Wednesday, July 05, 2006

DRIVEN: 2006 Pontiac G6 GTP

Story by Steven James Day
Photos courtesy Steven James Day and GM Canada

Driving the 2006 Pontiac G6 GTP reminded me that I’m old enough to remember when GM offered its mid-size sporty cars such as the Lumina Z34 and Pontiac Grand Prix GTP with manual transmissions. They weren’t always the most refined, but they were quick and, most importantly, fun to drive. Then, citing poor sales, almost all the manual transmissions were cancelled and GM asked people to settle for automatics. And while GM does build some of the best automatics in the business, it’s no substitute for a proper manual.

Well, it’s 2006 and building a sporty car without a manual just doesn’t cut it, so Pontiac found a six-speed manual for the new G6 GTP coupe and sedan. Although they share identical drivetrains, I prefer the look of the coupe, so I arranged to test a Liquid Silver example that also featured the optional Ebony leather interior. The GTP-badged heated sport seats are very well bolstered, supportive and comfortable all at once. I can also honestly say that the quality of leather is one of the best I’ve experienced in any recent GM product that doesn’t have a wreath and crest on it. The leather-wrapped steering wheel is nice and chunky, with the shift knob (also leather wrapped) fitting well in my hand. The shifter doesn’t feel as precise as a Honda’s, but is smooth nonetheless.

The overall interior fit and finish is well executed, and although some of the trim pieces seemed to differ greatly in quality, it doesn’t feel cheap. You certainly won’t mistake it for an Audi, but it is leaps and bounds over anything that ever wore a Grand Am badge. The ergonomics are great and all of the controls were intuitive and easy to use. The four-gauge cluster (240 km/h speedometer, 6,000 RPM tach, water temp and fuel) was clean, attractive and easy to read, and light up at night in the orange-red that has been a Pontiac trademark for years now.

The standard eight-speaker 200-watt Monsoon stereo sounds crisp, clear and very loud for a stock system. It even features speed-compensating volume control, and since my test car had the leather interior, redundant controls were on the steering wheel. You can opt for the oddly named sport package to get the radio controls, leather-wrapped steering wheel/shift knob with the standard cloth interior.

Two optional features that my test car was equipped with was a six-disc in-dash CD changer ($435) and XM satellite radio ($325 plus monthly subscription). I might be a bit biased here since I do have XM in my personal car and love it, but I think one negates the other since I rarely listen to CD’s anymore since getting XM. Although I know quite a few people that can’t fathom paying $12-15 a month for radio, I find it worth every penny not to have to listen to the commercials and repetition that come with regular radio.

BMW’s Chris Bangle has drawn more than a little fire for his designs over the last few years, but you can clearly see the impact he’s had when it comes to automotive design. For someone who is supposedly reviled as a designer you can see his influence in quite a few cars, such as the new Lexus LS. Add the G6 coupe to the list because there is a crisp line in the trunk that is obviously the result of Bangle’s influence. Bob Lutz did hint that he saw Pontiac as the American BMW. Maybe those recent rumours of Pontiac’s entire line up going RWD will come true.

Back to the G6 – there’s a little Toyota Camry Solara in the rear with a hint of Nissan 350Z in the taillights. But overall the exterior is very clean, uncluttered and – most importantly – cladding free. The standard 18 x 7 inch wheels and chrome dual exhaust tips are a nice touch.

The only proportion that I found odd is when viewing the G6 directly in profile. The optional 18-inch ultra-bright polished wheels are pushed to the corners thanks to its stretched wheelbase, so it seems a bit long. However that translates into above-average rear-seat room for a coupe. I put my five-year-old son and his booster seat in the rear and had no issues buckling him in. I thought the rear window might be a bit too high for him to see out of, but he assured me that he could see just fine. Sitting “behind myself” was comfortable, but I don’t know if I could take sitting for a long trip back there. But then again I don’t plan to be anywhere but the driver’s seat…

Speaking of the driver’s seat, there were no problems getting comfortable thanks to the aforementioned sport seats that feature six-way power adjustment and manual lumbar support. Although clutch take-up is bit heavy, it’s nothing to be concerned with, and since the G6’s 3.9 litre V-6 produces 241 lb-ft of torque at only 2,800 rpm, the car launches with confidence when the throttle is mashed. Torque steer is minimal even with the standard traction control switched off and Pontiac claims a 0-100 km/h time of just less than 7 seconds, which I have no reason to dispute.

Horsepower comes in at a very respectable 240 @ 6,000 rpm. The engine is torquey off the line, simply just explodes above 4,000 rpm and pulls hard all the way to redline. The 3.9-litre V6 accomplishes this without four valves per cylinder or overhead cams, however it does feature variable intake valve timing and variable induction.

Out on the highway at 120km/h in sixth gear the engine just loafs along at around 2,000 rpm, which should make for very decent fuel economy. There is more than enough power to pass if you need to or just drop a gear or two and you’ll slingshot by just about anything. There also weren’t any squeaks or rattles as the NVH was kept to a minimum. I could hear my passenger without any problem.

The G6 feels way more Saab than Pontiac, which makes sense since it is based off GM’s Epsilon platform, which also underpins the Saab 9-3. The chassis absorbed any bumps I could throw at the car with a minor thump, and while the ride is firm it’s not harsh. The steering is weighted perfectly to the suspension and at 8/10ths the car handles very well. But when driving at 10/10ths and you push it a little too hard into a corner, understeer is the result as the 225/50R18 inch all-season performance tires lose grip. There is also quite bit of body roll through some tighter corners.

Should you push it beyond your capabilities, GM has fitted its StabiliTrak dynamic stability control system to both GTP versions, and full-function all-speed traction control is included as well. Both can be switched off via a button on the dash, but since I wasn’t able to test the G6 at the safety of a track I can’t say whether or not ‘off’ does indeed mean ‘off.’ While it’s nice to have collision-avoidance features such as ABS and StabiliTrak as standard equipment on the GTP, I would like to see the optional front and rear side-impact and head curtain airbags standard as well. However, unlike StabiliTrak, the front and rear side-impact and head curtain airbags are available across the entire G6 line. ABS is also optional on the lower trim levels.

My tester’s four-wheel discs with ABS possessed fantastic pedal feel and stopped the car repeatedly with confidence and without issue. Gone is the long travel and mushy feel of previous GM brakes.

Base price is a very reasonable $29,885 for the GTP coupe, while my test car came to $34,882 before freight or taxes. This price as tested includes $1,732 for the leather seats, $1,195 for the power sliding sunroof, $1,310 for the Ultra-bright polished 18-inch wheels, $435 for the six-disc in-dash CD changer and $325 for XM. I would skip the leather, polished 18 inch wheels and CD changer and opt for the side impact/head curtain airbags.

I enjoyed my time with the G6 GTP. It’s not a raw performance coupe – neither are its Accord or Solara competition for that matter – but is a very nice GT-type car with lots of standard features, luxury touches and quite a bit of refinement with excellent balanced performance. The G6 GTP would make an excellent daily driver, just be sure to opt for the six-speed to make it a fun daily driver. For a slightly higher base sticker price of $36,885 and slightly lower horsepower rating of 227 horsepower and no six-speed manual the GTP is also available as a hardtop convertible.

Georgian Pontiac in Barrie, ON provided the author’s 2006 Pontiac G6 GTP.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

DRIVEN: 2006 Dodge Magnum SRT8

Story by Mark Atkinson
Photos by Ed Gatner

How do you best describe the 2006 Dodge Magnum SRT8? How about the station wagon from hell? The Devil’s own family hauler with room for three little devilkin and a decently-sized Cerberus? Hmm… not quite evil enough.

Have you seen this thing? Blacker than the pits of Hades, and three times as mean. I can’t count the number of times people took one glance at it and turned to stone. Well, not really – they were only so stunned by the sheer presence of the thing that they just stopped moving. Three neighbours I’d never met before suddenly became a whole lot friendlier when I pulled the SRT8 into the driveway.

The Street and Racing Technology (SRT) Group certainly did their jobs when the order for a hotted-up Dodge Magnum came down the pipeline. We’re already fans of the ‘regular’ RT, so you should already have a frame of reference to work from. Take out the already potent 5.7-litre HEMI V8, and dump in a 6.1 litre version that puts out a monstrous 425 hp @ 6000 rpm and 420 lb-ft. @ 4800 rpm. Then, lower the thing, stiffen up the suspension, up-size the anti-sway bars, fit a set of pizza-plate-sized Brembo brakes, slap on massive 20-inch five-spoke wheels with ‘real’ performance tires, drop in some Viper-inspired super-aggressive sport seats and then shake until Armageddon.

What do you get? One wickedly fast machine that goes, whoas and turns remarkably well too. It’s a muscle car that doesn’t get scared at the first sign of a twisty road, and can feel equally capable bringing home the weekly groceries.

Is it heavy? Abso-friggin’-loutely. It weighs in at 4,260 lbs., but thankfully feels much more nimble than its size and heft would suggest. On track, its behaviour is downright benign thanks to the Mercedes-Benz sourced Electronic Stability Program and those huge brakes. Oh, you can get the SRT8 majorly sideways – just check the photo above. But it’s not a hair-trigger thing – one wrong breath and you’re off.

No, the Magnum SRT8 is even happy doing the daily commute, and its surprisingly well-judged ride – you can thank that weight here – doesn’t beat you up going out for milk.

Of course, you always want to take the long way home, but that’s a whole other problem…

The Magnum is one of three LX platform cars that have undergone the SRT treatment. Like the three bears, the 300C is too subtle, while the Charger almost seems like it’s trying too hard. The Magnum version is just right.

Downsides? Well, if you have to ask about the gas mileage, stop reading right here. In this day and age of over $1-per-litre gas, anyone buying a six-litre engine who complains about gas mileage officially gets their human card revoked. Do your research. Dodge’s claims of 14 mpg city / 20 mpg hwy seem optimistic, especially given that the SRT’s V8 doesn’t come with the Multiple-Displacement System (MDS) that shuts down a bank of cylinders when cruising on the highway.

And, of course, since we live in Canada, you’ll have to find some huge snow tires and extra wheels that’ll fit over those monster brakes. Even the stock all-seasons on the regular RT’s are ‘marginal’ at best for this big rear-driver.

However, the great part is that the Magnum’s price is significantly lower than any other vehicle of its size and capabilities. The Mercedes-Benz E55 wagon, which admittedly is leagues nicer inside than the Dodge, starts at $122,000. Audi’s S6 Avant is now on ice for the time being, and BMW doesn’t make an M5 Touring (yet anyway). Nothing Japanese even fits the bill, and neither GM nor Ford offer anything comparable either.

A base Magnum SRT8 comes in at $46,520, while a fully loaded version with sunroof, side airbags, upgraded Boston Acoustic sound system, navigation system and all the bells and whistles only rings up to $54,195. A relative bargain for a little piece of hell.

DRIVEN: 2006 Lexus GS300

Story by Mark Atkinson
Photos courtesy Lexus Canada

With Lexus’ domination of Mercedes-Benz over and done with, the Japanese company decided it was time to turn its attention to the new sales leader in the global luxury market, BMW. What you see here, the 2006 Lexus GS300, is the first of an entirely redesigned fleet of Lexii ready to tackle Bavaria’s most popular car maker.

Now in its third generation, the GS300 follows the same tune as before: a mid-sized four-door sedan with six-cylinder power and rear-wheel drive. The GS’ exterior styling follows what Lexus calls L-Finesse. We call it ‘Flame-Surfaced-Without-The-Bangle-Butt’ or ‘One-Better-Than-Bimmer’. Your call…

Anyway, it’s a handsome sedan, with a rakish rear window and low roof height that helps to give the GS a very sleek profile.

Under the hood, the biggest change from before is the adoption of a traditional V6 in place of the old inline six. Displacement is the same as before, 3.0 liters, and it puts out 245 hp @ 6,200 rpm and 230 lb-ft @ 3,600 rpm. There’s also a 4.5-litre V8 available (GS450), and Lexus has just recently launched a V6 hybrid version (GS450h) that’s the most powerful of the three. Both V6 and V8 get six-speed automatic transmissions while the 450h debuts a new two-stage CVT.

While the recipe reads well for the enthusiast, the problem comes once you’re on the road. Sorry – that should be once you’re driving ‘spiritedly’ along your favourite road. While Lexus are aiming directly at the 5-Series with their latest GS, they’ve handcuffed what’s quite obviously a very balanced and able chassis with a hyper-sensitive form of traction and stability control called Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM).

At seven or even eight-tenths, and the car is relatively nimble, if mute in its information delivery. But once you start pushing the envelope, the electronics yank you back into shape without even a hint of letting you slightly sideways. And the worst part is that it’s undefeatable. You can’t turn it off. Period. It’s nothing like a BMW.

However, it is very much a luxury car, which means a gorgeous interior and top-notch materials, a quiet cabin and very good ride, even on the large-ish 17-inch wheels on our tester. The stereo is fantastic, and it’s a great place to relax and let the heated seats melt away the stresses of your day. And despite the general lack of headroom both front and rear (something had to give for that rakish roof) the GS is more than happy to schlep you and three other people wherever you want in great comfort.

It’s even a decent price – our Touring-package equipped tester coming in at $67,100, about $8,500 under a comparably equipped 530i.

But it’s definitely not a BMW. And maybe that’s the point. For years Lexus cribbed its entire playbook from other manufacturers. Now after 17 years in the market, the company’s finally confident enough to have their own sense of self. So enjoy the GS350 for what it is – a Lexus. Not a BMW.

DRIVEN: 2006 Honda Civic Si

Story by Mark Atkinson
Photos courtesy Honda Canada

The Honda Civic has officially reached middle age – in times now where car names and lines are lucky to stretch four or five years without a change, the Civic name’s 28-year history is certainly getting on.

Perhaps that helps explain the philosophy behind the eighth-generation of Honda’s compact competitor – it’s undergoing a mid-life crisis. All sleek, edgy and streamlined, attempting to reach out to the younger generation.

And the Si Coupe is probably the most radical of them all. While the previous SiR looked a lot like the offspring of a bread van and a guppy, it was almost universally panned as an underwhelming, underperforming, overpriced flop. It was made even more painful as the European Civic Type-R was a real screamer with 200 horsepower, fat sticky tires, a six-speed manual transmission and lots of attitude.

Honda had obviously taken its eye off the ball.

Thankfully, the company’s come back swinging, and the brand new 2006 Civic Si Coupe is a real stunner. Gone is the upright minivan look and in is the low, sleek shark-like styling. It’s a great job by the usually conservative Honda.

Mechanically, it backs up the looks with a very tasty spec sheet: a 197-horsepower 2.0-liter DOHC four-cylinder with full iVTEC treatment, a slick six-speed manual transmission, and – amazingly – a helical-type limited-slip differential. The Si Coupe also sports a firmed-up suspension tune: the rear features Honda’s traditional double-wishbones, while the fronts are still struts, but feature revised geometry for better performance.

Add to that formula a set of big four-wheel disc brakes and 17-inch wheels with sticky performance tires, and the Civic Si Coupe is a rocket around the track. The steering is laser sharp with tons of feel, while the brakes are able to haul you down from illegal speeds with ease. Pitch the Si into a series of sweepers, and the car takes a nice set. Its line is fully adjustable with the electronic throttle thanks to the slippy diff, and once the engine spins north of 4,000 rpm, the most wonderful pissed-off engine sounds add to the soundtrack. Pure intake and exhaust growl, all the way to the 8,000 rpm redline.

The Si Coupe’s interior makes it easy to enjoy spirited driving. The seats are perfect, well bolstered and covered in Alcantara to hold you in place, and the shifter falls right at hand.

The dash itself, though, is what’ll catch your attention first – it’s divided into two binnacles split visually by the steering wheel rim. A rev counter and warning lights sit in the bottom one, while a digital speedometer dominates the top. It’s a little disconcerting at first, but given enough time, you become quite used to it.

The only real issues are some slightly impeded sightlines thanks to the fairly massive and aggressively raked windshield pillars. It sometimes makes it hard to aim for the apex without having to strain your neck, but such is life.

Also, rear passengers will find the seats somewhat cramped as Honda decided to sacrifice space in the quest for good looks. For those who are itching for a more friend friendly version, the company recently took the wraps off a Civic Si Sedan ‘concept’… expect it in showrooms probably by the end of the summer.

The best news about the Si Coupe is its pricing, which starts at $26,080. The only real performance upgrade you could ask for would be 18-inch wheels with summer tires for $1,777.88, but you can certainly find aftermarket packages for cheaper.

So the Civic is a smoking bargain. Not convinced? Well, the Honda is such a hot package that Acura’s decided to kill its aging but still excellent RSX coupe at the end of the ‘06 model year – no direct replacement is planned as the Si Coupe made it irrelevant. That’s not a bad sign for those looking for a reasonably priced, highly entertaining ride – the Civic’s come out swinging.

DRIVEN: Audi A3 3.2 Quattro

Story by Mark Atkinson
Photos courtesy Audi Canada

The 2006 Audi A3 has already found friends at Inside Track thanks to its sharp styling, potent and flexible turbocharged engine and the super-trick Dual Shift Gearbox (DSG) transmission. The only issue we had was the price. A reasonably equipped A3 2.0T was at the sharp end of $40,000 for what is essentially a compact five-door hatchback.

Well, Audi’s now introduced a high-performance version of the A3, this time loaded with a 250-hp 3.2-litre V6, quattro all-wheel-drive. Remember the Volkswagen Golf R32 that Canadians were denied? Well, this is essentially the same package, only bolted into the much-lauded fifth-generation corporate platform, independent rear suspension and all. And, like the 2.0T, it’s available with either a six-speed manual transmission, or the aforementioned DSG.

How’s it drive? Bloody quick, despite the bloated 3,650lb curb weight, a 328 pound penalty versus its two-wheel-drive sibling. While the DSG in our tester isn’t equipped with any sort of launch control, the V6 builds power progressively, and if you leave the transmission in Sport and let the computer sort out the shifts, acceleration is impressive. Audi claims 0-100km/h runs under six seconds.

Despite having driven a few cars with DSG, it’s still stunning to experience just how quick and seamless the shifts are, all without seeming to stress either itself, the clutch or your neck. Turn a BMW SMG transmission to ‘full-kill’ for a day and you’ll swear you just tried to keep ‘roid-raging Barry Bonds away from ‘the Cream and the Clear’.

Anyway, the only complaint is that even in fully ‘manual’ mode, the computer still keeps things in major check – i.e. banging off the limiter is verboten, and the electronics will quickly shift up to the next gear in a, perhaps vain, attempt to save the engine. At least in an M3 you can ride that 8,500 rpm limiter all the way to the Nurburgring and back.

Enough about the transmission… our tester was also equipped with the S-Line performance/equipment package, which includes 18-inch wheels wrapped in sticky rubber, a more aggressive body kit, special S-Line badges, and a more aggressive suspension tune than the regular 2.0T. Unfortunately, the steering is ridiculously light and doesn’t transmit anything in the way of feedback to you, and at speed it weights up artificially. Not the sort of thing to engender confidence.

However, the car as a whole is a useful tool, and is quite capable in the curves. You can definitely sense the weight when you’re in transition, and since the quattro hasn’t caught up with the rest of the uber-sporty Audi range, it still splits power 50:50 f/r rather than 40:60 like the RS4 and S8. That leads to predictable understeer at the limit, and the A3 isn’t as sensitive to throttle steer as, say, a WRX on its original tires…

All that weight does make it a very decent highway cruiser, though the seats could use some extra bolstering to keep you held in place.

The brakes will pull you to a stop in a hurry and are easy to modulate, but Audi’s nanny-ish electronic throttle won’t let you do the two-step on the brake and gas pedal at the same time.

Inside, it’s ‘Audi Modern’, with ultra-thin panel gaps, soft-touch plastics, and the whole shebang. It’s obvious why they’ve become the industry standard. Our tester featured the dual glass Open Sky roof, DVD-based navigation system, DSG transmission, leather seats, HID headlights… just about every option you could throw at an A3, including a brace of airbags and safety equipment.

Price? You don’t want to ask. How about $55,490? Yes, you read that right. Audi’s obviously banking on having their ‘premium hatchback’ be a hit in North America as an aspirational choice because the value equation was rocked about $20,000 ago. It’s only another $1,500 to get into a similarly equipped and much larger A4. Hopefully for them, Canada’s more hatch-friendly market will play their tune.

Or maybe they’ll all buy Golf GTIs for considerably less money.

DRIVEN: 2006 Dodge Charger RT

Story by Mark Atkinson
Photos courtesy DaimlerChrysler Canada

Let’s get this out of the way: we’ve all heard the criticism before about Dodge’s decision to build the new Charger as a four-door sedan rather than a two-door like its muscle car namesake of old. Been there, done that. Get over it. If having two extra doors prevents you from even trying to enjoy what Dodge has to offer, then that’s a real shame because the new Charger is certainly worth its badge.

The Charger is the third of the Brampton, ON-built DaimlerChrysler triplets to use the very successful LX platform. Since we’ve gone on at great length about its Chrysler 300 and Dodge Magnum siblings, the basic information should sound familiar: a choice of V6 or V8 engines, five-speed automatic transmission and rear-wheel-drive.

However, it would be unfair to tag the Charger as nothing more than a retro-ish sedan version of the Magnum, because there’s been a huge effort made by DC to infuse it with the spirit of Bo and Luke Duke’s favourite ride.

The major change has been to shorten up the wheelbase in order to make the Charger more nimble than its larger brothers. Stiffer suspension settings on even the V6 SE models helps to differentiate the drive as well. Our HEMI-powered R/T benefited even more from the optional Road and Track package – yes, that means it was a Charger R/T R/T – that included different 18 x 7.5-in aluminum wheels, P235/55R18 BSW all-season performance tires, supporting sport seats with grippy ‘Preferred Suede’ surfaces, and even more focused steering and suspension settings.

So equipped, the 4,031-lb Charger R/T was surprisingly nimble and fun to drive. The steering is sharp, and turn-in is decent, although the all-season tires have early limits. Having summer performance tires even as an option would help even more in this regard.

The V8 really is a nice piece, proving to be super-torquey and responsive, and it truly does roar when you put your foot in it. The five-speed automatic is well matched to the HEMI, although we’ll say again that a manual transmission would be a welcome addition to the lineup. It seems obvious to say that gas mileage wasn’t the greatest over the week we had with the R/T, although most of the driving done was in-town where the Multi-Displacement System (MDS) cylinder shut-off wasn’t able to perform its magic.

While the interior shares most of its components with the Magnum, the exterior is something completely different. The office was split into the love it/hate it categories, but whichever way they fell, it’s obvious that the Charger stands out in a crowd. The squinty headlights, upright crosshair grille, rear fenders and fast-back profile hearken back to the ‘good ole days’, the touches of a modern sedan are still there in spades.

For those who have a bit more extrovert in their blood, Dodge does offer the Daytona R/T package, with lurid Go ManGo! and Top Banana paint, blacked-out grille and wheels, flat-black graphics on the hood and sides, and black spoilers front and rear. Mechanically, the Daytona R/T includes everything from the R/T R/T, and really gets the mid-life crisis blood flowing…

Pricing for the Charger R/T starts at $39,045, with the R/T package adding another $950 to that total. The Charger Daytona R/T runs for $42,045. Those who are looking for even more punch can step up to the SRT-8 for not much more money… we’ll bring you a full test once we get our hands on one.


Story by Mark Atkinson
Photos courtesy Mazda Canada

It seems to get boring repeating it time and time again, but the Mazda6 in all its iterations has been a favourite in the Inside Track offices since its introduction. The combination of slick styling, sweet chassis, nimble moves and good value has conspired to keep us searching for opportunities to drive one whenever we can.

So when we heard that the company’s in-house tuning division MazdaSpeed got its hands on the mid-sized sedan, we – of course – couldn’t wait to finagle one for a week.

MazdaSpeed’s well known for taking perfectly good production cars and adding a turbo, bigger wheels, tighter suspension, sticky tires and an aggressive body kit – witness the previous generation Miata and Protégé versions for reference. Even when you’re familiar with the recipe, though, the final versions were always a cut above what the spec sheet would suggest.

The MS6 is remarkable in its transformation. It features a 274-horsepower turbocharged and intercooled 2.3-liter DOHC four-cylinder engine, with a six-speed manual transmission and all-wheel drive. While the numbers may suggest that Mazda’s taking aim at the STI and Evo rally-specials set, in reality, the MS6 is much bigger and heavier than those two, preferring to play the Grand Touring card instead.

The engine truly is an amazing piece – it’s an evolution of the 2.3-liter that already sees duty in most of the global Mazda and Ford catalogue, but equipped with DISI, or Direct Injection to boost power and economy. D.I. has been a staple in diesel engine technology for years, but is only recently becoming more popular on gasoline engines.

What it does in the MS6 is help to produce an amazing 280 lb-ft of torque that peaks at an amazingly low (for a turbo) 3,000 rpm. The horsepower peaks at a healthy 5,500 rpm, but runs out of breath soon after. Thankfully the six-speed manual transmission has closely spaced ratios that help keep the engine on boost.

In fact, the MS6 launch was delayed several months after the North American-spec final-drive ratio was changed to match the more aggressive Japanese-spec version to improve acceleration. While it obviously adversely affected the fuel economy, Mazda executives felt the change was more than worth the delay and headaches. We tend to agree.

The MS6’s all-wheel-drive system is all new as well, and features what Mazda calls an ‘active torque split’ that uses all manner of sensors to split power anywhere between 100/0 to 50/50 f/r. It also employs a rear limited-slip differential to help get the back end moving properly as well. While it’s not an aggressive rear-biased ratio, in normal everyday driving, the MS6 acquits itself very well.

Incredibly, the first chance we had to sample the MazdaSpeed6 was during AJAC’s Test Fest back in October. Russ Bond was given the enviable task of judging the Modern Muscle category, where the MS6 was thrown headfirst against the Dodge Magnum SRT8 and the Chevrolet Trailblazer SS. As for me, I was able to storm around Shannonville’s Nelson circuit for a bit, and almost had to be black-flagged to come back in once my half-hour was up.

Both Russ and I agreed that the MS6 was incredible on track, proving to be more nimble and responsive than its 1,628kg curb weight would suggest. Also, the engine proved to be hugely flexible, providing a very solid powerband in which to work.

Inside, not much has changed over the regular Mazda6 range, bar a few piano-black trim pieces and the optional two-tone leather seats in our test car. Thankfully, the MS6’s interior hasn’t dated much since the range’s introduction, so it’s still a great place to be. The MS6 offers power everything, all manner of airbags, traction control, stability control, a great stereo and amazing seats.

The only complaint is that Mazda’s refresh of the 6 lineup has diluted the MS6’s impact some as the restyled front and rear fascias and new wheels look remarkably like those fitted to the hi-po model.

Once again, though, Mazda really has pulled the value card here. The MS6’s MSRP is $35,995, undercutting its closest rival – the Subaru Legacy 2.5GT Limited – by $4,300 and the Mazda is the better steer. Also, the MS6 has only two options – a moonroof and either mono- or two-tone leather seating (and the price is the same for either). They only come packaged together, so a loaded MS6 adds up to $38,795.

MazdaSpeed deserves a lot of credit for once again balancing the power/grip/comfort/value equation. There are rumours floating around about a MazdaSpeed3 featuring the same engine (although perhaps not the all-wheel-drive) coming soon. I’ll have to get that dialing finger warmed up again.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

DRIVEN: 2005 Toyota Tacoma Sport

Story by Mark Atkinson
Photos courtesy Toyota Canada

Toyota’s small trucks are legendary for their durability and reliability in the nastiest conditions the world can throw at them. The original Tacoma was Toyota’s first step forward towards making those small trucks more livable in a more urban environment, and it was a success in that regard.

However, much like the rest of the world – and its competition – the new Tacoma has grown bigger. The compact truck market used to be flooded with offerings from a slew of different manufacturers with only the Dodge Dakota taking on the ‘mid-size’ tag. Well, now with Nissan (Frontier), Chevrolet (Colorado), GMC (Canyon) and now Toyota introducing their new generation of ‘small’ trucks in mid-size packages, only the ancient Ford Ranger and Mazda B-series can lay claim to the compact descriptor.

Like many pickups, the new Tacoma is offered in a dizzying number of combinations of cab sizes, engine and transmission choices, drivetrain options, etc. The one that probably appeals to the typical Inside Track reader the most, however, is the two-wheel-drive Tacoma Double Cab Sport V6, and the week we spent with it opened some eyes.

Motivating the bigger truck is a bigger engine, in this case a 4.0-liter V6 pushing out 236 hp @ 5200 rpm and 266 lb-ft. @ 4000 rpm. While this powerful engine is available with a six-speed manual, our tester was hooked up to a five-speed automatic transmission. There was plenty of passing urge when called upon, but the enthusiast in us still cried out for the stick shift. No matter…

The Sport package offers a host of upgrades to the regular Tacoma, including a more aggressive body-colour front facia, a hood scoop, lowered suspension with Bilstein shocks, body-hugging seats, a limited-slip differential, 17-inch aluminum wheels and grippier tires.

For a body-on-frame truck, the Tacoma was surprisingly agile, despite the high center of gravity, and the upgraded shocks provided good body control without transmitting too many nasty vibrations into the cabin from broken pavement.

The combination of sticky-ish tires and rear LSD meant you could really push the Tacoma hard, and it would respond relatively well, with the sport seats keeping you in place comfortably. The brakes were probably the only thing that could use some work; perhaps a more aggressive pad compound would help them bite better and improve response.

The four-door model provided a good amount of leg room in the rear, and passengers had few complaints about the accommodations. While the interior is done in ‘Toyota-modern’ and everything lines up correctly, there were some areas that could stand a little improvement to distance the more expensive Tacoma from the Corollas.

Pricing for our tester rang in at $35,520 and there’s an enormous array of options and packages that you can select to personalize the truck any way you want. Hopefully Toyota’s reputation for quality and high resale value will continue, making the Tacoma a good deal not only when you first buy it, but years down the road as well.

DRIVEN: 2006 Suzuki Grand Vitara

Story by Mark Atkinson
Photos courtesy Suzuki Canada

Suzuki’s been in the business of making off-road ready compact SUV’s for a long time. While the Samurai, Sidekick and Vitara were demons off the beaten trail, they were always too focused on the rough stuff to really compete with the more comfort-oriented, lighter-duty car-based SUV’s that have since dominated the market.

Enter the 2006 Grand Vitara, Suzuki’s completely redesigned entry into the small five-seat SUV market, and one that’s a serious shot across the competition’s nose. Just looking at the trim and aggressive sheet metal, you get a sense that Suzuki’s not messing around. It’s razor sharp, with squinty headlights and big fenders – it’s a design that’s thoroughly modern, and probably the best in its class.

Underneath the skin, Suzuki has stubbornly chosen to keep with its body-on-frame design, which is traditionally a better chassis to use off-road. Only this time, they’ve cleverly attached a completely unitized body on top, much like Land Rover has done with its new – and much more expensive – LR3 and Range Rover Sport. The idea is to better isolate the cabin from the shocks incurred from the ladder frame, and provide a very stiff shell from which to work with.

It’s inside that shell that’s perhaps the biggest surprise of all; the interior design is by far the best we’ve seen from Suzuki, and it leapfrogs ahead of a good number of pricier competitors as well. The seats are comfortable and supportive, the gauges are clearly marked and easy to read, the center stack is very well integrated, and the pieces all fit together with very small gaps. All in all, it’s a great place to escape from the nastiness of nature.

Once out on the road, the Grand Vitara drives extremely well; in a previous article, I’d dubbed it the “Miata of SUV’s” because of its steering response, agile handling, and good braking. Unfortunately, “Miata” doesn’t equal ‘muscle car’, because the Suzuki’s most obvious failing is under the hood. The 2.7-liter V6 has gained power over the last generation, but unfortunately, it’s not enough.

That super-rigid construction and lush interior materials make for lots of weight, and the 185 horsepower the engine provides just isn’t strong enough, especially with the five-speed automatic. It’s adequate for around-town duties, but long hills or highways – even more so with a full load of people or cargo on board – will have you pushing your foot deep into the floorboards.

It means you have to drive the Grand Vitara with momentum in mind, which thanks to the great suspension setup, is highly entertaining for a small SUV.

However, the Grand Vitara’s biggest weapon is its value for money. For instance, even the base models starting at $24,495 get Electronic Stability Control as standard equipment. A fully loaded JLX with leather, moonroof, and key card entry and ignition only runs $29,995 – a relative bargain in this class.

Combine it all, and the Grand Vitara adds up to be a very nice package for the money. That it finished third out of nine in the AJAC SUV of the Year category only behind a Mercedes-Benz and a Range Rover Sport is even more impressive. Had Suzuki put more ponies under the hood, and I would lay even odds the Grand Vitara would have won.

DRIVEN: 2006 Mercedes-Benz ML350

Story by Mark Atkinson
Photos courtesy Mercedes-Benz Canada

Mercedes-Benz has completely revamped its popular ML-class SUV for 2005. While the original, launched in 1997, arguably started the trend towards ‘luxury’ Sport Utes, its eight-year run with only a mild mid-life freshening left the ML in a position behind its newer – and more car-like – rivals.

While the exterior styling could only be called evolutionary, what’s changed underneath the skin is dramatic. The 2005 ML350 that we had on test ditches the old body-on-frame construction of the original, and adopts a unibody chassis that’s highly popular in this world of ‘crossovers’ and SUV’s that never go off road.

That body-on-frame gave the original ML a serious set of off-road credentials, even though most of its customers would never consider taking it off the pavement. Thankfully, the 2005 version doesn’t abandon the skill set of its predecessor, possessing great mud-bogging capabilities that belie its more civilized construction.

It being a Mercedes-Benz, the ML adopts the same ABS/traction control-based four-wheel-drive system that does away with traditional locking differentials. A myriad of three-letter-acronym systems including Hill Decent Control (HDC) and Electronic-Brake Force Distribution (EBD) help the 4,730 lb. truck get through the nastiest conditions. During the off-road testing portion at the AJAC Test Fest this past October, the ML handled itself with aplomb, and Mercedes-Benz offers a more dedicated off-road package including air suspension and different tires.

Thankfully, the ML’s on-road abilities haven’t been sacrificed either, with even the ‘base’ model offering good body control with minimal dive or pitch, and the brakes are responsive and confidence inspiring.

Powering the ML350 is MB’s first of a new generation of V6 and V8 engines, replacing the old three-valve SOHC units. In our case, it was an all-aluminum 3.5L V6 that puts out 268 hp@ 6000 rpm and 258 lb-ft. @ 5000 rpm. And mimicking the McLaren-Mercedes Formula 1 car, all V6-equipped ML’s feature a seven-speed automatic transmission. The combination is silky smooth, and provides good acceleration and throttle response.

The interior appointments are probably the most obvious improvement over the previous generation, which had come under criticism for some un-Mercedes-like materials and quality. No major complaints in the new one, though; soft-touch plastics abound, and the design is clean and bright.

Only the stubby steering column-mounted gearshift takes some flack – it’s positioned right where the windshield wiper controls are on most other non-MB vehicles, and takes some getting used to so you don’t switch into neutral while trying to clear the front glass. While its operation is simple enough to understand, it’s a large departure from the traditional gear levers of old.

Regardless, the $55,750 Alabama-built ML350 truly is a solid, luxurious vehicle, and hopefully is an indication of Mercedes-Benz’ renewed focus on peerless quality.

That it won the SUV category at Test Fest 2005 against some fierce competition is a strong indication of just how serious the company is to retake its position at the top of the luxury sport-ute pile.