot stop the economic laws of supply and demand—they can, at best, only slow them down.  Autonomous cars will be a part of our lives, sooner or later.  #5: Given the amount of government paperwork involved with owning and driving a vehicle, plus the existence of GPS navigation systems, satellite radio, and the cell/smartphone in their pockets, drivers were in bed with Big Bro long before autonomous cars came along.

My argument is not against automation, but against the assertion that my next car will be autonomous and/or that the age of full automotive automation has indeed arrived.  I’m quite certain it will not and has not.  Why?  Two reasons: cost and user competence.

First off, at no point in either of his articles does Vanderbilt discuss what this high level of automation costs.  His examples of automated cars include the VW Junior, the Audi TT Pikes Peak, a BMW that drove itself on the autobahn from Munich to Ingolstadt (presumably so BMW could show Audi that they can do automation, too), and Google’s autonomous Prius.  He also brings up the Mercedes S-Class as an example of a current production car that is not autonomous, but features an extremely high level of automation.  Other than the S-Class of course (a steal starting at $91,850), I am unable to find any published information on what creating these autonomous cars cost the manufacturers, let alone what their sticker price would be if they were sold to the public.

The average sale price of a new car in the US is right around thirty thousand dollars at present.  Unless the autonomous car marketed for the masses was able to exist in that arena, it would not be a sales success in the numbers necessary to significantly ease metropolitan traffic or prevent human-error accidents.  Why not?  For a somewhat similar example, we turn to the Chevrolet Volt.

The Chevy Volt can theoretically achieve infinite miles per gallon, so it offers a huge advantage over a normal small car (as an autonomous car does).  Instead of saving time (as an autonomous car would), it saves money.  Here’s the Volt’s problem: it stickers at over $40k, instead of less than $20k as its platform-mate the Cruze, shackled with an oh-so-20th-century standard internal combustion engine and transmission, does.  The Cruze is selling well, whereas Volt production was recently suspended because dealers are having such trouble selling off existing inventory that they are avoiding purchasing Volts from the factory.

My point here is that despite offering a massive advantage over a similar car, as say an autonomous Google Prius would, the Volt is a sales failure because consumers are not willing to pay the large premium that the massive advantage demands.  I’m sure if autonomous cars were inexpensive to create, information about their cost would be easy to obtain.  If the average person could afford an autonomous car, we’d have heard about it by now.

The second reason my next car will not be autonomous is that people are bad enough drivers as it is, let alone after a computer has been doing the driving for them for the last six months.  Then, as they’re leaving the office after a long day at work (or worse, as they’re leaving the bar after a few cocktails on a rainy night) their flux capacitor won’t boot up correctly and they’ll get a “PC Load Letter” error message.  The car will revert to manual mode.  Desperate to get home, they take the wheel themselves.  They’ve never turned the steering wheel before, don’t know where the turn signal buttons/stalks are, and aren’t familiar with the feel and feedback from the gas and brake pedals.  Their seat doesn’t place them in an optimal eye position.  Their mirrors aren’t adjusted.  And it’s been six months since their brain fired the “driving” synapses.  Now, they are a greater hazard to everyone else on the road than they ever were before autonomous cars existed.  As much as I adore embracing new technology, I refuse to be that person—I don’t harbor any illusions about my ability to drive well in an unfamiliar car after a long layoff, and neither should anyone else.

Thus, until autonomous cars are a) cost-competitive and b) flawless, never requiring manual input, my next car (and yours as well, I hope) will NOT drive itself.

DEEEEE-TROIT! Part 6: GM & Chrysler

The star of the show in the minds of the American automotive press, based on magazine coverage, seems to have been the Cadillac ATS.  The ATS will compete directly with the BMW 3-series–not try to one-up it by offering more size for the same price, as the CTS did.

The styling is true to Cadillac’s successful art-and-science theme, but without being too stiffly starched anywhere.  It looks conservative, competent, and effective–as it has to.  It will need to attract a large audience.
The ATS is small and rear-drive standard (unheard of in cars this size of American manufacture for quite a long time).  It is light for its class and time–just 3,400 pounds.  It has near 50-50 front-rear weight distribution. It offers three different engines: a naturally aspirated four, a turbo four, and a naturally aspirated six.  A six-speed manual gearbox is offered.  Are we salivating yet?
Back to the engines for a moment.  The most interesting of those has to be the 2.0L turbo four-cylinder, which cranks out 270 horses and 260 lb-ft.  Consider my eyebrows raised.
Audi A4 2.0T:    211hp, 258lb-ft
BMW 328i:        240hp, 260lb-ft
Caddy ATS:       270hp, 260lb-ft
All of these are 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinders.  The Audi is the most dated entry here–the 2013 A4 shows off a minor facelift but is powertrain-unchanged since 2009.  BMW’s four-cylinder, however, is almost as new as GM’s.  Clearly, the Detroit guys know that to beat the Germans, they should start by going to the old American standby–more power.  Done (or is it?).  Best of luck to Team USA in the comparison tests.
The GM display was home to several other interesting attractions.
This is the Cadillac XTS, a full-size flagship sedan destined to compete with the likes of the Audi A8, BMW 7-series, Merc S-Class, Jag XJ, etc., etc.  I was not too taken with the design.  However, the gentleman I attended the show with is a member of the demographic for whom the XTS is designed, and he liked it quite a bit.  So what do I know?  I’ll say this: the throwdown between the XTS and that Lincoln MKZ concept covered in Part 1 will be epic if everyone does their jobs well.
Over at Chevrolet, things got a little unusual at first.

The Miray is apparently a gas/electric hybrid, with an electric motor for each front wheel and a 1.5L turbocharged four-cylinder just behind the seats.  Scissor doors, carbon fiber everywhere, no roof, no door handles, and you’d need to wear goggles with a windshield cut that low.  Pure concept at this point.  I like the idea of a modestly-powered mid-engined roadster, but the weight and bulk of a hybrid powertrain would most likely make a car like this utterly impractical and thus beyond the reach of the average consumer.

The Code 130R concept looks like a hybrid of a different sort–a Camaro/BMW 1-series hybrid.  GM says this car could go into production quickly, using platforms and powertrains already in existence (ATS!).  I say, if you can build a winning small sporty four-door, you can build a winning small sporty two-door.  Be careful, though–it will have to be better than the FR-S/BRZ to win its customers from the import crowd–fans of domestics will just buy a base Camaro for $23k, which will have to be the price ceiling for the 130R.

This is the Tru 140S, a four-seat Cruze-based (read: front-engine, front-drive) coupe concept.  That’s fine, but in order to succeed it will need to be better than an ’05-’06 Acura RSX Type S.  It will need smaller, lighter wheels than this concept, more glass to improve visibility, a great manual gearbox, and at least 250hp without unmanageable torque steer.  Do all that, keep it around $25k and this is a great car.
I have never wanted a Camaro before, but the 2013 ZL1 convertible changes all that.  580 horses from a 6.2L V8.  A clutch pedal.  Magnetorheological shocks from the Corvette ZR1.  Goodyear Eagle Supercar F1 rubber.  Dual-mass flywheel, twin-disc clutch.  A fully-functional “Mohawk” (yes, that is the official name) carbon-fiber hood scoop.  And of course, a cloth top, saving the driver from the dark, cave-like experience that is the inside of the Camaro coupe.  All this for under $60k.  What.  A.  Car.
Over at Chrysler, who recently wrapped up its first full year of positive earnings since 2005 and contrary to popular belief is actually propping Fiat up financially, the display was even more impressive.  The headliner is, of course, the 300 SRT8.

Spec your 300 SRT8 with these aptly-named “black chrome” 20s.  Pictures do not
do them justice…they’re simply breathtaking in person.
The key number to remember with the Chrysler 300 is 47.  As in, 470 hp, 470 lb-ft, and just over $47k.  It’s a screaming deal.  If you want to pay a little less, you can get the Dodge Charger SRT8, which packs the same 6.4L Hemi and five-speed auto, but looks less subtle and has a harder suspension.  Either way, you get all that power, intimidating presence, and an absolutely beautiful V8 noise.  This is an attainable halo car that makes the whole brand look better to the buying public.  Honda, take note.Less awesome but even more attainable is the high-end 200 Super S, which is simply a 200 S with a few tacked-on look-fast bits (grille, lip, skirts, rear diffuser) and a few tacked-on go-fast bits (coilovers, intake, exhaust).  The bits will be available from the Mopar catalog later in 2012, so you can drop $25k on a 200 S now and just wait for the parts to appear.  The 200 is a car that’s grown on me over time.  It’s still a front-engine front-drive midsize commuter car no matter what you do to it, but its looks and awesome Super Bowl commercial give it an appeal that its competitors are lacking, in my opinion.

Moving the badge down so it ‘floats’ in the grille is an excellent touch for the 200.
I wouldn’t be surprised if this becomes the standard for future versions of this model.

 

The 3.6L Pentastar V6 that you’ll want in your 200 makes 283hp/260 lb-ft and gets a decent 19/29 EPA miles per gallon.  Chrysler is using slightly tweaked versions of this engine with varying power levels across its brands–you’ll find it in the 200 and base 300, the Jeep Cherokee and Wrangler, and the Dodge Durango, Challenger, and Charger.  At 12.63 lbs/hp, though, the 200 is probably among the quickest of its same-engine stablemates.
While Chrysler may be propping up Fiat financially, Fiat was propping the entire show up with their Abarth girls.  I don’t know if anyone heard a word they said–all the collective brainpower was likely focused on the visual sector of the cerebral cortex.

Where do you get these leather catsuits?  I’m trying to order one for the wife.

As far as the cars themselves, however, the Fiat 500 Abarth seems less than attractive.  The 1.4L MultiAir engine gets a Garrett turbo to bring output to 160hp/170lb-ft.  That’s dandy, but as small as it is, the car still weighs 2564 pounds!  At over 16 pounds per horse, there are a lot of cars at the same price point–around $23k–that will absolutely dust it in a straight line.  Additionally, the February 2012 issue of Motor Trend points out that while the standard 500 exhibits almost-neutral behavior in the corners, the Abarth is prone to understeer.  A “performance” model that’s slow in a straight line and understeers in corners?  No thanks.  If you want a quirky hot hatch, the correct answer is still the Mini Cooper S.

That completes the coverage of NAIAS 2012 from here.  Next, The Flat Six takes on Wired magazine.

DEEEEE-TROIT! Part 4: Nippon

One of the Toyota PR guys appeared as we strolled up to the NS4 concept, and asked the crowd–what’s the number-one-selling car in America for the last gazillion years in a row?

“The Camry,” I replied, a whole slew of emotions spewing forth in those three small syllables.  Chief among them: resignation that millions of Camry owners would continue to live out their bland lives driving bland cars that all of their bland friends drive too.  “Correct!” was the PR man’s gleeful cry, and he handed me a goofy, woolly knit Toyota cap with a baseball-type bill, and then proceeded to launch into the rest of his spiel.
Uh, thanks ‘yota, but you’ll have to do better than that to win me over.
For a start, they could make this NS4 thing a reality.  It certainly looks very nice.  As with all concept cars, however, technical details are few.  My gut reaction to this car was, “Ha!  They’ve realized the Prius is dog-ugly, and that they’ll need to make prettier hybrids in the future in order to perpetuate the perception that in a world of dirty, money-grubbing, steel-smelting automakers, they are the shining, eco-friendly city upon a hill.”
Over at Toyota’s premium brand Lexus, there sat two super-coupes, the LF-A and the new LF-LC.
The LF-A has been around for a bit.  It’s an impressive bit of work, and Toyota certainly did not spare any expense in creating it.  For the money (starting at $375k!), however, there are many more exotic and/or better-performing vehicles available.
The LF-LC looks very similar from a proportional/dimensional standpoint.  The February 2012 Road & Track says that it “represents the start of a Lexus design revolution,” but looking at the above two photos, it must be pretty bloodless as revolutions go.  Take an LF-A, delete that silly scoop above and aft of the doors, make the headlights and front intakes flow together a bit more smoothly, pinch the grille so it looks like the new GS-series sedan, and slap a “hybrid” badge on it in place of the “lightning-fast-revving, fuel-guzzling V10” badge.  Voila!  Now we can say all of our future cars will look much less egg-shaped and boring!
I didn’t always speak so flippantly of Toyota.  My dad owned an ’87 Tercel five-speed that must’ve been the cheapest thing on the lot when he bought it.  It never, ever put a foot wrong.  He replaced it with a ’93 Corolla CE, also five-speed manual, when my sister and I got too big for the back of the Tercel.  The ’93 was the car I drove when I got my license, so I crashed it in fairly short order (always be careful turning left across traffic, kids), and it was replaced with a ’98 Corolla CE five-speed.  I banged that one up on more than one occasion (always, always go slow in the snow, kids), but it was still worth a decent amount by the time Dad turned the title over to me so I could sell it and use the proceeds toward my college-grad purchase (thanks!).
I liked those Corollas a lot, especially the ’98.  They were relatively cheap to insure and maintain, got good gas mileage, and were fun to drive because they had clutch pedals.  Wheels, tires, and all other wearable parts were cheap and available everywhere.

I understand the draw of all those advantages, and they seemed great at the time, but here’s the thing: once you drive something better, you wonder how you ever thought a Corolla was so great. And that’s my problem with these repeat Toyota buyers: they never try anything better.  That’s why the families in the Camry commercials have had a half-dozen Camrys in their lives and nothing else.  And therein lies the problem with Toyota–there is no incentive for them to make something better if their customers are not merely content but happy to keep paying them for something that isn’t necessarily better, just newer.  Thus, how could any Toyota be as good as something that does not need to please millions of unexciting people?

Off my soapbox.  Here’s your reward for reading my rant:
Over at Acura, three new models were in attendance: the next-gen RDX small sport utility, the all-new ILX small sedan, and the company’s latest stab at a new NSX halo car.  Pictured above, of course, is the NSX.  I’ve already shared my thoughts on the demise of the original NSX and what it indicated about the priorities at Honda/Acura, so I will not reiterate them here.  However, the whispers around this NSX concept are juicy ones: all about mid-enginedness (good), V6-ness (same as the original, good), and hybridness (if used to enhance performance and only then with minimal weight gain, good).  On top of all that, it looks very, very good as well.
We moved on to Fuji Heavy Industries, err, I mean, Subaru, the comparatively low-volume maker of delightfully quirky-looking all-wheel-drive cars.  Of course, the not-all-wheel-drive BRZ was getting the most attention there, but let’s have a look at something a bit more responsible:
This is the new-look Impreza Sport, displayed with its standard mean-looking wheels and bike rack.  Auto-journo deity Ezra Dyer drove a similar car to this one for Automobile Magazine in October 2011, and said two things worthy of note: “this car absolutely owns the title for ‘chassis that could handle significantly more horsepower'” and “this thing is going to make a hell of a WRX.”
Perhaps I wasn’t phrasing the question the right way, but when I asked the Subaru folk when the new Impreza would get the WRX treatment, they said it would not.  Instead, the Impreza and the WRX/STI are going to go their separate ways as totally unrelated, independent cars, and their timelines as far as updates and production will be wholly different.  Please, someone, say it isn’t so.  All this Impreza needs is to not have leather and a clutch pedal be mutually exclusive, plus some more power and requisite suspension/brake tweaks, and I’m sold!
Mazda had nothing new–the CX-5 was present but still not open for clambering around in.  To fill the void, they just brought a bunch of race cars.  Oh, and a Miata that, as the Miata has always done, was trying its best to emulate a Porsche Boxster–in particular the Boxster Spyder this time.
Next post: we wrap up NAIAS coverage with GM, Chrysler, and a hot Fiat girl (not quite as hot as the one from the Super Bowl commerical, though).

DEEEEE-TROIT! Part 3: Porsche/Audi/VW

You can never have too much chicken wire.

Nothing grabs your attention quite like a fire-engine-red RS5, with its gaping maw threatening to inhale everything in a fifty-foot arc in front of it.  This was the first time I had seen the RS5 at a show, though it has been available for some time.  It was worth the wait.

Audi also brought out the S6…

“Luscious” is the word you’re looking for.

…and for the common folk, the subtly but quite attractively facelifted 2013 A4 rotated quietly on a turntable.  Additionally, the A4’s fraternal twin, the 2013 Allroad, made its first auto show appearance.

Enthusiasts love the Allroad and clamored for its return to North America after it retreated to a Continent-only status after model year 2005.  Why?  Because it was a car that really could do just about anything you asked of it.  Cruise long distances in great comfort.  Raise the air suspension up and go off-road.  Tow.  Carry lots of gear and/or a large dog.  Even put on a somewhat respectable show on a racetrack.

However, I’m a little wary of this new Allroad because it’s slightly smaller than its predecessor (A4 rather than A6 platform) and is available ONLY with the ubiquitous VW 2.0T–back in the day, you could get a 4.2L V8 in these things.  The smaller size and lesser power rating together mean that this car isn’t really as capable as the old one.

Why is this the case?  Well, I’m certain Audi did not want to see a niche-market wagon snaking sales out from under the premium cash-cow Q5s and Q7s.  Remember too that the VW Auto Group now wants to be the #1 automaker in the world, and if that means sacrificing a little of some brands’ old legends in the name of higher sales numbers, so be it.  So while I’m happy to see the Allroad return, I’m disappointed that it does so in something of an underwhelming fashion.  Perhaps in the future the legend will truly return in the form of a more powerful engine on the option sheet.

Meanwhile, over at VW…

…the center of attention (with not only its dais, but attendant DJ both doing some spinning) was this, the E-Bugster, a chopped/raked-windshield, removable hardtop, two-seat-only all-electric version of the 2012 Beetle.  VW was quiet on whether this vehicle would see production.  On one hand, I can see this really appealing to the hipster crowd.  On the other, does any electric-only car limited to a hundred-mile range make sense at all?

The VW that SHOULD have been the center of attention was this:

The six-speed stick-only, 256hp/243lb-ft two-liter direct-injected turbo Golf R.  The Q-est of the Q-ships.  Woe to those who think this is an economy car, easily passable off the line or up the on-ramp.

The best thing about the Golf R, though, is simply that VW builds and sells it.  This is not an inexpensive automobile, and for the kind of money Volkswagen seeks for the right of ownership, most people will be buying some kind of gargantuan milquetoast crossover.  But there is a rabid base of R-series fans, and VW made this car to please them, #1 automaker aspirations notwithstanding.  Faced with the Golf R, I must forgive the Allroad.

Moving on, I was grateful for the chance to investigate the interior of the Motor Trend Car of the Year, the new Passat.  I must say, that while it is a handsome car both inside and out, it is handsome in an entirely inoffensive, uninspiring, passionless way.  I am certain that its commuting capabilities are admirable, but I don’t want one.  Or not want one.  Honestly, on a scale of negative one billion to one billion, the Passat scores exactly zero with me. Which probably means they’re selling like hotcakes.

Lastly, over at the automaker for which there is no substitute:

…the 991 Cabriolet sat in all its splendor.  Mine would not be red, but still, a beautiful thing to behold.

Sadly, the 981 Boxster was not available for public viewing in Detroit.  And interestingly, the 991 shared square footage with the 997 models that it has not yet replaced (Turbo and GT-series).  For the first time, however, a 991 Carrera S was left with door yawning open, inviting any and all to have a seat behind the wheel.  I was only too happy to oblige.

I have to say that I’m not a fan of the rising center console nor the electronic e-brake.  However, I joyously report that the LATCH system has finally appeared in the back seat of a 911!  Even ignoring that long-overdue change, however, the interior space in its entirety is a quantum step up from the 996 series, and a still-noticeable step up from the 997.

Still, when I think about the 991, I can’t help but wonder…if the plain ol’ 991 Carrera S makes 400hp, a 55hp or 16% leap over the 997 S…and the old 997 Turbo S makes 530hp/516lb-ft…if you can afford a 991, you gotta wait for the Turbo, right?

UP NEXT…Nippon!

DEEEEE-TROIT! Part 2: Ze Germanss – Mercedes

I have never understood Maybach–the cars were ugly to begin with and never got better looking, they fare poorly when compared to other super-high-end luxury vehicles, they are ludicrously (or do I mean Ludacris-ly?) expensive…did I mention they were ugly?  If you want the best luxury car in the world, why not just buy a top-end S-Class?  Actually, most people who could afford it were doing just that, so with apologies to all the rappers who put Maybachs in their videos, Mercedes is killing off the brand in 2013.  Still, a crowd of sheeple stood around snapping cell-phone pictures of the Maybach sitting behind waist-high glass on the outer rim of Mercedes’ square footage.  Sigh.Far more interesting in Mercedes territory were the new SL, the SLS AMG convertible, and the world premiere of the E300 BlueTec Hybrid.

Robert Cumberford, design editor at Automobile Magazine, ripped the new SL’s exterior design in a recent review.  He was right to.  At first the car is visually striking as a whole, but as you continue to look at it. all kinds of questions pop up regarding the individual details.  Why all those creases around the nose?  Why the two-way slashes below the doors?  Why does the car seem so much longer than all SLs before it?  Why does it appear as if the rear end is grasping vainly for the ground to avoid floating away?  The SL has always been a good car and indeed a strong Mercedes halo vehicle; surely the designers with the three-pointed stars on their shirts will soon stop deriving the SLS AMG and make the SL itself again.

Speaking of the SLS AMG…I think it’s an engineering achievement.  I respect it.  The convertible is even pretty nice-looking, even if you must forego the unique gullwing doors of the coupe to get it.  But I don’t want one.  Too much hood, too much noise, not enough grip.  There are a lot of topless touring cars out there that seem like they’d be much more of a pleasure to live with.

Now, a Merc I would want is the E300 BlueTec Hybrid.  First, it’s diesel-electric, so it’s basically a road-going World War II submarine (the Germans are quite good at those, if you’ll recall).  Second, it’s got a two-liter four-cylinder diesel and a 20-kilowatt electric motor that when combined produce over 500 lb-ft of torque (the engine does 369 lb-ft by itself!).  Third, once highway speed is reached, the diesel disengages from the driveline and shuts down.  Thusly, you enter “sailing” mode, whispering along on kilowattage only to the tune of 67.2 miles per gallon.

Note: Porsche already did “sailing” mode with the Panamera Hybrid, which is cooler because it came first.  It is also not as cool because it is gas- and not diesel-powered, and its looks are, uh, somewhat polarizing.

Speaking of cool, the E300 is too cool for the States.  We must make do with the E400, which has a 306-hp gas-powered V6 and the same 20-kilowatt electric motor.  It gets 27 mpg.  Excuse me while I repeatedly slam my head into my desk.

Tomorrow – Porsche/Audi/Volkswagen.

DEEEEE-TROIT! Part 1: Ford

It’s been far too long a layoff from writing here.  A big move from fantastic Las Vegas, NV to a slightly less fantastic spot in New Mexico is to blame.  Still, the automotive world never stopped turning during our relocation, and I’ve done my absolute best to keep up with it even though I haven’t had time to put fingers to keyboard.The North American International Auto Show went public in Detroit from January 13-22.  I noticed our move would take place right about that same time, so I was only too happy to ship the kids off to their grandparents’ in Michigan during actual packing and shipping so that, oh darn, we’d have to go pick them up while the show was live.  It would be my first trip-ever to Detroit and the NAIAS.

This is a video I shot of myself arriving.

Okay, that isn’t true.  But Chrysler is very cool, and I did grab this picture on the way in:

Obligatory.

We’ll come back to Chrysler in a bit.

The entirety of the show fit into one gigantic hall, which was somewhat strange to me.  I had grown accustomed to shows like Philly and LA, where the show is split into four or five different halls.  The Cobo Center in Detroit brought every exhibitor together in one room, and I think the benefits were tangibly obvious–it seemed like a lot of industry people were wandering from their own displays and interacting with their peers and competitors.  The level of expertise I overheard in passerby conversation seemed noticeably higher than I had noted at any other auto show.

We strolled in through the first door we spotted and found Ford on our right, Honda on our left.  Honda’s hottest draw was the new CR-V.  Yawn.  We went right.  The blue-bathed Ford display was festooned right up front with at least four examples of the 2013 Fusion.  Autoweek had already named it “Best In Show.”  I’m not sure why.  The “Superman” grille treatment and derivative Mondeo side creases do not endear it to me–as far as I’m concerned, the midcycle refresh (years 2010-2012) of the original Fusion made for a much better/Ford-looking car than this new one.

One design change that Ford did well on, though, was the refresh of the Flex.  Taking the best of the original Titanium package’s exterior treatments (F L E X across the hood lip), adding a few new flourishes here and there, and bringing the MyFord Touch from the new Explorer into the Flex’s instrument panel were all excellent moves.  The Flex remains a fantastic, underappreciated, all-weather, high-speed, high-comfort people-mover for those who know that a conventional SUV is unnecessary about 99% of the time.

The awesome Flex doesn’t sell many copies, but gets rave reviews in the automotive press.
The new Explorer gets terrible reviews and sells like crazy.  Sigh.

In case you hadn’t heard, Ford has nixed the Mercury brand and is spending money hand over fist to revitalize Lincoln, following in the footsteps of many other automakers (Nissan/Infiniti, Toyota/Lexus) who produce two brands: one for the masses, and one for the elitists that will pay more for essentially the same thing.

Now, at present, Lincoln is fairly awful.  The cars are clearly rebadged Ford models, and what little unique styling they have is in general not very good.

This MKZ concept, however, was gorgeous.  It struck me as visually akin to a Jaguar XJ, which is similarly gorgeous.  If Ford can get this on the road for around the mid-$60k range (undercutting the European luxury makers) without straying too far from the concept’s styling, watch out.

The SVT Raptor that lifts up off of its frame was in attendance (you’ve seen it on this blog before), drawing a crowd as it always does.

America.  Eff yeah.

We moved on from Ford not too long thereafter.  Next time, on The Flat Six: ze Germanss!

Collision Avoidance Systems and Other Driving Nannies

Today I was awaiting a green light in traffic when my Valentine One started bleeping crazily, in the way it does when it detects a police laser.  Obviously I wasn’t moving, so I wasn’t concerned about incurring any laser-based citations, but I began looking around the intersection for a Metro cruiser.None of the city’s finest were visible.  But the V1 kept insisting there was a laser on us.  Odd, I thought–but I have 100% faith in that little black box, so my mind kept churning, wondering what it could be.  As the spotlight went green and I started underway toward my destination again, the warning stopped, and the proverbial light bulb appeared above my head.  A new Volvo S60 had been behind me at the light, and was now passing me on my left.  The Volvo’s infrared collision-avoidance system was what had antagonized my little electronic friend.

I became even more certain that the Volvo was indeed the culprit just a few hours later, when the exact same thing happened–new Volvo (this time an XC60) stops behind me at a light, V1 goes crazy.  Pull away from the light and put some distance between V1 and Volvo, and V1 settles down.

So how about that?  Not only does Volvo’s collision-avoidance system not work (see the video below), it also sets off laser warnings in detectors in front of it.

Let me get some more information about that for you…
Admittedly in my case the laser warning was triggered only when the Volvos were very close to my rear bumper, but this wasn’t exactly a scientific test.  What if, say, in heavy, fast-moving traffic, a Volvo sets off a V1 in a car in front of it, causing the already task-saturated driver to instinctively brake, and the Volvo’s system/driver fails in a manner similar to the way it did in the video above?  Now you have an accident caused by a system that is supposed to prevent one.
In the October 2011 issue of Car and Driver, Editor-at-Large John Phillips and former senior editor Phil Berg attempted to drive three different cars on interstates at interstate speeds while essentially blindfolded with their noble intent being to test the cars’ advertised ability to automatically maintain their lane.  You can read the article here, but it boils down to this: while the hardware does exist to make auto-lane-keeping possible, the software is not good enough to make the systems safe/effective.
In my opinion, there are simply too many variables for lane-keeping to be left to a computer–it’s just like trying to ask a computer to forecast the weather more than a day or two in advance.  For example, is there snow on the road, or just off of it?  What about gravel or sand or leaves?  Does the road have lines painted on it or not?  How does sudden bright sun glare or sudden deep shade affect the system?  What about rain/spray from vehicles in front?  What if the pavement is cracked or sealed or resurfaced or alternating between asphalt and concrete?  All of these things matter, and it would be next to impossible to engineer software to take every conceivable situation into account.
“The 1%,” I think, dream of the day that they can sell autonomous vehicles to the masses.  On that day, we poor hapless souls will suddenly have oodles more free time as we are whisked from place to place to rack up cell phone data overages while surfing Amazon to find more useless widgets to spend money on.  They’ll make so much money when this plan finally comes together that you know what, even if they have to settle a few autono-mobile wrongful death cases out of court, it’ll still be worth it, WELL worth it, to them.
So my advice to you, dear reader, is this: learn to drive, and learn well.  Do an autocross and/or get some track time so you know your vehicle’s limits and how it behaves when it goes beyond them.  Teach those dearest to you all that you possibly can.  Never drive while distracted, talking on a phone, texting, or watching anything other than the road.  And never buy a vehicle (or pay for an option) that tries to do the driving for you, because no one cares more about what’s in your car than you do.

Driving Vs Flying, and Magic, Every Day

The wife and I recently completed a three-day trip to New Mexico, where we found and (hopefully) settled on our next house.  It was a 729-mile trip each way, which Google Maps calculates to be 12 hours and 42 minutes.  On the way down, we accomplished it in about twelve hours.  On the way back, we turned it up…to eleven.  Eleven hours. That’s an average of 66.27–repeating, of course–miles per hour, including time stopped for gas, restrooms, and food.

Quick stats: the Porsche averaged over 26 miles per gallon on the trip with a highway cruising speed of over 80 mph.  Check out the numbers from the last tank of gas, which took us from Holbrook, NM all the way home to Las Vegas:

The average speed HAD been over 80, but an accident on I-95 in Henderson
crushed our numbers right at the end of the trip.

There was plenty of space for the two of us and our gear (the rear seats in the 911 are often derided or overlooked in the press, but owners will tell you they are incredibly useful), there was always an excess of power available for passing even at elevations as high as 7,797 feet, and as always the ease of outward visibility in the 911 made it easy to maintain awareness of nearby traffic.  Are there better long-distance cruising cars out there?  Certainly, but the Porsche would crush them on a track.  When it is said that the 911 is the world’s best, and perhaps only, go-every-day do-everything supercar, it is said with very good reason.

While all this is impressive–or at least I think it is–you might be saying, ugh, that’s a lot of driving.  And you’d be right.  But you can’t put a price on freedom, flexibility, and memorable experiences, and those are things that cars have always given their owners.

In this case, the plan was to make the trip from December 28 through December 31.  To fly commercial, we’d have had to shoehorn our schedules (and wallets, no doubt) into whatever allowed us to get into and out of El Paso around those dates.  Once in El Paso, we’d have had to rent a (crappy) car and drive two hours to our small-town destination.  As it turned out, we finished house-hunting early and were ready to leave on the 30th.  If we’d been bound by airline tickets, there’d have been no sense paying fees to change everything last-minute.  We’d have lost a whole day that we were instead able to spend at home (on New Year’s Eve, no less), plus spent extra money on an extra twenty-four hours of hotel and car rental.  Since we’d driven, it was simple: call the front desk the night before to notify them of our planned early check-out, hop in the car the next morning, and vanish toward the horizon.

Among the memorable experiences on our journey:

1) What looked to be a wolf sprinting across the road about a hundred yards in front of us

2) Our discovering that gasoline is wicked cheap in New Mexico at just $2.95 or so per gallon for regular, or about $3.19/gal for premium

3) Noting that the police in Springville, Arizona drive brand-new Ford Explorers which are no doubt paid for in part by the 10% effective tax rate on soft ice cream

Ridiculous.

4) Finding a surplus military deuce-and-a-half truck with a “For Sale” sign in the front window at that same McDonald’s

5) And lastly, our passing by the National Radio Astronomy Laboratory’s Very Large Array.

Those dishes may look small from the road, but each one is 82 feet in diameter.
Each one is rendered in 3D on Google Earth at coordinates 34.076266,-107.621469.

You don’t get any of that stuff when packed into an aluminum tube with a hundred strangers all gasping on shared recycled air.  Unless it’s just entirely too far and entirely unfeasible, I will always take a long drive in my Porsche over a date with TSA.

Oh, and the next day, I hand-washed the Porsche from top to bottom until it gleamed, then had it valet-parked at the MGM Signature for New Year’s Eve in downtown Las Vegas.  Engineered for magic every day indeed.