Archive for the ‘2010 Reviews’ Category

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The Corvette: Speed, Grace, and Rolling Nostalgia

September 3, 2012

By Roger Witherspoon

I pushed the starter button and the car shook as a roar emerged from underneath the chassis and burst in a series of rapid fire explosions out the rear, as if a string of heavy duty firecrackers were celebrating behind me.

And that was when the Corvette was sitting still.

Clearly this was a sports car better suited to the driving bass-line of Eminem’s Lose Yourself  than any dulcet jazz solos from Keiko Matsui or ‘Trane. I unlatched the roof and put it on the designated tracks in the long, shallow trunk. Then slid a USB drive into the designated slot under the armrest and lined up a few hundred favorites to blare from the nine Bose speakers. I drove slowly to the entrance of an isolated stretch of  Connecticut interstate highway, where it stretches for about two miles through the marsh grass flanking the Long Island Sound, and waited till the roadway was empty.

And then, I popped the clutch and floored it.

The rumble under the car turned into a roar as the Corvette shot down the highway, going through the six gears in a matter of seconds till I held the speedometer level at 140. I did not have to take my eyes off the road: the Vette has a hologram of the speedometer and key gauges – including the entertainment system – floating over the left side of the hood between the 18-inch left wheel and the center air scoop.  It was hard to hear what Eminem was rapping over the throbbing of the engine and the roar of the wind – but the driving bass line was audible enough and seemed to mesh with the pounding of the 436-horsepower V-8.

The Corvette rides low to the ground, and the adjacent scenery was little more than a blur as I approached a long curve. I dropped down to 105 and sailed through the middle of the curve and then accelerated back up to 140 as I hit the straightaway. At that point, the highway was leaving the coast and it was time to slow back to the speed limit. There isn’t a lot of room on the crowded roads of the nation’s northeast to really appreciate what a sports car like this can do. You need a lot of space and a relatively straight road to enjoy a sports car roaring at nearly 190 miles per hour on the highway instead of splattered all over it.

But for a few minutes, and two miles of sunbaked, Connecticut highway, there was a glimpse of the joy of the wide open, western highways and the feel of a legendary machine.

This is the 60th anniversary of the introduction of the Chevrolet Corvette (  http://bcove.me/4ybhxikj  ),  the star of multiple series of hot rod adventure books of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Corvette, the first of a storied group of American muscle cars, first hit the roads in 1953. And while the 2013 Corvette has little in common with the original – except for a long, low silhouette and a reputation for speed – at 60 years of age it is the oldest Chevrolet nameplate on a passenger car. The title of the oldest Chevy nameplate still in use is the 77-year-old, truck-based, Chevy Suburban, which was introduced in 1936 and is still rumbling along.

The deliberate effort to bring back the feel – and sound – of the Corvette of the ‘50s partially explains the rapid-fire explosion of sound accompanying acceleration and deceleration in the current edition.

According to Chevrolet spokesman Monte Duran, the 2013 Corvette has a “dual mode exhaust” – two sets of twin chrome tailpipes. “The interior pipes,” explained Duran “have butterfly valves.  Those are closed at most speeds, and when you are cruising it sends the exhaust through the mufflers.

“But when you stand on the accelerator, at full throttle, the Corvette has an algorithm that you are driving in a more spirited fashion, and it opens the valves. The exhaust them bypasses the mufflers and it is a straight pipe going out the back. When those valves are open you could run a golf ball straight down into the catalytic converter. We did that for people who want the noise and crackle and pop of the after-market exhaust. So it is to give you the best of both worlds.”

In addition, while the Corvette has the same basic engine as the Camaro SS, Duran added that “the Corvette is a drop-top with less sound-proof shielding. So you get more engine noise coming through the roof.  That’s where the extra sound is.”

The noise actually takes some getting used to. You can listen to a soft flute solo at 100 miles per hour in a little Ford Fiesta or a sporty Camaro and appreciate the quality of sound-proofing in modern American-made cars.  With the Corvette, however, you can take soft jazz and all classical music pretty much off your playlist unless, of course, you use headphones.

But one doesn’t buy a Corvette for the pretty music.

This is a speed machine, the sixth edition of a classic breed designed to get you to your destination comfortably and fast. In that regard, it is successful. The test car, the Grand Sport Coupe, has a fiberglass hard top which you can manually unlock and then store on clips set into the flat trunk area.  That pretty much limits cargo to items which are small and relatively flat, such as a computer carrier or luggage bag. With the hard top on the trunk area – a wide, flat expanse about a foot deep – is large enough to carry a couple of suitcases, though you’d have to have Federal Express deliver any athletic gear to your vacation destination.

The 6.2-liter power plant in the Grand Sport zips from 0 – 60 miles per hour in 3.9 seconds, passes a quarter mile in 12.9 seconds at 13 miles per hour, and tops out at 188 MPH. If that isn’t enough, there is the Corvette ZR-1 with a 6.2-liter supercharged engine producing 638 horsepower and topping out at 205 MPH – a speed at which the State Police simply photograph the passing license plate and mail a license suspension notice to your home. Or the 505-horsepower Corvette Z-06, which chugs along at just 198 miles per hour.

Inside, the Corvette is intended to provide the comforts one would expect from a car with a price tag north of $70,000. There is an easy to use navigation system controlled by voice, fingertip controls on the leather steering wheel, or the eight-inch, color touch screen. The deep, leather seats have power adjustments and lumbar controls, and can be heated. The entertainment system has satellite radio as well as iPod and USB connections, a CD player and Bluetooth phone and audio. Sound pours through nine Bose speakers strong enough to carry a heavy beat even with the roof off. And, as with all GM cars, the Corvette has OnStar, which has its own satellite phone and turn-by-turn navigation system.

The 2013 family of Corvettes are the last of this edition, which first rolled out of the Bowling Green, Ky plant a decade ago. GM’s design chief, Ed Welburn, is not talking about the parameters for the next generation. The only hint that something very different is coming in 2014 is the announcement that the plant, which receives more than 50,000 visitors annually, is ending all tours September 14 until further notice.  That is to prevent anyone from getting clues from the retooling which will commence shortly thereafter.

But that’s for the future. For now, the 2013 ‘Vette shows a lot of life for a senior citizen.


2013 Chevrolet Corvette

            Grand Sport Coupe

 

MSRP:                                                                        $70,785

EPA Mileage:                        16 MPG City                          26 MPG Highway

 

Performance / Safety:

Top speed                               188 MPH

0-60                                         3.9 Seconds

1/4 mile                                   12.3 Seconds at 117 MPH

 

6.2-Liter, cast aluminum, V-8 engine producing 436 horsepower and 428 pound-feet of torque; 6-speed manual transmission; power Rack & Pinion steering; double wishbone front and rear suspension; 18-inch diameter, 9.5-inch wide, painted aluminum front wheels; 19-inch diameter, 1-foot wide, painted aluminum rear wheels; traction control, 4-wheel antilock brake system; run-flat tires; fog lamps, Xenon, high density headlights; heads-up holographic display; front and side impact airbags.

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/XM satellite radio; CD player; iPod and USB ports; Bluetooth phone and audio; OnStar; tilt and telescope, leather wrapped steering wheel with fingertip audio and adaptive cruise controls; power adjusted, heated, leather bucket seats; Bose sound system with 9 speakers; navigation system with 8-inch touch screen; removable roof;

 

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Mercedes C-300: The All-Purpose Luxury Car

December 31, 2011

 

By Roger Witherspoon

 

The snow was no problem.

It was only about two inches deep and, at that level, most cars would ignore it. But the temperature kept skipping just above freezing, producing cold rain, and then heading back south, turning the white stuff into a two inch glaze. It was the kind of road conditions made primarily for snow plows, tow trucks, and Jeeps and if I didn’t have to take a low riding, sleek, Mercedes sports sedan out during the middle of this mess I wouldn’t have.

Not that it mattered. With some cars, icy conditions are problematic and the only way to move is by disconnecting the electronic traction control because the continuous, unpredictable, uneven skidding among the tires crashes the wheels’ computer system. That was not a problem here. While the five-spoke, 18-inch aluminum wheels and  all-weather radials looked good on the four-wheel drive Benz, they were also quite functional and treated the ice as just another hard surface.

That was helpful on the Taconic Parkway rolling through the Franklin D. Roosevelt State park behind a fast moving Jeep Cherokee. We entered a slight curve in the highway and the rear of the SUV began to sashay back and forth. The driver, panicking, hit the accelerator in an effort to bull his way through the ice – which was precisely the wrong thing to do. The Jeep did a slow 360 across the three-lane highway and ended up on the shoulder.

            I eased up on the C-300’s accelerator to give the Jeep space to dance across the lanes, and then easily cruised around him and continued on my way. There is a lot to be said for having four-wheel drive, traction control and appropriate tires.

            The new Mercedes Benz C-300 is a four-door sports sedan whose long, sleek, low silhouette is intended to turn heads. But its exterior design, for all its eye-catching details, is always second to its primary function providing safe, sure, extremely comfortable transport in all conditions. In that regard, the Mercedes C-300 is a petty package on a really efficient, versatile, sports sedan that offers a lot for about $48,000.

Under the hood is a relatively small power plant for a sports model, producing just 228 horsepower. But it is mated to a seven speed, automatic transmission which seamlessly gets the most torque out of each gear and effortlessly shifts among them. The quality of the transmission is particularly evident when used in electronic manual mode on an open road. It is not a car for drag racing – the top speed is just 130 miles per hour, and it accelerates from 0 – 60 in just over seven seconds. But except for Saturday night drag racing on certain urban streets, you really don’t use maximum acceleration unless you are already on the road and need to pass something in a hurry or get out of the way. And when it matters, the C-300’s power plant can deliver.

The ability to maneuver on icy terrain is part of a package of road condition safety features Mercedes hopes will steer buyers to its showrooms the same way Volvo cars have traditionally drawn those who view safety and stability as primary features.  In addition to the relatively standard traction and stability controls, Mercedes’ engineers have added capabilities, such as cross wind sensors which actually shift the angle of the car’s chassis to slightly tilt into the wind. The effect of the innovation is particularly noticeable on mountain curves, where you can hear the wind howling down the side of the mountain towards you, only to flow harmlessly over the changed silhouette.

This Mercedes has side radar alerting the driver to the presence of cars on either side when changing lanes – a feature that is becoming common in upscale cars. But Mercedes has changed it from a passive system noting objects in the area, to an active safety system calculating how fast the distance between the cars is closing. The system can do two things: alert the drive to a possible pending collision and, if a crash is imminent, apply safety features such as tightening safety belts, reducing speed, and readying airbags.

            Inside the sedan is what you would expect to find in a luxury car: a powered sunroof and rear window sunscreen; soft, powered, leather seats which are heated in front and can fold in the rear; and a host of electronic gear. The leather-wrapped steering wheel tilts and telescopes, and has fingertip controls for cruise, information, audio, and easy to use Bluetooth. There is a 7-inch pop-up color screen for the navigation and entertainment systems.

For music there is a 6-disc CD player, as well as connections for USB drives, iPods, and MP3 players, as well as a six gigabyte hard drive to carry 1,500 or so of your personal favorites. The music emanates from eight speakers, producing a smooth surround-sound blanket which could lull you to sleep – except there is an alarm which goes off if the car drifts into another lane or onto the shoulder.

Whether one is driving through snowy, seasonal Nor’easters or watching the speedometer hit triple digits while rolling past mountaintop windmills in the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts, the C-300 provides quite a ride.

 


2012 Mercedes Benz C300

 

MSRP:                                                                        $47,850

EPA Mileage:                        17 MPG City                          24 MPG Highway

 

Performance / Safety:

 

3.0-Liter DOHC V-6 engine producing 228 horsepower and 221 pound-feet of torque; 7-speed automatic transmission with electronic manual mode; 4-matic all wheel drive; 3-link independent front suspension; multi-link independent rear suspension; 18-inch, 5-spoke alloy wheels; 4-wheel disc brakes; electronic stability program; dual 2-stage front airbags; side airbags; head protection curtains; dual front pelvic airbags.

 

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/Sirius satellite radio ; voice controlled 7-inch retractable color display;  6-disc CD/DVD player with 6 GB hard drive; iPod, USB, and MP3 connections; Bluetooth  phone and music connection; 8 speakers;  tilt and telescope steering wheel with fingertip cruise, phone and entertainment controls; voice activated navigation; power sunroof; heated front seats; split, fold flat rear seats; powered rear sunshade.

 

 

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Running on E: The Chevy Volt Hits the Road

September 20, 2011


By Roger Witherspoon

What was left of Hurricane Lee was rapidly losing steam.

The rainfall had eased from a blinding deluge dropping two inches per hour, to a gentle, late summer rain. And the long distance haulers were taking advantage of the relative lull to make up for lost time by racing their big rigs up the New England interstate.

The speedometer approached 70 as I eased from the long entrance lane onto the right lane of US I-84 near the New York-Connecticut border – an unremarkable speed in normal circumstances, but close to excessive on this rain-slicked roadway. My visibility was suddenly poor: the rain was no match for the windshield wipers on the electric Chevy Volt, but the water pouring from the huge tires of the 18-wheeler in the middle lane next to me created the highway equivalent of a surfer going through a fast-curling Pacific wave off the Hawaiian coast.

Suddenly, I realized the wave was closing and the wheels of the big rig were getting closer. The truck was moving into my land and, with the Chevy lost in the water wall thrown up from the tires, the driver couldn’t see me.  There was no shoulder, and the shortest route to safety lay straight ahead. So I floored the accelerator.

There was no satisfying, accompanying engine rumble since the Volt’s 111 kilowatt, electric engine runs silent. But it does deliver 273 pound-feet of torque directly to the axels, and there was a satisfying feel of gravity pushing me deeper into the leather seats as the volt shot forward. In seconds, the speedometer hit 95 and the traction control fought to keep the car running straight on the soaked roadway as the car just cleared the rumbling truck’s front bumper.

            It took less than a minute for the latest innovation from General Motors to show that it could compete with front running family sedans in terms of performance and handling. And in developing the Chevrolet Volt, GM has staked out a unique technological course in a newly evolving field of hybrid electric transportation. Whether the Volt and its successors will catch on with the car buying public, however, is still an open question?

The Volt is the third and, perhaps, the most versatile of the mass produced electric vehicles aimed at the general public, charting a different course than the Nissan Leaf and the Toyota Prius Hybrid Plug-in Electric (http://bit.ly/jj7N0Z ).

Toyota was the first off the electric block but is entering the market tentatively. The company is circulating 160 of the Plug-in Hybrids around the country at this time, gathering user feedback in anticipation of a formal launch next year. The initial Prius was revolutionary in that Toyota envisioned and developed a car which could fully operate on two different power plants. The new plug-in goes a step further, allowing you to drive with three power systems.

The hybrid power systems are standard. What is different is that the new battery pack powers the electric motor for about a half hour, or 13 miles, at speeds up to 60 miles per hour. After that, the charge is depleted and the car reverts to the standard hybrid combination with the interplay between the gas engine and electric motor.  The electric motor can drive the car unaided at speeds up to about 25 miles per hour. After that, the Prius either uses both the gasoline engine and the motor or, at high speeds, just the gasoline engine. The difference the additional of the plug-in component makes in terms of gas mileage is incremental: the 13 miles running solely on electric power just extends the miles per gallon average of the car.

Nissan, on the other hand, completely bit the electric bullet with its Leaf. It has only an electric motor. The drawback, however, is that the car can get only about 75 miles before it needs a new charge – which can take eight hours.  That makes it a perfect car for getting around in small towns or daily commutes within traffic-snarled metropolises like New York. But it is fairly useless for vacation trips and could be problematic in sprawling cities like Los Angeles. Nissan is banking on the Leaf being the preferred car of the future, when the electric charging infrastructure is as ubiquitous around the nation as the gas pump. But selling that notion now is a challenge.

With the Chevrolet Volt, GM is hedging its bets with what amounts to a reverse hybrid. With this sedan, only the electric motor can power the car, and a full charge – which takes 10 hours on a normal 110-volt outlet – will provide the equivalent of just 31 gas-free miles. The mileage is not absolute because sitting in New York City traffic, for example, can eat up with charge without the car physically going very far.

But after the charge is used up the small, 1.4-liter gasoline engine kicks in. It will not drive the Volt, but it serves as a generator to keep the battery charged to power the electric motor. That combination – an electric motor with a gasoline battery charger – gives the Volt its driving range of about 330 miles between visits to a traditional gas station.  It is also what gives the Volt an EPA estimated mileage of 37 MPG on the highway, and a whopping 93 MPG in city driving.

The interplay between the gas engine and the battery required some tradeoffs. It provides enough juice to keep the car going, but not enough to fully charge the battery while the car is being driven and bypass the need for the 10-hour battery charge.

Pam Fletcher, the chief engineer of the Volt, said “there is always some minimum buffer in the battery to drive the car. The Volt’s engine uses about 65 percent of the battery’s capacity, and the internal combustion engine charges enough to maintain that minimum state of power. It does not power it back up to full.

“Our philosophy was if you want to go from the minimum state of the battery up to a full charge, you have to get that energy off the grid, where it is less expensive and more efficient to generate. And it is likely that the electricity you get from the grid will be generated in an environment with more easily treated emissions than those from a bigger internal combustion engine.”

Getting power off the grid is not free. Charging the Volt nightly can boost the electric bill of a three-bedroom home as much as 50%, according to some industry estimates.  In high utility rate areas like New Jersey and New York, that means the savings you get by having less frequent trips to the gas station is nearly offset by the monthly electric bill.

The Volt does have some of the battery-charging features of the standard hybrid, such as regenerative braking, which converts the heat in the brake shoes to electricity. But it would take a bigger engine and batteries with greater storage capacity to have the4 Volt fully charged while on the go –and that would drive up its already hefty price of nearly $45,000.

Aside from the power plant technology the Volt is, above all, a family car, and it will be on the road competing with mid-sized sedans such as the Nissan Altima, Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla – which all have much lower sticker prices, and higher gasoline bills. In that regard, what has GM done?

Outside, the Volt is as sleek as its name implies. Its wide front and split grill could be viewed as aggressive were it not for the curved headlights which turn the metal grimace into more of a smile. The long, sloping hatch back ends in a raised spoiler instead of fading into the bumper, which gives the Volt more the appearance of a sporty, four-door coupe.

Inside, the Volt is a spacious sedan with the trimmings you would expect in a car with this price tag, and a few designs that may take some adjustment. The leather seats are wide, comfortable, and can be heated, which is particularly useful.

The dials on the dashboard are novel. There is a blue column showing the amount of electricity in the battery, which runs down as the battery is used up. And there is a green floating ball resembling a suspended Earth which monitors the Volt’s power flow. The center console is a white plastic with raised letters for Climate, Radio, and other controls, all activated by lightly touching them. Women who got into the Volt uniformly disparaged it as the controls of a blender. 

But it is efficient. The rear backup camera is crystal clear. The navigation system is easy to use with a seven-inch LCD screen and, for communication, there is either the Bluetooth linking your cell phone to the car’s audio system, or GM’s satellite-based OnStar system.  Live help at OnStar can provide turn-by-turn directions if you prefer that to the lady robot in the navigation system.

For entertainment, the Volt offers everything. There is a CD player, AM/FM and XM satellite radio, and connections for the iPod, MP3 player, or USB port. In addition, there is a 30 gigabyte hard drive to download a few thousand of your favorite songs and create your own travelling juke box.

For a hatchback, the Volt is surprisingly spacious. It is about the length of a Honda Civic, but has more interior leg room, so a pair of six-footers can actually ride in comfort in the rear seats. 

The Volt is a smart entry into the plug-in world, since an infrastructure for all around use does not yet exist for fully electric cars. Whether it catches on, or becomes a transitional vehicle as the electric infrastructure matures will be determined by events unfolding over the decade.

The Volt is a stylish, versatile, comfortable, sporty sedan which is dependable in a variety of road conditions. It will give the other electric road runners – and quite a few gas guzzlers – a quiet run for the money.

2011 Chevrolet Volt

 

MSRP:                                                            $44,680

EPA Mileage:                        93 MPG City              37 MPG Highway

Top Speed:                                                     100 MPH

 

Performance / Safety:

 

111 Kilowatt electric motor and 1.4-liter gasoline engine delivering 84 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque; 5-speed automatic transmission; front wheel drive; independent MacPherson strut front suspension; torsion beam rear suspension; lithium-ion battery; antilock and 4-wheel disc brakes; stability and traction control; 17-inch forged painted aluminum wheels; rear vision camera; dual stage, frontal, knee and side-impact airbags.

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/XM satellite radio; Bluetooth and OnStar communications; Bose audio system with 6 speakers; CD player; 30 GB hard drive; USB port; iPod and MP3 connection; navigation system with 7-inch LCD screen; tilt and telescoping, leather wrapped steering wheel with fingertip audio and cruise controls.

 

 

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Irene and the Hybrid Lexus CT

September 10, 2011

By Roger Witherspoon

 

            It was the gray calm after the storm.

The torrential rains from Hurricane Irene’s slamming northern side passed through theLower Hudson Rivervalley in the early morning light, leaving an uneasy calm, a roiling river, and an unpredictable string of roads blocked by downed trees and rampaging streams. The Hudson River swallowed the wide expanse ofPeekskill’sRiversideParkand splashed against the empty Metro North station as if waiting for a train that was never going to come.

Which made it an interesting day for a drive. Normally, in an unpredictable landscape like this, one would like to be behind the wheel of a Jeep orToyota’s go-anywhere FJ Cruiser. But the car of the day was a hybrid hatchback, the Lexus CT200h, which is billed as a luxury compact for all purpose family driving.

     The beginning of the trip was auspicious enough. The Bear Mountain Extension’s narrow causeway across Annsville Creek – one  of the Hudson River’s many, small, nondescript inlets – was half flooded, with the road west towards the Bear Mountain Bridge completely under water. Eastbound, however, on Route 9 looked like a promising trip, since there were only a few meandering streams winding under the road towards theHudson.  But not today.  A mile past Annsville the eastbound lane hosted a large, horizontal, elm, and the westbound roadway had become an uninterrupted set of fast-moving rapids undermining the eastbound roadway. If there had been a shoulder, it was long gone.

I was glad the Lexus hybrid was a compact, and not a big SUV, since there was not a lot of room to turn around on what was left of the two-lane roadway. And it helped that in reverse the sharp, color cameras in the bumper take over and the map in the seven-inch, pop-up, navigation screen on the dash is replaced by a crystal clear view of the road behind the car. In a shopping center, the camera serves the safety function of helping the driver avoid backing over small children. In this case, it let me see where the road ended and the rushing water began.

The compact was not designed to bound over downed tree trunks or large branches, or ford deep, fast moving streams. But its traction and stability controls were sufficient to keep the Lexus moving straight down Route 9, even though the swollen streams were now flowing across the road, covering it with an inch or so of rushing water.

            As a go-anywhere family car, theLexus CT200h is an interesting blend, and the company seems intent on developing a new genre of vehicle – the luxury compact. As a compact car, the CT 200h has a lot to offer in terms of comfort, convenience, and performance and clearly stands out in the tiny car field. But with a price just south of $40,000, it’s going to have to compete with much larger, sportier, more comfortable, cars like the Chrysler 200 or Lexus’ corporate cousin, the Toyota Camry, as well as small, sporty, SUVs like the turbo-charged Nissan Juke.

In terms of styling, the CT 200h is low and sleek, with subtle ridges and lines giving it more character than the typical, low budget compact.  It is about the size of a Honda Civic, but has a stubby hatchback instead of a long sloping one. And though the rear window on both cars contain windshield wipers, the window on the Lexus can’t open. That can be a drawback if you try to haul long cargo which, on the Civic and some other compact vehicles, would stick out the rear window.  But with the rear seats folded down, the Lexus CT is long enough to hold a half dozen, eight-foot stakes that lay across on the arm rest and nestled against the passenger side of the center console.

There isn’t much under the hood, either. The primary power plant is a 1.8-liter, four-cylinder gasoline engine and an electric motor which, combined, provide 134 horsepower.  While compact cars are not generally known for power plants, one might expect more of a compact costing nearly $40,000 – which is about what you’d pay for a Lincoln MKZ. That hybrid power plant will take about 10 seconds to propel the CT200 from 0 to 60 miles per hour, which means you need to have a lot of space before trying to cut into traffic. It does offer a shift between a more responsive sport mode, or a more ecologically friendly normal driving mode. The most notable change in sport mode is that the instrument panel lighting changes from blue to red, and  the hybrid power indicator changes into a tachometer.

On the other hand, the Lexus can drive on just the battery power at up to 28 miles an hour, and the hybrid combination gets an EPA estimated 40 miles per gallon of gasoline on the highway, and 43 miles per gallon in city driving. And one doesn’t usually buy a compact if you are looking for a performance car.

    Inside, the Lexus luxury compact has a lot going for it. To begin with, despite being a compact, it is extremely comfortable and roomy, with enough leg room in the rear for the average six-footer. The seats are soft leather, and the front set can be heated. Only the driver’s seat is power operated, however – the front passenger has the limited manual seats.

Its navigation system is especially easy to use, featuring the company’s new “Lexus Enform.”  This is an interactive program which lets you sit at home at your computer, input up to 200 addresses or destinations you want to use, and upload them all to the car’s navigation system. The addresses can be placed into a maximum of 20 individualized folders with titles such as “Favorite Restaurants” or “relatives” or camp sites. The navigation system also ties with the satellite radio to offer XM updated traffic and weather.

The sound system utilizes 10 speakers – more than enough to envelop the small cabin in a blanket of sound. There is a six-disc CD changer, AM/FM and XM satellite radio, as well as connections for flash drives, iPods, and MP3 devices.  The car has a traditional slot in the console to hold a cell phone, or you can use a plug-in, adjustable holder to contain your cell phone or iPod.  The gadget sticks up on the console and takes some getting used to. But it does make the device convenient to see and use, and holds it firmly in place.

Whether Lexus can succeed in creating the luxury compact market, particularly in this economy, will be an interesting experiment. But Lexus put a lot of thought into the CT 200h and, if there is a market for such a category, it will set the standard for competitors.

 

2011 Lexus CT 200h

 

MSRP:                                                                                                 $38,725

EPA Mileage:                        43 MPG City                          40 MPG Highway

 

Performance / Safety:

            0 – 60 MPH                                                    9.8 Seconds

            Top Speed                                                      113 MPH

 

1.8-Liter, in-line, 4-cylinder, DOHC gasoline engine and electric motor, producing 134 horsepower and 105 pound/feet of torque; 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels; 4-wheel independent suspension; 4-wheel, power assisted, front & rear disc brakes; anti-lock brakes; stability and traction controls; front driver and passenger knee airbags; front side impact airbags, side curtain airbags; fog lamps, backup camera; rear windshield wiper.

Interior / Comfort:

AM/FM/XM satellite radio; tilt & telescope leather steering wheel with audio and cruise controls; heated front seats; 7-inch navigation screen; Lexus Enform navigation destination system; Bluetooth; 6-disc CD player; MP3, iPod, and USB connections; Lexus audio with 10 speakers.

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Muscle Cars and Speed Kings

May 1, 2011


By Roger Witherspoon

 

            The muscle cars and speed kings are back in force.

Anyone who worried that an automotive era dominated with talk of fuel efficiency and practical cars meant an end to the most expensive, powerful, fast, flashy set of wheels can rest easy.  Yeah, there is a lot of talk about these cars being the most fuel efficient ever in their class. But that class deals with a lot of horsepower, drinks premium fuel like its Gatorade and measures its performance in fractions of a second.

These are the cars that you do not need to commute to work, and will not get you to a place of worship any faster than the old folks in the minivan in front of you. And they’ll get 20 miles per gallon mostly in your dreams.

But that’s really irrelevant.

If what you are looking for is a car which looks as if it is flying when it’s really parked; which will cause heads to spin and neighbors to drool; which has a powerful growl you can hear down the block without thinking someone has lost a muffler; and, if you floor the pedal, will rock you back in your seat hard enough for you to recall being a dumb teenager, then the New York Auto Show has a set of wide wheels for you. Some may fit your household budget, and some may just fit into your imagination. They come with old fashioned American swagger, as well as foreign flair.

For starters, let’s say you are a family man and want to be somewhat “responsible” and get a car which can take the family to the grocery store and the kids to school when you are not looking for an empty, unpatrolled road to really roll on. Detroit has two family-friendly, fast cars to choose from, and the Germans have added a third.

First, there is the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT-8, a well-heeled SUV from the renovated Chrysler-Fiat group which can get the kids to their soccer game at 150 miles an hour. You will be traveling tire to 20-inch tire with the Porsche Cayenne, which was also designed to help you pick up the school kids in a hurry. Both are luxury SUVs, with wood paneling, an elaborate music and entertainment system, and a price tag that’s well south of $100,000. Porsche used to have a decided edge in interior comfort, but the redesign and attention to quality and detail in the new Chrysler-Fiat company significantly trims the difference down to a simple matter of personal taste.

If the notion of an SUV is not to your liking, Cadillac has a station wagon for you that rolls along on 19-inch aluminum wheels. The CTS-V Sport Wagon – a slightly larger version of the 180-mile-per-hour CTS-V supercar – uses the same 6.2-liter V-8 engine cranking out 556 horsepower. The station wagon will only get you 150 miles an hour – which is no better than the SUVs – but it looks good doing it.

Okay. Skip being responsible.

You want a car like the one you wish you had when you were younger.  In that case, Detroit has brought back several muscle cars, and made the engines bigger, the cars faster, the gadgets more numerous and the seats larger to accommodate older and bigger drivers.

At the top of the heap is the 220 mile per hour Corvette ZR-1. Its supercharged V-8 engine cranks out 638 horsepower and lets the car bolt from 0 to 60 miles per hour in about 3 seconds. The 2012 ‘Vette has 19-inch wheels in front and 20-inch wheels in its bulging back for added stability. That’s a step up from the zooming Corvette Z-06, which is clocked at just 198 miles per hour. The EPA says the new Corvette can get around 14 miles per gallon of gas though, at that speed, who is checking for anything except the Highway Patrol?

Slightly slower – somewhere between 190 and 200 miles per hour – is GM’s Chevy Camaro ZL-1, with a 6.2-liter, turbo-charged, 550-horsepower, V-8 engine. This Camaro looks a lot like it did in the 60s – only faster. If you drop down below 190 MPH, you can find the iconic, Ford Mustang Shelby GT 500. It is still a head turner a half century after Steve McQueen went airborne chasing the bad guys up and down San Francisco’s unreasonably steep hills in one. Under the Mustang’s recognizable hood is a 550 horsepower, supercharged V-8 engine which costs only $50,000 and, according to the EPA, can get 23 miles per gallon of gasoline while racing down the highway. The mileage may be less if there are frequent stops for police.

Dropping down about 100 horsepower, but keeping up the image and speed is the 2012 Dodge Charger, with a 6.4-liter, Hemi V-8 engine. It looks a lot like the one the Dukes of Hazard drove – but meaner.

Perhaps American muscle cars, whose designs are geared to men, aren’t up to your aesthetic standards. A professional woman on the go may opt for one of the more beautifully designed cars on the road, the Jaguar XKR-S.  While the Jaguar is easily recognized for its soft, smooth-flowing lines, there is nothing soft about it. Under the gently sloping hood is a 550-horsepower engine which can rocket the car from 0 – 60 miles per hour in 4.2 seconds en route to a top speed of about 185.

Which means the woman who shells out more than $100,000 for the XKR-S will look very good as she leaves you way behind.

If you dole out about $175,000, you can get behind the wheel of the 190 mile-per-hour Porsche Panamera, whose 550-horsepower turbo-charged engine lets you race down the highway while getting 23 miles to the gallon of premium gasoline – which is pretty good for this segment. But if you like the looks of the Panamera but want to be more ecologically minded, there is a hybrid version of the Panamera. Its combined V-6 gasoline engine and electric motor deliver just 380 horsepower and the top speed is only 167 miles per hour. But while the hybrid can’t run with the really big dogs on the road, its price is only $95,000 – which means you save enough to add a Corvette to your garage.

And then, for performance and elegance, there is the Bentley Continental GT, the ultimate in refined, expensive, muscle cars. For $250,000, one can slide behind the wheel of one of the world’s fastest production sedans, whose W-12, twin-turbocharged engine cranks out  567 horsepower, jets the car from 0 – 60 miles per hour in 4.4 seconds and 0 – 100 in 10.2 seconds with a top speed of an even 200 miles per hour.

The exterior refinements on the 2012 Continental GT are subtle: the rear was widened an inch and a half and there is a soft ridge which curls around the front wheels and flows through the middle of the door handle towards the humped, 21-inch rear wheels. The big changes are in the interior electronics. The continental now has a touchscreen driving the infotainment system featuring a 30 GB hard drive as well as satellite radio and connections for iPods, flash drives and MP3 players.

Traveling in the Bentley Continental GT means going places in very expensive style. But with the exception of the guy in the little Corvette, no one is going to get to their destination faster.


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A Taste of Green Sports: The Hybrid Honda CR-Z

February 18, 2011

 

By Roger Witherspoon

 

A car doesn’t have to be ugly to be fuel efficient.

Nor does a car have to sacrifice pizzazz to save the planet.

Starting with those dictates, the challenge to the guys with the crayons at Honda was to come up with a low end, compact sports car, which had hybrid technology and better gas mileage than the little, Plain Jane, Honda Fit or its stalwart workhorse, the Honda Civic.  So the designers threw out the old templates, melted their crayons drawing something that oozed a sense of hot and, since they couldn’t think of a clever name for it, settled on the CR-Z.

Outside, the CR-Z is a stunning little sports car with a tapered front and aggressive little grill, sliding to a flared rear end. From its profile, the CR-Z resembles a jet engine waiting to be ignited. It is the kind of car that easily passes the whiplash test – it fairly screams for a second glance. And there is nothing about it that says, well, Honda.

That part’s the good news. The rest of the car needs some work.

Under that sloping hood is a two-part power system: the gasoline engine, and the electric motor. The primary power comes from  a 1.5-liter, four-cylinder gas engine producing just 122 horsepower, followed by an electric motor feeding off a 100-volt, nickel-metal hydride battery pack. The combination is mated to a six-speed manual transmission that, in typical Honda fashion, is quick and responsive. The car is not as fast as it looks, however, and the handling is, well, ordinary.

This is not, however, a full hybrid in that you can’t drive on just the electric motor. Rather, the motor serves as an augmenting system for the gasoline engine, shutting it off when you are idling or stopped.  That boosts fuel efficiency to an EPA estimated 37 mpg. That is still good  fuel mileage, and places the CR-Z fifth among all cars behind the 50-mile per gallon Toyota Prius, 42 MPG Honda Civic Hybrid, 41 MPG  Honda Insight, and the 39 MPG  Ford Fusion.

The power system in the CR-Z differs from other hybrids in another manner: it is not automatically activated when you turn the car on. While the electric motor does shut the gasoline engine off when you are in gear, if you turn on the car to warm it up, the gasoline engine just keeps chugging away. The car is also noisy at higher speeds, something that comes as a surprise given its svelte shape and the fact that Honda’s are generally quiet cars.

Unlike the Honda Civic which has four seats – even though the ones in the rear have very little leg room – the CR-Z is not designed for rear passengers. There is no second row of seats, just two bins on a shelf, or you can lay the trunk lid down and extend the rear cargo area. There are usable storage areas for cell phones and other items, including a small pop up bin on top of the dash.

The test car had a navigating system and a 6.5-inch screen and voice recognition. Surprisingly, however, the CR-Z only offered AM/FM radio and a single-disc, CD player but no satellite radio system or capability.  Lack of satellite radio is surprising for a $23,000 car, but the navigation system is a good one. And the backup camera is crystal clear.  The sound, from a 360-watt system with seven speakers, was more than enough to envelope the small passenger compartment.

The car does have Bluetooth for easy cell phone pairing, and the layout of the dash was eye catching, with back-lit blue dials surrounded by a pulsing red line which let you know how fuel efficient you were. You can make up for the absence of satellite radio by bringing along your iPod, MP3 player or USB drive and plugging into the car’s sound system.

If there is a major problem it is that the sight lines are atrocious.

The rear side windows are small triangles, which means you can’t really see traffic out of them and you have to depend on the small side mirrors to see if any cars are approaching. That makes changing lanes something of a rolling guess. The rear roof tapers and then is cut off in a four-inch square back. That little window slit is not enough to see what is behind the car, particularly at night.

There are always tradeoffs when you have a roadster. But Honda needs to rethink that one. The Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution initially had a wide spoiler across the center of its back window which pretty much blocked out everything except oncoming Mack Trucks. They dropped that spoiler in the 2011 edition of the Evolution because it blocked too much of the rear view. Instead, they mounted a spoiler at the end of the trunk, where it is functional, attractive, and not a road hazard.  The hatchback design of the CR-Z doesn’t lend itself to that solution, but the current system leaves a lot to be desired and is not up to Honda’s usual thoughtful standards or the promise of such a good looking car.

But nearly all new iterations of a car have design pains. And if one is in the market for an attractive, fuel efficient roadster, the CR-Z isn’t a bad place to start.

 

2011 Honda CR-Z

MSRP:                                                                       $23,310

EPA Mileage:                        31 MPG City                          37 MPG Highway

As Tested Mileage:                                                   34 MPG Mixed

Performance / Safety:

1.5-Liter, SOHC, 4-cylinder engine producing 122 horsepower and 128 pound/feet of torque; 100.8 volt electric motor; 6-speed manual transmission; power assisted Rack & Pinion steering; anti-lock brakes;  vehicle stability assist; daytime running lights; 16-inch alloy wheels; fog lights; high density headlights; dual stage front and side airbags; side curtain airbags.

 

Interior / Comfort:

AM/FM radio; 360-watt, 7-speaker sound system; CD and MP3 player; iPod and USB port; tilt & telescope steering wheel with fingertip audio and cruise controls; navigation system with voice activation; Bluetooth.

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Really Regal Road Running in a Rolls Royce

December 26, 2010

 


By Roger Witherspoon

The empty New England highway was dry, the speedometer was in triple digits, the passing landscape was a dreamy, flowing, green kaleidoscope and the warm fall sun radiated off the brushed steel hood of the Rolls Royce as the miles flew by.

There may have been bumps in the road, but a Coupe with self-leveling air springs has the feel of riding a soft leather cushion on a fast moving cloud. There may have been a strain at 105 miles an hour when going around a wide turn. But since the edges of the leather seats sense gravitational forces and expand or contract to counter the pull you really don’t notice these, either.

The roof folded neatly into the back, between the trunk and the rear seat. Yet the aerodynamics of the car were sleek enough that it was easy to hear Miles Davis’ sax blowing from the CD player instead of the roar of the passing wind. And though, at three tons, this is a big, heavy vehicle, the convertible, two-door, Rolls Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe still jumps from 0 – 60 miles per hour in just 5.7 seconds and can cruise at a license-losing 150.

Rolls Royce, the ultimate upscale division of BMW, bills the half million dollar Drophead Coup as one of the finest touring cars – though nothing manmade is perfect. If there are drawbacks, it lies in the meld between the technologically oriented BMW and the traditionalist Rolls Royce.  In an effort to modernize the vehicle, BMW added the computerized control system updated from its high-end, 750 series of luxury cars. At the tap of a finger at the end of the console, a mahogany drawer folds out revealing a single round control knob which governs the entertainment, climate, navigation and communications systems. Some of that works well. Some it is cumbersome and none of it is intuitive.

The navigation system is relatively rudimentary by the standards of a $30,000 ford Sync or $50,000 Lexus RX 350. It is lacking in detail, particularly the names of upcoming streets, for example, and does not list upcoming turns and their direction – features which are pretty standard these days. The entertainment system on the other hand, with 15, 420-watt, Logic-7 speakers, has excellent sound quality, but there is only a single in-dash CD instead of a six-disc changer. There are, however, modern connections for iPods and MP3 players. And the Drophead comes with XM satellite and HD radio, as well as an easy to use, Bluetooth cell phone connection.

But as a defining symbol of craftsmanship and luxury, the Rolls Royce still sets a standard for the high end, luxury line. The trim around the top of the doors and the rear is teak, the kind of wood one would find on the decks of private yachts. The wide teak deck behind the rear seats covers the storage space for the retractable roof.  The wood on the console and doors is polished mahogany offset by thick, cream colored leather interrupted by chrome dials. The grain in the mahogany panels is bookend matched, something you find in high end, hand-crafted furniture. The entire craft has the feel of a small, pricy, well maintained, hand-crafted yacht.

On the outside, there is the characteristic, distinct steel hood and the traditional, Flying Lady hood ornament which disappears under the hood when the engine is off. Underneath that brushed steel is a 6.75-liter, V-12 engine which cranks out 453 horsepower and delivers 531 pound/feet of torque through the six-speed, electronically controlled transmission. The high torque is what makes the Coupe so responsive. It also drinks a lot of gas. The EPA mileage estimates are just 18 miles per gallon in highway driving and 11 MPG in the city. The test car averaged just under 12 MPG in mixed driving. But then, this is not a car you buy to be eco-friendly: It comes with a $3,000 gas guzzler tax.

The most distinct feature from the Drophead Coup’s flowing side profile is the long, front-opening “suicide doors,” so-called because if you open one while driving the wind will instantly whip it back and pull you out of the car. But in normal use, the rear-hinged door provides easy access to the wide, comfortable back seats, which really are intended to be used and have enough leg room for folks living well north of six feet. The doors are long and heavy and are, therefore, power driven – they close at the touch of a button.

In the back, the Coupe has a double trunk: raising the floor board reveals bins which are capable of holding two small suit cases, leaving plenty of room for larger ones and golf bags in the main storage area. There are separate climate controls and air outlets for the front and back sections of the car which are so effective, you can actually have the heat and air conditioning going at the same time with little interference.

And when driving at night, there is soft, blue lighting under the seats, instruments and storage areas.

The Rolls Royce vehicles have long had an image of being designed for those who have money, like expensive, exquisite things, and don’t like to drive. The driving experience was reserved for the chauffeur.

But the modern Rolls Royce  fleet, under the auspices of BMW, was designed with the philosophy that if you pay a half million dollars for a car, you ought to enjoy the driving experience.     The Drophead Coupe, a beautiful, exquisite, detailed, powerful, high-performing, convertible sports sedan is at the top of their line.

 

2010 Rolls Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe

MSRP:                                                                       $471,500

Gas Guzzler Tax:                                                       $    3,000

EPA Mileage:                        11 MPG City                          18 MPG Highway

As Tested Mileage:                                                   11.9 MPG Mixed

Performance / Safety:

0 – 60 MPH                                                    5.7 Seconds

Top Speed                                                      149 MPH

6.75-Liter, aluminum alloy, 48-valve,V-12 engine producing 453 horsepower and 531 pound/feet of torque; 6-speed, electronically controlled automatic transmission; double wishbone front suspension; multi-link rear suspension with self-leveling air springs; run-flat high performance tires; power assisted, ventilated, 4-wheel anti-lock disc brakes; stability, traction, and cornering brake control; head-thorax airbag in each seat; spring-loaded, pop-up rollover protection; engine immobilizer; heated windshield; bi-xenon headlamps with auto-leveling and power washers; chrome 21-inch wheels.

 

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/XM satellite and HD radio; single disc CD player; MP3, USB-port, and iPod connection; 420-watt, 9-channel Logic-7 audio system with 15 speakers; navigation system with 6.5-inch monitor; front and rear cameras; Bluetooth cell phone connection; full leather interior – seats, dash, and sides; teak wood  rear deck and brushed steel hood; power closing doors; power tilt and telescope leather steering wheel; power retractable cashmere lined roof; lambs wool floor mats.

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