Friday, March 11, 2005

DRIVEN: Mazda RX-8 - Rotary Rocket

By Robert K. Rooney
Photos by Ed Gatner

Drive Mazda's RX-8 for a day and it becomes pretty obvious that there is a tremendous reservoir of good will toward the company's unique rotary engines – mostly among former, and current, owners of the RX-7 sports car.

The rotary powerplant serves as something of a symbol for Mazda even though the vast majority of the company's products use conventional engines. The symbolism may be for internal, as well as external, consumption – serving as a reminder that Mazda does things differently.

The RX-8's basic configuration illustrates that Mazda product planners try to think 'outside the box' – how else could they have come up with a machine which drives and looks like a GT car but has a usable back seat and a price tag less than many top-end sedans?

Nobody can say the RX-8 looks like anything else on the road. From any angle it is distinctive and undeniably sporty. 'Sporty' pretty much defines its road manners, too. The ride is firm but not harsh, low profile tires on big wheels aren't the way to shoe a limo but make cornering a pure delight.

Lots of cars in the GT category don't really reach their level of competence unless they're wound up tight and pushed to the limit. The RX-8 is perfectly happy being driven as hard as one would care to, but it is also quite tractable on suburban streets and in downtown traffic. Like most Mazda gearboxes, the six-speed manual is a pleasure to use with short throws from gear to gear.

Apart from its unique engine configuration, what really sets the RX-8 apart is its unique ability to carry four normal-size adults. Getting into the rear seats falls somewhere between sedan-easy and coupe-tough but, once plugged into the rear bucket, even a six- footer will find sufficient legroom and headroom.

The best seat in the car, however, is the one behind the wheel. Our test car had the two-tone, leather-faced interior and finding a comfortable driving position was easy. The thick, leather-wrapped steering wheel - also two-tone - was almost perfect in terms of hand placement and thickness. The pedals were clearly designed with heel-and-toe downshifting in mind. With an engine which spins up as willingly as the rotary, rev- matching is loads of fun.

The Mazda RX-8 is a car full of contradictions. It's a serious high-performance car which doesn't complain in town. It's a driver's car in which the passengers aren't abused. It offers luxury touches and interesting technology at quite a reasonable price. All in all, it's a winner.

DRIVEN: Acura RSX Type-S - Speedy, Stylish and Subtly Revised

Story by Mark Atkinson
Photos courtesy Acura Canada

The Acura RSX Type-S has long been a favourite around the Inside Track offices thanks to its nimble manners, screaming engine and oh-so-sweet shifter. However, since its introduction in 2002, there hadn’t been a direct replacement for the much-loved hardcore Integra Type-R model. Though ultimately more powerful, the RSX Type-S was softer, heavier and more luxurious.

The real injustice was that over in Japan, Acura – or more accurately Honda – offered a perfectly reasonable Type-R version of the new Integra (read: RSX) with less weight, more power and a stiffer suspension. For three years, enthusiasts have pined over the unobtainable Type-R with nary a response from Acura.

Now, for 2005, Acura has taken the opportunity to give the RSX a bit of a mid-life sprucing up, with revised front and rear headlights and fascias, a slightly updated interior and a few other details. And, while they were at it, they took it upon themselves to bring over, lo-and-behold, a good portion of the Type-R goodies into ‘our’ Type-S.

The improvements go like this: the 2.0-liter DOHC four-cylinder engine borrows re-profiled cams, an 11-per cent wider intake pipe, and a larger tailpipe and freer-flowing catalytic converter from the Japanese Type-R. The result is a bump of 10 horsepower over the old engine – 210 vs. 200, delivered at 7,800 rpm – and one lowly additional lb-ft for a total of 143 @ a sky-high 7,000 rpm.

While that’s not a huge improvement, that screamer of a four-banger is hooked up to Acura’s sublime six-speed manual transmission – easily the best of any front-driver around. With a revised final-drive ratio, it helps acceleration a smidge, although a small weight gain for chassis stiffening and sound deadening dampens any large performance increase.

The most noticeable changes chassis-wise include some subtle suspension tweaks, including dropping the static ride-height by 0.3 inches, dialing in a little negative camber front and rear, and stiffening spring rates by 10 per cent. Combined with an increase in tire size to 215/45R-17 on 7.0-by-17-inch five-spoke aluminum wheels, the RSX Type-S becomes a hair sharper than before, while steering feel improves as well.

When you tackle your favourite set of twisties, the RSX Type-S is absolutely one of the most responsive front-drivers out there, pointing the nose eagerly at every apex, and rewarding smooth and aggressive pilots alike. However, it is ultimately a front-wheel-drive car, so understeer is all you’ll find at the limit. Adopting a limited-slip differential would aid in this regard, but has been noticeably absent since the Integra/RSX platform switch.

The brakes are responsive and strong, though, and will haul you down from serious speed with little or no fade. And the ABS does a good job in panic stops to bring you to a stop with little drama. Other standard safety features include dual front and side air bags, three-point seatbelts with dual pretensioners and a collapsible steering column. Traction control and stability control are absent, although not really needed.

Also, since the power is so high up in the range, though, you really have to make sure you’re in the correct gear, since if you shift up a shade early, you could find yourself waiting longer than you expected to get back on the boil.

But that’s just typical Honda fun. Has been for years, and probably will continue in that fashion for eternity. If you don’t like it, find something with a small-block.

Pricing for the RSX Type-S starts at $34,050 for a very-well equipped model, including freight and PDI. That’s quite expensive for a compact four-cylinder, but not bad when you consider it’s essentially a quick-ish, entry-level luxury coupe. On one side of the scale, a Dodge SRT-4, which is considerably faster though less refined, starts at $28,480, while on the other side, a BMW 325Ci only starts at $42,700.

That’s the appeal of the RSX Type-S, though, is that it sits directly between those two wildly different categories: the upper-echelons of the boy-racer movement, and the lower reaches of the near-luxury 'look at me' segment. And now with more power and better handling, it’s sure to handle its mid-life crisis better than most.

DRIVEN: Dodge Magnum RT - Off With a Bang

Story by Mark Atkinson
Photos by Ed Gatner

While Canadians have traditionally been better able to deal with the dreaded hatchback, Americans can’t stand them. When the Ford Explorer offered a butch, high-riding, relatively spacious option for mainstream consumers, the SUV boom was born, and wagons faded into obscurity.

Now, after 15 years, all of a sudden, station wagons are cool again. Manufacturers are scrambling to offer something to their customers who are coming down off their SUV ‘high’, and those of us who couldn’t care less are reaping the benefits. Witness the reviews we did two issues ago of the Mazda6 Sport Wagon and Subaru Legacy Wagon for further proof.

Well, Dodge is aiming to get back into the game as well, and its betting that it can be the coolest kid on the block by offering the driving public what it really, truly desires.

DaimlerChrysler is getting back to its (North) American roots with the new 2005 Dodge Magnum RT – a powerful, rear-wheel-drive V8-engined full-size wagon with room for five and lots of luggage. While the hugely popular Chrysler 300 shares the same LX platform and engine options, the Magnum turns out to be the more satisfying driving experience for those who prefer back-roads to boulevards, which fits in more with Streetwise’s enthusiast mantra.

In perhaps the bravest decision DC has made since introducing the K-car, it’s replacing the front-wheel-drive Intrepid/Concorde/LHS/300M with the rear-wheel-drive 300C/Magnum/Charger (in 2006). Breaking 30 years of ‘front-wheel-drive’ bias in the mainstream car market is no easy task, and DC has gone to great lengths in an effort to educate the buying public about just how safe and predictable rear-wheel-drive is in wet and snowy condition with the proper electronic safety net.

Every Magnum and 300 gets Electronic Stability Program, Emergency Brake Assist, All-Speed Traction Control, ABS, and a glut of airbags, while the Magnum was just awarded a five-star safety rating from the NHTSA. In other words, all those features provide ammunition to help get drivers out of Accords, Camrys, Tauruses and Altimas and into DC’s new lineup.

The Brampton, ON-built Dodge Magnum comes with a trio of engine choices. There are two V6 options – 2.7L (190bhp) and 3.5L (250bhp) – which are in the SE and SXT models respectively, while the top-of-the-line RT model like our tester features DC’s 5.7L HEMI V8. Despite some claiming it’s a ‘low-tech’ engine thanks to its pushrod design, the HEMI delivers 340bhp @ 5,000 rpm and a monstrous 390 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm, and features Displacement On Demand, which deactivates one cylinder bank at cruising speed for better fuel economy. Chrysler-built four-speed automatic transmissions are featured on the V6’s, while the RT gets a five-speed Mercedes-Benz automatic with AutoStick.

Confusingly, the SXT and RT models are now available with all-wheel-drive, which considering who DC is trying to attract probably makes sense somewhere and will garner them some extra sales in snowy climates, but with a set of snow tires and common sense, the regular rear-wheel-drive versions are a smarter – and lighter – option.

Depending on who you listen to, the LX platform itself is either a re-bodied previous-generation Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan, or a clean-sheet project that happens to use said older Benz’ rear suspension design. Either way, it works, and those who turn frothy at the thought of using Mercedes-Benz parts as ‘the cheap way out’ should get their head examined…

At any rate, the front system is an independent short/long-arm (SLA) with high upper “A” arms, coil springs over gas-charged shock absorbers and a stabilizer bar. The much-talked-about rear five-link independent with coil springs, link-type stabilizer bar, gas charged shock absorbers and an isolated suspension cradle. Essentially it endows the Magnum with a feel more like a much lighter car than a vehicle that tips the scales at a very hefty 4,179 lbs.

Push the loud pedal to the floor, and the Magnum just jumps like a scared rabbit, charging ahead and shoving the air aside on its quest for speed. The V8 that rumbles quietly at idle, roars like an old Challenger at full throttle. It’s quite the visceral experience both from a dead stop or at cruise. Using the manual feature on the AutoStick seems redundant thanks to huge torque and good shift programs – you truly don’t need many revs to get power from the engine. Just keep your hands on the wheel and let the computer do its job.

With the traction control on, a small chirp from the tires is all you’ll get. With it off, well… we’ll leave that to the imagination.

Thankfully, the Magnum doesn’t corner like those old muscle cars. The suspension is set firm but not rough, and the steering feel is pretty good thanks to the rack and pinion setup. While the RT does feature 18-inch wheels, the tires are P225/60R18-sized all-season touring rubber. The high profile boots aren’t the last word in performance, but they do the job adequately enough. Once the hotted-up 420-plus-horsepower SRT-8 version hits the streets sometime in 2005, you can expect a more aggressive wheel and tire package to follow.

The RT’s brakes are upgraded from the two V6 versions, and feature an easy to modulate pedal with good feel. Panic stops are relatively short and drama free, and the ABS and EBD kick in at the right time to bring the Magnum down to a halt.

Now, if the Magnum was a great car in an ugly body, we’d still recommend it because of how well it drives. Thankfully, DC’s stylists have done a wonderful job at designing a very aggressive, square-shouldered and sleek wagon body. A high rising beltline and dropping roofline give the Magnum a streamlined feel, while resisting the traditional ‘square-back’ wagon look. The front end follows Dodge’s current crosshair grill in its largest form yet - on a car, anyway.

The rear end is clean and uncluttered; dual chrome exhaust tips are the only brightwork besides the Dodge badge and lettering. The 18-inch chromed split-five-spoke wheels are attractive as well, although larger diameters could be accommodated easily.

One really trick exterior feature is the rear hatch – it hinges farther forward than you would expect, meaning you don’t have to crouch under the open door to load or unload cargo, and you can lean in farther without bonking your head on the roof itself. Very neat, and something that should be incorporated into other vehicles in this segment.

The cargo space itself may be a little shallow, but it is fairly long, and the 60/40-split rear seats do fold down to create extra room. It’s not an old Country Squire by any stretch, but makes a good alternative to most small to mid-size SUVs.

Inside, the Magnum isn’t anywhere near as jaw-dropping as the 300C, but it’s a good, modern design that still has a Dodge feel to it. Our tester was well equipped with leather-surfaced eight-way power seats, while a six-speaker Boston Acoustics AM/FM/CD stereo made for great sounds. Also, power-adjustable pedals and a tilt/telescoping steering wheel made it easy to find a comfortable driving position.

Magnum pricing, including destination and A/C tax, starts at $29,195 for a base-level SE. Moving up to the SXT will cost you $32,095 ($36,105 for AWD), while the big-daddy HEMI-equipped RT starts at $38,195 ($41,560 for AWD).

We made some interesting discoveries, though, when we drove the 300C and Magnum back to back for a week at a time. For instance, the 300C features one-touch up and down for the power windows, while the Magnum only has one-touch for down. It’s just one of those instances where you think, “How much money could they actually save by doing that?” Pennies, if anything. Again, a minor gripe, but one nonetheless.

However, the entire package is a sure homerun for Dodge – the Magnum will be an absolute hit for those who are either resisting moving up to a traditional SUV for more space, or for those who’ve already been there and want something closer to earth.

DRIVEN: Chevrolet Corvette C6 - Hang on Tight

Story by Mark Atkinson
Photos by Ed Gatner
Evolution is a funny thing, especially in the car business. Some manufacturer change products so fast you wondered if they were ever there in the first place, while others will simply let a model age until it’s ready to collect a pension.

The Chevrolet Corvette is the perfect example of one that leans more to the latter than the former. It’s by no means the worst out there – The Acura NSX is essentially untouched since its 1989 introduction, and the Ford Ranger could be the ultimate definition of ‘long in the tooth’ despite numerous facelifts.

The Corvette’s been around since 1953 and only in 2005 are we seeing the sixth generation of the venerable sports car – the Honda Accord has done more in half the time. Each passing generation swung closer and closer to the title of world class – the closest being the Z06 version of the last-generation C5 – only to miss because of a too-stiff ride, too large body or too rattley interior, although criticisms have hardly stalled sales at all.

Now, with the launch of the C6 Corvette, Chevrolet has finally mixed the near-perfect batch of size, power and handling into a price point thousands less than its competition.

It’s easy to tell that the C6 is evolutionary rather than revolutionary compared with the C5, although while the general shape is the same, it’s the dramatic details that really count.

First off are the new exposed headlights rather than the pop-ups seen on ‘Vettes since 1963. They add a cleaner look – and deliver more light – than the sealed-beam units of old. Also, the redesigned rear – an inch narrower than before – takes away criticisms of the C5’s, ahem, ample back end.

Chevrolet obviously listened to the Corvette’s critics about its size, seeing as they shrunk the C6 by 5.1 inches, but extended its wheelbase by 1.2 inches in the process. Whether you believe it or not by looking at it, the C6 casts nearly the same shadow as the venerable Porsche 911, a car always complimented for its compact-ish size.
The Corvette C6 comes in three flavours of suspension stiffness: stock, F55 Magnetic Selective Ride Control (as debuted on the 50th Anniversary C5) and the Z51 Package. Our tester featured the hardcore Z51 package, something that just about every solo competitor on the continent is going to aspire to.

Under the composite skin, the Corvette retains its Hydroformed steel chassis and suspension setup – SLA double wishbones at all four corners with transverse-mounted composite leaf springs and monotube shocks. The geometry’s been tinkered with a bit to provide more travel – 0.3 inches up front and 0.8 inches out back – while front caster has been increased as well.

Combine that with the Z51’s retuned spring, stabilizer bar and damping rates, and you get a Corvette that not only performs like the much-vaunted C5 Z06, but costs less in the process. Also included when you tick the option box includes power steering, engine oil and transmission coolers; larger brakes with cross-drilled rotors, specific tires and performance gearing, and a Z51-specific six-speed manual transmission. A four-speed automatic is available in any C6 as a no-cost option.

That upgraded rubber is sized the same as the regular C6 – Goodyear run-flats sized 245/40ZR18 up front with big 285/35ZR19’s out back – but the compound and tread patterns are different for the Z51. Also, brakes increase in size from 12.8 inches/12 inches front/rear to cross-drilled 13.4 inches/13 inches.

The biggest surprise for Corvette fans will be what greets them under the Corvette’s long hood – a new, 6.0-liter 400-horsepower V8 engine. Dubbed the LS2, the all-aluminum unit is a bored version of the previous LS1, and features a 10.9:1 compression ratio. It’s a monster of an engine, hitting its power peak at 6,000 rpm on the way to a 6,500 rpm redline. The 400 lb-ft of torque is delivered at a high-ish 4,400 rpm, but there’s still plenty to be found just off idle.

The combination is potent enough to absolutely launch you into the stratosphere with a gentle nudge of the gas pedal, pulling like a locomotive in whatever gear you choose.

Thanks to the liberal use of aluminum and magnesium in structural and chassis components, the C6 actually weighs less than the regular C5; it only tips the scales at 3,179 lbs. Also, thanks to the use of a rear transaxle rather than a traditional transmission, the Corvette has a near-ideal 51/49 weight distribution, which helps in its handling balance.

Using a heavy right pedal is almost encouraged thanks to the frustrating ‘skip-shift’ feature designed improve in-town fuel economy – if you don’t boot it off the line in first gear, the transmission will lock out second and third, forcing your next shift straight into fourth. Give it the nuts, though, and you’re shifting like a champ.

Speaking of the transmission, though, while shifts are improved over the C5, the Tremec T56 is still very agricultural, needing a firm hand to direct where you want it to move.

Around town the stiffer Z51 suspension doesn’t beat you up – the damping is such that potholes and the like are more suppressed than before. It’ll still track all over the place on the highway thanks to the larger front tires, but that just serves to keep you awake and alert.

Now, with 400 horses on tap, it is plenty easy to turn the expensive Goodyears into smoking piles of rubber; Chevrolet’s seen fit to throw in the obvious traction control and proprietary Active Handling systems.

Active Handling features three settings in regards to just how out of shape you can get the Corvette before the computers rein you in.

With everything fully on, the C6 allows you a surprising amount of wheel spin and yaw before it takes hold and straightens you out. Push the button once for Competition Mode, which increases those angles substantially. Only a very small percentage of Corvette drivers will feel that Competition Mode is confining; for the most part, it helps make the driver look more skilled than he is.

The third mode is, of course, fully off, which means the only computer chip between you and the tire barrier is your brain. The fact that you can turn it completely off is something to be celebrated in this time of increased interference, but there’s no need to use that option while driving on the street – the C6’s limits are so high that you should never touch them in on-road driving.

Thankfully, the Corvette’s cabin has been updated along with the rest of the car as the C5’s was a huge point of contention; it was functional, but very unattractive and cheap. While the C6’s isn’t a Mercedes by any stretch, at least now it rises above the Cavalier level of before. Easily adjustable leather-covered seats hold you tight in the turns, and the power tilt and telescoping wheel makes finding a comfortable position an easy prospect.

The dash is tasteful in appearance, while the nicest feature has to be the revised heads-up display with not only a speedometer, but also a digital tach and G-meter – once you get comfortable with the eerie green graphics floating on the road in front of you, of course.

Pricing starts at $67,395 for the already hugely functional C6, while adding a navigation system is a $2,030 option. The F55 Magnetic Ride Control costs $2,525, while the Z51 package seems an absolute bargain at only $2,170. To get a Corvette optioned like our tester, you’d have to pony up $70,765, including $1,100 destination charge. In typical Chevrolet style, that’s still less than you’d pay for a comparably equipped BMW M3, and thousands less than a comparable Porsche.

So the 2005 C6 offers greater style, more power, better handling and higher performance than any Corvette yet, with only a small increase in price. It seems like a no-brainer to say that this is one Chevrolet that we hope sticks around for a long time to come.


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