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Just Drifting: A Japanese Import Roaring on American Race Tracks

June 21, 2013
Vaughn Gittin's 845 HP Monster Ford Mustang RTR

Vaughn Gittin’s 845 HP Monster Ford Mustang RTR

 

By Roger Witherspoon

 

          Anyone who has driven a car on sheet ice knows the feeling.

You hit the gas pedal, and the wheels spin faster and faster, but the rear of the car is sliding sideways and there is no forward progress at all. At that point, most motorists know they are in trouble.

Unless, of course, sliding sideways is what you intend to do.

At that point, it is called drifting and, if one is good at it, he can make a car go down a track sideways at more than 100 miles per hour, shoot straight through a curve and slide out the other side.  And if one is really good at it, he or she can turn professional, guiding a roaring racing drifter nearly sideways down a track a couple of inches away from another side winding machine and wheel them around each other like very big spitting cats.

Anyone who has ever seen the equivalent of the automotive ballet employed in televised ads with sleek new cars sliding in and out of each other like a choreographed ballet, or sat through any of the Fast and Furious movies, is familiar with drifting. It’s a street sport variation on drag racing which originated in Asia and in the last decade has caught on with the drag strip crowd.

“The sport started in Japan where this was done as an exhibition of speed and car control,” said Richard Kulach of Nissan Motor Sports. “It blossomed over there and then took off in the US.

“Nissan was associated with it early on, particularly the 240 SX model. It had a four-cylinder motor and was a rear wheel drive car, and that is the preferred drive train.  The car could also be modified easily. The SX was available in a turbocharged version which produced double the horsepower than the cars originally came with.”

The sport migrated to America as the Japanese auto industry gained more prominence on American roads. Japanese drifters began having demonstration competitions on west coast speedways – and that intrigued American drag racers and the makers of traditional American muscle cars. As a result, the ad hoc nature of these demonstrations morphed into formal Formula  Drift competitions, with the American manufacturers playing an increasing role. For auto makers like Ford and Chevy, drifting was a progression from their heavy involvement in American NASCAR and other organized road races.

The result of that intercontinental competition will be on display today and Saturday at the Wall Stadium Speedway, off the Garden State Parkway in Wall Township, New Jersey, which is hosting the Formula  Drift Championships.

“The Formula 1 Championship is essentially a title fight where the premier competitors have to earn a right to sign up,” explained Paul Brearey, who oversees marketing for Ford’s drift racing efforts.  “You have to start somewhere else and participate in local geographic drift series and at least place to earn the right to move up. It is a different type of sport from traditional racing, especially if you are from the old school where someone clearly wins and loses.

Paul Brearey

Paul Brearey

“Drifting tends to be more like dancing with cars – at high speed – rather than a race. And it is somewhat subjective, with the judges looking at style and how they went across the track rather than actual objective numbers.  There are, however, sensors on the walls on the curves and the closer you get to the wall without crashing the more points you’ll get.”

It’s the mechanical dance which gripped Vaughn Gittin, Jr., the 2012 drift champ who is seeking a repeat to the podium Saturday in his Monster Ford Mustang RTR (Ready to Rock).

“It’s not exactly a street car,” said Gittin of what came out of the Ford factory as a Mustang GT. “At 845 horsepower she wouldn’t get goo good gas mileage. She drinks over a gallon a lap, and a lap is three quarters of a mile.”

Heavy engines in small cars are the norm for drifting competitions. Chris Forsberg, who drives a modified Nissan 370Z – which is usually a reliable roadster – discarded the Z’s standard engine and replaced it with one from a Nissan Titan pickup truck.

Nissan Drifting

“Drifting is fast,” explained Gittin. “The Mustang RTR can easily do 200 going straight, but we are going sideways and around curves at over 100 miles per hour. The car is sliding sideways but always going forward. You need a lot of horsepower so you can put a ton of grip in the road to go forwards and still drive it sideways. If you don’t have a ton of grip, the car is going to slide right off the track.”

Gittin came to drifting slowly, and his acceptance of an American car was even slower.

“Growing up,” he recalled, “I was not a big fan of Mustangs. It had a little to do with me being rebellious and not wanting what my parents had.” His father had been a used car salesman from Newark, “and I remember him squealing tires and I thought that was the coolest thing ever.

“I had a go-kart as a kid and was an adrenaline junkie. I used to fool around in industrial parks, and then when I was 19, I saw a video of drifting and fell in love with the sport that let me express myself behind a wheel. It was like skateboarding in a car.”

Gittin was a computer geek at the time, working as a network administrator for an Arlington, VA company but spending his spare time and money building and modifying cars to compete in drift races.

“In 2004 I saw the new redesigned Mustang and thought it was cool-looking and thought it would be cool to bring a Mustang to an import-dominated sport.  Once we built the car and drove it, I fell in love with it and that was all she wrote.Vaughn Gittin JR

“When drifting started it was kind of monkey-see, monkey-do. All the Americans were doing exactly what we saw the Japanese drivers doing. I was no different; my car was a Nissan 240 SX, a rear wheel drive sports car. Little did I know then that we had the best kept secret in our own back yard – the Ford Mustang.”

In 2007, Gittin gave up the computer job and began working full time as a professional drift driver. Along the way he has won both the American and Chinese Formula Drift series.

This weekend’s championship at Wall Speedway is something of a special return engagement for Gittin, whose parents were Jersey natives. “I have a ton of relatives here,” he said “and about 40 or 50 will come out to support us. It’s our homecoming, and it’s going to be really awesome.”

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Hyundai Santa Fe: The Ambitious Crossover from Korea

January 29, 2013

MY13 Hyundai Santa Fe

By Roger Witherspoon

Those of us who grew up during the dawn of the space age heard a common aphorism from parents, teachers and radio disc jockeys: “Always shoot for the moon, ‘cause even if you miss, you’ll be among the stars.”

It’s a phrase that hadn’t come to mind in decades, until I got behind the wheel of the Hyundai Santa Fe Sport.  When the Korean car manufacturers first ventured to America, its rickety, low powered cars were the regular butt of jokes on late night television.  But instead of feeling cowed and leaving, Hyundai decided to shoot for the moon. They took aim at the most popular cars made by Toyota and Lexus, and then decided to compete in terms of style, quality, and price.

Their Sonata sedan, while not significantly denting the sales of the Toyota Camry or Honda Accord, was so stylistically stunning that a year-old Sonata was worth more than a new one. Its sporty Genesis Coup takes off faster than a Porsche Panamera and its luxury liner, the Equus, comes pretty close to a fully stocked Mercedes Benz E-class. It is unlikely that folks who can casually afford a new Porsche or Benz will take a test drive in a Hyundai – even if it does mean saving $20,000. But the quality, performance, and most importantly, the price differential are important to many buyers looking to move up from the entry level, compact car class.

MY13 Hyundai Santa FeWhich brings us back to the Santa Fe. It is definitely not a Lexus RX, which is essentially a sports car in an SUV shell. But if you aren’t in the market for an SUV you can take to the drag races, then the Santa Fe is likely to earn high marks for style, comfort, and price. At $33,000, the Santa Fe costs a bit less than fully loaded sedans like the Camry, Accord or Ford Fusion.

This is a five-passenger, mid-sized SUV intended to haul adults in comfort or a sizable amount of cargo. Outside, the Santa Fe has the sleek, teardrop shape associated with upscale SUVs. Its contours are broken by the soft, wavy lines that have come to be associated with Hyundai styling – a blend of delicate Asian tracery and the wavy lines in Southern California beach sand. Under its long, sloping hood is a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder, turbocharged engine producing 264 horsepower and 269 pound-feet of torque. The surprisingly powerful little engine won’t take you to races, but it is more than enough to keep the Santa Fe near the front of the commuting pack.

Hyundai put a lot of thought into the interior design of the Santa Fe. That’s not surprising since first they took aim at the Lexus RX series and then sought to replicate the experience at a lower price. The dash in the Santa Fe is designed in the shape of a reflex bow, with distinct, curved compartments for each front occupant and a protruding information cluster in the middle. The passenger side is wide and clean, as if it was the observation chair on a boat. The driver’s side has large, bulging instrument clusters that are easy on the eyes.

MY13 Hyundai Santa Fe

            The center section has the CD player, satellite radio, climate and Bluetooth connections. The test car had a four-inch screen which served the backup camera. There was no navigation system, but Hyundai’s satellite-based BlueLink system allows you to download turn-by-turn directions which are dictated through the car’s sound system as you travel. It is similar to the OnStar direction system in General Motors cars. But for those who like a larger screen and a real map, a more traditional navigation system is available for about $1,200.

Underneath the dash is a small storage bin which can hold a pocketbook and also houses two power outlets the USB, iPod, and MP3 ports. The Santa Fe also comes with an Apple iPhone which you can pay to fully activate, or have it for limited use of the company’s BlueLink. The phone’s Hyundai app lets you start your car, turn on the lights, heat, and radio remotely.

In this SUV, both the front and rear seats can be heated and are mobile. The front seats are powered with adjustable lumbar supports. The rear seats are manually operated, but can slide forward or back to modify the leg room or the cargo area. These can lay back for a fairly comfortable nap, and are in a three part split.

For those who do not want a minivan, Hyundai has a modified version of the Santa Fe with three rows of seating. That last row is located in the cargo area, which is a standard configuration for seven-passenger SUVs. It provides the ability to haul more people in a vehicle which handles like a car rather than a truck. With a stretch SUV you sacrifice storage capability – you can carry a lot of people, or a lot of stuff, but not both.

Hyundai’s Santa Fe Sport, on the other hand, is a competitive and well laid out, crossover SUV. It is not really going to threaten Lexus in the marketplace, but it will give a lot of crossovers a run for their money.

MY13 Hyundai Santa Fe

2013 Hyundai Sante Fe Sport

 

MSRP:                                                                        $33,025

EPA Mileage:                        19 MPG City                          24 MPG Highway

Towing Capacity:                                                      3,500 Pounds

 

Performance /Safety:

 

2.0-Liter turbocharged, DOHC, 4-cylinder, aluminum engine producing 264 horsepower and 269 pound-feet of torque; 6-speed automatic transmission with electronic manual mode; All Wheel Drive; 19-inch alloy wheels; MacPherson strut, twin-tube gas damper front suspension; multi-link rear suspension with stabilizer bar; ventilated front disc brakes; solid single piston rear disc brakes; traction and stability control; fog lights; backup camera; downhill brake control; front, driver’s knee, side impact and curtain airbags.

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/Sirius satellite radio; CD player; iPod, MP3, USB ports; Bluetooth; Hyundai BlueLink; rearview camera with 4.2-inch screen; powered, heated, leather front  and rear seats; fold flat rear seats with 40/20/40 split;

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The Ford F-150 Still the Runaway Best Seller

January 14, 2013

 

 13 Ford F-150 Raptor - front profile

 

By Roger Witherspoon

 

            It was dark, the moon was full, and Superstorm Sandy was at its raging height pushing a record 14 foot wall of water along the New York-New Jersey coastlines and up connecting rivers. The wave rolled through New York harbor, surged around the Statue of Liberty and then rolled up the Hudson River.

In better times the Hudson both empties into and is fed by the Atlantic Ocean at the foot of Manhattan. When the ocean tide is high the Atlantic flows into and up the river, creating a 100 mile salt water estuary. At low tide, the 300-mile Hudson brings fresh water from upstate New York down to the wide Atlantic. In midwinter, diners on the river’s edge can watch the ice flow one way as they order appetizers and reverse course as they finish dessert.

That’s also why Rick Nestler’s folk song, “The River That Flows Both Ways,” is the anthem of Clearwater, the environmental group Pete Seeger founded to clean up the historic river. (  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N5wnbDcZXUc  )

But the night Sandy rolled up the Hudson was not like old times. The wall of water surged up the river, spreading out to fill in bays and streams, flowing up banks, covering riverside parks, roadways and rail yards. At the end of Peekskill Bay the water began rising over a low-lying causeway carrying the two-lane Bear Mountain Extension, which provided the shortest route to Camp Smith, an Army base, and then zigzagged up the mountainside to the Bear Mountain Bridge, about 10 miles south of West Point.

Normally, that section of the Extension was nearly even with the tufted tops of the wild phragmites grasses that hugged the shoreline. But not this night. The wild grass and the lowest portion of the roadway – a stretch of about 20 yards – were lost under about four feet of the dark rolling waters of the Hudson River. And it was still rising.

It seemed impenetrable. But then an emergency worker in a Ford F-150 Raptor pickup truck gunned his engine and barreled through the water, which was about even with the truck’s hood, using the still visible guard rails to gauge where the actual roadway was. He stopped at the entrance to the causeway and began putting out flares to block the road as water cascaded out of the pickup’s flooded cargo bed.

“How did you get through that?” I asked him.2012 Ford F-150 SVT Raptor

“I don’t know, man. I just gunned it, crossed my fingers, prayed and went. I won’t try it twice. The water is still rising.”

The flares did not deter the drivers of two, huge, military trucks, who were bound for CampSmith, from ignoring the warnings and heading so slowly into the water they barely made a ripple. At the deepest point, as the water lapped their hoods, the trucks stalled. The utility worker called for police support and raced down the roadway. In minutes, dozens of police cars drove onto the causeway, the officers piling out in an effort to help the trapped soldiers. In the end, it took a lot of police and a fleet of kayaks to get them out.

So why did the F-150 make it when the Army trucks didn’t?

A series of Ford spokesmen blanched at the query, since the truck is rated at being able to ford 30 inches of water and the company emphatically does not recommend going through streams higher than the middle of its 17-inch aluminum wheels. As it happens, the emergency worker in the F-150 was lucky. By gunning the truck and barreling through the rising water, he created a bow wave in front of it, leaving just enough room for air to get through the radiator. The slow moving, careful army trucks, on the other hand, essentially drowned.

But even if rolling through the storm of the century was a matter of dumb luck, it was an impressive night for the Ford F-150 Raptor, still the best-selling vehicle of any type in the nation.

“It’s been the number one selling vehicle for 30 to 35 years,” said Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Alec Gutierrez. “Nothing else comes close. They produce diehard loyalists, and someone who buys a Ford pickup tends to stick with a Ford pickup for life.

“They sold about 650,000 in 2012, and outsold the Dodge Ram – which sold just shy of 300,000 – by two to one. The GMC Sierra was close with 575,000 trucks sold. The F-series is a huge seller for small businesses or construction companies, though in terms of towing capacity, it is comparable to the bigger Dodge Ram or GMC Sierra.”

It may have trouble keeping that edge. GM is redesigning its truck lineup and will unveil the rejuvenated fleet in a few months, said Gutierrez. Ford, however, is planning to redesign the F-150 for the 2015 model year, which will begin to arrive at dealers in mid-2014 – giving GM a year-long head start. Still, the allure of the F-150 is so strong that in 2012 the truck outsold the entire car and truck fleets of Volkswagen, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Kia, or Subaru. That is quite a cushion for GM to overcome. (  http://ford.wieck.com/videos/ford-f-150-raptor-svt?query=raptor   )

The F-150 Raptor is a work truck that looks good and can go anywhere and do just about anything one might want a vehicle to do. In Texas – where 20% of the nation’s pickup trucks are sold – it is common to see a line of highly polished and simonized F-150s lined up outside the venue of every high school prom.  During the day, that same truck will carry a half ton of material and tow another three tons of cargo up, down and over any construction site. It comes close to being as capable as a Hummer, Toyota FJ Cruiser, or Jeep Wrangler Rubicon going up, down, or across steep slopes, fording streams, slogging through mud or crawling over tree limbs and rocks.

13 Ford F-150 Raptor - downhill

            Under that relatively water tight hood is a 6.2 liter V-8 engine cranking out 411 horsepower and 434 pound-feet of torque. It is mated to a six speed, overdrive, automatic transmission, and there are separate hill climb and descent gears. There are four additional power switches in the center console for use with after-market items such as floodlights or tow winches. The truck’s stability control system allows power to be transferred from a wheel which is suspended in the air to an opposing wheel. As a result the F-150 can continue in a relatively straight line regardless of what the trail does.

Inside, the F-150 is more like a large SUV. It features two screens: an eight-inch color, touch screen in the center of the dash and a 4.2-inch information screen directly in front of the steering wheel next to the speedometer.  This small screen shows the trip computer, fuel gauge, and the front mounted camera, which is used to let the driver see rocks and other off-road impediments. The main screen is used for everything else – the navigation system, entertainment, Bluetooth, and the backup camera. For amusement, the truck comes with a CD and DVD player, MP3, iPod and USB ports, satellite radio, and Bluetooth.

13 Ford F-150 Raptor - interior   The leather steering wheel is adjustable –as are the pedals – and contains fingertip cruise and audio controls. The four, 15-volt power outlets are to be expected. But since this is a work truck, Ford added a 115-volt power outlet so you can plug in a computer or other item needing serious power.

The test vehicle had the standard Supercab, with two full doors and half doors for the rear. But even with its slanted roofline, there is leg and head room in the rear for three adults in full-sized, leather seats. A larger, four-door, crew cab is available, adding about 200 pounds to the truck’s three-ton curb weight.  Either way, it’s a comfortable ride since the front seats are adjustable and can be heated or air cooled.

GM’s trucks have been steadily gaining ground on Ford, and Dodge Ram definitely has the edgiest commercials.  But for the time being, the F-150 is still the one to beat.

           13 Ford F-150 Raptor - side

 

2013 ford F-150 SVT Raptor

 

MSRP:                                                                        $50,760

EPA Mileage:                        11 MPG City                          16 MPG Highway

Towing Capacity:                                                      6,000 Pounds

 

Performance / Safety:

 

6.2-Liter, SOHC, iron block, V-8 engine producing 411 horsepower and 434 pound-feet of torque; 6-speed automatic overdrive transmission with tow mode; 4-wheel drive; hydraulic rack and pinion steering; coil-on-shock, double wishbone, independent front suspension; Hotchkiss-type, non-independent rear suspension; 4-wheel vented disc brakes; roll and stability control; 17-inch cast aluminum wheels; hill descent and off-road mode; skid plates; trailer tow; front seat, mounted side impact airbags; canopy airbags.

 

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/XM satellite radio;  CD and DVD player; iPod, MP3 and USB ports; satellite navigation  with 8-inch touch screen; SYNC connectivity and voice activation; 4.2-inch information screen; front and rear cameras; 4 15-volt outlets; one 115-volt outlet; leather, adjustable, heated and air-cooled front seats; tilt and telescoping, leather wrapped steering wheel with fingertip audio and cruise controls;

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Cruising in a Luxury Liner: The Lexus GS 350

December 9, 2012

13 Lexus GS-350 - side

By Roger Witherspoon

 

 

Peel me a grape, crush me some ice

Skin me a peach, save the fuzz for my pillow

Talk to me nice, talk to me nice

You’ve got to wine me, and dine me

Don’t try to fool me, bejewel me.

Either amuse me, or lose me

I’m getting hungry,

Peel me a grape.

The highway was empty, the road was hard and dry, and the New England sun was setting in a warm, orange cloudscape that seemed out of season on a cold winter night.

My wife leaned forward in the passenger seat, her head cocked at an angle, listening intently. She glanced periodically at the back seat through eyes that were at half mast as she nodded to the beat of the music. She had heard Diana Krall croon “Peel Me a Grape” before. But not like this.

Pop me a cork, French me a fry

Crack me a nut bring a bowl full of bon-bons

Chill me some wine. Keep standing by

Just entertain me. Champagne me

Show me you love me. Kid glove me

Best way to cheer me. Cashmere me

I’m getting hungry.

Peeeeel me.

“I don’t understand,” said Marilyn in a voice barely above a whisper, as if trying not to interrupt a performance. “It sounds like we’re in a live cabaret, and she’s in the back seat. How is that possible?”

“Well,” I whispered back, so as not to break the mood. “It’s an 845-watt sound system, and there are 17 speakers and a sound leveler to balance the music coming to each seat.”

“Aaaah,” she sighed. “That explains it. We don’t have 17 speakers in our whole house.”

At that point,  (  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bfJ_c2tyfQ0    ) the pianist and bassist took off in a tight, syncopated dance of their own – each note, crisp, clear, soft, and the vibrations from the bass could be felt through the thick leather padding in the Lexus’ arm rests. She was so engrossed in the private concert that she didn’t notice the speedometer had crept to 110 – an occupational hazard when driving a musically enhanced living room.  Instead of admonishing me to slow down or commenting on the absence of wind noise inside the sedan, she closed her eyes, sighed and said “play it again.”

And the voice-activated audio system did just that.

Send out for scotch, boil me a crab

Cut me a rose make my tea with the petals

Just hang around, pick up the tab and

Never out think me. Just mink me,

Polar bear rug me. Don’t bug me

New Thunderbird me. You heard me

I’m getting hungry.

Peel me a grape.

Slooooowly

One doesn’t buy a car for the amenities.

But if you are going to shell out more than $60,000 for a sedan, you have a right to expect a lot more than basic, comfortable transportation.   The Lexus GS-350 is a sport sedan aimed squarely at the upscale, market regularly patrolled by the BMW 535i, Mercedes E-350, Cadillac CTS, and Audi A6. It’s a tough crowd with cars justly known for performance and very high levels of comfort. In this case, the high quality sound system is just one of many items Lexus hopes will let the GS stand out in a demanding marketplace.

So far, Lexus’ designers seem to be doing something right. According to surveys of owner satisfaction conducted by J.D. Powers and Associates, Lexus is the highest ranking, high end nameplate in 2012, followed by Jaguar, Porsche, Cadillac and Honda, in that order. That’s a tough crowd to lead, and aside from the price, they have nothing in common.

13 Lexus GS-350 - red front

The look of the GS starts with its split, black, angular grill featuring sharp edges pointing towards the center and flaring widely towards the bottom. It’s an image vaguely reminiscent of ancient Samurai headgear, which flares towards the neck and shoulders. From that aggressive face follows a sleek, flowing silhouette, with soft lines along the sides resembling the tracery of water droplets across a fast-moving plane. The lines aren’t all for subliminal design – they serve to channel the airflow past the car and are part of the reason the interior is a silent theater.

Under that sloping hood is a 3.5-liter V-6 engine capable of cranking out 306 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque. That places the Lexus about in the middle of t the V-6 power plants of the BMW 535i, Mercedes E350, Cadillac CTS, and Audi A6, which put out between 300 and 310 horsepower. And with a top speed of 142 miles per hour, the Lexus is likely to run with, rather than ahead of its competitors.

On the road the Lexus, with all wheel drive, yields nothing to its competitors in terms of performance.  It has a six-speed automatic transmission which shifts without any noticeable or audible lag. And for an extra boost in passing, particularly uphill, there is a sport manual mode and paddle shifts on the steering column providing the type of instant response one finds in a quality sports car.

Where Lexus hopes to make its mark is inside, where the people are. And they gave more than a little thought to that experience, punctuated by a real, analog clock in the 13 Lexus GS-350 - clockcenter of the dash.

The décor is leather and dark, polished wood, accented by brushed aluminum trim and, at night, set off by soft traceries of light. While the exterior design is aggressive, the interior is all soft surfaces and rounded edges.  The armrests, for example, curve outward and resemble padded leather shelves rather than the standard door appendage. This is an all-weather car, and the seats in the front and rear can be heated if it’s cold or the passenger is just sore and seeks a soothing, hot compress. In the summer, the ventilated leather front seats can also be air cooled.  A push of a button also heats the steering wheel. The front seats and the wide sunroof are all power adjustable.

The rear seats have enough legroom for a pair of women basketball players and enough headroom to accommodate any variety of hair styles. There is a push-button sunscreen for the rear windshield, and manually operated screens for each of the rear windows. There are also separate climate controls for the occupants in the back seat.

The centerpiece of the rolling dashboard is a 12.3-inch color screen, which is split into a seven-inch navigation screen and a five-inch section for the active systems in the car, such as the climate and audio. It’s a thoughtful adaptation which is appreciated on trips through strange cities since you do not have to drop the on-screen map in order to adjust the music or temperature. And, for old eyes, it’s extremely easy to see.

There is a backup camera, but the placement is a bit awkward. The camera is near the dual exhaust, and the view is cloudy at night when the exhaust fumes are more pronounced. During the day, however, the view is crystal clear.

13 Lexus GS-350 - interior front

The GS also comes with a number of safety features. The Lexus’ heads-up display, an amenity normally found in GM’s Cadillac and Corvette, provides a hologram that appears on the hood in front of the driver, displaying the speedometer and changes in music or temperature. There is a dynamic cruise control, which adjusts to the speed of the car in front of the Lexus. In addition, there is an infrared camera focused on the driver’s eyes. If the distance between the Lexus and another car is closing too fast, and the driver is not looking forward, the car sounds an alert. If the driver does not respond the Lexus will automatically begin braking, tightening seat belts, and readying air bags 1.2 seconds before the actual collision to lessen its impact.

Lexus’ redesign of the GS sedan was necessary if it is to keep up with an innovative, high performing pack. The GS has a lot going for it. To what extent it can outmuscle the competition remains to be seen.

2013 Lexus GS 350

 

MSRP:                                                                        $63,232

EPA Mileage:                        19 MPG City                          26 MPG Highway

 

Performance / Safety:

 

            0 – 60 MPH                                                    5.8 Seconds

            Top Speed                                                      142 MPH

 

3.5-Liter,  DOHC, direct injection, V-6 aluminum engine producing 306 horsepower and  274 pound-feet of torque; all-wheel drive;  6- speed automatic transmission; electronic manual mode with paddle shifters; independent double wishbone front suspension;  independent multi-link rear suspension; 4-wheel, ventilated disc brakes; stability and traction control; b-xenon headlights with automatic leveling; fog lamps; heads-up display; blind spot monitor; lane departure monitor; 18-inch alloy wheels; driver and front passenger knee bags;  dual front airbags;  side impact  and curtain airbags.

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/XM satellite radio; 17-speaker, 835-watt, Mark Levinson Premium Surround Sound, Bluetooth; iPod, MP3, and USB ports; CD player; voice activated navigation system with 12.3-inch split color screen; backup camera;  heated front and rear seats; leather and wood, heated, tilt and telescoping steering wheel with fingertip audio, Bluetooth and cruise controls;  powered sunroof.

13 Lexus GS-350 - rear

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Rolling Through a Superstorm In a Mazda CX-5

December 4, 2012

13 Mazda CX-5 - front profile

 

By Roger Witherspoon

 

            The full moon over the Hudson River was just a faint, fuzzy ball behind the swirling band of clouds marking the passage of Super Hurricane Sandy.

It was a strange sort of hurricane, in that there was virtually no rain. But the gravitational pull of that obscure moon and the winds that roared down from the Hudson Highlands at speeds approaching 100 miles per hour were pushing the river’s salt-water tides to record heights. That made it a perfect time to cruise along the river and watch the effects of a superstorm in action.

It was less than two miles from my home to the river’s edge. But it took time to navigate the normally short, direct route over or around the downed trees, the occasional, bouncing, live wire, broken branches and other blowing debris that littered the streets and highways of Westchester County, New York City’s northern suburb. Periodically, I opened the window of the Mazda CX-5 to listen to the raging wind or the cracking sound of trees coming down, turning down streets that seemed particularly noisy.

At the entrance to a short causeway over a Hudson River inlet, a utility worker emerged from a Ford F-150 truck dripping muddy river water off its hood and put flares across the road, blocking it off.  The Bear Mountain Extension provided the shortest route to Camp Smith, an Army base, and the winding road up to the Bear Mountain Bridge, about 10 miles south of West Point.  The lowest point of the road, he said, was under about four feet of water in a 20-yard stretch, and the river was still rising.

That did not deter the drivers of two, huge, military trucks headed for CampSmith.  The trucks were armored on the sides and bottoms better deflect the blast from roadside mines.  Slowly, the convoy drove in to the fast moving water – and got stuck at the deepest part.

The utility worker called for police support and raced down the roadway. In minutes, dozens of police cars drove onto the causeway, the officers piling out in an effort to help the trapped soldiers.

I left the Mazda at the side of the four-lane roadway and played traffic cop until a real officer came and took over. Then I slid back behind the leather steering wheel, hit the Bluetooth button to connect the audio from my Smartphone to the 225-watt, nine-speaker, Bose sound system, and continued rolling through Superstorm Sandy as the Temptations belted their ‘60s classic “Runaway Child.”

13 Mazda CX-5 - side

The Mazda CX-5 is a mid-sized, five-passenger SUV that is not particularly intended for off-road driving and certainly wasn’t designed for moonlight swims in swollen rivers. But its 19-inch aluminum wheels, and all-wheel drive makes it a pretty secure mode of transport even in abnormal conditions. It is not a Jeep or FJ Cruiser, and downed tree trunks would have brought the CX-5 to a lurching halt. But rolling over small branches and through hubcap-deep puddles and fast-moving streams was not a problem for a well-balanced SUV with traction and stability controls.

While all Mazda’s are marketed under the “zoom-zoom” logo, that speedy phrase really applies only to their sports cars. The CX-5 has a small, 2-liter, four-cylinder power plant cranking out just 155 horsepower – which is pretty anemic when you are taking off. The CX-5 is rated with a towing power of 2,000 pounds, though that may well be a strain for the little engine that could. As it is, the CX-5 has little power for passing, unless you shift into the electronic manual mode and downshift for extra torque. It is an easy maneuver, and in manual mode, the Mazda is extremely responsive and the pickup is instantaneous.

It has the sleek silhouette common among crossovers. And along its sides are soft, subtle lines which help deflect airflow as the car moves faster.  This both reduces drag and lessens the wind noise.

In their design studios, the Zoom-Zoom guys gave some thought to the quality of the interior of the CX-5.  It is a quiet car, regardless of whether the wind is moving at 100 miles an hour or the speedometer is approaching that mark. There is little exterior noise to intrude on the music or conversation.13 Mazda CX-5 - dash

All the surfaces have thickly padded real or simulated leather, accented with chrome and brushed aluminum. It is a five-seater, with the second row designed to actually hold three, average-sized adults.  Each of these seats can fold flat to add to the already ample cargo area. The front seats can be heated, though only the driver’s seat is power adjustable.

If there is a drawback, it’s that the navigation system is mediocre. Mazda uses the Tom-Tom system, which was designed originally for hand held devices and, in that mode, competed with the more popular Garmin.   Tom-Tom is more difficult to use than either Garmin or the standard navigation systems designed for cars. Its personal settings are hard to find, and it is not intuitive to operate. The 5.8-inch screen, on the other hand, is small and individual street names are harder to see. However, the screen is crystal clear, and the backup camera is lighted so you can actually use it at night.

The crossover SUV market is a crowded one and Mazda will have a tough fight to carve its own niche from the likes of a Nissan Murano or Ford Escape. But the Mazda CX-5 offers a lot for $30,000 and is sure to be competitive. It’s a comfortable way to roll, whether running on the open, sunny road, or running away from a runaway river.

13 Mazda CX-5 - rear

 

 

2013 Mazda CX-5

 

MSRP:                                                                        $30,415

EPA Mileage:                        25 MPG City                          31 MPG Highway

As Tested Mileage:                                                   20.9 MPG Mixed

Towing Capacity:                                                      2,000 Pounds

 

Performance / Safety:

 

2.0-Liter, 4-cylinder, DOHC, aluminum  engine producing 155 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque; all-wheel drive; 6-speed automatic transmission; independent MacPherson strut front suspension; independent, multi-link rear suspension; front & rear stabilizing bars; 4-wheel dies brakes; 19-inch alloy wheels; power assisted steering; anti-lock brakes; blind spot monitoring; Halogen headlights; fog lamps; stability and traction controls; hill launch assist; dual front airbags;  front and rear, side impact airbags.

 

Interior / Comfort;

 

AM/FM/Sirius Satellite and HD radio; 9-speaker, 225-watt, Bose surround sound system; iPod, MP3, and USB ports; Bluetooth; navigation system with 5.8-inch touch-screen; backup camera;  tilt & telescoping, leather wrapped steering wheel with fingertip audio and cruise controls; powered sunroof; fold-flat rear seats in 40/ 20/40 split; leather seats; heated front seats; powered driver’s seat – manually operated passenger seat.

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Taming Texas in a Chevy Camaro

October 16, 2012

By Roger Witherspoon

 

I had stopped for gas in the middle of nowhere – which is just about any place in the arid, dusty, 150-mile stretch of the west Texas Panhandle between Lubbock and the New Mexico border where the monotonous view of scrub brush is only interrupted by slowly cranking oil wells. I did not plan on staying long.

This is a region noted for being inhospitable to strangers in general and Blacks in particular, and where the top elected officials publicly warn residents to be prepared to fight off United Nations troops sent in by President Obama to usher in a socialist takeover of America. Nature doesn’t help, either. While there are plenty of shaded, roadside “picnic areas” where a tired motorist can catch a nap, many of these have skull and crossbones signs warning of fatally toxic sulfur fumes from leaking gas lines. Which means your nap may be your last, so it’s best to keep moving.

So it was disconcerting to come out of the station’s mini mart and see the parking spot next to my car occupied by a heavy duty pickup truck with a rifle and a shotgun on the gun rack across the rear window. Three men in weathered, Stetson hats who were standing, arms folded, next to the driver’s door stopped talking as I approached. Then, one stepped towards me and said, “Man, that’s a really sweet car! Can we see it?”

How could I resist?

            They ran their hands along the smooth lines of the  fire engine red, 2013 Chevy Camaro SS convertible, and positively gushed as they looked under the hood at the 6.2-liter, aluminum V-8 engine capable of cranking out 427 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque. What they really liked was the fact that the Camaro, on its  20-inch, painted aluminum wheels, could dash from 0 – 60 miles per hour in just 4.7 seconds, pass the quarter mile mark in 12.9 seconds with the speedometer at 113, and top out at 155 MPH. And that is just your average, $45,000 Camaro.

Chevy has a heftier model, the 580 horsepower Camaro ZL-1 which goes from 0 – 60 in 3.9 seconds (an area normally reserved for Corvette and Porsche), hits the quarter mile in 12.3 seconds and tops out at 188 miles per hour. And in Texas, one could actually get a chance to try that and worry more about hitting an armadillo than drawing the attention of the State Police.

With the push of a button I put down the canvas top and the trio, hats included, sat in the car and passed me their cell phones to take pictures. Then they wished me God speed. That is not an idle wish in west Texas, where the 75 mile an hour speed limit is considered a recommended floor rather than a legal ceiling.

The audience nodded appreciatively as the Camaro started with a loud rumble and a steady vibration as the V-8 engine rhythmically rocked the car. When parked, the sports coup most resembles an angry cat and, once started, it seems anxious to leap.

A hologram of the speedometer appeared as if by magic, seemingly hovering over the hood between the bulging air scoop and the left wheel. The floating, Heads Up display would make it unnecessary to take my eyes off the wide Texas roadway to monitor my speed or change the music.

With a wave, I floored the accelerator and the cowboys quickly disappeared in the rear view mirror. A nice feature of west Texas highways is that they are wide, flat, and the curves are steeply banked. I leveled off when the hologram showed the speed at 140, and the sound of the wind was drowned out by Usher belting “Yeah!” from the nine, large, 245-watt speakers. The 20-inch wheels ate up the hardtop, and the automatic stability controls kept the Camaro level on the wide, banked highway curves.

The newest version of the Camaro, with an updated interior and electronics, is a clear descendant of the 1960s version of the Pony Car General Motors created to compete with the Ford Mustang. It has the same wide stance and curved silhouette that captured attention in that tumultuous era. That is not surprising since Ed Welburn, GM’s vice president and design chief, still drives his ’69 yellow Camaro with the twin black racing stripes on the hood. If the new Camaro is a bit wider than the original, well, so are today’s drivers.

Inside, there is an emphasis on comfort. The seats are double-stitched, two-toned leather, and are wide, thickly padded, and soft. The front seats can be heated, a feature appreciated by younger drivers in cold climates and older drivers most of the time. The rear seats are more for show than use, though there is leg room if everyone in the car is well under six feet. Passengers taller than that will have serious leg cramps.  The rear seats do fold flat, however, which enlarges the ample trunk space.

The décor in the Camaro is sport plastic – the molding on the dash and doors matches the exterior of the car and the seats. In this case, the trim was red and the black seats matched the black stripe on the hood.

For entertainment, the Camaro is aimed at a younger generation. The designers apparently feel CDs and DVDs are yesterday’s technology, as there is no place to use them. If, however you have a movie on your iPod, smartphone, or USB flash drive, then plug it in and watch it on the seven-inch color screen. Or, you can switch between HD, satellite radio, and the other technologies.

The new Camaro is a mix of the old and new. In the ‘60s I was interested in speed, and any amenities besides an AM radio were a bonus I could take or leave. A half century later I still want speed – but want to be comfortable, prefer a navigation system so I don’t get lost, and like the thought of traction control and air bags when the speedometer is in triple digits.

What is consistent about the Camaro is it’s a head turner to look at, and a pleasant way to fly on the open road.

 

2013 Chevrolet Camaro SS

 

MSRP:                                                                        $44,960

EPA Mileage:                        15 MPG City                          24 MPG Highway

As Tested Mileage:                                                   16.8 MPG Highway

 

Performance / Safety:

 

            0 – 60 MPH                                                    4.7 Seconds

            ¼ Mile:                                                           12.9 Seconds at 113 MPH

            Top Speed:                                                     155 MPH

 

6.2-Liter, cast aluminum engine producing 426 horsepower and 420 pound/feet of torque; 6-speed automatic transmission; double ball-joint, multi-link strut front suspension; 4.5-link independent rear suspension; 4-wheel disc, Bembro performance brakes with ventilated rotors and anti-lock brake system; 20-inch painted aluminum wheels; Halogen head lamps; fog lights; traction and stability controls; front, side, and head curtain airbags.

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/XM satellite radio; 245-watt, Boston Acoustics premium sound system with 9 speakers; iPod, USB and MP3 connections; Bluetooth phone and audio; 7-inch color information screen; backup camera; tilt & telescoping, leather wrapped steering wheel with fingertip cruise, audio and Bluetooth controls; leather, powered and heated front seats; Heads Up display; folding rear seats.

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Battle of the Asian Bantams: Hyundai Veloster and Nissan Juke

October 5, 2012

   

 

By Roger Witherspoon

            Let’s say you’re a car manufacturer looking to carve a niche from the crowded market for 20-somethings.

There are, of course, a host of well-made compact and sub-compact sedans and hatchbacks for under $25,000. But you don’t want to produce just another pretty metal face in a big motorized crowd. So you get a bit more selective and tell the folks with the crayons to draw something that would appeal to young men on the go, guys who want something different and fast, but still economical and suited for urban areas.

Nissan came out the box with a powerful little compact SUV called the Juke, which has the character of a Bantam rooster, but the critics at Car and Driver thought it most resembled an alligator emerging from the water. It wasn’t long before Hyundai answered with something equally formidable and reptilian, a compact SUV intended to evoke images of the fierce, prehistoric Velociraptor, and named, appropriately, Veloster.

Oh No They Didn’t! 

            There was nothing subtle about Nissan’s launch of the Juke. A fire engine red compact with an angry face roared through streets and drifted arrogantly in and around cars in a parking lot while the announcer said, smugly: “That’s right. We put a turbo in a four cylinder compact.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3RdALFkwvHg )

And in a car that small, a turbo makes quite an impact. The Juke is an arrogant, independent, smugly stylish little car that draws attention whether it’s parked or zipping past all the big cars on the road. Its looks are not traditional, which accounts for the alligator label, though a bullfrog in a hurry is probably more apt. The front is wide and high, and the car slopes and thins towards the rear. The bulging headlights fit right in with the amphibian motif. But this is not a sluggish, ungainly, wobbling little critter.

But the Jukes are definitely eye catching, whether parked or on the highway. So just what do they offer for $27,000?

Under that wide, bulging front hood is a four-cylinder, inter-cooled turbocharged aluminum engine producing 188 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque.  For comparison purposes, the turbo charged engine of the Mini Cooper S cranks out 181 horsepower. The Juke’s turbocharger lets the small car take off from 0 – 60 miles per hour in 7.3 seconds, and tops out at 137 miles per hour.  Those aren’t serious racing speeds, and the Juke won’t catch a Mini Cooper, which is nearly as small. But the Mini Cooper, a smaller cousin of BMW, costs thousands of dollars more and has a bigger engine. The Juke’s turbo power plant will let the relatively light car run rings around most of the small roadsters and pretty much every compact on the road.

It has front wheel drive and a manual transmission which slides easily between its six gears. On the road, it actually handles more like a go-kart version of its heavier, more expensive, IPL sport sedan.

For those who prefer cars which are, essentially, leather seats on top of an engine, Nissan has a racing version of this sport compact called the Juke-R.  In this case, the alligator dumps the turbocharged engine in favor of a 545 horsepower motor which toe company says has a designed top speed of 160 miles per hour (  http://bit.ly/QB0KWT   ) though it has been clocked at over 200 MPH.

Inside, there are strengths and weaknesses to the Juke.  That amphibian look, with a broad front and a sharply sloping roofline means that there is a loss of space in the rear passenger area.  The seats can fold flat in a 60/40 split to provide ample space for luggage for a week-long getaway for two. But putting four adults in the car would be rough on the rear two. One doesn’t feel claustrophobic in the Juke – that wide windshield and long, powered sunroof provide the illusion of more space than the car actually has.

Nissan didn’t scrimp on comfort, however. There is ample use of leather, from the adjustable steering wheel to the thickly padded doors and arm rests to the heated but manually operated seats. On the entertainment side, the Juke has a Rockford Fosgate sound system with an eight-inch sub-woofer and six speakers – more than enough to deafen anyone in the car. The Juke offers satellite radio, as well as iPod, MP 3 and USB connections, Bluetooth and a CD player. There is an easy to use navigation system, though the five-inch color screen is a bit small.

But screen size is a minor item for a car that is pretty unique except for its lone competitor, another bantam-weight from Asia.

A Little Korean Dinosaur 

            There is no love lost between the Koreans and Japanese. So it was not surprising that a year after the introduction of the Juke, Hyundai responded at the same $27,000 price with a compact speedster whose name, Veloster, evokes another reptile. But instead of a toothy amphibian, the muse for Hyundai’s designers was the meat eating, Velociraptor, which was known for running down its red-blooded prey.

            And to live up to its billing, the Koreans gave the Veloster a turbocharged engine cranking out 201 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque. That is just 13 horsepower more than the Juke’s power plant, but at 2,800 pounds, the Veloster is 300 pounds lighter than its Japanese competition.  Between the two, the Veloster is faster on the takeoff, but its top speed is 130 miles per hour. As a result the Juke, which tops out at 137, will eventually dust it.

Outside, the Veloster looks every bit as aggressive as its designers intended. There is a wide, black grill which pretty much consumes the face. It has a high front tapering towards the rear, a design cue that is reminiscent of the Kia Soul, but much meaner. The design has something of the stealth fighter mode with sharp and exaggerated angles rather than soft, wavy lines like those found on the popular Hyundai Sonata.  The company will not use big-bellied, hip-hop hamsters to advertise the Veloster.

This speedster is essentially a hatchback, with a double sunroof leading right into the glass rear and effectively presenting an all glass ceiling. The expanse of glass on the sides of the car is not symmetrical. The driver’s side door is longer, and has a longer window than the opposite passenger door. But the second row window behind the driver is a small, immobile triangle while the rear window on the passenger side is larger and actually opens.

On the comfort side, the Veloster offers a 450-watt, Dimension Premium audio with 8 speakers to make it easy to become deaf. It also has iPod, USB and MP 3 ports, a CD player and Bluetooth for the phone or audio. It has a seven-inch color screen, however, for its navigation system and backup camera, and augments the standard 12-volt power outlet for cell phone chargers with a 115-volt, three-pronged outlet to plug in computers or game consoles.

Hyundai also has Blue Link, which is Hyundai’s version of General Motors’ successful OnStar satellite communications system. At the push of the Blue Link button located on the rear view mirror, a live person will answer who can provide directions or contact road aid or emergency assistance. Like OnStar, if the Veloster is in an accident and the airbags deploy, Blue Link will automatically locate the car and notify the nearest emergency services.

For parents, Blue Link also offers something called “Geo Fence.” If your child is out with the car and it goes past pre-set boundaries the car will call home and tell you. The Fence works for wives, too.

The Veloster and Juke make for an interesting pair of compact sport competitors. A decade ago, the Mini Cooper burst on the scene as a co-star in the action movie “The Italian Job.”  It has had the compact turbo niche pretty much to itself since then and hasn’t really changed.

The Veloster and Juke will give the Mini Cooper and all the other little speedsters – and each other – quite a spirited run.

 

 

2013 Hyundai Veloster Turbo

 

MSRP:                                                                        $27,520

EPA Mileage:                        26 MPG City                          38 MPG Highway

 

Performance / Safety:

 

                                    Top Speed:                             130 MPH

                                    0 – 60 MPH                            6.9 Seconds

 

1.6-Liter, 4-cylinder, DOHC, twinscroll turbocharger, aluminum engine producing 201 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque; 6-speed manual transmission; independent MacPherson strut front suspension; V-torsion beam rear suspension; 18-inch alloy wheels;  11.8-inch ventilated front disc brakes; 10.3-inch solid rear disc brakes;  power rack and pinion steering; electronic stability and traction control; projection headlights; fog lights; backup warning signal and rear view camera; front, side impact, and side curtain airbags.

 

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/Sirius satellite radio; Bluetooth; iPod, MP3, and USB ports; Hyundai BlueLink; 450-watt, Dimension Premium audio with 8 speakers; 7-inch touch screen; navigation system; leather wrapped, tilt & telescope steering wheel with fingertip cruise, audio, and phone controls; leather, power operated seats; heated front seats; 12-volt and 115-volt power outlets; panoramic sunroof; 60/40 fold flat rear seats.

 

2012 Nissan Juke

 

MSRP:                                                                                                $27,180

EPA Mileage:                        25 MPG City                          30 MPG Highway

As Tested Mileage:                                                   36 MPG Highway

 

Performance / Safety:

 

                                    Top Speed:                             137 MPH

                                    0 – 60 MPH                            7.3 Seconds

 

1.6-Liter, 4-cylinder, direct injection, DOHC, intercooled turbocharged aluminum engine producing 188 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque;  6-speed manual transmission; all wheel drive; 11.7-inch, vented disc front brakes; 11.5-inch solid disc rear brakes; independent strut front suspension; rear multi-link stabilizer bar suspension; traction and stability control; speed sensitive power steering; 17-inch gunmetal wheels; automatic Halogen headlights; fog lights; front seat mounted side-impact air bags; roof-mounted curtain airbags.

 

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/XM satellite radio; Bluetooth; CD player; MP3, iPod, and USB ports; Rockford Fosgate sound system with 8-inch subwoofer; navigation system with 5-inch color touch screen; backup camera; leather wrapped, tilt & telescoping steering wheel with fingertip audio, cruise, and Bluetooth; powered sunroof; 12-volt power outlet; leather, manually operated seats; heated front seats; 60/40 fold flat rear seats.

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