Thursday, January 18, 2007

DRIVEN: 2007 Audi Q7

Story by Mark Atkinson
Photos courtesy Audi Canada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REPORT: Test Fest 2006

Story by Mark Atkinson
Photos courtesy AJAC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REPORT: Test Fest 2006… Uncensored!

Story by Russ Bond
Photos courtesy AJAC

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

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

Ah yes, the track.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DRIVEN: 2007 Hyundai Entourage

Story by Mark Atkinson
Photos courtesy Hyundai Canada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DRIVEN: 2006 Ariel Atom

Story by Mark Swain
Photos courtesy Todd McCall / On Track Promotions

"Light weight, supercharged Ecotec engine, superb braking, race-engineered suspension, open cockpit, and you are going to let me drive it? Fantastic!”

The above conversation centered around the spectacularly anticipated Ariel Atom, and I was in heaven. The Atom’s entrance into the Canadian and United States marketplace is definitely a welcome addition, although it’s not new to North American automotive enthusiasts. The car etched its place in history with one five-minute video clip that originated on the U.K. television show BBC Top Gear. This clip went on to greater acclaim on the internet, soon becoming one the most watched automotive videos on the web. If you haven’t watched it yet, please take a moment to now. I’ll wait.

I remember the first time I saw the Top Gear test. The phenomenal results placed the Ariel Atom right at the top of the charts with some of the most reputable supercars. The greatest part of the entire video is watching as the tester Jeremy Clarkson blasts down the Top Gear track with his face literally flapping in the breeze! Now that is fast!

After watching the video several times I was off to the internet to do some research on this new supercar. Pouring over specifications and photos I figured this would be as close as I got to the real thing.

Fast forward a couple years to 2006, and Dave Goadby has started distributing the cars within the Canadian market. I know Goadby very well as I was fortunate enough to drive for him at TMI Racing. At the time we raced an Ultima GTR as well as a Stealth B6, which are both European supercars in their own right. The news that he was going to bring the Ariel into Canada seemed like a natural fit.

The Canadian distributor will be working closely with Brammo Motorsports in the United States. Each Ariel Atom for the North American market will be built at the Brammo Motorsports facility in Oregon. In Canada, one car has already been sold and I imagine many more will hit the streets once a few Transport Canada issues are sifted through. As of yet the Ariel Atom is not road legal up here.

The race track really is the only place to fully test the potential of a vehicle. This being said, we headed to Shannonville Motorsports Park to see if all the hype could be substantiated. I arrived just as the car was being unloaded and rolled into pit lane. It is definitely not hard on the eyes!

Taking a walk around reinforces the fact that this is a quality-built automobile. The attention to detail has created perfection from stunning welds, to the carbon fiber body panels that actually fit! Anyone who has kit car experience will know what I am referring to here…

Now it was time to get behind the wheel and have some fun. The cockpit of the Ariel Atom is very functional. The digital dash displays all the important information including a neat shift lift incorporated in the tachometer needle. Racing seats are mounted on fully adjustable sliders that make it easy to get comfortable; even at my height (6’3”) I had no problem fitting.

Many sports cars are so highly tuned that you need a team of engineers to get them started and ensure you have executed every ritual before you put it in first gear. Not the Ariel Atom – a touch of the start button brings the beast to life at an idle so smooth and quiet you have to look twice to see that it is running.

A final tug on the shoulder straps of the five-point safety harness and I am away heading into turn 1 of the Fabi circuit. The stock GM-sourced drivetrain allows for easy starts with good clutch feel. Bringing the car slowly up to speed I can’t help but smile! The car is just great to drive at any speed. A few slower laps allow me to familiarize myself with the car. A quick look down shows you the tires working, a look left allows you to look through the car and judge the apex curbing, and listening behind allows you to hear the gentle wail of the supercharged Ecotec four-cylinder engine.

A quick trip to the pits after the orientation laps allows us a chance to do a quick once-over and ensure everything mechanically is working ok. It also gave me a chance to discuss some of the handling characteristics with Brent Gates of TMI Racing.

Gates is an accomplished racecar driver in his own right, having won numerous Canada Challenge Cup events as well as racing in the Rolex and Grand Am Cup series. Besides working with the Ariel Atom program, he is also a lead engineer at AIM Autosport, so he knows a thing or two about set-up and handling.

I was told that the car is currently set up with street car alignment specs as well as damping rates. Gates will be working in the future to develop a base race set-up for customers to use. With the mechanical check complete and the tire pressure reset, it was back to the track.

Acceleration is brisk to say the least, shifting at a conservative 6,500 rpm still gives more than enough zip. The car comes alive from 4,500 rpm onwards and keeps pulling all the way to redline. The gear ratios are fairly good, however for the Fabi circuit it would have been nice to have second and third gears closer together.

The car has very quick steering response. Understeer at the turn-in point and the ability to induce oversteer on exit are common handling traits until you are able to get some heat in the tires. Once the tires are warm the car quickly darts to the apex and powers out with ease. Trailing-throttle oversteer can be used to your advantage with the Ariel Atom. A quick lift of the throttle going into the double-apex left-hand corner allows the rear end to gradually rotate and steer the car in the desired direction. Reapplying the throttle liberally quickly stops the rotation.

Braking comes in the form of four piston calipers connected to a manual Tilton pedal assembly. The manual pedal allows for great feel and the ability to modulate braking at the limit. To put it bluntly, the car stops fast! After an hour or so of lapping the brake pedal did become a bit long, but still had great ability to stop the car. Changing to racing brake fluid will cure this problem.

The Ariel Atom is a great car and an ideal choice for avid lapping day enthusiasts! At the end of the day I was still smiling, the car was in one piece, and after many, many laps not one thing had gone wrong. Stunning good looks, drivability, performance, and just plain cool! This is a great recipe for success.

Pricing for the Ariel Atom starts at $41,995 US for the base model, while the full race package tops out at $93,450 US. For more information on the Ariel Atom please check out

DRIVEN: 2007 Saturn Sky

Story by Mark Atkinson
Photos courtesy GM Canada

In the years that I’ve been reviewing cars and the dozens of different models that get parked outside the Inside Track offices continually, no one has ever gotten hurt before.

That might sound like a stupidly obvious statement, and I never truly believed that anyone could injure themselves checking out a ride, no matter how nice.

Then the Saturn Sky arrived.

No word of a lie – one of our sister magazine’s sales managers now sports a bruised and bloody lump the size of an egg on his forehead after walking into an iron support beam while scoping out the Sky over his shoulder. While we all believed his story that the beam ‘appeared out of nowhere’ – sure, Rog – it was perhaps the most dramatic proof that despite its recent troubles, General Motors still has some design mojo stocked up somewhere.

The 2007 Saturn Sky is the sibling to the white-hot Pontiac Solstice, GM’s big attempt to prove that it can produce niche vehicles as well as anyone else. It’s also ‘Maximum’ Bob Lutz’ first tangible results as the company’s car guru, and many have pinned their hopes on the twin two-seat roadsters taking a big chunk out of Mazda’s record-breaking MX-5 sales.

You can’t deny that the Sky looks amazing… when you’re sitting inside, all you can see are those razor-sharp fender creases, both front and rear, and those big rear haunches really do help convey that Saturn means business.

If the whole thing screams ‘Opel’ to you, well that’s because it is. The Sky will be sold as the Opel GT in Europe, while Vauxhall gets a version as well. The new ’07 Aura sedan is much the same as its Continental Vectra sibling as Saturn now becomes a rebadge division after years of being ‘a different kind of car company.’

Unlike every other Saturn, the Sky actually uses (some) sheet metal instead of the dent-resistant polymer pieces that gave the division its reputation for massive panel gaps… a revolution, I know.

Inside, things appear kosher at first glance, however once you spend more than a few minutes sitting behind the wheel, the Sky’s obnoxious ergonomics and cheap materials really make you wish for the keys to that MX-5. The most obvious defects include not being able to contort your wrist enough to reach the window and mirror switches placed too near the driver along the sculpted door panels, and the lack of any interior storage space bar the tiny glove box and the de rigueur cubby between the seatbacks. The ridiculously flimsy cup holders pull out underneath said cubby, and when a drink is installed, interferes with the cubby’s hinged door.

This is nothing compared to the utter contempt and frustration one feels when having to put down the top, which is a multi-step process in futility. Roll down the windows slightly, unlatch the roof from the windshield header, pop the trunk using the key fob as there’s no switch either inside or outside the cabin, fumble with the folding roof’s spring-mounted trunk attachment points, open the rear-hinged trunk by wedging your fingers into an incredibly minute gap between body panels, finally flop the roof down into the now-nonexistent trunk space, close the trunk, pop the trunk again because the center-latched affair takes just the right amount of shove to fit properly… you get the idea.

It’s absolutely the antithesis that is the MX-5 roof, which takes all of three seconds to open or close thanks to brilliant engineering and lots of forethought. And you still get a decently sized trunk in the Mazda.

While it’s understandable that given GM’s lack of experience designing a rear-wheel-drive two-seat roadster other than the Corvette that there would be some bugs. However, the Sky’s roof design really is off-putting. I’m a big fan of convertibles in general, and will gladly dress up in a toque, scarf and gloves in order to really maximize the roof-down season, but after two days of the tedious exercise required to turn the Sky into a sun-chaser, I just left it up for the rest of the week as it was too much of a hassle.

Thankfully, the Sky does have some redeeming qualities. Amazingly, for such a short-wheelbase sports car, it does ride surprisingly well and makes for a decent highway cruiser. Saturn says that its car and the Solstice share the same suspension design, but that the Sky’s bushings are softer, allowing for a more comfortable setup.

Despite being about 400 pounds heavier than the MX-5, the Sky’s 2.4-liter Ecotec four-cylinder give the car decent response thanks to 177 hp @ 6600 rpm and 168 lb-ft @ 4800 rpm, although our tester’s five-speed automatic blunted the car’s acceleration. While the five-speed manual isn’t the last word in refinement, being able to select your own gears does improve the ‘roadster’ appeal.

The Sky works best when not pushed to its absolute limit. The softer suspension allows the car to lean more than the Solstice would, and while the brakes are responsive, actual stopping distances aren’t really impressive.

What the Sky will excel at is more relaxed Sunday drives, the odd spirited blast down a back road or cruising along Yorkville in the middle of summer.

The biggest pill to swallow, though, is the price. Saturn is asking more for the Sky than an equivalent Pontiac as the former is aimed more upscale. The base Sky starts just over $31,000, but once you add the five-speed automatic ($1,250), upgraded sound system ($930), red leather interior ($1,520), and the 18-inch chrome wheels ($950), you get a price – $37,420 – that exceeds a fully-loaded MX-5 GT.

One can only hope that the addition of 100 extra horsepower, one extra gear and some suspension work can help the Sky Red Line bolster the line’s reputation as something other than just a modern boulevard cruiser.

DRIVEN: 2007 Mercedes-Benz B-Class

Story by Mark Atkinson
Photos courtesy Mercedes-Benz Canada

Despite having a reputation for building some of the most solid luxury sedans in history, Mercedes-Benz has been on a real quest in the last 10 years or so to extend itself into just about every niche possible. Would the company have even considered building an SUV (other than the ultra-basic military G-Wagen) in the mid-‘80s? No… you would have been laughed out of the board room for even suggesting such a thing.

But 10 years is a long time. In that span, we’ve witnessed two generations of ML SUVs, the lackluster C-class Coupe, the gorgeous CLS and – hold your breath – the front-wheel-drive A-Class – sold everywhere else but North America, of course. Now that the A-Class has come around for a full redesign, Mercedes-Benz decided to amortize some more of the platform’s costs by building a bigger, more solid B-Class, with which to attack the growing ‘premium hatch’ market.

Seeing as Canada is more than receptive to hatchbacks compared to the sedan-favouring United States, the 2007 B-Class has hit Canadian streets far in advance of our American neighbours.

Now, before I get into detail about the B-Class itself, we the question of whether or not Mercedes-Benz’ second attempt at a premium small car will be any better than its first has to be answered. Certainly the environment for such a thing is leagues ahead of where the C-class Coupe was launched, helped by MB’s main competitor BMW and the Mini brand. They proved that small can be hip, and combined with exorbitant gas prices, the small premium hatch isn’t the anchor it used to be.

Thankfully, Mercedes-Benz have learned from their earlier errors and put together a very capable package. The B-class, like its A-class sibling, is based on Mercedes-Benz’ sole front-wheel-drive platform, the same one that mounts the transverse four-cylinder engine very low and at an angle so that in a collision, the motor will be directed underneath the ‘sandwich’ flat floorpan. Like most small space-efficient cars, the B-class features MacPherson struts up front, but uses a compact ‘parabolic’ rear axle to save on packaging.

The B-class’ styling is very much “R-class lite” with sweeping shoulder and window lines mixed with a fairly blunt snout. In standard guise, the 16-inch wheels seem a little small, and the car tends to look more MPV than hot hatch.

Mechanically, there are two B-class engine options, the 2.0-litre normally aspirated four-cylinder (134hp/136lb-ft) in the B200, and the same engine with a turbo strapped on in the B200T. Our Arctic White B200T tester served up 193hp @ 5000 rpm and a solid 206 lb-ft from 1800-4850 rpm. Combine that plateau of torque with the AUTOTRONIC continuously variable transmission (a $1,500 option; six-speed manual comes standard) and the B200T becomes quite the little front tire burner.

For those of you who have a passion against one-gear wonders (i.e. CVTs), have faith that Mercedes-Benz has done an admirable job of making the electronic throttle very responsive. The computer programming really makes the car quite enjoyable around town, and for those who want to, the CVT does provide six ‘preset’ gear ‘ratios’ to swap between by moving the gear selector back and forth.

Inside, it really is typical Mercedes-Benz, only smaller. Plastics are soft-touch as in the rest of the range, and it’s tasteful and airy thanks to the Panorama sunroof that’s standard when you select the Premium package. All the gauges, switches and even the steering wheel feature back-lighting, and the eight standard airbags do a good job of boosting the B-class’ safety credentials.

The seats are comfortable, but not terribly sporty, and there’s a plethora or small cubby spaces to stow the usual detritus that accumulates in cars.

The driving experience in our non-Sport package equipped tester was, um, not really sporty. The steering was light and accurate, and considering its small size, the B-class had a great ride around town, soaking up most of the really offensive bumps and bangs that you encounter on a daily basis. While the $1,500 Sport Package, consisting of front sport seats, a sport suspension system along with 17-inch 10-spoke aluminum-alloy wheels and performance tires, would probably improve the performance somewhat, you still wouldn’t end up with a back-road burner or potential autocrosser. The B-class feels too big for that.

But it would work wonders as a small family hauler with lots of flexible luggage space, and that three-pointed star on the front does wonders for curbside appeal.

The major problem Mercedes-Benz will face is the value-for-money equation. While the B200T comes in at a high-ish base price of $35,400, once you get jiggy with the options list, the transaction price really starts to soar. Our mid-level B200T tester equipped with the $2,200 Premium Package – heated front seats, exterior chrome accents on the grille, rain-sensing windshield wipers, illuminated visor vanity mirrors, cruise control, auto-dimming mirrors and exterior Sight & Light Package, an electronic compass, and the Panoramic sunroof – along with Bi-Xenon headlights ($1,675) and the aforementioned CVT ($1,500) came to a stunning $43,275. A B200T with absolutely every option ticked – and there are quite a few including 18-inch AMG wheels and the COMMAND navigation system – totals a pocket-withering $57,434.

Obviously there are very few people who would actually load their B200T up that way, but Mercedes-Benz really has to hope that it can bank on quite a few buyers wanted to get into the brand at the lowest level if the B200 is to be a success. Audi – another one of the uber-expensive-options manufacturers – seems to be doing well with its more sporty but less useful A3 model, so perhaps the time is right for a popular small Mercedes-Benz.

DRIVEN: 2007 Dodge Caliber

Story by Mark Atkinson
Photos courtesy DaimlerChrysler Canada

After more than a decade as DaimlerChrysler’s entry level vehicle, the Neon is dead. Long ago considered to be little more than a rental fleet fodder (bar the balls-to-the-wall insane SRT-4) the cute, happy Neon descended into the category of bargain-bin special.

So it’s understandable that when introducing its brand new compact offering, the Neon name went into the ‘round-file’. Hence the 2007 Dodge Caliber now carries the entry-level flag in the DaimlerChrysler lineup.

All-new in this case really does mean it as the Caliber shares nothing with its Neon ancestor. The platform has been designed to see duty across the whole DaimlerChrysler fleet (including the Jeep Compass/Patriot twins) while the three DOHC four-cylinder engines (1.8, 2.0 and 2.4) were jointly designed with Hyundai and Mitsubishi.

When the Caliber was probably first discussed and the design locked in (i.e. pre-Hurricane Katrina) North America was still in love with their SUVs, and anything that looked like an SUV. So it’s not really a surprise that the Caliber takes a lot of its cues from the bigger Dodge Durango including the big cross-hair grille, power-bulge hood and big lights. The rear is equally, ahem, interesting with the matte-grey plastic trying to disguise the high rear roof line. Broad shoulders, chunky wheel arches and big wheels (only the base model gets anything under 17 inches!) also contribute to the SUV-ish feel.

You do have to see it in person to really appreciate that the Caliber is a compact car… photos just don’t do it justice. And the exterior design really is polarizing and colour sensitive.

However, understanding that while Americans won’t buy hatchbacks or station wagons but they will buy ‘crossovers’, it’s easy to understand why Dodge went in the direction it did. Another sedan might have carried the Neon stigma even if it had been renamed.

The Caliber comes in three trim levels, each with their own engine and drivetrain options.

The SE and SXT come either with the 148-horsepower 1.8L DOHC VVT engine or the 158-horsepower 2.0L. The R/T exclusively gets the 172-horsepower 2.4L version, but gets saddled with standard all-wheel-drive. The confusing part is that the 1.8L comes only with a five-speed manual transmission, while the other two engines are mated to non-optional (but $1,200 extra!) continually variable transmissions (CVT).

Confused yet? I sure was. While the 172 horsepower in our R/T tester looked decent on paper, the 3,308lb curb weight, all-wheel-drive system and non-responsive CVT made the Caliber a slug. Despite the modern engines, the 2.4 really struggled to make any power higher up, and real-world gas mileage suffers accordingly.

Why Dodge thought that 172 horses were too much to let loose without the heavy AWD system is incredible, especially given that the front-wheel-drive Caliber SRT4 on its way now will put out 300 horsepower. Apparently, the unofficial word is that thanks to initial grief from us journalists, Dodge will at some point launch a front-wheel-drive 2.4-litre R/T with a five-speed manual. Hallelujah.

Dropping 200 pounds, two driven wheels and the CVT would do wonders for the top-of-the-line Caliber, as the rest of the package really is quite useful. While Volkswagen drivers will probably suffer strokes after a stray knuckle-knock on the dashboard, the Caliber’s interior packs lots of great ideas into a small package. The big hits are the glovebox fridge, big enough to keep four bottles of water cool when the air conditioning is on, along with the iPod holder that flips out of the center console.

However, the neatest thing is the optional ‘Music Gate’ system that mounts a pair of speakers in the rear hatch that can flip down when the door is open to provide tunes at your next beach bash. Combined with the rest of the cubbies, pockets and bins, the Caliber does provide a space for just about everything you’d bring along with you.

So while the Caliber is a bold move forward for Dodge, the end result itself is a lesson in compromise. The opening price of $15,995 is truly attractive given the size advantage you’d gain over the tiny Korean and Japanese offerings, the materials are a little cheap. All-wheel-drive security brings extra weight and blunted performance, and at $25,895 the R/T isn’t a bad deal, although loading up the options list starts to really make you question your decisions.

Those wanting a truly sporty small car from Dodge should wait for the aforementioned two-wheel-drive R/T, or put your money down for the guaranteed small-car tire toasting SRT4.

DRIVEN: 2007 Volkswagen GTI

Story by Mark Atkinson
Photos courtesy Volkswagen Canada

Now this is what I’m talking about! After having already reviewed two versions of Volkswagen/Audi’s new small chassis in the A3 2.0T and 3.2 quattro – and found them lacking in the performance vs. price equation – Inside Track has now had the chance to experience the best of the new breed: the 2006 Volkswagen GTI.

Much like the new Honda Civic Si, the new fifth-generation GTI is a renaissance for Volkswagen, whose MKIV models were known for being overweight, underpowered and underwhelming. The MKV model addresses most of those of those complaints – although weight isn’t one of them as the GTI now tips the scales at a less-than-svelte 1,500 kg.

However, VW’s gotten its mojo back and has done everything in its power to make the GTI a real competitor in the hot hatch arena once more. They even poached the Ford engineer responsible for the Focus’ much-loved ‘control-blade’ rear suspension design to incorporate something similar into the Volkswagen’s back end. Yes, you read that correctly – a GTI with independent rear suspension.

Combined with the MacPherson struts and 23mm integrated stabilizer bar up front, along with a tubular anti-roll bar helping out in the back, the GTI is a real corner-carver. It’s also the first VAG product in a long time that actually has some steering feel. The A3 is completely bereft of any feedback whatsoever, so it’s a real surprise to have its sibling actually talk back.

While the previous generation of GTI had either turbo-four or normally aspirated six-cylinder power, the new version uses the same 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder used in the A3 2.0T, pushing out a strong 200hp @ 5,100 rpm and 207 lb-ft @ 1,800 rpm. What’s most notable is that diesel-low torque figure makes passing maneuvers no-downshift affairs, but it plateaus at that amount all the way through to 5,000 rpm, making for an incredibly flexible power plant.

As with its siblings, the GTI has two options for transmissions: a normal six-speed manual, or a six-speed DSG, and Inside Track was able to spend serious time in both of them. Although the six-speed manual is much improved over the last Volkswagen version, the DSG really is the enthusiast’s choice. Normally I’m not a fan of the sequential paddle-shifters because of the nasty head-banging lurch, horrible around-town manners and burnt-clutch waft, but VW really has an amazing product on its hand.

(As an aside, Volkswagen is so confident in the DSG that it’s going to replace all ‘regular’ torque-converter automatic transmissions across the entire transverse-engine line by 2008. Plus, Porsche is said to be working on a seven-speed version of its own DSG for use in the new 911 Turbo.)

Driving the GTI in anger is a great thing for the senses. The intake and exhaust are more aggressively tuned compared to the Audi, and it makes all sorts of farts and brrrrapps! when you’re coming on and off the throttle. It really is a full WRC-style job coming into a corner. Stamp on the brakes, tug the left paddle two or three times, turn the wheel, plant right foot again, smell burnt rubber, rinse and repeat.

One thing that really goes a long way to helping that impression is the great plaid Recaro seats that come standard on the GTI. They are perfectly shaped, wonderfully comfortable and thoroughly supportive, and are in fact the only seats in a VAG product that didn’t give me back pains after hours behind the wheel. The optional leather seats available aren’t nearly as nice to sit in or look at, so save yourself $2,580 that the Leather Luxury Package (including power sunroof) costs and stick with the lighter cloth seats. If you're desperate for the glass panel, it's also a standalone option at $1,400.

The $900 18-inch five-spoke phone-dial wheels, so the standard 17-inch ones look a little anemic. However, the ride is still firm enough without the extra un-sprung weight.

You’ve probably noticed I haven’t spoken much about the new GTI’s looks. Well, there they are. Seriously. The new Jetta’s been compared to a Toyota Corolla enough already, but thankfully Volkswagen’s added some added splash to the hot models. The blacked-out honeycomb front grille with bright red surround looks trick, but the rear is still very ‘generic hatchback.’ It’s a shame VW ditched their confident and classy ‘Euro’ look for something more than vaguely Asian.

However, the while our test cars were black and gun-metal grey, the bright white versions running around certainly have an appeal. White’s the new silver, maybe?

Pricing is fairly straightforward. A GTI 2.0T with the six-speed manual starts at $29,375 with the DSG starts at $30,775. Now go find your Fast.