Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A 200mph Mustang? [Updated]

2013 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500

The new Chevy Camaro ZL1 hasn't even hit dealers yet and already Ford has strangled the Bowtie. You can now have your 2013 Mustang Shelby GT500 with 650hp, 600lb-ft of torque and a 200mph+ top speed. You read correctly: 200.Miles.An.Hour.

Think the muscle car wars were a thing of the past?

Think again.

While Dodge has seen it fit to limit itself to road presence and natural aspiration for its high output HEMI SRT8 machines, Ford and Chevy are left to duke it out among each other for muscle car bragging rights. Only these cars now add "sports" to their resumes. First the Camaro ZL1.

With the Corvette ZR1 already out hunting Ferraris and Cadillac CTS-Vs running down Mercedes AMGs, it was only natural that the ridiculously powerful supercharged 6.2 LS9 V8 would be planted between the fenders of the Camaro (albeit in tamer form) for Mustang challenging duty. In its most powerful iteration, the LS9 produces 638hp and 604lb-ft of torque in the aforementioned ZR1, mostly thanks to the dry oil sump pan that allows more efficient cooling of the engine's body parts thus enabling a higher boost pressure for the Eaton supercharger. In milder, 556hp/550lb-ft guise, the CTS-V becomes the de-facto American luxury sports sedan to challenge the luxury German marques on their own turf (with the infamous Nurburgring times to prove it). Back to the Camaro however. In SS form, the Camaro uses a normally aspirated 6.2 V9 with 426hp and 420lb-ft on tap, barely besting the Mustang GT's 5.0 412hp V9 (the new 2013 model gets a power upgrade to 420hp even).

2013 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500

Anticipating the ZL1 challenge, no doubt Ford decided to put serious work into not only one-upping the Bowtie bruiser but flat out humiliate it with the 2013 edition of the GT500. The SVT engineers started off by boring out the all-aluminium V8 from 5.4 to 5.8 liters, equipped it with new heads, new camshaft profiles, a carbon fiber crankshaft and a larger more efficient Eaton supercharger (essentially the same unit Chevy bolts to the LS9). Larger, more efficient intercoolers, cooling fans and ducts were also added to keep the new engine's temperature in check. Transmissions were also upgraded to handle the 5.8's newfound torque. The exterior was also given a thorough aerodynamic revision in order to meet the 200 mph target and the Mustang now boasts a more stable and planted feel at speeds over 160 mph. You'd think that an engine this powerful would be subject to the dreaded gas guzzler tax that high-powered cars usually attract but, according to Ford, many transmission gearing selections were reviewed and the one chosen was the best at putting power down while limiting the fuel used.

supercharged 5.8 liter V8 produces an LS9 trouncing 650hp and 600lb-ft of torque

No the archaic live rear axle hasn't been chucked for the GT500, but that doesn't mean Ford's engineers didn't tinker with it. Rather substantially at that. A new, optional Performance Pack upgrades the suspension bits with SVT-designed Bilstein shocks for two modes of driving, "Normal" or "Sport" while a Brembo brake package keeps all that speed and power in check.

2012 Chevy Camaro ZL1, the Shelby's mortal enemy

The biggest advantage the GT500 has going for it (and something noted elsewhere in this blog) is the nearly 300lb weight difference between it and the heavier Camaro. Chevy has touted that the ZL1 was developed on the Nurburgring and boasts about the ZL1's sophisticated magnetic suspension enhancing its track performance. With 580hp, the Camaro is indeed a formidable beast but with the new 2013 Mustang GT500, Ford may have just had the last laugh.

It'll be interesting to see how Chevy responds.

Update: Ford's beaten it's own performance goals! The 2013 Shelby Mustang GT500 is now rated at 662hp and 631lb-ft of torque! Insane! Preliminary testing has 0-60 times averaging 3.5 seconds and within 11 seconds in the quarter mile! Check out first drive impressions here
Images courtesy of and

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Short Test - 2011 Dodge Challenger SRT8

2011 Dodge Challenger SRT8 tester

Base Price - $43780
Price as Tested - $47140
Basic Specs
Engine - 6.4 OHV V8 470hp, 470lb-ft of torque
Transmission - 5 speed automatic
Rear Wheel Drive
4 wheel independent suspension

You can hear it from down the street. I'm talking about the 6.4 liter beast of a HEMI engine as the vehicle comes into view. A subtle, yet guttural growl that announces its presence in a way that takes you back to the golden age of muscle cars (yes, yes, I wasn't born in time to partake of that era but I've watched enough videos and been around enough vintage cars to know that sound). The car in question is the 2011 Dodge Challenger SRT8 392 (392 for the engine size in cubic inches if you're from that era) and it sounds mean. Dodge's modern take on the muscle car has been around since 2006 when it debuted in concept form at the North American International Auto Show to much acclaim from the public. Despite being modernized, it was obvious that the Challenger took its design cues from its 1960s predecessor. Based on a shortened version of Chrysler's LX platform (Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger/Magnum) the Challenger has low and mean look to it, that definitely exudes presence and aggression, something the Chevy Camaro and Ford Mustang lack.

SRT8 = Street & Racing Technology via 8 cylinders

My test vehicle was a Challenger SRT8 equipped with the aforementioned 6.4 HEMI V8, putting out 470hp and 470 lb-ft of torque through the rear wheels via a 5 speed automatic with a manual shift mode. The 6.4 is a revamped version of the 6.1 liter that debuted in the original 2008 SRT8 version with 45 more horses and with the addition of Chrysler's cylinder deactivation system in an effort to enhance fuel economy. The pre-2011 models had an interior directly transplanted from their 4 door brethren i.e. cheap, thin and plastic looking surfaces that were as dull to look at as they were atrocious to touch. Now under Fiat ownership, Chrysler has done a substantial redesign of the Challenger's interior, opting for high quality materials, a new three spoke steering wheel (a vast improvement over the previous truck-like version) and soft touch surfaces. The suspension also had a thorough revision, lowered with stiffer springs, dampers and a change in wheel camber to enhance stability and improve cornering. Despite all this, the Challenger is a heavy vehicle weighing north of 4100lbs and as such, doesn't change direction as eagerly as the smaller Mustang.

Upgraded Interior

Settling into the comfortable, leather clad driver seat, I felt at once enclosed and at one with the car. The cockpit is roomy but still had an enveloped feeling to it. The ground was still wet with the recent rain and the route (see previous Dodge Durango review) was not conducive to any sort of high speed hijinks or handling tests. Despite it's firmed up suspension, the SRT8 still had enough give to absorb the rough edges as we motored around the streets of Miami Beach. Turning onto a long straight, which was unusually devoid of traffic, my Dodge rep flicked the transmission into Sport, engaged first gear and uttered two of the loveliest words one can hear when driving this sort of car: "Floor it".

And I did.

20" wheels with Brembo brakes

What resulted was a melodious few seconds of V8 roar, the rear wheels instantly breaking traction and the rear end stepping out slightly but not to the extent that I couldn't catch it. Traction control quickly intervened, hooking up the rear tires and the Challenger simply bolted to the next traffic light with a speed and ferocity perfectly suited to this kind of car. The brakes, large dinner plate sized Brembos, were firm and powerful, bringing everything to a halt at the next traffic light. I looked in the rear view mirror to see both my father and nephew grinning wildly. The Dodge rep smiled and said, "That my friend is what this car is all about."

No doubt.

Short as it was, driving the Challenger SRT8 is an aural as well as visual treat. The HEMI constantly reminds of its presence but not to the point of annoyance and exterior look of car drew attention whichever way we turned. The SRT8 version isn't cheap by any means: with a base price of $43780 it hunts in the same class as the smaller and more powerful 550hp Mustang GT500 as well as the upcoming 580hp Chevy Camaro ZL1. However, if you just want the looks (and don't mind the smaller fuel bill...who doesn't want that?) a base Challenger with Chrysler's much improved 305hp 3.6 Pentastar V6 can be had for a base of $24895. If you just gotta have a V8, then the R/T version with the "base" 390hp 5.7 HEMI stickers for $29895.

Dodge has done an outstanding job with the Challenger, imbuing it with classic muscle car styling and the engine power (and sound) that will give any driver a taste of what it was like to live life a 1/4 mile at a time.

2011 Dodge Challenger SRT8 392

stock photo courtesy of

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Short Test: 2011 Dodge Durango R/T

Base Price - $29195
Price as Tested - $43870
Basic Specs
Engine - 5.7 OHV V8 360hp, 390lb-ft of torque
Transmission - 5 speed automatic
All Wheel Drive4 wheel independent suspension
Towing Rate - 6200lbs-7400 lbs

Chrysler has been through a lot in the last few years. Having been owned by Daimler-Mercedes, then Cerberus Capital Management and finally passing from US government ownership to the hands of the Fiat Group, the American automaker has faced numerous challenges to its product portfolio and overall profitability. Within the last year, Chrysler has either introduced new products or entirely revamped existing models to the point where they are either class leading or competitive within their respective segments. A notable model that has been completely redesigned is the 2011 Dodge Durango. Unlike its truck based predecessor, the 2011 Durango is leaner, sleeker and far meaner in exterior design. Based on a stretched version of the new Jeep Grand Cherokee's rigid unibody platform (which itself originates from the Mercedes ML crossover), the new Durango offers a more civilized car like ride and better fuel economy while still offering the interior volume and towing ability one expects of a vehicle its size.

On the exterior front, the new Durango expresses the Dodge design with an aggressive front end with the signature cross-hair grille front and center, accented by twin element headlamps and a stance that's lower than its Jeep stablemate, emphasizing its road-biased role. The shape exudes sleekness by looking long and low with blacked out B pillars, the rear end is capped off by upturned tail lights and twin chrome exhaust outlets on V8 models (single pipes for V6 models). Equipped with painted 20" wheels, the Durango looks aggressive and sporty for its size (especially with the Inferno Red paint of my tester).

Inside, the Durango offers an upscale look and ample space in its seven-passenger, three-row configuration. Chrysler has been panned in recent years for the cheap, tinny and plasticky interiors it fitted to older models. Wanting to substantially improve its image, Dodge designers set out to break this cycle and surpass even their own expectations. While posing no threat to luxury marques like Audi and BMW, the 2011 Durango's interior is sumptuous and luxurious for its price point. Rich looking materials are lavished on every surface and soft touch plastics are used where ever you're likely to lay a finger. The designers also did an admirable job with the console, dashboard and control surfaces. The controls were logically placed, the gauges were clear, easily read with an information screen placed between the tachometer and speedometer so the driver can easily access menus such as fuel economy, range, radio station presets as well as GPS waypoints (when equipped). The optional navigation system, however, might be a letdown to some tech folks. While offering good graphics and a nice touchscreen that also handles sound system and Bluetooth functions, the overall feel isn't as good as the newer, larger units in the Durango's smaller brother, the Dodge Journey, Illuminated cup holders are a neat trick as well as a button that instantly folds the headrests on the third row seats, making rear visibility easier when backing up (a rear view camera is available).

Dodge also made sure that the cavernous interior was easy to configure. All seats fold flat (include the front passenger seat) enabling for that midnight run to Walmart or that last minute drive to Home Depot (for hurricane season and such). That third row is adult sized for short trips but your 6 foot passengers will conspire against you if they're stuck for long road trips. Better sized for kids as my 12 year old nephew was very comfortable back there. He also found access past the second row to be simple and straightforward: one touch action tumbles the second row seats out of the way.

So what's it like to drive?

Equipped with the 5.7 liter HEMI V8, which offers 360hp routed by a 5 speed automatic to all four wheels, the 2011 Durango offers the power to match its aggressive looks. Despite being a V8, the HEMI offers cylinder deactivation: a system where four of the eight cylinders are deactivated under light throttle loads, providing better fuel economy. Equipped with AWD however, the Durango gives fuel economy ratings of 13 city, 20 highway. An additional city mpg is gained if you don't need AWD, or better yet, if don't need V8 power, base models of the Durango come equipped with Chrysler's new 290hp 3.6 liter Pentastar V6. Peak torque is 260lb-ft, and fuel economy figures stand at 16 city, 23 highway in RWD guise and losing a highway mpg when equipped with AWD.

Power from the HEMI was plentiful and easily brought the 5200lb vehicle up to speed along Miami Beach's streets. The hydraulic steering (as opposed to the electro-hydraulic setup that's filtering through many new vehicles today) is quick and offers great feedback for a vehicle of this size. Though I wasn't able to get very frisky with the Durango (it was rainy and Miami Beach streets aren't conducive to getting frisky with such a large vehicle) the ride was supple and the all independent suspension offered a secure and planted feeling that the old model could never match. Shifts from the 5 speed automatic, while reasonable in traffic, offered slow kickdowns, harsh upshifts and was almost non responsive to manual commands from the console shifter (an 8 speed automatic is on the way). The cabin was quiet and vault-like (the kind of feeling you usually get from Mercedes vehicles) with the only sounds coming from the HEMI when excessively prodded (a subtle growl under acceleration). Despite being the power guy that I am, I wouldn't be opposed to purchasing the V6 model as power, while not as plentiful as the HEMI, is still enough for everyday needs (especially if you value fuel economy).

All in all, the 2011 Dodge Durango is great vehicle, a substantial improvement over the previous truck based model. It has better materials than the Chevy Traverse, more spacious than the Honda Pilot, is as fun to drive as the Mazda CX-9 and is a more efficient package than the Ford Explorer while offering the only V8 option in the segment (and with that the highest towing capacity). Equip it with the sharper touchscreen interface from the Dodge Journey and upcoming 8 speed transmission and the Durango will be hard to beat.

Additional photos courtesy of and

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

2012 BMW 650i Convertible

2012 BMW 650i Convertible

Disclaimer: I don't like convertibles.

To be specific, I wouldn't buy a convertible as my sole mode of transport. Don't get me wrong, they have their place such as in sunny locales like Florida, Hawaii, California etc. But strictly for short leases, such as on a drive through the Florida Keys. On that particular road trip I've rented two convertibles on occasion, the first being a Chrysler Sebring which was...not exciting save for the top being down. The second was a Nissan 350Z Convertible which was exciting to say the least. Honestly, the only reason I would rent (not buy) a convertible is if there was a serious dose of sportiness and horsepower to augment the top-down characteristics. BMW has quite a legacy in building sports cars and the DNA is amplified when the Bavarians take a knife to the roof. Thus I was excited to be invited to test drive the newest BMW drop top, the 650i Convertible at South Motors BMW in South Miami.


The 6 Series, as you may well have figured out, occupies the space between the mid size 5 Series sedan and the full size 7 Series ultra luxury sedan. The 6 can be had as either a convertible or a 2 door coupe (and beginning in calendar year 2012, as a CLS-type 4 door coupe). Approaching the 6, you instantly recognize that you're staring at a BMW product. The signature twin-kidney grille is prominent on the front and is framed by the characteristic quad headlamps, themselves framed by angel-eye light circles. A deep chin spoiler leads to a wide opening, to which LED driving lights are fitted at each end. The "face" is at once aggressive and expressive...the word "shark" came to mind quite a bit.

Going down the side, a character line flows just behind the front fenders and leads to the rear where L-shaped LED tail lamps frame the rump. Below the wide bumper, twin square exhaust pipes give the powerful V8 a proper voice. Getting inside, the driver is faced with a 3 spoke steering wheel that's chunky and leather lined. Behind the wheel are paddles for manual control of the 8 speed transmission and on the wheel itself are redundant controls for the powerful 9 speaker audio system and information screen between the speedometer and engine RPM counter. The much maligned iDrive control system comes standard but has gone through massive improvement that makes the system much more user friendly than when it first debuted almost 10 years ago on the 7 Series. Different menus such as audio, navigation, vehicle information, climate control and settings are accessed via the iDrive "mouse" on the center console. Unlike earlier versions which forced the user to delve into sub menu after sub menu to simply change the radio station, controls are fitted for often-used items so the user need not touch iDrive.

To start the vehicle, the 6 comes with a "key" that the driver only need to have on his person. Once within range, the car recognizes the key and unlocks the door for the driver. Foot on the brake and with a press of the start button, the twin turbo 4.4 liter V8 fires up with a roar and settles into a very smooth idle. Unlike the smaller 3 Series Convertible, BMW opted for a cloth top instead of a hard unit in an effort to reduce weight creep since the 6 now weighs over 4000 lbs. However, the cloth top is fully lined and does a thorough job of insulating occupants from the outside relative to a hard top. Thanks to a switch on the center console, the fully electric top can be raised or lowered. The entire process takes just over 30 seconds (holding the switch automatically lowers or raises all the windows depending on which direction the top is going).

I've panned BMW for the needlessly complicated transmission lever in a previous post and things are no different here. To simply put the car in reverse involves holding an unlock button and pushing the lever up once. If you miss the unlock lever you'll find yourself still in Park....I mean, really? The same process takes place when engaging Drive and a push of the top button engages Park again. The driver will get used to it after awhile but I see it as needlessly complicated in a car that's supposed to be sporting (or he can just skip the automatic and stick with the standard 6 speed manual). In any case, getting out on the road melted all minor complaints away. Simply pulling out of the lot gives the feel of a predator ready to pounce, the 6 feels lively and straining at the helm for a prod of the gas pedal. There are four driver controlled settings that change the 650i's character: Comfort, Normal, Sport and Sport+. Top down, starting in Comfort mode, the 8 speed transmission simply melts through the gears and the suspension, while not going entirely soft, soaked up most of the bumps along the test route. Once on a straight and curvy section of the test route (and also keeping a watchful eye for the Fuzz), I went into full attack mode and engaged Sport +. Things got rather exciting very quickly.

Sport+ enhances throttle response, quickens the transmission's shift points, firms up the suspension and adds heft to the steering. Slotting the transmission into manual mode I downshifted to 2nd gear and floored the throttle. I expected a bit of lag, given that this is a boosted engine, but was surprised by the right-now surge of power I got. I have to say, the 400hp and 450 lb-ft of torque was enough to break the tires loose even under a rolling start. Upshifting through the gears, the transmission responded quickly and without hesitation and the steering was alive with communication, always telegraphing the amount of grip available at the front wheels. The 650i inspired so much confidence I was able to get into a controllable drift, tires smoking and opposite lock on the steering. It should be noted that stability control is not fully disabled, even in Sport+ mode thus enabling the driver to have some serious fun while always providing an electronic safety net so he doesn't get into too much trouble. At any speed, the punchy V8 provided effortless forward thrust. Trust me, it is very easy to get into triple digit speeds in this car. Such is the stability and poise that the chassis offers.

BMW Apps

After the test drive, I had a chat with BMW specialists Ted Napolitano and Chris Hana about BMW's new vehicles as well as advances in the car's control systems. Ted was kind enough to give me a demonstration on BMW Apps, a new system that's just now coming on stream in 2012 models. Basically, BMW apps is a software embedded into the iDrive system that allows a user to control apps already on his smart phone (iPhones are currently programmed, Android users will have to wait until later this year) such as Facebook and Twitter. The software is also better able to control media already on the phone such as videos and music. Using the phone's data plan, the system can also allow the car to be its own mobile hotspot, thereby connecting other devices.

In conclusion, the 2012 650i Convertible provides the signature BMW sports car handling and amplifies it by taking the top off. BMW may be moving away from normally aspirated engines in an effort to increase fuel efficiency by using turbo technology, but the engines suffer only a hint of lag in exchange for a massive dose of power. Couple that with a stiff chassis that provides for great handling while sacrificing nothing in long distance cruise comfort and you're pretty much left with one thing: the Ultimate Driving Machine (at least until the 560hp M6 arrives).

Footnote: I was pleased to meet 2008 Olympic Gold Medalist Lindsay Shoop who was present to promote BMW's Drive For Team USA campaign. Anyone can test drive the 3, 5, 7 or the new 6 Series and for each test drive scheduled, BMW will donate $10 dollars to fund Team USA athletes in preparation for the upcoming Olympic and Paralympic Games.

I'd like to once again thank Chris Hana and Ted Napolitano for answering my questions and allowing me a second go in the Sport packaged equipped 6 Series. You guys rock! Can't wait for the M5! (Anyway I can snag a 650i for a long term test guys?)

Friday, April 15, 2011

Mercedes AMG Event


"The exhaust has a hint of Messerschmitt BF109 in it."

That was a comment overheard by one of the participants while waiting in line to test the new Mercedes C63 AMG. Obviously, this man was an aviation buff like myself and I totally agree with his statement. It was pure aural bliss listening to the AMG machines gathered at this event rip off the starting line, the big 6.2 V8s howling through bazooka exhaust pipes. Yes folks, here I am along with my esteemed colleague and fellow car buff Robert Mullings, at recent Mercedes AMG Driving event where participants get the chance to drive four of Mercedes' wondrous AMG models. I say wondrous because, prior to this day, my perception of AMG cars was that of being all engine (i.e. straightline speed) and nothing else. However, this new crop of models seek to change that and prove that Mercedes can not only surpass rivals in terms of power but also challenge them on the track as well.

The models available for thrashing, er, driving today include the previously mentioned C63 AMG which is normally available with a 451hp version of AMG's corporate 6.2 liter V8, but uprated to 481hp in these particular iterations thanks to a Sports option that includes a firmer suspension and more luxury/technology items. The others include the slightly larger E63 sedan, the SL63 roadster and the brand new CLS63. Some clarification is needed here. While the C, E and SL employ the 6.2 V8 in various states of tune (the E and SL have power ratings that fall between 516hp-525hp) the CLS uses a smaller 5.5 V8. Don't think for once though that the CLS is down on power. In a nod to the ever present need for increased efficiency and lower fuel consumption, AMG engineers have fortified this V8 with direct fuel injection and two twin scroll turbochargers with a combined 18psi of boost. Standard power output is pegged at 518hp and 516lb-ft of torque, matching the 6.2 but trouncing its 465lb-ft with 518lb-ft. An optional Performance package increases turbo boost pressure and results in a ridiculous 550hp and 590lb-ft of torque: absurd power ratings for a vehicle that's slightly larger than the E-Class. Power is channeled through a new MCT 7 speed transmission which can program shift settings from comfortable to sport and provides for manual shifting via paddles located behind the steering.



Not available for testing but on display next to the track, a new CL63, Mercedes full-sized coupe employs the same 5.5 twin turbo V8 and front and center stood the pinnacle of AMG's lineup: the SLS supercar. Fashioned on the famous Gullwing car of the 1950s, the SLS is a modern interpretation of the original and employs a 563hp version of the 6.2 V8. Enough static displays...let's drive!



Initially we were allowed seven runs with the vehicles present but was eventually preened to four due to the large number of participants. One colleague who had arrived earlier, got some advice from the attendants present to save the C63 for the last run and start the day learning the track with the E63. Duly noted. The BMW M5 would be my yardstick for performance and, if the E was anything I had read about previously, it should come pretty close to the M5 benchmark. Lining up at the starting grid, I waited till the previous car was well ahead before nailing the throttle. What happened next was a bit of a blur, but what I can remember involved a huge grin, expletives of joy and aural bliss. The E63 rocketed forward with the immediacy and fury of a round being fired from the cannon of a battleship. The howl that flooded the cabin was intoxicating and before I knew it, the first corner presented itself with the AMG instructor in the passenger seat shouting "BRAKE! BRAKE!". Hard on the brakes, the E63 scrubbed speed effortlessly and snaked through the turn. Back on the throttle briefly, the next turn loomed and the fluid way in which the E63 snaked its way through the turns was downright impressive. Throttle response was immediate and the brakes were fantastic at slowing the E63 down from speed. After the run, I do remember nailing a cone through a high speed jink in the track, but other than that I'd call the track learned.

The E63 presented such an aural pleasure that, knowing the C63 would only add to that, I decided to compare the 6.2 with the new twin turbo V8 in the CLS63. Listening to the participants take turns in the CLS, it was evident that the boosted nature of the 5.5 liter has muffled the exhaust note compared to the naturally aspirated 6.2. Granted, you can tell there's immense power under the hood but the sound isn't as visceral as the E63 (or the C63 for that matter). In any event, when it was finally my turn the AMG instructor ensured that the settings were all in sport, lowering the suspension, increasing throttle response and aggressively mapping the 7 speed's shift points. Flooring the gas, the subdued note of the engine was confirmed, but a hint of turbo whistle was noticed. None of that mattered however, because if the E63 managed to push me back into the seat, the CLS absolutely shoved me in and contorted my face for good measure. That folks is what almost 600lb-ft of torque can do when accelerating from a standstill. The CLS might be slightly larger than the E63, but it dances just as well through the corners. Responses from the helm were immediate and the 7 speed, left to its own devices, was always in the appropriate gear. This new boosted mill, might have lost a bit of its voice compared to the 6.2, but it loses nothing in power and, as icing on the cake, is over 25% more fuel efficient.

Having satisfied my comparison test with the CLS, it was now time to enter maximum attack mode with the C63. The smaller AMG model, might be down on power compared to the larger cars, but 481hp is nothing to sneeze at when you consider the 400lb lighter curb weight. The M3 V8's 414hp output is already stomped on by the C63, but if it dances just as well as the Bimmer around the track then the Bavarians really do need to start paying attention. Sport settings engaged with the car at a complete stop, the AMG instructor noticed my anticipation: "You're in attack mode aren't you?" I smiled back and nodded a gentle yes. "Well then go for it!"



Flooring the gas I was met by the same aural goodness I experienced earlier in the E63, only amplified by the C63's slightly larger tail pipes. In this smaller package, responses were more direct and immediate and, displaying the same powerful braking force as the E63, I set up for the corner. Whoa! This thing flies! The transmission and engine worked in perfect harmony, holding gears to the RPM limiter and blipping the throttle during braking. I hit every apex and corner and, once I got on the power, the C63 simply shoots down the straights. If the track had allowed for a true race between the two, the M3 would still hold the edge in the corners. However, the C63's 67hp advantage would mean that on a long straight, the M3 would be passed. The M3's responses are just that much more immediate and direct in comparison to the C63, but it does lack the explosive power of the C63's big bore V8. Where the M3 needs to be revved to make power, the C63's in available immediately and all through the rev range. Besides, the M3's paltry 295lb-ft (bested by the regular 335i's boosted inline 6 cylinder's 300lb-ft) can't hold a candle to the 443lb-ft the C63 grunts out.

AMG has come a long way since being an outside tuner of Mercedes vehicles. Having being brought inhouse to the Mercedes fold, AMG has become the tip to the spear. No longer content with producing cars that were more about power than handling (remember the infamous Hammer?), this latest crop of products proves that AMG is consistently challenging the benchmarks of the sports sedan world.

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Sunday Drive

Starting Out

It all started with taking a single bottle of Heineken and finding a nice, comfortable place to enjoy it, be it a cove, a secluded beach or otherwise. I wanted to avoid going north of my residence and concentrated on staying south and west, eventually ending up in the Keys.

My route took me all the way down Krome Avenue and everything west of that highway, finally meeting in Florida City where the major highways (Turnpike, US1 and Krome) meet up for the final stretch into the Florida Keys. Through the 6 hour odyssey, the STEED (a 2006 Mazda 6s V6 for the newbies) offered a comfortable ride that ate up the miles. Not being able to get it much above 60mph (blame the absence of 4 lane highways west of the Turnpike in Miami) helped in maintaining decent fuel mileage. Cruising in 5th gear, sunroof open, windows down and some oldies music in the stereo, it was the epitome of a Sunday drive.

Taking the back roads allow you to discover sites and things you'd never otherwise notice sticking to the major highways. Like for instance how the Redlands offer such a small town feel, or stumbling on a winery (I'll be back Jane!). The residential areas boast houses as large and luxurious as any I've seen in the urban areas, not to mention the acreage per house is positively huge. Kinda makes you wonder if any celebrities have weekend getaways all the way out here.

Now That's Yard Space!

I hung out at the Homestead General Aviation Airport for an hour and managed to just glimpse some parachutists on their slow descent back to earth and watched gliders flying lazily with the wind just north of the airport. I also found some dirt roads to practice my rally skills (I know, I know, the Mazda 6 doesn't have much of a rally pedigree in the same vein as an Evo or Impreza but it was damn fun! David Mullings would appreciate this). I also took a small trek through the Everglades National Park and found a Pioneers Museum (unfortunately, they were closed that day...bummer).

I must say, I've come a long way from that easily car-sick kid who hated even the mention of a road trip, but I guess better late than never. I blame the constant elevation changes, the almost neverending twists and turns of Jamaican country roads. Now, I love to take the open road on trips to nowhere. I probably was a trucker in an earlier life, who knows? Anyway, the STEED was perfect ride for this trip. I took back roads where I could cut loose without fear of the cops lurking nearby (their location will remain a secret). Through it all, the Mazda's firm suspension and lively steering took the course in stride. The 3.0 V6 offered plenty of grunt for exiting a corner and worked effectively with the 5 speed manual transmission at keeping the engine within its optimum power band. Did I say I love this car? No?


Well, I never did find a place to enjoy that Heineken but only because there were so many good places to choose from.

Perfect Day's End

So do you take Sunday drives? Where to? What would be your ideal car for a Sunday drive or a road trip?

P.S. - Don't drink and drive

Monday, February 21, 2011

2011 BMW X3 First Drive

BMW X3s lined up at South Motors BMW

I love BMWs.

My all time favorite is the BMW M5, both the E39 version and (to some grudging extent) the E60, specifically for the high revving 5.0 V10. There are, of course, others that drew my eyes but the X3 SAV (Sports Activity Vehicle) was never one of them. Let's face it, I'm sure most BMW faithful let out a collective 'WTF!?' when BMW first introduced the mini-X5 in 2003. Why would anyone buy that when a 3 Series wagon offered more space and, above all else, was more fun to drive? I did drive the X3 once in 2007 after BMW lamented and softened the stiff-legged ride but even then, it just never appealed. The ride was still rubbish, the interior quality was questionable and, in my opinion, it just never made sense. Nevertheless, the X3 became and a sales success and as a result, other manufacturers have been scrambling to bring their compact luxury crossovers to market (it must be said at this point that the Lexus RX was the true originator of this class). Now in an effort to stave off the competitions, BMW has released a new X3, larger than the model it replaces to create space for the new X1 while still relatively smaller than the top rung X5. I recently had the opportunity to test drive the new X3 and compare it to some of its main segment rivals, courtesy of the BMW X3 Difference event.

BMW X3 xDrive35i

BMW X3 xDrive28i

I was reacquainted with Brian Owen (those of you who keep up with the blog will remember he was the chaperon for the 2011 Hyundai Equus) who was responsible for divulging information relevant to the new X3. Without getting too technical, the slightly larger X3 has been given a complete overhaul, riding on a modified platform from the 3 Series, dubbed F25. Power comes from two versions of the venerable 3.0 liter inline six cylinder engine, the first powering the oddly named X3 xDrive28i comes in the N53 naturally aspirated unit with 240hp. The most powerful version being the xDrive35i comes equipped with the N55 turbocharged inline six putting out 300hp. Both engines are mated to BMW's new 8 speed automatic transmission which promises gains in fuel economy. The larger size means gains in interior volume, notably rear leg room as well as cargo volume behind the rear seats, which was something of a negative point in the old X3. The interior materials have seen a substantial upgrade with soft touch leather lining the dash and real aluminum trim accenting the center console. BMW's customary iDrive system is standard in all X3 models and, though panned for its general lack of user-friendliness in earlier versions, the latest software has been thoroughly reworked to be more easily understood and controlled (redundant buttons surrounding the rotary knob aid in quick access to often used functions such as radio tuning and navigation input).

Anyway, I'm here to drive so let's get to it.

From left: Lexus RX350, Mercedes GLK350, Audi Q5 3.2 Quattro

Three of the BMW X3's primary competitors were on hand for comparison: a 2011 Lexus RX350, 2011 Mercedes GLK350 and a 2011 Audi Q5. Due to time constraints (and also because I know BMW focuses more on performance) I never bothered driving the Lexus. Let's face it, if you've driven a Camry (not the SE trim) then you have a basic idea of what to expect when you drive an RX: a simply serene, quiet and isolated ride in typical Lexus comfort and luxurious appointment. Which means what? Don't expect any form of sporty flair in this luxury crossover. The RX skews more to the comfort end of the spectrum and Lexus makes every effort to isolate the driver from the driving experience. There's a reason why the RX is perhaps Lexus' best selling vehicle to date and it has to do with the bones that its based on (that being the best selling mid-sized car in America, the Camry).

Test Route

A little about the test route: it was just over 5 miles long and was mostly surface streets. I was a little disappointed because the M3 event I attended a few years ago had a similar setup but the route was over 10 miles and consisted of backroads, a highway stint and provisions to test the car's dynamic abilities. Clearly I had to improvise to put these vehicles through their paces (not to mention the route was slightly incorrect anyway).

Audi Q5

Inside the Q5

Q5 Transmission

First up was the Audi Q5 equipped with the venerable 3.2 V6 producing 270hp directed through Audi's Quattro AWD system via a six speed automatic transmission. On the road, the Q5 felt composed, planted and solid, yet offered a comfortable ride. The V6 was punchy, offering great acceleration both off the line and mid-range. The transmission offered manual control and stayed in gear without upshifting while also being very responsive. Audis are known for their great interiors and this Q5 upheld this belief, offering quality materials and a luxurious yet simple and functional cabin. The seats were at once comfortable and supportive, holding me in place during aggressive driving. Audi's MMI user interface system proved difficult at first but within a few minutes, I understood most of the functions. The steering was also very linear and responsive, dialing in the right amount of assist and firming up when necessary. As far as exterior looks, the LED lighting in the headlights go far in giving the Q5 an upscale look and the entire vehicle has a sporty flair to it. Arriving back at the dealership, I pulled in thinking to myself, "BMW had better bring it. The Audi is going to be VERY hard to beat."

Inside the GLK

GLK Center Console

And it was, sort of. But let's not get ahead just yet. I'll admit, the Mercedes Benz GLK's styling is off-putting for me and as a result, I drove the X3, BEFORE the Benz. I'll dispatch the review of the GLK before moving to the X3. When I think of a Mercedes, the first thing that comes to mind is "made of granite." Mercedes vehicles are supposed to give you that solid feel whenever you're in them. This one did to some extent, but the general feeling was lacking compared to the Audi and the BMW. Out on the road, the Benz felt more Japanese than European. The steering offered too much play and assist in its actions, the ride, while comfortable and perfectly acceptable, skewed more towards the Lexus than the other Germans. Dynamic responses to the helm were slow and body roll was excessive where the Audi and BMW were composed. To be fair though, the Mercedes COMAND interface was very intuitive and simpler to use than the Audi MMI or BMW iDrive systems. I'd definitely recommend the GLK were a person in the market for a Lexus RX.

BMW X3 xDrive35i

Rear View

Looking at the X3, you know this is a BMW. Styling is similar to the larger X5 and while the X3 has grown somewhat, it's very difficult to tell. The cabin gives a dynamic, yet cozy feel and interior quality is just about on par with the Audi. The one negative about the interior is the lever for the eight speed transmission. Why BMW insists on making a simple change from 'P' to 'D' such a chore is beyond comprehension. After startup, in order to engage Drive, the driver must first push a button on the side of the lever which supposedly unlocks the transmission and then pull the lever twice for 'D'. The driver must then confirm that Drive is selected by looking at the driver information screen between the primary instruments. Selecting Reverse is even more frustrating (took me six minutes with the help of one of the BMW reps to select 'R') and once you're parked, you engage Park by pressing a button on top of the lever. There's no tactile feeling in the lever and, for an automaker that builds its reputation on performance, this is a glaring mistake in an otherwise complete package.

Inside the X3

The fussy transmission lever

On to the drive. The X3 I drove was the xDrive35i version and as such came with 19 inch wheels and four drive settings: Comfort, Normal, Sport and Sport+, the former being the cushiest setting and the latter (as the name probably suggests) being the most aggressive. I tried Sport and Sport+ first and was met by a machine that was engaging, responsive and utterly BMW. Body roll was quelled, the transmission was responsive, "learning" what mood I was in and responding accordingly. It seemed the whole vehicle was in tune with my desire to play. After a romp through some back roads, I tried the Comfort setting and waited for the X3 to settle down into cruise mode, but it never really did. Where the Audi was settled yet responsive, the BMW never truly relaxes: gear changes were still felt, the ride was still a tad firm and the steering was still fidgety (tracking straight ahead took minor steering corrections). Normal mode I suspect enables the driver to mix and match different vehicle settings to his wishes, a useful feature through BMW's iDrive interface. While earlier versions of iDrive were panned and blamed for ruining ownership experience (and sending stress levels through the roof), this latest version (standard on all X3s) proved very intuitive and user-friendly, barely beating the Audi system.

So to pick a winner.

For a perfect mix of comfort and sport, the Audi Q5 barely wins. It offers a comfortable ride for road trips, yet is responsive and dynamic when the driver feels..err...naughty. Interior quality is largely unmatched by anything else in the segment although the BMW does close the gap considerably.

The BMW X3 is the driver's choice. On the road it feels smaller than its size suggests and the twin turbo engine is torque rich and responsive in nature. The new X3 is a distinct improvement over its predecessor and will no doubt prove as much a success as the last X3.

I wouldn't look twice at the GLK or RX. I'm an enthusiast and these two just never acquitted themselves well in this company. To put it another way: my mother would hate the BMW, be OK in the Audi, like the GLK and LOVE the Lexus.

As for me, I'd take the Audi over the BMW...but just barely.