Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Lincoln: Dead or Alive?

Oh Lincoln...

My how you've lost your way. I fear you'll suffer the same fate as your Mercury brother did a few years ago when old mother Ford had to choose which of you she was going to take a shotgun to behind the house. Back then, the two of you seemed like fair game as your products were startlingly similar to Ford's own blood children. The long-in-the-tooth Navigator? The SUV that, ironically, gave birth to Cadillac's own selling-like-hotcakes Escalade? Oh, just a chromey version of the Ford Expedition. The MKS? Just a Taurus with a toothy grin. The MKZ? A rebadged Fusion (which also did duty as a Mercury Milan for a while) with a chrome schnoz. The only bright spark that you could point to was the Town Car, a vehicle built on a chassis so old that it even predates me by a number of years. A bright spark only because it gave the livery industry the right car for shuttling executives, dignitaries and countless hordes of high school prom queens to their respective events. When you decided to axe this car, the car that was synonymous with luxury, and replace it with that baleen whale of a crossover called the MKT, the Town Car had probably its best sales year ever as scores of your livery customers (and by extension, the police force who bought the similar Crown Victoria for their fleets) placed massive orders to sustain them for years. Believe me, if the livery industry sees how good a car the Town Car was (and how bad the MKT is at replacing it) you really do need to take notice.

Lincoln MKT

But where did this all start though? How is it that you fell from grace? Again, we can place the blame squarely on Ford. Don't get me wrong, Ford products have come a seriously long way themselves. Faced with the real danger of extinction during the 2007-2009 recession years, Ford finally saw how lacking its products were and, quite literally, bet everything it had on a full scale revamp across its entire brand. Suddenly we have the return of the Fiesta, a sub compact with astonishingly good looks and a fun-to-drive nature that rivals the standard of the class, the Honda Fit. Then there was the Taurus (which for years was called the Five Hundred. Really?) which, although based on old Volvo bones, was easy riding, large and boasted a high quality interior as well as impressively good looks. This also marked the return of the hallowed SHO version of the Taurus. I mean seriously, Ford was on a roll. Mercury however? Nope, not enough engineering resources to sustain Ford plus Lincoln so after shedding its stupid Premier Automotive Group (Jaguar, Land Rover, Aston Martin) it decided that Lincoln would remain to compete with the rising star that was Cadillac. To reinforce this, Ford let loose the outstanding MKR concept, a drop dead gorgeous concept of a car based on the RWD bones of the Mustang. Here, everyone though, was a true challenger to the premium marques. Here, I thought, was a great-looking replacement for the Lincoln LS, a car that was so left field for the brand that it hinted at Ford actually having a direction in place. You could almost hear the American population screaming "build it! build it! build it!". And build it they did, but in a cruel twist that seemed to slap the automotive media (as well as the young buyer Lincoln was hoping to lure) in the face,  Ford built the car on the Taurus FWD/AWD chassis and made the proportions bulbous and porky. You can imagine folks at Cadillac laughing their collective asses off.

2003 Lincoln LS

Lincoln MKR Concept

Lincoln MKS

To make matters worse, Ford took the same architecture that formed the basis for its Flex crossover (again, based loosely on the Taurus platform) and reworked it to produce the hideous MKT, a crossover/hearse thingy they claimed would compete head on with the likes of the Audi Q7, BMW X5 and Mercedes GL. It seemed with every misstep, the Lincoln brand was losing more and more precious ground and customers. The fundamental problem Ford has is that no matter how differently it tries to differentiate Lincoln products from its own mainstream portfolio, the underlying chassis will always give it away. Take a look:

Ford Fusion - Lincoln MKZ
Ford Taurus - Lincoln MKS
Ford Edge - Lincoln MKX
Ford Flex/Explorer - Lincoln MKT
Ford Expedition - Lincoln Navigator

All perfectly nice riding vehicles with great interiors but it begs the question: is the price premium Lincoln charges over the Ford equivalent worth it? This leads to the next problem: Ford's mainstream products are becoming so good that they're starting to eat into Lincoln's slice of the market. As an example, a 2013 Ford Fusion with every available option can retail for as high as $36000. This is where its new MKZ brother starts off and, with options not available on the Fusion (fancy dampers, gi-normous panoramic sunroof and a 3.7L V6) can sticker for well over $50k. Now for that price, are you really getting a $50k experience? This high price point is Audi/BMW/Mercedes/Lexus territory and here is where the comparisons start. Is the interior as premium as Audi? Does the technology rival that of the BMW? Are the features and driving experience as good as that Mercedes? Lincoln's track record proves otherwise. Ford is trying to be to Lincoln, in essence, what Toyota is to Lexus. Didn't know that for a long time the Lexus ES300/350 was just a dolled up Camry did you? Or that the RX350 was a Highlander in disguise? The same is true of the Taurus/MKS twins. When you can have a Taurus SHO for over $50k, why would you spend an additional $5k on a MKS when you're not going to feel $5k richer? Lexus solves this problem by making its products feel premium. Step out of a Camry and into an ES350 and you instantly feel richer. The driving experience might be somewhat similar, but the material and parts quality do not lie. Is it no wonder that the ES and RX are two of Lexus' best selling products. It also doesn't hurt that Lexus' first ever vehicle was the vaunted LS400, a car that was so good at the time that it send Mercedes back to the drawing board.

2013 Lincoln MKZ

Lincoln is currently at a crossroads. The 2013 MKZ needs to be the automotive equivalent of a slam dunk if the Lincoln brand is to survive. Ford claims they've thrown everything it can at the MKZ to differentiate it from the Fusion; a difficult task when the Fusion is already such a striking car, both to look at and to drive.At first glance, the MKZ is markedly different with an almost futuristic design that is in a wholly different class than the Fusion. A good start but the market will be the ultimate test. If the MKZ does well, then Lincoln needs to build on that success with products that can legitimately compete with the standards of that class. How about a RWD platform with which Lincoln can then build its products around moving forward? Ford will be introducing a new Mustang on a lighter RWD platform in about a year and, if they want to spread costs around, Lincoln can take advantage by using it to enhance its premium message. The old LS was a great car that suffered due to misdirection and a lack of steady progression. Ford has the ability and the resources necessary to make Lincoln into a world class brand. If its mainstream products can mount such an assault on their individual segments, there's absolutely no reason Lincoln can't do the same.  But with a fully loaded Fusion being just a few mediocre options away from the MKZ (the Fusion's European brother Mondeo can be optioned with these MKZ-exclusives), the questions start being asked: is there really more substance beneath the skin of Lincoln's products? With Ford's mainstream products starting to become more premium with features and design, is it just a matter of time before Lincoln becomes just another money pit and suffers the same fate that befell Mercury?

Mother Ford, if you want your son Lincoln to be his best, give him the tools to compete with the best. Cadillac's long and successful renaissance didn't come about because General Motors gave it a Malibu to re-badge. Cadillac's mom gave it a dedicated RWD chassis to call its own and, through this tool, Cadillac gained a distinctive personality and image that centered around sportiness as well as luxury. One with which it has given those snooty classmates BMW and Mercedes a collective run for their money. No longer was Cadillac seen as the Palm Beach geezer-mobile of choice for retirees. It now has a more youthful appeal and products that compete on every level with the established blue bloods of the luxury market, leaving Lincoln in its dust. Just look around: the only Nissan sharing the FM platform with Infiniti is the 370Z. Lexus? Every car they make is RWD save the aforementioned ES/RX/CT and you won't see that platform with a Toyota badge. Shouldn't Lincoln receive the same opportunity? Give it its own chassis, mother Ford. You have an Australian arm that specializes in RWD architecture to draw from and a vast European arm to handle the luxury appointments, not to mention a deep well of technology that can rival anything else out there (side note: please, either fully revamp MyFord/Lincoln Touch or ditch it entirely). You've proven with the old LS that when you want to, you have the capability to do this. With steady improvements and an eye set on a fixed target, Lincoln can become a successful brand. Or you can quit doing the half-assed job you've been doing for years, take Lincoln around the back and just end it.

Images courtesy of Motor Trend , Jalopnik and Automobile Reviews.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

First Impressions - 2014 Jaguar XFR-S

2014 Jaguar XFR-S

Chances are you've never seen a Jaguar sedan that looks quite like this.

Perhaps that 510hp XFR in your four or five car garage is looking a little...tame. Jaguar has a solution in case you need more interior room than the 2-door XKR-S will allow (and you find the notion of a 510hp Range Rover Sport ridiculous). What you see here is the newest addition to the league of competitors chomping at the bit to take on the vaunted BMW M5, Jaguar's recently unveiled XFR-S. As the name suggests, the new uber-sedan gets its mojo from a hotter version of Jaguar/Land Rover's corporate supercharged 5.0L V8 that stomps out 550hp and 502lb-ft of torque channeled through a beefed up 8 speed automatic transmission with manual shifting capability. Other R-S spec hardware includes beefed up half-shafts at the rear, a sturdier crankshaft and re-calibrated suspension front and rear that was tuned (like everything else nowadays) at Germany's famed Nurburgring circuit. Lightweight 20" wheels are equipped on all four corners and are wrapped with sticky Pirelli tires. The electronic nanny systems like stability and traction control have also had some software updates to have them back off more, giving the driver increased authority over the XFR-S' newfound power. And you'll certainly hear that power through the new straighter exhaust that crackles and pops on throttle overrun. To make things even more interesting inside the cabin, Jaguar has fitted a sound symposer that pipes more engine noise directly inside. You're forgiven if you'd rather not listen to the 825 watt 18 speaker Meridian sound system.

2014 Jaguar XFR-S

Visual changes to the XFR-S make the standard XFR look pedestrian by comparison. Starting off with the French Racing Blue paint job, the body features a deep, carbon fiber splitter that juts out front and is flanked by larger intakes. The grille surround is painted black while the mesh inset is also black. Deeper side sills are fitted and perform aero work that routes air to a huge carbon fiber rear diffuser beneath the rear bumper. A choice of two rear wings is available though, personally speaking, the larger one looks a tad boy-racerish on such a sleek body (on the contrary, it does provide greater downforce if you're into that sort of thing). Inside, the upgrades are rather minimal, limited to carbon printed leather, some contrast stitching and the aforementioned Meridian sound system. While the exterior upgrades are sort of tastefully done, forget about slipping under the radar as you would in a normal XF. If the more aggressive exhaust doesn't give you away, the paint job will.

Jaguar estimates a 0-60mph time of 4.4 seconds for the XFR-S while achieving the same fuel economy as the XFR at 15 city/23 highway (buh-bye gas guzzler tax). Unfortunately, don't expect a dearth of XFR-S cars to proliferate your local Jaguar dealership as just 200 are expected to be produced, 100 of which are bound for the red, white and blue. Pricing starts at $99,000 excluding tax and destination and sales are slated to begin during summer of 2014. Make sure you're at the head of the line.

It's good to see Jaguar taking these necessary steps to be on a more or less equal footing with its German competitors. Despite the limited quantities that will be available, this hints at future R-S models becoming to Jaguar what M and AMG models are to BMW and Mercedes.Who says the good ol' days are gone?

Images courtesy of Autoblog and Autoweek.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Review - 2013 Chrysler 300C

2013 Chrysler 300C

"Is it the car or the road?"

"I think it's the road."

"Yeah, I figured. That Fiesta over there is jumping all over the place."

Heading south on Washington's I5 down to Bremerton and the U.S. Naval town of Kitsap, my Dad was pointing out how badly a Ford Fiesta was handling the ice-ravaged highway in the adjacent lane. While the driver was doing his best to not be skipped out of his lane by the hilariously pock-marked road imperfections, the 2013 Chrysler 300C we're driving registered the constant "thumpety thumps" as minor longitudinal hops in the suspension. Sure we noticed them but we fared far better than the occupants in the tiny, bucking Ford. Neither was tracking dead straight an issue. The steering wheel never jumped out of my hand and the ride remained somewhat relaxed. Such is the big car luxury that the 2013 Chrysler 300C affords its occupants..

Rear is more chiseled and sculpted

First introduced in 2005, the 300C has been no less than a smash hit for Chrysler which, at the time, was married to Daimler-Benz in a tumultuous relationship. Riding on the large LX RWD platform (itself derived from the W211 Mercedes E-Class of 2003-2009), the 300C signaled a huge 'about-face' for a company that drove itself on large, FWD cars that were sleek and featured 'cab forward' design. In contrast, the 300 was large and blocky with a cabin that was not unlike driving a tank. Looking at one instantly evoked images of 1930s chopped-top mobster cars that gangsters such as Al Capone and Frank Costello might have driven. It was instantly a classic. Now in the hands of the Italy-based Fiat Group, Chrysler has sought to update its products and pull itself from bankruptcy after being divorced by Daimler and abused by Cerberus Capital Management Group, then saved by the U.S. Government. The new 300 was unveiled in 2011 and featuring crisper, more contoured lines while riding on a revised platform still bearing the LX codename. The cabin was subtly enlarged, sightlines were enhanced and quality was improved thanks to the high standards that Fiat's CEO, Sergio Marchionne is known for. Where the old 300 could be described as 'art-deco', the new model sports a very upscale, Armani look.

LED Daytime lamps offer upscale appearance

LED accents on the rear brake lamps

My tester, finished in Billet Silver Metallic, was a 2013 300C model with just over 2000 miles on the odometer. Walking up the car, it definitely exudes a cool presence, sitting low on its long 120 inch wheelbase, long hood and short deck betraying its RWD chassis. The belt line sits lower than the previous model and the windshield has a sharper rake, a nod to complaints of the last 300's poor outward visibility due to its chopped-roof appearance. This gives the 300 great exterior proportions, making look like its moving rather than sitting still. Perhaps the most changed part of the car is the schnoz. Gone are the quad element headlights and egg crate Rolls Royce-like grille, replaced by more angular HID lighting bezels, set off by C-shaped LED daytime running accent lights and a slightly smaller, trapezoidal shaped grille with lateral slats surrounded by a film of chrome sporting the winged Chrysler emblem on the top part. Three lower vents are set below the grille and headlights with fog lights placed at the corners of the outer vents. The entire front is contoured back in a nod to improve aerodynamics and improve fuel economy over the 300's blunt nosed predecessor. Around back, the rump has a subtle spoiler built in to the rear edge of the trunk lid and the tail lights are more angular and stylized. All models, whether V6 or V8, have dual exhausts the expel through oval chrome finishers. Sitting on base 18" wheels (19s and 20s are optional), the 300 sports a good upscale and purposeful stance (the DUB crowd will be pleased to know that, yes, you can still stuff 24s in those wells).

The upgrades extend inside with a much airier cabin, thanks to the lower belt line and larger glass area. The steering wheel of previous 300s (indeed most of Chrysler's cars pre-2010) always appeared truck-like and out of place to me. The new four-spoke design is much more appealing with nice surfacing and a thicker rim. The driver's binnacle boasts impressive lighting and a three dimensional look for the gauges with large speedometer and tachometer to the right and left respectively while in a row below are the fuel gauge, coolant temperature and oil pressure. Located between the speedometer and tach is a 4 inch TFT multifunction screen that, by using a small controller on the left steering wheel spoke, can call up various parameters about either the car's vitals, entertainment, trip or fuel mileage. With navigation engaged, it also displays prominent warnings regarding upcoming directional changes. It one ups other systems by actually displaying an image of what the highway exits or merges look like, I found this quite helpful in getting around the Seattle area.

Front seats are supple and comfortable
Good space in the rear

Gauges are bright and clearly legible

Phone pairing a no-brainer

The rest of the interior was rich in its ambiance. Unlike the flat look of its predecessor, the 2013 300C has an artful look to its center console with quality dash trimming and subtle chrome accent surrounds (a dark charcoal wood finish adorned parts of the new one-piece dashboard). The console's centerpiece has to be the fantastic looking 8.4 inch LED touch screen that handles virtually all communications, climate control, navigation and entertainment functions of the car. Response time sifting through the various menis is brilliant with the use of hard drive technology (as opposed to the old DVD-based interface) and the UConnect Bluetooth voice system is easily the best of the business when it comes to handling voice commands. Pairing my phone was never an issue and the system understands a variety of voice inputs, even my Jamaican patois never seemed to faze the system. USB and AUX capability are standard as well as SiriusXM satellite radio with Travel Link and the Garmin-based navigation system (which also has SiriusXM live Traffic Link service) , while kiddie-like compared to other German or American systems, was simple and easy to operate. Whether speaking an address or typing it on screen, the system is brilliant in its execution and operation. A ParkView rear back-up camera with distance marking is also standard (a good thing since visibility out the slim rear window is still not ideal). Front and rear seat warmers (and cooling on the front thrones) are also standard (and a Godsend in Seattle's freezing climate this time of year) as well as a heated steering wheel and remote starting which quickly heats up the interior of the car. The standard 276 watt, Alpine six speaker audio system is powerful and clear (a Beats By Dre 552 watt system can be optioned as well as a 19 speaker Harman Kardon system). The seats are supremely comfortable, offering good long distance cruising comfort and good space, even in the rear for large passengers. Another cool feature are the cupholders which are illuminated and can keep beverages warm or cold.

Navigation is bright and easy to use

For 2013, the 300C can be equipped with either the new 292hp Pentastar 3.6L V6 hooked an equally brand new ZF 8-speed automatic transmission or the previously standard 363hp 5.7L HEMI V8, which soldiers on with a 5 speed automatic (the 8 speed arrives for the HEMI later in the model year). Now I should state that 2013 V6 300s also sport a different electronic shifter that is T-shaped like the throttle of a luxury yacht (have a look at the shifter in an Audi A8 to see what I mean) and having taken delivery of this particular 300C, the absence of this shifter led me to believe that this was a 2012 V6 model still sporting the now ancient 5 speed. Ambling around SeaTac Airport I was quite surprised at how unusually unstrained the supposed Pentastar V6 as it pulled the big 300 around (is this really 260lb-ft of torque at work?) and how it sounded, this being a rental, I had no other immediate cues to go by (plus it was wet and I had no intention of playing with the throttle, especially loaded with family). The characteristic V8 rumble was muted from the inside and it wasn't until I took the 300C solo for an hour to take some photos that I popped the hood and was quite pleasantly greeted by the words 'HEMI' on the engine cover. Another tip to what's underhood can be taken from the driver's central display where, under light engine load conditions such as on level roads and descents,  the word 'ECO' illuminates. This indicates that the V8 has deactivated four of its eight cylinders as a fuel saving measure in a system Chrysler has dubbs 'Fuel-Saver Technology'. The V6 isn't equipped with this technology and, in conjunction with the 8 speed auto, earns EPA mpg ratings of 19 city/31 highway. Pretty good for a 4000lb full sized luxury car. The HEMI also gets decent ratings of 15/23 but should improve once it chucks the 5 speed for the newer 8 cogger.

5.7L HEMI V8 - 363hp/394lb-ft of torque

Complete with Fuel-Saver Technology
5 speed automatic

Around town, it's easy to be addicted to the 394lb-ft of torque that's just a throttle press away. Prod the gas pedal enough and the tires can easily break free, even more so now on Seattle's wet roads. Traction and stability control are there to save the unruly driver from any childish antics but it can be disabled just enough to allow the kid in him to play a bit. Out on the highway when merging and all eight cylinders are on full boil, the HEMI pulls like a diesel. Unrelenting in its build up of speed, it is only then, in the upper reaches of the rpm range that the full roar of the engine invades the relative quiet of the cabin. The 5 speed allows the driver to manually swap gears using Chrysler's AutoStick feature. With the shifter in D, all the driver does is slap the stick left for upshifts, right for downshifts. I found it somewhat useful negotiating Washington's mountainous roads but the response to my commands were slow and dimwitted so it 90% of its time was spent in full automatic mode. On a particularly curvy, two lane section of road just outside Gig Harbor, I was behind a late model Toyota Avalon that was moving at a pretty good clip. Despite the driver's best efforts, he couldn't get away from the big Chrysler, even where the 300's burly power might have been an issue on the wet and slick surface. The fully independent suspension handled the 300's size superbly and, as big as it is, it drives like a much smaller car in the twisty stuff. Body lean was muted and the German roots of the chassis are apparent in the 300's no-brainer attitude when hustling along. The tuning of the electrically powered assist steering (EPAS) is also a positive note as the amount of heft and assist strike a good balance though, like most of these systems, feel and communication are notably absent. Large vented brakes at all four corners can haul the beast down with authority and were constantly exercised on a particularly grueling downhill section. Never once did the brake pedal go soft (and the car was pretty loaded). This may be a big car, almost Crown Victoria sized, but it's no slouch when the highway ends and country roads beckon. A buffalo in dancing shoes...go figure.

Base price for a 2013 Chrysler 300 with the Pentastar V6 is around $30000 while the base 300C stickers for $35490. Those thirsting for more power can chuck the V6 for the HEMI for an additional $2200 (though as for right now, the 5 speed will have to do) like our tester. The few power junkies can skip the 300C altogether in favor of the 470hp 300 SRT-8 for $48995. Chrysler has done a very effective job with recreating the 300 and it shows in the level of attention to detail paid to virtually every surface of the car. Having shed the feel of a 1950's chopped-top, mobster-ride look, the 300 now evokes a rich, upscale ambiance that perfectly fits Chrysler's aspirations as an upscale brand. On a wider note, it also shows that America can build a car that is every bit as opulent and luxurious as the import brands. Having survived a tumultuous decade, Chrysler is finally on the right path to relevance and with notable products like the Jeep Grand Cherokee already winning awards for quality and this latest 300, the future can only get brighter.

Imported from Detroit has never sounder cooler.

Special thanks to the good folks at Enterprise at SeaTac Airport for helping to facilitate this review.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Review - 2012 Ford Focus SEL

2012 Ford Focus SEL

Americans are a whiny bunch.

While Europe basked in the glow of sporty, upscale and beautifully created Ford sheet metal, we in the good ol' United States of 'Murrkha have had to soldier on with Ford cars that were, in a word, uninspiring. After the design breakthrough that was the 2000 Ford Focus, a car that practically transformed the compact car segment at the time with fresh design, great ride/handling characteristics and a subtle upscale flair, Ford pretty much did what Detroit has been accused of doing: let its products languish with no significant freshening or redesign that captured consumers' attention. To make matters worse, Europe had a brand new Focus in 2005 that spawned numerous performance models (ST, RS) while Americans had to deal with a facelifted version of the first generation Focus that lost the eye-catching 5 door hatch but gained a very frumpy looking 2 door coupe (losing the well regarded SVT version in the process). The Europeans laughed yet again.

Cry no more Americans.

Ford (or rather its new CEO, Alan Mullaly) has heard your cries and pledged that American and European models would now be aligned in both development and production under the 'One Ford' mantel. This basically means that the same Ford cars that Europeans get will be the same models shipped over for us here in the States, with minor alterations for safety and emissions purposes. The first product of this philosophy was the sub-compact Fiesta, which featured Ford's distinctive 'Kinetic' design language. A series of trapezoidal shapes with flowing curves and dimensions, gives the little Fiesta an upscale look and inside, Ford has jacked up the quality as much as can be had in a $15k car. The next round in Ford's salvo was the Focus and is the subject of today's test.

The compact segment is a fiercely fought battleground between manufacturers. The Asians (particularly Honda and Toyota) have long ruled this part of the market with cars that were rock solid in quality and reliability while American counterparts did little more than provide a presence, if not competition. The recent spike in gas prices have literally forced manufacturers to react with products that provide every bit the efficiency and features that suddenly cash-strapped customers want in their vehicles. Downsizing is the new trend and Ford has capitalized on this by introducing a Focus that blows the previous (American) model out of the water in terms of styling, features, handling and quality.

The 'Kinetic' design theme of the Focus is instant at first glance. While the front end may come off as a bit busy with the plastic 'fangs' that bisect the large trapezoidal grill, the rest of the design is quite pleasing and sporty. Here, the 5 door hatch is the more dynamic looking of the two available body styles, the sedan being the frumpier, basic version (no wonder the new ST model is based on the hatchback). This particular SEL model comes with attractive 16" wheels, fog lamps and a hatch mounted read spoiler for a further sporting appearance. Inside, Ford has upped its game with a design that is at once futuristic and refined in appearance. The steering comes readily to hand with tilt, telescopic capability and the seats, while not powered, are easy to adjust for a comfortable position. The driver's is faced with gauges that feature the principal tachometer and speedometer with an information screen in between both that is customizable via a 4 way controller on the left side of the steering wheel. Various aspects of the car can be called up, such as fuel economy, engine diagnostics, trip information as well as navigation prompts (when equipped as such) and audio information.

Driver's Instrument Panel

Bluetooth (both phone and streaming audio) comes with the SEL package as well as Ford's SYNC voice control and a 6 speaker sound system. Inputs for Auxiliary and USB are provided in the center storage behind twin cupholders. The interior materials are first rate for the class, although some of the harder plastic did make its presence known in areas where hands aren't likely to go. All in all, the cabin was quite airy and spacious, the seats were comfortable and there was good rear seat leg room, so long as the front occupants aren't taller than 6 ft. The rear seats do fold down to expand the rear cargo area and, this being hatch, is cavernous. The center console also has a small touchscreen LCD allows control of the sound system and provide other information such as temperature and time.

Center dashboard

All Focuses (Foci?), save for the sporty ST, are equipped with a naturally aspirated 2.0L Ti-VCT direct injected inline four cylinder, rated at 160hp and 146lb-ft of torque. Power can be routed through either a 6 speed manual or, in this case, Ford's new Powershift 6 speed, dual clutch automatic transmission to the front wheels. The suspension consists of McPherson struts up front and a multi-link 'Control Blade' setup at the rear, an evolution of the system that made the original focus such a hoot to drive.

2.0L Ti-VCT direct injected inline four cylinder engine

Out on the road, the Focus revealed why it is often a best seller in its category. The ride/handling balance was BMW-like in that around town, the suspension did its best to soak up any surface irregularities while the dampers quelled body roll in turns. Some impact harshness did make its way through but rarely was the chassis overly upset that occupants were jostled around. Through an empty stretch of road, the 2.0L motor provided adequate acceleration while the electric power assist steering (EPAS) gave decent heft and adequate feel to the driver. Despite not having the handling package of upper Titanium models (18" wheels, stiffer and subtly lower suspension), the SEL proved to be very playful and eager when the driver gets on it. Out on the highway, the Focus is a great long distance cruiser, the seats being supportive and the steering tracking dead straight with little need to correction. The Focus is an excellent package and a sterling value when equipped with the SEL package, marred only by one thing which, to be fair, most of the public may not notice: the transmission.

Powershift 6 speed dual clutch transmission

Ford's Powershift dual dry-clutch six speed transmission is an attempt to add sophistication to the driving experience while enhancing fuel economy. It's hard not to compare the driving experience to Volkswagen's brilliant DSG but it's German counterpart does a phenomenally better job at swapping cogs in both manual and auto mode. The Focus transmission suffers from too much lurching and hesitation, whether in auto or manual modes and can often be caught flat-footed when negotiating a corner and a downshift is requested to power out. To Ford's credit, numerous software reprogramming was done as a running refit to all Focus vehicles and they've responded well to quelling the transmission's inadequacies but it still has a long way to go to match VW's DSG. I also found the rocker switch on the upper neck of the gear lever to be quite odd. Why not just add paddles on the steering wheel? Or just have a dedicated notch for the transmission stalk to slip into for the driver to do manual shifting? Like I said, most of the driving public may not notice this but around town, this was a constant nuisance to me. Slipping into Sport did wake up the transmission by holding gears longer and improving shift times a bit but it does hurt fuel economy. Naturally, the transmission is tuned to reach for the highest gear whenever possible and with EPA ratings of 26 city/37 highway, it's hard to fault the results. But trying to up the tempo when it was time to play was frustrating. Over the time I had access to the Focus, I got so used to leaving it in Sport that when it was time to do a highway run, I noticed the engine buzzing away at over 3000 rpm at 80mph and wondered if something broke. It was only after my eyes glanced down at the instrument panel that I realized the transmission was left in Sport. Shifting it back to Drive quelled the noise noticeably and settled the car down. Out on the open highway, the Focus proves to be an able long distance cruiser, providing a ride that is noticeably firmer than a Corolla or Elantra but not overly harsh. That's a European ride for ya.

The other notable talking point in the Focus, ironically, involves SYNC. The voice control system works well enough that most commands are accepted but say a wrong command and the nice lady in the dashboard will give you a lecture in how to speak properly. And she will not. Shut. Up. That said, it's refreshing to have hard buttons and knobs to play with such that you don't really need to interact with her (having a front passenger to aid with adjusting climate control and radio tuning helped immensely here). To be fair, SYNC is supposed to help the driver keep his eyes on the road and it does that job well enough for simple commands like radio tuning or Bluetooth calls. When you ask nicely that is.

For 2013, the SEL trim is no longer offered, having been replaced by either optioning the base SE or going for the fully loaded Titanium model. However, the SEL makes a great buy on the used car market with an excellent equipment package. From a base hatchback 2013 Focus that goes for $19200, the SE can be optioned similarly to around $22000 (including destination). In general the Ford Focus is a solid, excellent package and a breath of fresh air for the segment. It rivals the Mazda3 in the fun-to-drive factor while giving the Volkswagen Golf, Toyota Corolla and Chevy Cruze a run for their money in terms of quality and practicality.

Rejoice America, rejoice.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Track Test - 2013 Cadillac CTS-V

2013 Cadillac CTS-V Lineup

Zeus having a serious fight with Hera on Mount Olympus.

Or God emitting a seriously long burp after having a six course meal.

That's how otherworldly the Cadillac CTS-V's 556hp/551lb-ft of torque, supercharged LSA V8 sounds at full boil. And this is from inside the car.

It's hard to imagine that this is a toned-down version of the same 638hp nuclear reactor that makes the Corvette ZR1 such an American terror on the track. The pull from standstill is immense, the power at speed unrelenting and if it sounds this good from the cockpit, imagine standing next to Palm Beach International Raceway's long straight when one of these things comes flying down at full throttle. The sound will be instantly baked into your memory eons. That and you'll be unable to wipe that silly Joker-like grin off your face. Or calm down the hairs on your neck.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves here. Let's wind the clock back to a few hours earlier when I woke up, sleepy-eyed and wondering why I didn't schedule myself for the late afternoon track session. I had been anticipating this day for weeks on end and, despite this, I seriously wanted to fall back into bed and wrap myself up. It was only after remembering my first meeting with the Cadillac CTS-V, a Black Diamond Edition in Fort Lauderdale the previous year that I came to my enthusiast senses. I drove all the other Cadillac models except that one but one of the reps was kind enough to start it up for me. The sound of that big 6.2 liter lump growling to life was intoxicating. Despite my incessant pleas for a supervised drive around the block, the rep declined citing "insurance and liability" reasons...whatever that means. Remembering how I utterly failed at climbing behind the wheel then and now, being fully unleashed in all coupe, sedan and wagon versions of Cadillac's M/AMG slayer I immediately jumped out of bed and into the shower. I was going to savor this day.

The Lineup

Palm Beach International Raceway is located, rather curiously, in the middle of nowhere. Getting off at the Bee Line Highway exit off Florida's Turnpike, you're greeted with a four lane road. Maybe it was still really early in the morning, but cars were conspicuously few in number and the scenery was similar to that of swamplands and thick brush. This was also exacerbated by the steady decline of cellphone reception. Four bars...three bars...two bars...switch to 2G. Four bars...three bars...okay, holding at three bars. But then getting to the venue you're amazed at the size of the place. These high power cars need a lot of acreage to run and with the plethora of noise these machines will make (music to the ears or not) the choice of venue is a smart one. Wouldn't want to disturb the neighbors now.

After a light breakfast and introductions of the staff, it was time to head out to the cars. Lined up neatly from nose to tail were about 12 or so CTS-Vs of various versions: coupe, sedan and wagon. It was our job to schlep them from the meeting area to the pits so we could have our first of three driving module introductions, this one concerning vehicle dynamics. After a roughly 20 minute briefing (which involved short grin-inducing moments of hearing that riotous V8 echo off the pit walls) it was time to grab a helmet and head out to meet our driving instructors by the waiting cars. I'd love to say I picked mine perfectly but in all honesty, he picked me. Mr. Schmidt (or R.J.) would be my chaperone for the day and, according him anyway, knew right away that I had a smooth driving style just from eyeing me up and down. Walking up to the vehicles, I decided on a black CTS-V wagon because, well, if you know me you know that stupid-fast wagons intrigue me. Hearing my reasoning, R.J. immediately laughed and confided in me that the wagon was his favorite as well. Something about a 556hp grocery getter just stands the hairs on end. Anyway, the first of two laps would be for demonstration purposes with him at the helm, showing the turns, entry points, acceleration and braking areas as well as the manner in which I was to drive. In a nutshell, he pretty much said, "Try not to stuff it...or worse, take me with you."

Well said.

2013 Cadillac CTS-V Wagon

After the first lap, we headed to the pits where I took the helm and R.J rode shot gun. Exiting the pit area and ensuring there was no traffic we played follow the leader, though R.J., ever the wise instructor, allowed the car in front a bigger lead in order to give us some adequate room to hustle the 5 door wagon and not get slowed up, just in case the lead car's pilot was a granny behind the wheel. Heading on the track I immediately mashed the throttle and reveled in the intoxicating sound of the LSA motor clearing its voice but all too quickly the first corner came up and it was hard on the brakes. Hit the apex and ever so slightly ease into the power and deep torque reserves will power the car out and on to the next corner. The extra weight over the rear wheels gives the wagon a smidge more traction and a more even front/rear weight balance. Through another series of turns, I could sense the levels of grip on the front end and what the tires were doing through the steering wheel. So effective is the communication that I'm sure I would've sensed a pebble at the apex had the tires ran over it. Getting on to the back straight at speed, R.J. barked an order to mash the throttle and in two or three seconds we were teasing 120mph (we weren't allowed to go faster...bummer). Roughly three quarters of the way down came the braking zone and, abruptly lifting off the throttle produced a series of wonderful pops and burbles from the exhaust. Stomping on the massive brakes, the big wagon quickly shrugged off speed in preparation for another turn. Smoothly positioning the car to hit the apex, the big 19" tires gripped the tarmac with such tenacity that, by my butt-o-meter, it felt like we had just pulled over 1g of cornering force. The sophisticated magnetic dampers fitted at all four corners effectively stifled body roll, enabling me to once again lean into the throttle to squirt the car onto the front straight.where we hit 90mph before braking again for the turn one and another lap. All the while, oblivious to huge grin on my face. Color R.J. amused.

#8 Cadillac CTS-V Coupe race car

#8 Cadillac CTS-V race car

View of the huge wheel/tire and massive slotted/vented brake.
6.2L race engine (note the narrowness of the intake tube just in front of the motor)

After a cool down lap, it was back to the pits to go over the our the first module and how I did. My track experience is severely limited but, according to R.J., I was perhaps the best he'd seen after three days of hot laps with amateur drivers. My driving style encouraged smoothness over outright speed and when power was called for, I engaged it at all the right points. My one nagging flaw was that in some corners I tended to drift wide, a sign that indicated I was training my vision on the corner itself instead of looking through the corner and where I ultimately wanted the car to be after the corner. While another group took its turn, Robert and I engaged professional race driver Andy Pilgrim in some conversation regarding Cadillac's racing program, the company itself and what the V cars mean to consumers.The #8 race car is an impressive sight to behold. Powered by a naturally aspirated and massively massaged 6.2L V8, Andy indicates that the motor actually had to have its throat (throttle body) stifled so as not to, in his words, "wipe the floor with the other cars." The production CTS-V platform makes for a rather excellent basis to create a full on LeMans racer. Hunkered down on its adjustable racing springs, widened carbon fiber bodied fender flares barely containing fat racing slicks and the completely gutted interior which contains a full racing safety cage and special steering wheel (which by itself costs an eye-watering $25,000...or about the price of a fully loaded Chevy Cruze compact), the car looks absolutely mean. I asked Andy if he'd take me for a spin it and, of course, he politely declined citing the same "insurance and liability" reasons. Now where have I heard that before...

Cut out of the powerful 6.2L supercharged LSA V8

6L30 six speed automatic transmission

After checking out the DTS-replacing XTS full sized sedan (first impressions of that coming shortly), it was time for another module and one more 20 minute presentation, this time detailing the stonkin' 6.2L LSA motor. Based on the same LS9 motor that powers the Corvette ZR1 (up the ante by 24hp and you get the Camaro ZL1 motor), the LSA features a smaller 1.9L capacity supercharger (2.3L on the LS9), a single heat exchanger to the LS9's two, cast instead of forged pistons and a slightly lower compression ratio. Having digested this it was time for three more laps, this time in the CTS-V Coupe and myself at the helm for all three. Again R.J. was my instructor and as you can see in the video below, I had quite a grand time.

2013 Cadillac CTS-V Coupe

Differences between the wagon and the coupe? Very slight. The coupe is a tad lighter than the wagon and the rear track is two inches wider, which gives it better stability. However, the coupe's lighter rear end and slightly worse weight balance front/rear makes powering out of corners a bit dicey if you're not careful. That being said, the nose will push when entering a corner too hot so getting the corner entry right is absolutely critical. Try to power out too early and the lighter rear end will come around. That said, the CTS-V has an amazing stability and traction control system that, when set to the Sport setting, backs off just enough to allow some sliding and tail happiness (besides, we weren't allowed to turn it off anyway). Remember what I said earlier about the engine sounding God-like? Don't forget, this is still a luxury car so while the engine does make itself clearly known its not raucous or unrefined in nature. At lower speeds (like idling around in the pits) the big V8 is barely audible. But lay into the throttle and it clears its throat before freely revving up to its 6300rpm redline, sounding every bit like the American pushrod motor it is and emitting just the faintest hint of supercharger whine. Credit should also go to the six speed 6L30 automatic transmission which, in its Sport setting, was more often than not in the right gear.There were times when I did catch it a gear too low when coming out of corners but it produced crisp upshifts right up to the rev limiter. I wanted to give the shift paddles behind the steering wheel a go but honestly, I doubt I would've been much faster. Steering was also very direct and telegraphic in the way it communicated information through the hands. It didn't come off as overly light, but was reasonably quick.

2013 Cadillac CTS-V Coupe Black Diamond Edition

If the base CTS makes such a great driver's car then the V models are the proverbial icing on the cake. The relationship between the controls is so harmonious that, at least in the wagon, you'll almost forget what you're driving. Having piloted the wagon, I got out shaking my head and laughing at myself. A 4200lb five door wagon that will scare the bejezuss out of any Camaro or Mustang driver at a stoplight (the ultimate sleeper in my eye and my personal favorite of the three body styles). A two door coupe that will bully a BMW M3 up and down a racetrack. A four door sedan that mopped the floor with the last generation E60 BMW M5 and is the equal to the new F10 model. I believe Cadillac has truly established its V Series performance vehicles right up there with the German blue bloods. The impressiveness of the cars' on track manners, the deep wells of power from the huge V8 and the sophistication of its suspension (technology that even Ferrari has borrowed for its road cars, yes really) imbue the CTS-V with a personality that is becoming of a luxury sport sedan. Only this time, you can have your cake in three flavors.

I'll take the sleeper five door wagon. In Black Diamond Edition please.

2013 Cadillac CTS-V Wagon Black Diamond Edition

I'd like to once again thank Cadillac for the opportunity to test their various V models on the beautiful track that is Palm Beach International Raceway. Special thanks for Lauren, Jenna, Mr Schmidt (you're still R.J. by the way) and Andy Pilgrim for their friendliness, knowledge and courteousness in answering all my questions and putting up with my annoying child-in-a-candystore-like behavior. 

Sidenote: you may have noticed that I did not report on the CTS-V sedan. It was my understanding that the three modules would've included track testing all three models, followed by testing the CTS-V's little brother ATS but I was mistaken. In any case, based on the performance of the wagon and the coupe, you can place the sedan somewhere in between the two, though to be frank the performance differences were barely discernible and can only be accurately told with a stop watch and more sophisticated test equipment that are far more accurate than my butt-o-meter.