Tuesday, June 12, 2007

TESTED: 2007 Acura RDX

By Mark Atkinson
Photos courtesy Acura Canada

For years now, Honda has eschewed any form of assistance when it comes to making horsepower, preferring to use higher compression ratios and red lines rather than resorting to ‘cheating’ with turbos or superchargers.

It is, after all, called Honda Motor Company…

So as a result we saw little four-banger screamers revving to eight or nine-thousand rpm: Civic SiR, Integra Type-R, Prelude SH and the S2000.

But now Honda – as with the rest of the market – is jumping head first into the Crossover segment, and small-displacement low-torque high-revving engines just don’t suit the soft-roader segment in North America. Given the company’s desire to offer a vehicle positioned below its popular Acura MDX, it was faced with a quandary. Using the redesigned CR-V platform meant that none of the Honda/Acura V6 motors would fit, and even the 210-horsepower version of the corporate 2.4-litre found in the TSX would come up short next to its luxury branded rivals, Honda did the unthinkable. It turned to turbos.

Well, not turbos plural, but certainly to the technology. Seeing the efficiency provided by a properly designed turbocharger as a viable way to stay ahead in the fuel-economy and emissions game, a brand-new engine was designed for the new for 2007 RDX.

Displacing 2.3 litres, Acura’s new powerplant features the company’s Variable Flow Turbo technology that can narrow the turbo intake passage to spin the turbine faster thanks to improved exhaust flow. Combined with the i-VTEC variable valve timing and cam phasing, the RDX produces 240 hp @ 6000 rpm and a very stout 260 lb-ft @ 4500 rpm. Add in competitive fuel mileage for the segment – 12.5 l/100km city and 9.3 l/100km highway – and it’s apparent that Acura has put just as much effort and engineering prowess into its debut turbo.

(I figure it took about 25 seconds before someone dropped one of these into a ’93 Civic Hatchback…)

A five-speed automatic transmission routes the power through Acura’s SH-AWD system introduced on the RL sedan two years ago. The RDX is by definition a front-wheel-biased machine that sends up to 45 per cent of the engine power to the rear axle. The SH – or Super Handling – part comes from the system’s ability to send up to 100 per cent of that rear-biased power to the outside wheel, effectively rotating it faster than the inside wheel, making for higher cornering forces and greater stability.

Despite all this all-wheel-drive trickery, the RDX is definitely an on-road biased vehicle. With a relatively low ride height, 18-inch street-biased tires, and very ‘sporty’ – i.e. firm – suspension settings, the RDX is definitely a little corner carver. The all-aluminum engine helps give it some admirable turn-in, and the brakes on the 1,810 kg package are firm and responsive.

Inside, as with all Acuras, drivers are treated to a very high level of specification with very little being available on the options list. A great sound system, moonroof, xenon headlights, power driver’s seat and dual-zone automatic climate control are standard, while the Technology package adds Navigation, a rear-view camera, Bluetooth connectivity and an upgraded stereo. The space follows the Acura future-Asian theme with lots of faux brushed aluminum, lots of buttons, and bright gauges.

It’s on the outside that the RDX is at its weakest. While everything from the B-pillar back is stylish and well put together, the nose still has some work left. The very large front overhang isn’t helped by the angled lower fascia, while the ‘speed strakes’ in the five-pointed grille are a fussy afterthought. It’s obvious the design was guided by the need to feed cool air into the engine bay, but the result is something that looks unfinished.

Pricing is very simple; the RDX starts at $41,000 even, while adding the Technology package brings that total up to $45,000. That’s a pretty penny in today’s market, especially given the larger vehicles that command that same price tag. However, the RDX will sell, especially to size conscious Canadians who jump on compact anything much easier than our American cousins. Even a turbocharged Honda.

TESTED: 2007 GMC Acadia

By Mark Atkinson
Photos courtesy GM Canada

Faced with the prospect of slow-selling, badly dated Envoys getting even more unpopular thanks to the increasingly rapid demise of the traditional body-on-frame SUV, GMC has finally released what it hopes will be a competitive shot in the white-hot Crossover market.

Meet the 2007 GMC Acadia, one of General Motors’ new full-size triplets designed to be more user friendly and less compromised on road compared to its previous offerings. Designed from the start as a ‘real’ seven seater – as opposed to those mid-sizers sporting Geneva Convention defying third rows – the Acadia is one big machine. Based on the new front-wheel-drive unibody Lambda platform, it is actually larger in every dimension compared to the ancient Envoy, although its clean styling and driving style make it appear and feel smaller than it actually is.

Powered by GM’s ‘High-Feature’ 3.6-litre V6, the Acadia comes with 275 horsepower, and uses the new GM / Ford joint-venture six-speed automatic. Power is directed either to the front wheels, or optionally all four. As of y et, there is no alternative engine, which is a shame since the Acadia’s power is average at best, and lower than either of the Envoy’s outgoing units. And with a curb-weight of 2,234 kg, it needs all the help it can get, especially with all seven seats occupied.

However, with full independent suspension all around and four-wheel-disc brakes, the Acadia does a very good job of getting around town, smothering out nasty pavement humps while proving to be relatively agile. The vehicle’s width and long wheelbase become very apparent when trying to park or negotiate tight turns, but in more open environments, you never take notice.

Inside, Acadians are treated to a new high in terms of GM cabin design, with very little nasty plastic used, and the dash-top storage bin is handy to stash keys, glasses and a cell phone. Our SLT tester had a 10-speaker Bose sound system with a rear-mounted DVD player, and all Acadias come standard with a raft of safety features including six airbags, StabiliTrak with Proactive Roll Avoidance and traction control.

GMC has kept its pricing in check as well with two-wheel-drive Acadias starting at $36,495, while a fully-loaded all-wheel-drive SLT2 will run about $44,000.

The downsides? Well, the big C-pillars provide massive blindspots, the fuel economy is still dreadful, and the towing capacity has dropped considerably, reducing the Acadia’s use as a utility vehicle even more. There are rumours that perhaps a V8 engine might find its way under the hood, which could be a mixed blessing.

And although GMC has done an excellent job at putting a Toyota Highlander / Honda Pilot competitor into the market, its biggest competition will come from within: the virtually identical Saturn Relay, and the soon-to-be-announced Chevrolet version on the same Lambda platform. Hopefully the Acadia’s position as the first model out of the gates will give it the head start it needs to secure a foothold in the market.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Forza Motorsport 2 is coming...

Microsoft just sent us a few teaser shots and a quick video of its new racing game for the XBOX360, Forza Motorsport 2. We had great fun playing the original, and in some respects, we preferred it to our old standby, Sony's Gran Turismo series.

Look for it to hit store shelves May 29, 2007, and we'll hopefully have more insight into the gameplay soon after.

(After watching the video, was anyone else thinking last lap of Sebring '07? At least Bergmeister and Melo didn't hit the wall, though!)

Download the preview here.

Friday, April 13, 2007

DRIVEN: 2007 Suzuki SX4

Story by Mark Atkinson
Photos Courtesy Suzuki Canada

Suzuki has been making some very big headway recently with the introduction of its new Grand Vitara and offered-everywhere-but-here Swift. The positive reviews just keep coming.

Now, the company has taken its aging Aerio out to pasture and replaced it with the SX4, a vehicle designed in a joint venture with FIAT, that aims to appeal to more than just the, ahem, decidedly female customer base of its predecessor. That’s immediately apparent with Suzuki’s new viral marketing campaign that sees the little SX4 play the modern equivalent of a knight’s steed in the very clever ‘Wolfboy’ choose-your-own-adventure online movie (www.wolfboy.ca).

While the SX4 follows the Aerio’s path of being a tall-yet-compact four-cylinder hatchback with optional all-wheel-drive, the former is pitched as more of a diminutive SUV alternative versus the latter’s city-based roots. A generous ride height, matte-grey plastic fenders, a roof rack and tall-profile tires means the SX4 emits some off-road signals, although lower-range models come exclusively with front-wheel drive.

However, all-wheel drive becomes available when you start climbing the price ladder. While at first glance it appears that the system is typical of mild AWD systems – i.e. off until you need it, then with a heavy front bias – which is true. However, the SX4 offers drivers a couple neat options. The first is to turn the system off completely, which improves gas mileage when you don’t need it. The second is the ability to ‘lock’ the power into a 50:50 split at lower speeds, giving the car some impressive traction is lousy conditions.

This came in extremely handy as we had our JLX tester during the first major storm of the season around Toronto, dumping close to a foot of snow and slush over a two or three day period. Even with the stock all-season tires, with the AWD locked, the SX4 proved to be a little tank, unstoppable in the aftermath and completely confidence inspiring. In fact, if you’re in a mood to play, the SX4 proves to be a good partner as power-on slides out of slow corners are simply a tip of the gas pedal away. Highly entertaining.

Part of that confidence came from the car’s powertrain, which is really quite impressive. While the 2.0-litre four-cylinder only puts out 143hp @ 5,800 rpm and 136 lb-ft @ 3,500 rpm, that’s still one of the most powerful base engines available in its price range. And, paired with the low-geared five-speed manual transmission, the SX4 is decidedly sprightly. The engine is eager to rev, and the relatively low torque peak provides some much-needed grunt around town. While it’s difficult to comment on the clutch feel as we drove the car exclusively with big winter boots, it was progressive enough to not bunny hop away from traffic lights. And the shifter was more agricultural than your average Honda, but well within the spirit of Suzuki’s offering.

The downside of such peppy low-speed response is a highway ride that’s especially hectic. Cruising along with the speed of traffic on Highway 401 will see the tach needle hovering at 4,000 rpm, and given the SX4’s rough-and-ready nature, most of that noise gets transmitted into the cabin. This is not a continent-crushing GT, especially given the car’s short wheelbase and torsion-beam rear suspension.

The other main area that Suzuki has improved is its seating position, especially for taller drivers. Piloting the Aerio would see steering wheel plunked in the drivers’ lap with little or not room to push the seat backwards to gain more room. While the SX4, like most modern Euro-designed small cars, has very upright seating with tons of headroom, there’s a much better relationship between the ‘larger’ drivers and the major controls.

And it’s amazing what you get in the way of controls and materials in a vehicle that’s priced so competitively. As with the Grand Vitara, the SX4 doesn’t make you feel like you’ve spent your hard-earned money on a penalty box, with an above average quality to the dash, door panels and HVAC controls. However, the SX4’s radio and display are too small and dim to read properly, especially when wearing sunglasses, and the buttons to change the radio’s source are fiddly and difficult to distinguish from one another.

Still, the SX4 is one of those rare cars that you enjoy despite its flaws. Rather than wishing for it to meld to your driving style, you adjust your driving style to suit its habits. Once you connect with it, you’ll be amazed at how eager and sturdy it is when you need it.

Thankfully, as hinted before, the SX4 will not hurt your wallet when it comes time to purchase. The ‘base’ two-wheel-drive manual-transmission version starts at a $15,995, while a fully-loaded all-wheel-drive automatic JLX with ESP (electronic stability program) comes to $23,595, which is only $100 more than a very-base-model Subaru Impreza wagon. Our manual-transmission AWD JLX tester came to a reasonable $21,495 – save the money from the power-sapping four-speed auto and forget the ESP, especially given the regular car’s abilities.

And the SX4 will start to build more street cred in the next year or so as Suzuki is using it to step up to the World Rally Championship in a 300-horsepower turbocharged version. Oh, how we long for the days of homologation specials… but the regular version is still a great place to start.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007


Story by Mark Atkinson
Photos courtesy Mazda Canada

Mazda has never been known to overpower any of its products in recent years. Even the MAZDASPEED versions of the old Protégé and Miata gained only modest power, despite the addition of a turbo. It was always more a question of handling balance versus outright power. Even the MAZDASPEED6, with its 270 horsepower is blunted by being trapped in a body that weighs over 3,600 pounds.

However, someone at Mazda has finally gotten the message, perhaps in the wake of the Dodge’s SRT offerings – 240 horsepower in the old Neon, potentially 300 in the new Caliber when it hits dealerships later this year. Coming to the hot hatch party underdressed wouldn’t garner Mazda many headlines.

So they let their creative braintrust loose with the new MAZDASPEED3, taking the very potent 2.3-liter direct-injection turbocharged four-cylinder from the MS6, and slapping it in the lighter 3 body. Leaving out the all-wheel-drive system shed even more weight, and the result is a relatively svelte (for 2007, anyway) 3,150-pound package.

Although the MS3 is a few horses shy of its bigger brother – 263 vs. 270 – but the torque output is identical with 280 lb-ft peaking at a low 3,000 rpm. Combined with a close-ratio six-speed gearbox, a clutch-type limited-slip differential, and Mazda’s torque-management system working overboard, the MS3 blows from a dead stop to 100km/h in 6.1 seconds.

During those 6.1 seconds, you’d imagine that it would be chock full of strained arms trying to control a torque-steering monster, but Mazda’s engineers have done a very good job of limiting the to-and-fro. The torque-management computer reads dozens of inputs from the ABS sensors, traction control, steering-angle sensors, etc., and limits the power appropriately in the first two gears. There’s still wheel-spin – you could smoke off the summer rubber muscle-car style in a minute or two if you’re determined enough to abuse it – but the MS3 has been designed from the start with enough beefy pieces to survive the big front-wheel-drive launches.

Thankfully, the suspension has been designed to suit more than just the wrong-wheel-drive drag crowd. Mazda claims a 60 per cent improvement in roll stiffness thanks to retuned dampers and spring rates, along with fatter stabilizer bars. Larger brakes hiding behind 18-inch wheels with low-profile sticky tires round out the package.
Driving the MS3 is a lesson in brutality. Compared to, say, the Volkswagen GTI, the Mazda rides rougher, is louder, faster and corners harder. It’s a much more hardcore machine than Germany’s hot hatch.

The only problem with all that effort spent at reducing torque steer and tire smoke is the reduced effect it has on feel. And while the MS3 grips and grips and grips, you never find you can just dance with it. Subtlety is not its forte… at least not the driving portion.

Visually, there isn’t much to differentiate the MS3 from the lesser models. A larger front bumper, larger rear hatch spoiler, those larger wheels, and the big single exhaust. The True Red paint job – the only colour available in 2007 – tries to garner some attention, but even then, you’d be hard pressed to spot the differences from 50 feet away.

But when you have so much power underhood, being considered a sleeper is never really a bad thing…

Inside, the seats get bigger bolsters, and the pedals are aluminum, but the rest mimics the regular 3’s facelift for ‘07. While the design is still modern, some of the materials are feeling a little brittle, but the cabin is certainly no penalty box.

Mazda has done a decent job at positioning the MS3 competitively in the hot sport-compact segment. Without any options to choose, the pricing comes in at $30,995, higher than the base prices of the Honda Civic Si and Volkswagen GTI, but better equipped than either. Might as well try the most powerful hot hatch available while they last…

DRIVEN: 2007 BMW 335i

Story by Mark Atkinson
Photos courtesy BMW Canada

A year after launching its new 3-Series sedan, BMW has now taken the opportunity to fill out the remainder of its entry-level lineup. And, at the same time, introducing a brand-new engine that will sate power-hungry Bimmer-philes for quite a while.

While the 3-Series Coupe (codenamed E92) made its Canadian debut at last October’s AJAC Test Fest, it whetted our appetites enough to want a more ‘extended’ test when time permitted. Now that we’ve spent a week in BMW’s new two door, we’ve come to appreciate it even more.

Or should we say appreciate the engine even more. Certainly you’ve already heard about BMW’s first forced-induction gasoline engine since the BMW 2002 Turbo – the company has been making excellent turbo-diesels for years, so they’re not out of practice by any means. Combining a direct injection 3.0-liter inline six with two small light-pressure turbos, BMW has come up with nice round power numbers: 300 hp @ 5,800 rpm, and 300 lb-ft @ a ridiculously low 1,400 rpm.

While 300 horses in a relatively small car is a near guarantee of fun, it’s that torque figure that really stands out. With the peak hitting barely above idle, it’s the big-block-style shove in the back in any gear at any time that characterizes the 335i Coupe. Turbo lag is virtually nonexistent, and with this flexibility, the six speeds feel superfluous.

And, although the 335i weighs 150lbs more than the outgoing M3, the performance gap between the two is negligible. (All of which bodes well for the new V8-powered E92 M3 that makes its debut later this year.)

With such a spectacular engine under hood, you could almost excuse the 335i Coupe if it looked like a dog’s breakfast. Thankfully, it doesn’t, although photos don’t do the car any justice. In person, the Coupe is a more conservative evolution of Chris Bangle’s styling direction; in fact, from the rear, it looks remarkably like a 6-Series with the truck ‘fixed’.

The front isn’t anything special either, although you could argue it’s very much a Q-Car: understated on the outside, anything but underneath.

As with every 3-Series built, the 335i is a performance enthusiast’s dream, with BMW’s typically responsive and engaging chassis, although the run-flat tires do make the ride unreasonably harsh – the first thing M-sport engineers do is throw on ‘normal’ rubber. Why BMW doesn’t adopt that thinking across the rest of its range is a mystery…

Meanwhile, the optional Active Steering is still in the ‘Undecided’ category. At low speeds, only having to use half a turn of lock to maneuver is exceptional, and backing off at high speeds so you don’t go flying off into the weeds if you sneeze certainly is the smart thing to do. However, if you’re in the middle of a changing-radius turn, the combination of speed and angle change can be really unsettling. You find you need to take two bites out of complicated corners when one should suffice.

Non-Active Steering is still superb, though, so you might as well save some money by not selecting it.

The brakes are sufficiently beefy that they’ll take just about anything the road can throw at you, but a day at the track might find them wanting. Why a ‘big-brake’ option isn’t available on any of BMW’s models – including the M’s – is increasingly curious.

Inside, the main features will be familiar to anyone who’s driven a new 3-Series in the last year as the Coupe shares the sedan’s fitments; iDrive is (thankfully) an option, while the sport seats are firm and supportive. Ergonomically everything is correct, but finished with very little passion. Some extra verve would be welcome…

As with any German car, the pricing depends heavily on what options you check; value for money is not at the top of BMW’s game. The 335i starts at $51,600, while our reasonably well-equipped tester – Sport Package, Premium Package, Active Steering and Park Distance Control – rang in at $60,550.

Still, despite the gripes, the Coupe continues to set the bar further away from its rivals. The Infiniti G35 came closest, but we haven’t seen the new two-door version yet. The Lexus IS350 doesn’t come with two doors, and the Mercedes-Benz CLK350 isn’t focused enough. Until someone looks beyond ‘benchmarking’ the 3-Series and truly invests in perfecting the sport coupe, BMW has the enthusiast vote all locked up.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

DRIVEN: 2007 Audi Q7

Story by Mark Atkinson
Photos courtesy Audi Canada

Being late to the Luxury SUV party at this point could spell lost profits and questions like ‘what’s taken so long? Well, Audi, what’s taken so long?

Four years after corporate siblings Volkswagen and Porsche launched a two-pronged attack on the luxo-sporty SUV market with the Touareg and Cayenne respectively, Audi has taken its sweet time in responding with a ‘wagon-on-stilts’ offering of its own.

However, don’t accuse the 2007 Q7 of being a simple badge swap. No, Audi took the VW/Porsche platform, stretched it, massaged it and made it its own. The engineers at Ingolstadt threw out the bulky and chunky ‘true’ four-wheel-drive system that gave the ‘Tourenne’ some serious off-road credentials, and installed Audi’s own Quattro-based on-road-oriented all-wheel-drive hardware. Clearly the company was acknowledging the car-buying public’s preference to stay on pavement with only the odd cottage road throwing up the occasional challenge.

The styling, based on the Pikes Peak concept vehicle from a couple years back, really is the most aggressive-looking vehicle Audi sells. Pinched, slanting headlights with LED side markers, big gaping intakes and that massive grille all distill into the new corporate DNA. From the side-on view, the Q7 has very little to differentiate it from other Audi wagons other than the big bulging fenders, while the rear features new-shape taillights and, well, that’s about it.

Thankfully, the whole package is designed proportionally as only when you’re walking around it does the Q7 really show its size. Scope the optional 20-inch wheels (or the 21’s in the S-Line pack) with 55-series tires and they look like 17’s on any other car…

Inside, the Q7 is another example of ‘Audi Modern’, with the now ubiquitous grey-on-grey, a smattering of wood (or aluminum), red gauges and great ergonomics. As usual, the buttons all have wonderful tactility and anything that swings or moves is damped. To be honest, it’s starting to get a little boring, and it would be nice to see the company take another step forward with its newest products. The second-row seats have a ton of legroom, and there’s even optional quad-zone climate control and heated rear seats.

The other thing that separates the Q7 is that it can seat seven (in a very tight pinch). The two optional rear-most seats are very small, and the sloping roofline severely cuts into adult headroom. With the seats folded, the Q7 offers an enormous amount of cargo room, but as with other mid-sized SUVs with seven chairs, storage space drops considerably with the extra seats in use.

The Q7 comes in two flavours: 3.6-liter V6 or 4.2-litre V8, both of which come attached to the aforementioned Quattro system through a six-speed automatic transmission.

As you can imagine, the number of available options across the line is stunning. The our loaded V8 tester had just about every option you could throw at it including DVD-based navigation system, adaptive cruise control, 20-inch wheels, a towing package that ups capacity to 6,600 lbs. and adaptive air suspension. A rear parking camera, panorama moon roof and a host of three-letter acronyms and glut of airbags dedicated solely to keeping the passengers safe are all standard equipment on the ‘bent-eight’.

Our V6 tester was optioned to be more engaging to the driver. Missing most of the (heavy) luxury items mentioned above, it also featured the S-Line package, which adds larger 21-inch wheels and tires, sport suspension, different front and rear bumpers, aluminum trim, an S-Line steering wheel with shift paddles and a smattering of badges inside and out.

While the V6 isn’t tremendously powerful (280 hp vs. 350 hp for the V8), the S-Line package really makes the most of the 6300-pound brute. The lighter engine, coupled with the sport suspension and wide, sticky tires made the Q7 3.6 relatively nimble. While there’s relatively little feedback from any of the controls, the Q7 is a moderately entertaining vehicle to drive quickly.

Once you add the weight of the V8 and associated hardware, even the optional air suspension’s ‘dynamic’ setting can’t make the Q7 dance. While the extra power would be useful to those willing to tow small boats or racecars, the less expensive (and much less thirsty) V6 option would be the better option all around. The 3.6 starts at $54,500 with our Premium S-Line-equipped model asked $69,250.

While a Q7 4.2 starts at $68,900, our just-about-loaded tester rang in at a wallet-bending $83,500. Tick all the options and a Q7 4.2 Premium commands a price of $93,250. To truly appreciate the vast number of combinations possible with Audi’s options list, it would be best to browse online and really research what you need and what you don’t.

While it would be difficult to say the Q7 was worth the wait, Audi has put forward a class-competitive vehicle that should resonate well with its intended customers. The only question is how many prospective Touareg and Cayenne buyers will be cannibalized by yet another corporate sibling rather than from the BMW and Mercedes-Benz camps.

For those looking to spend even more ridiculous amounts of money, Audi has recently announced that it has found a new home for its R10 Le Mans racer’s twin-turbocharged diesel V10 engine. Where? Under the Q7’s hood. Yes, really. No word yet on whether or not that model will make its way across the Atlantic. If it does, we’ll supply the party hats.

REPORT: Test Fest 2006

Story by Mark Atkinson
Photos courtesy AJAC

For the umpteenth year now, AJAC has held its annual Canadian Car of the Year Award evaluation called Test Fest, and Inside Track was invited to the party. Between Russ Bond (see page 54) and I spread out over six of the 13 categories, we were certainly prepared to cover an incredible spread in machinery.

This year, the entire Test Fest action was moved from its traditional home of Belleville, ON and Shannonville Motorsport Park to Niagara-on-the-Lake and a temporary track facility at the Niagara Regional Airport. As Russ has already mentioned, the new track certainly was fast and challenging, and quite a change of pace compared to the two tracks at SMP.

Fair warning: by the time you read this, the AJAC CCOY category winners will already have been announced, but for fun, I’m going to put forward my predictions on the three classes I was a part of anyway. Talk about a wide range of classes; I was tasked with evaluating SUV/CUV Under $35,000; Sports/Performance Under $50,000 and Prestige Over $75,000. While I don’t have the room to go into detail on every single vehicle, I will give you a brief run-down on each of the competitors.

Whereas in past years, the SUV and Crossover categories were split based on off-road capability (i.e. the Crossover contenders never went mudding), this year the split was (correctly) based on price range and market realities. A miniscule percentage of people actually take their vehicles off road, and the awards should reflect that.

Given that it was the lowest-priced SUV/CUV category, it was interesting to see how each of the manufacturers (eight in all) ‘packaged’ their various vehicles (nine in total) to slip under the price limit. Some genuinely did it on value, like the absolutely loaded Hyundai Santa Fe ($34,295) and the Jeep Compass ($26,135) and Wrangler Unlimited ($29,750), while others offered mid-priced versions of their mid-class vehicles, like the base front-wheel-drive Ford Edge ($33,919) and mid-level Dodge Nitro SLT ($32,830).

The others rounding out the group included the Honda CR-V ($29,700), Mazda CX-7 ($34,185), Saturn Vue Green Line ($31,690) and the Toyota RAV4 V6 Sport ($34,980).

First off, to answer your first question, yes the Jeep Compass drives exactly like its Dodge Caliber sibling, which didn’t bode well for the cheapest member of the group. The Nitro feels like what it is: a stretched and reworked Jeep Liberty with some neat touches, but an unrefined engine and body control kept it from garnering top scores.

The Vue Green Line is an old SUV in desperate need of replacement, while the RAV4 is a rocket of a small SUV (and I believe Toyota’s fastest vehicle) but the rest of the package just doesn’t live up to expectations.

The Wrangler Unlimited is big, rough, noisy, uncouth, jarring and, well, perfect for its intended purpose, which is to go over big, sharp rocks, ford streams, climb mountains and hit the beach. The only problem is that off-road ability is only a relatively small portion of the overall score, and the noise, vibration and rough ride that make it a true Wrangler mean it won’t be the category winner.

If the Edge we had were equipped with all-wheel-drive, it would have been a top contender, but the only two-wheel-drive model was at a disadvantage here. The CX-7 was the enthusiasts’ choice, but its so-so fuel consumption will mar its shot.

The new CR-V is really only an evolution of the models before it, but I predict it strikes the right price/value/performance balance to win out in this group. We’ll see if I’m right.

On to the exciting stuff. In Sports/Performance Under $50,000 it was like the old Sesame Street song: ‘One of these things is not like the others; one of these things just doesn’t belong.’ The challengers? The Acura CSX Type-S (a Honda Civic Si sedan in North of the Border clothing), the Volkswagen GTI, the Mazdaspeed3… and the Saturn Sky Red Line.

Hmm… three small front-wheel-drive compact cars vs. the low-slung, gorgeous, turbocharged roadster? Yeah – that’s fair.

The Type-S/GTI/MS3 fight was a worthy one. All three were hotted-up versions of their pedestrian siblings. Hot hatches (and sedan) personified.

The Sky, which I wasn’t a fan of before, now makes more sense with a turbocharger; 260 horsepower in a light car is nothing to sneeze at. Better shoes than I figured you could quite easily keep up with some of the Over $50K siblings if you were working hard. So, great track car then? Yes, but you still get all the ergonomic nightmares I’d written about a couple issues ago, and just because you have an intercooler doesn’t mean the roof goes down any easier…

The CSX Type-S was actually underwhelming compared to the Civic Si coupe from last year. The addition of not as supportive leather seating, a navigation system and other luxury touches have taken the purity away from the normally aspirated screamer. It’s still very predictable on-track with great brakes and steering feel, but you wonder why you wouldn’t either get the Si for performance, or step up to the not-much-larger TSX for more luxury.

I’m intimately familiar with the GTI, having spent quite a few weeks behind the wheel in various guises. It was at Test Fest in four-door format for the first time, and I was very surprised that Volkswagen decided to leave the car’s trump card at home. The awesome DSG transmission that we’ve raved about in the past was nowhere to be seen, and while VW’s manual is still a pleasure to drive, it’s no DSG. The GTI was a good middle-packer, but not tops in this group.

The brute of the bunch was the Mazdasspeed3; 263 horsepower and 280 lb-ft through the front wheels sounds like a recipe for disaster, but Mazda has certainly done their homework. Equal-length half-shafts, a limited-slip differential, retuned suspension, traction control and torque-control management means all those horses make their way to the pavement. Passing is stupid-easy with all that torque, and the turbo lag is really unnoticeable.

Wonderful seats, a reworked interior, and a price tag equal to its lower-powered rivals, and the MS3 comes out as my pick of the bunch.

In the Prestige category, the $75k price limit really was arbitrary as none of the four contenders even remotely approached that price. The ‘cheapest’ was the stunning Jaguar XK Convertible at $122,450, through the Lexus LS460L ($122,700), the Mercedes-Benz S550 4Matic ($132,400) and finally the Audi S8 ($150,250; the highest MSRP at the event.)

Like S/P<$50k, the XK8 really was the odd car out in a sea of performance luxury sedans. The while the convertible isn’t as sexy as the coupe, the Jag still imbues any driver with a sense of style, regardless of whether they deserve it or not. Some might whine that it’s an Aston body-double for half the price, and I say, ‘Hey! It’s an Aston body-double for half the price! What’s the problem?’ Some people…

The rest of the three were – excuse the old cliché – like the three bears. The Lexus LS460L is a huge improvement style-wise compared to the last generation, and the new 4.6-litre V8 and world-first eight-speed automatic transmission are trick pieces. However, given that the stretched LS’ most comfortable seat is the passenger-side rear, a major cush factor was applied. Sporty? Not at all. Complete Mama Bear.

On the other side of the scale is the hardcore, V10-powered Audi S8; all grunty noises and taught handling, the S8 was the best balanced on track, and could really be hustled for such a large sedan. At part-throttle, the 450-horsepower engine makes your spine tingle, and the glorious $7,800 Bang & Olufsen sounds system took over after that.

Not a luxury car in the traditional sense of the word as the S8’s interior is starting to date a little, especially compared to the new top-shelf offerings from Lexus and Mercedes-Benz, but absolutely the sporting choice. Papa Bear all the way.

I’m not sure Mercedes-Benz would appreciate me calling their new S Class ‘Baby Bear’, but that’s what it ends up as. The company has done a great job of blending the sporting with the indulgent, and jamming it full of the usual techno-stuff that takes you months to realize is already there. Although on paper, the new V8 is down on power to Audi’s Lamborghini-derived V10, on the track they’re neck and neck for acceleration.

And the Benz does an admirable job of hanging on in the corners as well. It would be interesting to see how an AMG version did around the track.

M-B’s take on the 7-series cabin really is quite nice, and it certainly isn’t as shocking as when BMW introduced it five years ago. Still, it’ll help propel the S Class to the category crown this fall.

REPORT: Test Fest 2006… Uncensored!

Story by Russ Bond
Photos courtesy AJAC

Yes, I got in trouble at the Automobile Journalists’ Association of Canada (AJAC) Test Fest… I knew I would – trouble just seems to follow me around sometimes, and when you put that many cars in one place with a “racetrack” at my disposal, there’s going to be problems.

To be honest, we journalists have – for the most part – driven the majority of vehicles that are in our groups before we ever get to Test Fest, as part of our regular road tests, so we sort of know what they are like. The difference at Test Fest is that we drive them back to back on the local roads and highways, and on a track.

Ah yes, the track.

This year, the ‘track’ was three runways at the Niagara Airport that were littered with cones, which formed the track layout. The first day we had to stop “testing” so Dalton McGuinty could land and then take off again in his private jet, one that we probably pay for. Right about now he’s pissed off at losing his ‘red carpet.’ You see, when he boarded to leave, they left the carpet on the ground. Once the engines were started, said carpet was last seen at about 100 feet and climbing.

McGuinty wasn’t our only aircraft experience this year. On the second day, a funny looking jet fighter came by, and then landed. “Hmm, what flag is that on the tail?” I wondered. Then, not too long later, two American F-18 fighters show up and do a couple of passes.

I’m thinking, this might be a good time to take a car, and leave the airport before all hell breaks loose. Turns out, the old fighter belongs to a private pilot, and the F-18s were ‘practicing’ – for what, I’m not sure.

All these planes at an airport meant a delay in our track time.

After they’d finished with the runways, I got my first experience on the track, which went fairly well. It was a great layout, and it was fast. I think it was far faster than the previous location, Shannonville Motorsports Park, and didn’t have any of those annoying first-gear chicanes that they normally put in. The cars could be put through their paces in relative safety, as there was nothing to hit.

We all go out on the track, and even though the memo we receive from AJAC read, “The track is for dynamic testing, not to display your racing prowess,” or something to that effect, I’m guessing I’m not the only one paying little or no attention to that. Just standing at the side of the track you can hear the tires squealing and engines racing, bouncing off rev limiters. Maybe that’s what ‘dynamic testing’ sounds like.

You see, what happens is some of us – the others will remain nameless – play a little cat-and-mouse game amongst ourselves. They let us out on the track together, but spaced apart – after all it’s not a race. What we do – and we all do it, regardless of what the others say – is try to catch the car ahead of us. The object is, if you are leading, don’t get caught, and if you are ‘chasing,’ try to catch the guy ahead. While ‘dynamically testing’ your car, of course.

I noticed that another journalist was constantly lining up behind me as we waited for our turn on the track. I figured I would get used to the track, by doing one of my other groups first before I get to the ‘rockets’ – Sports/Performance over $50,000.

By the third time I line up with one of my convertible group, I can’t help but notice that my ‘competition’ is taking faster and faster cars each time. This time I am in a Volkswagen Eos 2.0T, and he’s in a Shelby GT500.

He hasn’t been able to catch me yet, but this will be close. The Eos was actually pretty good, aided by its DSG transmission. I finished my ‘test’ with ease – no Shelby in sight.

Test Fest is more than just wailing around the track. I find its always good fun to stop at a convenience store while you are out on the road portion of the test. You stop, in one car, then are back an hour later in something different, then again in something else. The look on the clerk’s face is always priceless, you can see it going through his mind, “Wasn’t that guy here earlier in an Audi, then a BMW, and now a Shelby?”

Sometimes they will ask, sometimes they won’t. I just look at them like there is nothing wrong. One guy asked me how long I’ve had the Shelby. “About a half hour,” I said, with a perfect poker face.

My groups this year were diverse to say the least. I had Sports/Performance over $50,000; the SUV/CUV over 60k and the Convertibles.

Here’s something I can’t quite wrap my head around. In the Convertible group, I had an Audi A4 Cabriolet 2.0T, and in my SUV’s over 60K I had a Ford Expedition Eddie Bauer MAX.

Now, I know that someone who is in the market for one is miles away from looking at the other, but hear me out. The Audi A4 Cabriolet came in at $65,350, while the monster Ford came in at $63,424 – (I had to go back and look at the sticker on the Ford again as I thought it must have been $93, not $63).

The Audi is very nice, is well equipped and is a leader in that segment. The Ford has enough seating for a soccer team, with more entertainment systems than your local bar, heated and cooled seats, navigation and a power liftgate.

My question is how can Ford offer all it does in that model for 60k?

I heard from another journalist it was like Walmart buying stock for its stores, versus your local corner store. Walmart pays much less based on sheer volume. Whether this is true or not, I don’t know.

What I do know is ‘stuff’ costs money, so the more stuff you have, the more expensive it should be, right? If you do the math, (taking the weight and dividing it by the cost) based on mass, the Audi is $36.71/kg, while the Ford is $22.71/kg.

I guess you could argue the Audi is a ‘premium’ brand, while Ford is more mainstream, but I really, really liked the Ford in its group, as I did the Audi in its. And I’m not pitting one against the other, I just don’t understand how you can get that much ‘stuff’ for that price?

The reason I got in trouble this year was for giving rides in the test cars to manufacturer reps that were on site. Apparently there is a time for this, and it wasn’t time yet when I was out there. Before I found out I couldn’t give rides, the guy from Dodge was the best. He got a call while we were wailing around the track, and he managed to finish the call – all the time talking a few octaves higher…

DRIVEN: 2007 Hyundai Entourage

Story by Mark Atkinson
Photos courtesy Hyundai Canada

It’s not often that we test a minivan here at Inside Track, seeing as Streetwise reviews are generally aimed at the more sport-oriented enthusiasts. However, most folks face the reality of needing a people hauler in addition to their sports car or hot hatch.

Usability, space and decent fuel economy were tops on my list of vehicles to take on a trip to New Brunswick as three adults and two dogs going away for a week during fall creates an incredible amount of luggage and detritus. Hyundai was more than happy to let me take their new 2007 Hyundai Entourage on the 10-day journey.

First things first. The Entourage is essentially a slight reworking of the all-new Kia Sedona minivan, albeit with Hyundai’s own touches. The Entourage was very much an ‘on-again-off-again-on-again’ program as Hyundai initially cancelled its planned introduction, then changed its mind and called ‘game on!’

It’s a wise thing that saner heads prevailed as the Entourage really is another example of the Korean company really doing their homework and putting out a great product that truly competes with the best in the segment.

Forward of the A-pillar, the Entourage features unique, more up-market styling compared to its Kia sibling, while the rest of the body gets a few chrome touches to differentiate the two. The design is ‘standard minivan’ but you really can’t complain too much about that.

It’s inside that the Entourage really shines. There are cubbies and cup holders everywhere, two big glove-boxes, door-mounted driver’s seat controls, logical HVAC and stereo controls on the dash, and clear, bright gauges. In the back, our top-level GLS tester featured second-row HVAC controls, and a roof-mounted DVD player with a flip-down LCD screen and two sets of wireless headphones. Hyundai has also adopted the current trend of roll-down sliding-door windows, which really is one of those ideas that makes you wonder why it hadn’t been done that way in the past.

Also, the flip-down fish-eye ‘brat’ mirror allowed those of us traveling in the front to keep an eye on those two pooches to prevent any unneeded snooping through luggage for hidden treats.

The seats do deserve some praise as the front chairs were comfortable for the 15-hour journey to Fredericton, although a little more rearwards travel would be appreciated by those long of leg. In the back, the third-row seats fold perfectly flat into the cargo floor with a very easy pull-pull system, however Hyundai hasn’t caught up with DaimlerChrysler’s second-row fold-flat seats.

Those second-row seats do travel fore and aft on rails and recline for comfort, and while removing them is relatively painless, replacing them can be frustrating and awkward.

Still, with the rear seats folded and one second-row throne pulled and stowed in the back with the cargo, it was amazing just how much stuff you could pack in while leaving plenty of room for dog beds and water bowls. This was a good thing as my girlfriend has started packing relative to the size of the vehicle we’re taking. Hyundai claims the most interior room of any minivan on the market, and given its ability to swallow the whole enchilada without complaint, I’m not about to question that fact.

Thankfully, the Entourage’s large size is offset by its wonderful powertrain. Hyundai has come to the table with its new DOHC CVVT-equipped 3.8-litre V6 as found in the Azera sedan, albeit tuned for more torque delivery. In the Entourage, the engine puts out 242 hp @ 6000 rpm and 251 lb-ft @ 3500 rpm, second-highest in each category behind the Odyssey (2 hp) and Ford Freestar (12 lb-ft.) respectively, and gives the vehicle a ULEV rating.

Mated to a five-speed automatic transmission with Shiftronic, the Entourage really pulls strong through the bottom part of the rev range, albeit with the penalty of torque steer if you really cane it. Passing situations are addressed easily, and the manu-matic transmission allows for easier gear selection when cruising up and down the Appalachians in eastern Quebec. No getting stuck behind a logging truck for us!

The rest of the time, the Entourage was happy to cruise at a comfortable speed along the Trans Canada, although road noise was higher than we would have liked. Still, the surprisingly taught suspension did soak up all the major road imperfections without throwing the whole vehicle around in the process. Around town or on the two-lane back roads along the St. John River valley, the Hyundai was sprightlier than it had every right to be, although I think the Odyssey or Nissan Quest would still be the outright sporty handlers.

Over the course of the 4,000-plus kilometer trip, the Entourage averaged about 11 L/100km, which stretched fill-ups to about 550 km with lots of room for error. And, despite the relatively big power ratings, the Hyundai only needed regular gas.

As with all Hyundai offerings, the Entourage’s biggest playing card is its value. The already very well equipped base GL starts at $29,995, while our full-bore GLS Leather tester, which adds 17-inch ally wheels, upgraded six-speaker stereo, power driver’s seat, ESP, front heated seats, power sliding doors and tailgate, fog lights, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, back-up warning sensors, trip computer and the DVD player rang in at $37,195 with no options.

Add to that Hyundai’s standard five-year/100,000km powertrain and comprehensive warranty, three-year 24-hour roadside assistance and the IIHS Top Safety Pick award, and the Entourage truly is a real competitor to the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna.

So would the Entourage really appeal to the ‘enthusiast’ driver? Well, given its broad dimensions, I imagine you could fit a kart in there without too much hassle. Anyone have a tape-measure?