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.

2006 AJAC Car of the Year Category Winners

Photos courtesy respective manufacturers

Best New Economy Car: Honda Civic Sedan
Runner-Ups: Toyota Yaris, Hyundai Accent

Best New Family Car (Under $35,000): Hyundai Sonata GLS V6
Runner-Ups: Volkswagen Passat, Ford Fusion

Best New Family Car (Over $35,000): Hyundai Azera
Runner-Ups: Dodge Charger RT, BMW 3 Series Touring

Best New Luxury Car: BMW 5 Series Touring
Runner-Ups: Infiniti M45 Sport, Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class

Best New Sports Sedan: BMW 3 Series
Runner-Ups: Lexus IS, Subaru Impreza WRX Sedan

Best New Sports Car: Honda Civic Coupe Si
Runner-Ups: Chevrolet Cobalt SS, Mazda MX-5

Best New Sport Utility Vehicle: Mercedes-Benz ML-Class
Runner-Ups: Range Rover Sport, Suzuki Grand Vitara

Best New Pick-up: Honda Ridgeline
Runner-Ups: Lincoln Mark LT, Dodge Ram

Best New Multipurpose Family Vehicle: Mazda5
Runner-Ups: Mercedes-Benz B-Class, Subaru B9 Tribeca

Best New Modern Muscle Car: Dodge Magnum SRT8
Runner-Ups: Mazdaspeed6, Chevrolet Trailblazer SS

Best New Alternative Power: Honda Civic Hybrid

AJAC Most Coveted Vehicle Award: Chevrolet Corvette Z06

AJAC TEST FEST 2005: Sport Utility Vehicle

Story by Mark Atkinson
Photos courtesy CNW Group

SHANNONVILLE, ON – Every year, the automotive orgy that is Test Fest takes place at Shannonville Motorsport Park, two hours east of Toronto.

By putting category nominees through back-to-back on-road and on-track testing, Test Fest gives voting members of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) the opportunity to drive new and heavily revised models in a controlled setting. The purpose of this four-day high-octane extravaganza? To find segment winners across 11 categories, and to determine the annual AJAC Car and Truck of the Year awards.

As in the past few years, both Russ Bond and I were present and accounted for. Bond-o was assigned the very difficult task of picking the best in the Sports/Performance and new-for-2006 Modern Muscle groups. Lucky dog… At any rate, you can read about his experiences – both good and bad – in another post.

As for me, I had the opportunity to do double-duty as well, taking on the Sport Utility Vehicle and Sport Sedan classes.

First off, the SUV category had nine contenders, certainly the largest of this year’s crop, which made for a long day of testing. The nine were all 2006 versions of the Ford Explorer, Hummer H3, Jeep Commander, Kia Sportage, Mercedes-Benz ML350, Nissan Xterra, Range Rover Sport, Saab 9-7X and Suzuki Grand Vitara. Phew!

This was perhaps the most difficult category to judge, simply because of the wide range of prices and target audiences. What makes SUV different from, say, Multi-Purpose Vehicle, is that the SUV criteria includes off-road testing, while the MPV’s hit the low-speed Nelson track.

On-road testing proved one thing: the Range Rover Sport Supercharged is one bad-ass piece of machinery, as it should be for a price of $97,250! That supercharged 390-horsepower V8 pushed the 5,600-pound behemoth down the road with vigor, but the taught performance-biased suspension and 20-inch wheels with low-profile gumball tires certainly looked like they’d be a hindrance off-road.

Who were we to doubt Land Rover when it came to mud-loving vehicles, though. Despite the nasty conditions, the RRS/S handled everything with aplomb thanks to its very tasty and trick Terrain Response Control System. It’s basically a set-it-and-forget-it knob that allows you to dial in what conditions you’re driving in (or over) and the computer sets the ride height, brake bias, ABS sensitivity, traction control, etc., to get you where you need to be. Amazing.

And how did the others stack up? The ML350 is quiet and sophisticated inside, with definite improvements in construction and drivability, even though the exterior is simply an evolution of the previous model.

Coming down a notch or two, the mid-priced offerings were slightly more prosaic. The facelifted Ford Explorer is slightly less than breathtaking, and despite a homerun for the interior design, the materials inside are just too hard and brittle to really impress. It drives, well, just like you’d expect an Explorer to drive. The Saab has a very pretty face, but shows too much of its body-on-frame Chevrolet Trailblazer roots. While the V8 engine sounded great and had plenty of shove down low, it quickly runs out of breath and is hamstrung by the sloppy four-speed automatic. It also suffered the embarrassing disappointment of being the only SUV contender to not complete the off-road portion of the testing, mainly because of ground clearance issues.

While is looks like it can tackle the Rubicon Trail straight out of the box, the Jeep Commander was actually the best all-rounder of the bunch. Its HEMI V8 and five-speed automatic are very refined and the ratios well matched. The interior – while not top-shelf – is tasteful and comfortable. As a result, the Commander is a great highway vehicle, tracking straight and true with great damping. While the looks might drive some away, spending some more time with it will see the design mature, like day-old mud on the rocker panels.

The two hardcore off-roaders of the bunch, the H3 and the Xterra were completely different animals. While the H3’s looks are typically shocking Hummer outside, they’re combined with probably the best GM interior in, well, forever. The Xterra is very much an evolution of the old model, including the theater-style roof and tube-frame roof rails.

Interestingly, the Xterra was the only one of the bunch that (as equipped) could be put into two-wheel-drive for extra fun on gravel roads. The rest were all given some sort of full-time all- or four-wheel-drive, some with lockable differentials, and others with electronic traction/brake control to keep the tires from spinning.

The Xterra also ranked highest in the fun-to-drive category, thanks to its grunty V6 engine, sharp throttle and rear-wheel-drive configuration. The interior isn’t really anything to be proud of, but Nissan advertises that as an asset, and it’s functional, if a little dour. The H3’s main complaint comes from its engine, or lack of it. Even with the five-speed manual, the Hummer is underpowered and unrefined.

The ‘bargain’ entries in this group, the Kia Sportage and Suzuki Grand Vitara may look similar on paper, but were very different in execution. The Kia is a great effort by the Korean hotshot, with good equipment, decent driving dynamics, and genuine off-road ability, despite a road-biased all-wheel-drive system.

The Suzuki, however, was a revelation. The truck looks wonderful, inside and out, and truly handles well. Turn-in for an SUV was amazing, especially given its obvious off-road capabilities, and body lean was kept to a minimum. The only complaint is the lack of power; the small V6 engine doesn’t produce enough poke to satisfy, making for a momentum-focused driving experience. Think of it as the Miata of SUV’s…

Conclusions? Well, to be honest, the RRS/S truly is an exceptional vehicle, but the AJAC voting system takes price into account, meaning that expensive vehicles usually don’t fare as well in the end. Chances are it’ll be either the Suzuki Grand Vitara or the Jeep Commander.

AJAC TEST FEST 2005: Sport Sedan

Story by Mark Atkinson
Photos courtesy respective manufacturers

On the complete opposite spectrum from the SUV category, the Sport Sedan group was tight and fairly singular in its purpose. The four contenders were the 2006 Audi A4 3.0, BMW 330i, Lexus IS350, and Subaru Impreza WRX Sedan.

While three quarters of the group were clearly aimed at the same crowd, the black sheep of the family – the Impreza – was quite shockingly different. The facelift and bigger engine ensured its entry into the class, but despite five years of tweaking, the same basic shapes and interior materials remain.

That’s not to say that the WRX is outclassed – far from it. In fact, while more than capable on road or on track, the Scooby delivered its performance loud and ‘in your face’, unlike the other contenders. And really, that’s the WRX’s appeal as a rally car for the road.

On track, the bigger brakes and revised suspension inspire confidence and are able to cover up for ham-fisted mistakes. But for some reason Subaru insists on equipping most of its models in horrible Bridgestone all-season tires, which are neither sporty nor sticky. They’re most likely cheap, which helps explain their appeal, I suppose.

Moving up the ladder, the Audi A4 was similar to the Subaru in a couple of aspects – all-wheel-drive and a facelift over an older body. Other than that, where the Subaru was loud, the Audi was quiet. Where the Subaru was agile, the Audi was slightly ponderous. You get the idea… On track, the Audi really felt out of its element. The S4 proves that Audi can do sporty, but this regular A4 just didn’t quite cut it.

From my perspective, it was quite obvious who the two real contenders were: the Bimmer and the wanna-be Bimmer. Erm, the Lexus. While that might sound a tad harsh, no one at Lexus would deny who their bulls-eye rests on. The original IS300 was a direct Japanese clone of BMW’s 3-series, right down to the straight-six engine.

Now into its second generation, the IS350 takes the fight straight to the Germans, even out-powering them with over 300 horsepower from a 3.5-liter V6. Unfortunately, that engine is not available with a manual transmission, which automatically drops them down a notch in my book… On the high-speed Fabi track, the IS was a good performer, but not perfect. The brakes were a little spongy and the steering a shade light, but the car’s computer allowed a surprising amount of rude behaviour before reeling the driver in.

The 330i is what you’d expect from BMW: stiff chassis, direct steering, wonderful balance and good brakes. I’ve driven the less powerful 325i for a week, and its higher-octane brother just adds more good stuff to the pile. The same criticisms about a not-quite-there exterior and so-so interior remain, but as a driving tool, the BMW is unmatched.

The Lexus comes so close that it’s scary, and remains the better looking of the two, both inside and out. The materials used are also of a better grade, but the radio and HVAC controls do look a little Corolla-ish. No matter…

It really came down to the nitty gritty with the BMW and Lexus, even to such things as which had fold-down rear seats (BMW) to which had more rear legroom (Lexus). Really nit-picky stuff. If you’re interested in one, you’d do yourself a disservice by ignoring the other. And that’s as close as I can call it.

Keep your ears perked during early December as the category winners will be announced. From there, the Car and Truck of the Year will be voted on and revealed during the Canadian auto show season in 2006.

So that wraps up another year at Test Fest, which both Bond and I were very grateful to be a part of again. Hopefully, we didn’t cause enough damage to have our invitations lost in the mail come next October. It’s just a good excuse to get out of the office… but don’t tell my boss that!

AJAC TEST FEST 2005: Sports Performance / Modern Muscle

Story by Russ Bond
Photos Courtesy CNW Group

Each year, selected members from AJAC (Automotive Journalists Association of Canada) descend on Shannonville for a week-long test session of all the new and significantly revised cars and trucks, with the idea of determining the AJAC Car and Truck of the Year.

For the past four years, I have been attending, and I have been lucky to have been part of what I think are the best groups to evaluate. This year I had ‘Sports Performance’ and Modern Muscle.

In the Sports Performance group, it was kind of like that game on Sesame Street. You know the one: ‘One of these things, is not like the other…’ (you can sing that part if you want). The contenders were the Mazda MX-5, Mitsubishi Eclipse GT, Chevy Cobalt SS Supercharged, Pontiac Solstice, Honda Civic Si, Pontiac G6 Coupe and the Corvette. Not just any Corvette, mind you, but the ALMS-car-with-run-flat-tires-version, the Z06.

By any stretch of the imagination, this grouping – I thought – could have no clear winner, as in my opinion, the Z06 should never have been in this group. It is nearly double the price of any of the others – and often double the performance as well. The judging does take that into account; AJAC has a formula they apply after the scores are submitted to equal out the pricing issues, so we will see just how it turns out.

Putting that issue aside for a moment, I’ll start by saying the Z06 is exceptional value for the money. It is stunning on the road and on the track. Very drivable on the highway, and will murder just about anything on any track.

As for the rest of that group, I thought it was pretty close. I could see a sports-minded buyer looking at the rest in that group – they seem to be in the same market.

Things that impressed me in that group were the MX-5 (Miata) – it is much more refined and drivable compared to the last Mazdaspeed Miata, which I thought was a little peaky. The new look, and the fit and finish is why the MX-5 is still going to be one of the most popular convertible sports cars on the market.

The G6 was actually quite good on the track, and the new Si definitely was the rocket of the bunch. The Cobalt SS was the easiest to drive fast without working up a sweat – that one is a sure winner for Chevrolet. The Solstice, while looking great, could stand a little more development, and the Eclipse, though overweight and pushy, is miles ahead of the last one.

I don’t know which will come out on top, but like I said, it probably should have two winners. The Corvette, and what ever is judged the best of the rest.

My second group had a similar sort of issue I thought to begin with. Modern Muscle featured the Chevy Trailblazer SS, Dodge Magnum SRT8, and the Mazdaspeed6. Two other entries, the Cadillac STS-V and the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8, were withdrawn just before Test Fest by their respective manufacturers because they couldn’t guarantee enough customer deliveries in 2006 to satisfy AJAC’s rules.

At any rate, at first glance, the Mazdaspeed6 seems a little out of place, but I found out very quickly, muscle doesn’t necessarily mean V8. The Speed6 is clearly the best Mazda to come along in some time for performance enthusiasts: all-wheel drive, great power from the turbocharged 2.3-liter, direct injection, and a very well-developed suspension package. A quick note to Targa Newfoundland racers – look into a Mazdaspeed6 for ‘06.

The most impressive of the traditional muscle, was clearly the SRT8. What a blast on the track! I did a few laps with four people in it, and managed 140 km/h through turn 1 on Nelson track – this from a station wagon. Kudos to the performance folks at Dodge; the SRT8 is just fantastic to drive.

The Trailblazer is all motor, and sound. The LS2 V8 is great to listen to, the suspension is better, and the SS package looks great. They could fix the seats though… Right turns were fine, but lefts would find you sprawled over the center console.

Again, I am not sure which one will win, but Modern Muscle will prove to be much closer than Sports/Performance.

We’ll find out which vehicles win in all 11 categories by early December, and AJAC Car and Truck of the Year will be announced during the Canadian auto show rounds early next year.