Friday, May 13, 2005

NEWS: Lexus announce pricing and details for Hybrid SUV

By Mark Atkinson
With Files and Photos from Lexus Canada

Lexus is following up on the success of the Prius gasoline-electric hybrid car by launching an SUV using the same technology.

Sales of the Lexus RX 400h started on May 4, and the SUV is positioned as the premium model in the RX lineup. The 400h features the Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD) powertrain that combines a 3.3-litre V6 gasoline with a high-torque electric-drive motor-generator. The RX 400h moves from 0-100 km/h in under eight seconds.

On-road behaviour will be kept in check thanks to Lexus’ Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM), an advanced system that anticipates and corrects stability problems with a combination of braking and throttle control. All 400h models feature on-demand electronic all-wheel drive, and an electronically controlled Continuously Variable Transmission (ECVT).

The RX 400h has a combined city/highway fuel consumption rating of 7.8 L/100 km, using about 7.5 L/100 km in city driving and 8.1 L/100 km on the highway.

The 2006 RX 400h will be offered in two trim levels. The RX 400h Premium will have a Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) of $62,200. The Ultra Premium version will have an MSRP of $69,700.

DRIVEN: 2005 Acura RL

By Mark Atkinson
Photos courtesy Acura Canada

The 2005 Acura RL is a technological tour-de-force aimed straight at the mainstream players in the mid-level luxury car arena: the BMW 5-Series, the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, and the Audi A6. After languishing for years in the ‘also-ran’ category with the previous generation RL that was criticized for being plain, underpowered and front-wheel-drive, the Japanese company has put its considerable efforts into ensuring the newly launched version leaps to the front of the pack.

While many were hoping – and some praying – that the RL would offer Acura’s first V8 and rear-wheel-drive chassis (bar the NSX), the 2005 RL sticks with six-cylinder power. And while the company couldn’t justify signing off on the expense of designing a new rear-drive platform, it has spent the cash developing a new all-wheel-drive system that hopefully can expand throughout the majority of the Honda and Acura lineups.

Acura calls the system SH-AWD, which stands for Super Handling – All Wheel Drive, a very Japanese name if ever there was one. Since Acura isn’t known for doing anything halfway, SH-AWD offers a clear benefit over its competitors.

According to Acura, “it can vary distribution of engine torque between the front and rear wheels, up to 70 per cent either way to optimize acceleration traction or cruising fuel efficiency. All of the engine power coming to the rear is directed to the outside wheel, and that one wheel is mechanically accelerated to generate additional turning force.”

It’s a development of the trick limited-slip front differential that highlighted the Honda Prelude SH model, only now driving all four wheels with lots of electronic control.

While going through the exact details on how the system works could take a dozen pages in itself, needless to say it does work. Turn-in on the RL is super-direct, especially for a large car that weighs in at 4,000 lb., and getting on the gas way early in a corner doesn’t have you screaming nose first off the outside of the turn.

Acura says that the system can be fitted to any of its platforms that feature a transverse mounted V6, so doing the math means that we could see SH-AWD versions of the TL, Accord, Odyssey and others.

But back to the RL. In typical Acura style, the engine is a development of its SOHC i-VTEC-equipped V6 range, this time in 3.5-liter displacement. The mill puts out an impressive 300hp @ 6,200 rpm, but only 260 lb-ft at a sky-high 5,000 rpm. That lack of low-end torque doesn’t help the hefty RL off the line, especially with a five-speed automatic. However, once it has a few revs behind it, the engine really comes into its own, and the RL is by no means a slowpoke.

The transmission itself features a manual-shift system, much like others in this segment, but Acura has added a pair of up/downshift paddles behind the steering wheel to complement the console shifter.

From a styling standpoint, the RL’s new clothes are certainly a departure from the old, staid sedan sheet-metal. It’s curved and subtle, with a more aggressive front end. The five-point Acura grille makes it’s appearance, tying the RL in stylistically with the rest of the Acura lineup. The rear makes use of a similar ‘bustle’ that Chris Bangle used on the BMW 7-Series, although it’s better integrated on the Acura. Five-spoke 17-inch wheels round out the tasteful package.

Inside, the RL really shines, with a beautifully designed dash and center stack. Two pieces of wood come swooping down from the doors to meet on either side of the HVAC stack, and truly are pieces of art. The controls for the navigation system and ventilation controls are well marked and a cinch to use, while the gauges are bright and easy to read.

Rear-seat room is at a premium, though, especially in this segment.

Acura also offers the same Bluetooth wireless connectivity between your phone and the onboard stereo system to give you hands-free voice-activated control over your calls that originally debuted on the TL.

The one problem that the RL will face in the market is its pricing and equipment levels. The RL comes in one specification – absolutely loaded – for a price of $70,700, including $1,200 for freight and PDI. The six-cylinder versions of its competition come in around the same price, but you need to hit the option lists hard to even get them near to the Acura’s equipment level. But there are always those who favour a V8, and for them, the RL will quickly drop off their radar.

But those in the know will realize that they’re already getting one of the most technologically advanced, best handling luxury sport sedans around. Super Handling indeed.

DRIVEN: 2005 Infiniti G35x

By Mark Atkinson
Photos courtesy Infiniti Canada

Since its introduction in 2003, the Infiniti G35 has come the closest yet to knocking the BMW 3-Series off its perch as the most desirable small performance-oriented premium offering. Others, like the Lexus IS300, had tried to match the Bimmer’s sweet package of balance, response and power, but it was in vain, and Munich’s best-selling automobile came out unscathed.

The G35 sedan has been much lauded for its combination of nimble, predictable rear-wheel-drive chassis – shared with the Nissan 350Z, Infiniti FX, and now the upcoming M35/45 – and it’s powerful 260-horspower six-cylinder engine. When the G35 coupe – certainly the best looking car available for under $100K – was launched shortly thereafter with a 295 horsepower version of the 3.5-liter VQ engine, it was only a matter of time before the more potent power plant would make it’s way under the sedan’s hood.

For 2005, that’s exactly what’s happened, although both the sedan and the coupe share a revised tune now worth 298hp @ 6,200 rpm and 270 lb-ft @ 4,800 rpm. Both are available with either a six-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission.

Look out BMW.

While Infiniti has yet to introduce a wagon version to compete against the 3-Series Touring – although there is one offered in Japan that would take very little to bring over – the company has bolstered the G35 lineup by offering a full-time all-wheel-drive package to the sedan, creating the G35X.

The all-wheel-drive is essentially the same ATTESA E-TS system found in the FX series, and traces its roots back to the fire-breathing Nissan Skyline GT-R. It’s rear-biased, as befitting the original car’s driveline, and can distribute power front to rear using an electromagnetic clutch. In normal standing start situations, the power is split 25/75 to improve acceleration and then reverts to 0/100 during normal cruising until needed. It can even to 50/50 in ‘snow’ mode up to 19 km/h for ultimate control and bad-weather stability.

The G35X only comes with the five-speed automatic transmission, which is initially disappointing, but Infiniti has tweaked the slush-box with enthusiasts in mind. A manual shift mode come standard – slide the console shifter to the left from Drive, and then push/pull for downshifts and up-shifts. The really trick thing is that Infiniti has succeeded in replicating one of the best things about shifting gears yourself – the matched-revs downshift. The car’s computer automatically blips the throttle on downshifts, which is something entirely in character for a premium sport sedan.

On the road, the G35X exhibits great stability, and the all-wheel-drive is seamless in its operation. While the two-wheel-drive version is known for it’s willingness to be steered with the throttle – and perform some lurid tail-out slides – the extra traction afforded by all four wheels delivering the power means that you’re more likely to find understeer at the limit.

It would be fair to say that the G35X more than holds its own in the snow as well, and shutting off the stability control makes for a very predictable partner in wintry parking lot fun…

The penalty for all that fun, though, is the added weight of the all-wheel-drive system, which increases from 3,482 lb in the two-wheel-drive models to 3,668 lb in the G35X.

One of the main criticisms leveled at the original was its somewhat underwhelming cabin for what was supposed to be an entry-level luxury car – hard, cheap plastics and a so-so design were the biggest gripes.

Well, Infiniti took those complaints into account, and substantially revised the G35’s interior for 2005. A matt-silver finish on the center console is tasteful, while the texture of the dash and door panels is much improved. The drum-style HVAC vents on the dashboard need to be seen to be believed, but work well and are intriguing in their design. Everything falls easily to hand, and the GPS/Navigation system fitted to our tester (a $3,400 option) is one of the best out there.

Our tester also came with the $2,900 Premium interior upgrade package which features a power sliding tinted glass sunroof with one-touch open/close, tilt feature and sliding sunshade; reclining rear seatbacks with adjustable outboard head restraints; driver's seat memory linked to steering column; dual-zone Automatic Climate Control with rear vents; one-touch open/close rear windows with auto-reverse feature; power tilt and telescopic steering wheel; and Infiniti’s Intelligent Key, which allows you to keep the key in your pocket while the vehicle’s operating.

The sedan also gets a revised front fascia as well, which brings it in line with the more attractive coupe’s version.

Base price on the G35X is $42,890, while our tester rang in at $50,457 with the Premium and Navigation packages, plus $1,267 for freight and PDE. That’s about $7,000 to $8,000 less expensive than a comparable BMW 330xi or Audi A4 3.2, and it’s more powerful than either.

Perhaps the best thing about the G35X is that it’s ultimately a preview to the upcoming Nissan GT-R, which will be based on the same platform – and probably share components with – the G35 coupe, only with a manual transmission, a twin-turbocharged engine and all-wheel-drive.

We’re waiting for the phone call…

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

COMMENT: We want!

By Mark Atkinson and Michael Banovsky
Photos courtesy their respective manufacturers.

Mark Atkinson:

1) Alfa Romeo Brera GTA – Since the concept Brera broke cover at Geneva a couple years ago, it became a car to lust after on cold, dark Canadian nights. This year’s Geneva show saw the production version introduced, but with a high-power V6 and all-wheel drive replacing the blaring Maserati-sourced V8 and rear-wheel drive. Oh well. Still sexy.

2) Renault Sport Clio 182 – Canadians have a dearth of hot hatches here, and this diminutive French backroad bomber mixes an uber-responsive four-cylinder engine with a tossable, throttle-steerable chassis, despite it being front-drive. Easily the best trackday bang for your buck.

3) Seat Leon Cupra R – Nimbus grey with anthracite alloy wheels is the best colour combo out there for Volkswagen’s spicy sister company. The best use of VAG’s MK4 chassis around and 220-plus turbocharged engine with six-speed manual make for speedy transport for four.

4) smart Roadster – The modern interpretation of the Bugeye Sprite. (Michael: And Porsche 914.) Nimble, light, and dead slow.

5) Vauxhall VXR220 – Left-field version of the current Elise chassis. Turbocharged 2-liter Ecotec four-cylinder provides something the Lotus doesn’t: torque.

6) Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX MR – Well, any Evo, actually, but this one is the most reasonable of the new-gen Lancers. Could be suitably substituted for an Evo VIII FQ340.

7) Subaru Forester STi – The Forester XT sold here is probably the best sleeper on the market thanks to very underrated power from turbocharged 2.5-liter, but North American-spec suspension and tires leave something to be desired. Does not have to come in World Rally Blue, but gold wheels a must.

8) Land Rover Defender 90 – What an SUV should be. Blocky, smelly, loud and hard to drive on road. A mountain goat off the beaten path, though. A living anachronism.

9) Toyota Aygo – The current Toyota Echo hatchback ranks as one of the best small-car values out there, but the new one, while better looking, is getting bigger. Toyota’s Aygo, a joint venture with Peugeot and Citroen, will be the perfect size. Where’s that TRD catalogue?

10) Ford Focus ST (Photo courtesy – The latest (and for now most powerful) version of the car Ford should have sold here. Infinitely better looking than our awkward revised gen-1 Focus, and Volvo’s potent turbo-five is enough to keep me happy. At least until the all-wheel-drive, 300-horsepower WRC-replica RS arrives in a year or so.

Michael Banovsky: Cars I want on sale in Canada are a fair mix of the exotic, the mundane, and the innovative. They are ranked in the order I thought of them…which is saying enough, I suppose.

1) Alfa Romeo GT – Absolutely without a doubt the most beautiful car on sale anywhere in the world. Best part about it is the good range of engines, and the reasonable starting price. My money would go toward a top-spec 3.2L V6 in Alfa Red…and then over to the maniacs at Autodelta to massage the engine to a healthy 320 horsepower with the addition of a supercharger. 0-100km/h? 5.7 seconds.

2) BMW 535d Sport Touring – Absolutely without a doubt the most practical car on sale anywhere in the world. It looks cool, it’s got tons of storage space, and makes more torque than the upcoming M5. “What??” I hear you say, “But the M5 has 500 horsepower!” Yes, it does…but the small-displacement V10 also makes a paltry 383.5 lbs/ft @ 6100 RPM. The engine in the 535d makes only 272 horsepower (and has four fewer cylinders than the M5), but an astonishing 413 lbs/ft. at 2000 RPM. Did I mention it’s a twin-turbo diesel? M parts round out the package.

3) Ariel Atom 2 – Absolutely without a doubt the fastest car on sale anywhere in the world. It might be trumped in numbers by other cars, but for accessible performance, it’s at the top. Not bad for a car hand-assembled in a garage. Only 300 horsepower via a supercharged Honda Integra Type-R lump…but also only 500kgs.

4) Peugeot 1007 – Absolutely without a doubt the coolest small car. Two sliding doors? This and the Subaru R1 prove that small cars don’t have to be testosterone-challenged.

5) Morgan Aero8 – Too cool for old school. Pre-war body with a modern BMW V8? Hell yeah. Oh, did I mention it’s as fast as a Ferrari?

6) Noble M400 – Super awesome track day special that is useable daily. Even neater is that the engine (a V6) is based on the one in the Ford Mondeo…

7) Renault Megane Trophy – The French are brilliant at making small cars. Take this Ford Focus RS (and if it was sold here, Dodge SRT-4) eater. They’ve spent money on what is called “the suspension” for what is called “handling”. Sweet smoked out rims round out this croissant-lover’s wet dream.

8) Citroen C4 – The car I’d own if it was sold here. The hub of the steering wheel doesn’t move. The dash accepts scented oils to keep the interior fresh. There’s a 180 horsepower 2.0L engine on offer, too…

9) Renault Avantime – Okay, I suppose I’m cheating because it isn’t on sale anymore, but I believe this car is the perfect long-distance cruiser. It’s as big as a small minivan, but with two (huge) doors. Genius! Oh, and the engine is the same as used in the Nissan 350Z, only the Avantime had it first. French innovation at its best. Too bad it was a few years ahead of its time.

10) Subaru R1 – Okay, so I was lying a bit when I said this car wasn’t testosterone-challenged. The exterior styling was inspired by a ladybug. A little over 67 mpg can be had by the tiny 660cc 4 cylinder engine with CVT. The interior is gorgeous (I think Mitsubishi stole the design for the new Eclipse) and supports wireless audio.

NEWS: Maybach Exelero

By Michael Banovsky
Photos Courtesy Maybach

When handed this release I thought it was a joke. A new supercar from Maybach, with a twin-turbocharged V12 and 700 horsepower? Riiiight. I quipped that someone at Maybach forgot to flip his calendar – as this was a perfect April Fool’s joke.

No joke.

And with the performance of this car, the pages are flipping quick.

Maybach, with the help of students from Pforzheim College and prototype specialists Stola in Turin (Italy), designed and constructed the Exelero.

The Exelero was built on a regular Maybach chassis, but has only two doors and two seats. It was built for Fulda Reifenwerke (a German tire manufacturer owned by the Goodyear/Dunlop group) in order to test Fulda’s new generation of wide tires. In initial tests, the Exelero has achieved a top speed of 351.45 km/h…(218mph)

Back in the 1930s, Maybach also produced a streamlined sports car – as seen above in a photograph. The Exelero is the successor to that model.

I wonder why this couldn’t have been the SLR McLaren. It looks better, is a better GT car, and has an almost equal top speed. Oh, and you have seen those wheels before – they’re from the SLR.

And there are no plans to produce it. Shame…

Specifications of the Maybach Exelero

Type: 12-cylinder V-engine with twin turbochargers
Displacement:5,908 cm³
Power output: 515 kW/700 hp at 5,000 rpm
Max. torque:1,020 Nm at 2,500 rpm
Dimensions and weights
Wheelbase:3,390 mm
Length:5,890 mm
Width:2,140 mm
Height:1,390 mm
Fuel tank capacity:110 l
Kerb weight:2,660 kg

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

NEWS: Built Honda tough?

By Michael Banovsky
Photo courtesy Honda Canada

Today is a day of firsts for Honda. Their first-ever pickup truck, the Ridgeline, has scored the U.S. National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) first-ever five star safety rating for a four-door pickup truck.

This is due to the Ridgeline’s full frame body structure (read: unibody), which Honda says “is designed to protect its occupants while reducing the effect of crash energy on opposing vehicles for improved compatibility with smaller vehicles.”

All Ridgelines feature dual-stage, dual-threshold front airbags, Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA) with traction control, side curtain airbags with rollover sensor, driver and front passenger side airbags, anti-lock brakes, and electronic brake assist.

The Ridgeline is priced from $34,800 Cdn.

NEWS: Surprise! New Carrera 4 and 4S

By Michael Banovsky
Photo Courtesy Porsche Cars North America

As if Porsche leaves anything to the imagination. Their model line has seemingly run on a German train schedule: "First, ve introduce da Carrera, den four months later ze Cabriolet, den four months later ze Carrera 4, den four months later ze GT3, den four months later ze Turbo..."

If their efficiency is to be believed, a train containing pre-orders is rolling into Stuttgart right now.

Like all 911 evolutions, this one is being measured in Millimeters. It's 44 millimeters wider, now wears rear 295/35 ZR18 (Carrera 4), and 305/30 ZR19 (Carrera 4s) tires.

The models use the same engines as their rear-wheel-drive brethren, meaning a 325HP 3.6L flat-6 for the "4" and a 3.8L flat-6 for the "4S". The 4 and 4S accelerate to 100km/h in 5.1 and 4.8 seconds, respectively.

The all-wheel-drive system can split between 5 and 40 per cent of the engine's power to the front wheels. The (Porsche Stability Management) PSM system also has two new functions for the car. First, the brake system is pre-filled to eliminate the air gap between the brake pads and discs making contact, for shorter stopping distances.

The second is activated if the driver depresses the brake pedal quickly but not forcefully. In this situation, the hydraulic pump builds up extra pressure to bring all the wheels into the ABS range and ensure optimal braking.

As in the Carrera and Carrera S, a stiffer sports suspension can be ordered, along with the Chrono package.

Expect the new Carrera 4 and 4S to start around $125,000 Cdn.

Just don't miss the train.

Monday, May 09, 2005

NEWS: I, Robot to Le Mans

By Michael Banovsky
Photo Courtesy Audi Canada

Finally, the news we've all been waiting for: Audi is to build the Le Mans concept car. The production version will be shown in late 2006, with customers taking delivery in 2007.

The engine has not yet been finalized, but Audi is keen not to take sales away from Lamborghini. The choices are rumoured to be the 414bhp 4.2L V8 from the new RS4, or the 444bhp W12.

Audi Chairman Dr Martin Winterkorn supposedly favours the W12, which also sees service in the VW Phaeton and (with 600bhp) in the VW Nardo speed record-holding concept car.

Audi expects to build and sell 3,000-5,000 examples yearly. The styling is finalized, and is described as 'much like the concept, but sportier'. It should be priced at about $140,000 Cdn., making it a direct competitor to the Porsche 911.

They are also eager to sell the car to race teams - especially with Le Mans privateers.

With the ever-dominant R8's successor in testing, Audi could no doubt sweep Le Mans with this new car.

Well the concept is called Le Mans, right?

NEWS: Fighting the Microprocessor

By Michael Banovsky
Photo courtesy BMW Canada

The SMG vs. 6 speed manual argument has been going on for a few years now, after BMW decided to offer the sequential manual on its E46 M3.

Well, the debate is by no means finished.

BMW has announced that because of high demand for a manual in the U.S. market, they are developing a 6-speed for the new M5 and M6 sports cars.

Previously, BMW said that the cars would be exclusively a 7-speed SMG – and if you didn’t like it – NBM (No-Beemer-for-Me).

If only they could offer the SMG's launch control with the new manual transmission…