Thursday, May 10, 2012

Short Test - 2012 Mercedes Benz C250 Sedan

2012 Mercedes-Benz C250 Luxury

The Mercedes C Class has been duking it out in the highly competitive entry level compact luxury sedan for nearly two decades. Since the launch of the line, beginning with the 190 in 1993, the "baby Benz" has been one of Mercedes' most important models and remains a big seller for the brand. The current W204 version was introduced in 2007 to replace the highly successful 2002 - 2007 W203 model and, with an onslaught of new/refreshed products from the competition currently debuting (revamped Audi A4, all new BMW 3 Series and the upcoming Cadillac ATS) Mercedes saw fit to do a comprehensive refresh.

2012 Mercedes-Benz C250 Interior

Mercedes began by altering the still quite handsome exterior styling, identified by a slightly more aggressive front fascia, sporting LED driving lights, angled headlights and a resurfaced hood. The rear sees very little change save for LED bulbs in the tail light clusters. Inside, I expected to find a vast improvement in quality as claimed by Mercedes and this was true to some extent. The dashboard design was thoroughly revised and now sports new soft touch materials that are in fact, a great improvement over the 2011 model and everywhere the fingers touched felt reasonably good. A standard fixed 5.8 inch touchscreen replaces the old flip unit and sports better graphics while an optional 7 inch screen comes in models fitted with the COMAND system as fitted with this tester. There were still spots of hard plastic that lightly litters the cabin however, particularly surrounding the gear lever and the central instrument panel containing the entertainment system. The steering wheel has improved in feel and touch and is power adjustable for reach and rake. The seats felt firm and offered reasonable support for long distance driving, if not for sporty antics. Rear seat space was also adequate, although a snug fit for three people. Overall, despite the still stark atmosphere, the interior is a nicer place to be but I couldn't help but expect more, especially considering the richer interior of a comparable Audi or BMW.

2012 Mercedes-Benz C250 Exterior

Along with the exterior/interior refresh, Mercedes has also revamped the engine lineup. Available in the new base C250 model (my tester for the day) is a turbocharged, direct injected 1.8 four cylinder which develops 201hp and 229lb-ft of torque. The C300 with its 229hp/221lb-ft 3.0 V6 returns but only with Mercedes' 4MATIC all wheel drive system (the manual transmission has been axed) and the C350 sports a new, direct injected 3.5 V6, good for 302hp and 273lb-ft of torque. The bonkers C63 AMG model also returns with its equally bonkers 451hp 6.3 V8 (a more powerful 481hp version is optional). All engines are now hooked up to Mercedes' seven speed 7G-Tronic automatic as standard. My C250 Luxury tester offers two driving modes: E for Economy and N for Normal. In Economy mode, the car's computer changes the transmission's shift points and remaps the engine's ECU for greater efficiency. Pulling out of the dealership with the car in 'E' mode, it felt like there was good sized rubber ball between the gas pedal and the floor. Resistance was felt every time I inched the C250 for speed and the transmission was very quick to reach for top gear. It should be noted that the Mercedes opted not to follow BMW in equipping the C Class with an auto start-stop feature, deeming the technology too expensive for its entry level model. I had to boot the gas pedal, then wait on the turbo to spool up, then wait on the transmission to make up its mind about how much power to shell out before I was thrust forward. My advice? Leave it in Normal.

2012 Mercedes-Benz C250 Rear Interior

Throughout the drive, the C250 rode quite comfortably in that classic, solid Mercedes fashion. Road imperfections were absorbed with aplomb and the hydraulic steering provided good tracking and smooth operation if little in the way of feedback. While the C250 proved reasonable in moderate handling, anything above that will leave it flat on its face. The turbo takes ages to spool up and that tends to confuse the transmission. Make no mistake, this isn't a sport sedan and it makes no attempt to satisfy the enthusiastic driver. A Sport model is available with the C250 which includes a firmer suspension, larger wheels and different cladding but if you really want to have some fun, move up to the more powerful C350. Not only is it faster but it makes proper use of the solid chassis underneath. Drive the C250 in a smooth fashion (Miss Daisy anyone?) and you'll be rewarded with a pleasant drive that will have you thinking you're piloting a larger vehicle. The transmission shifts smoothly enough and the engine isn't taxed, masking the hellish lag of the turbo. Drive it in anger and you'll just make yourself angry.

2012 Mercedes-Benz C250

Mercedes has done a commendable job in refreshing the C Class. A more luxurious, revamped interior that's now (almost) worth the price will have owners of older W204 models kicking themselves in the posterior. The new exterior styling is now in line with other Mercedes products and, what is perhaps the most significant part of the refreshing, a new and proper coupe version joins the sedan for the first time (no the W203 Sport Coupe doesn't count). With these new weapons in its arsenal, the C Class is ready to take the fight to Audi and BMW.

Once again, many thanks to Aaron Shapiro and Vista BMW for facilitating this review.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Quick Spin - 2012 BMW 328i

2012 BMW 328i Modern Line

The King of compact sports sedans is back.

The BMW 3 Series, arguably the most sporting of luxury sedans, has carried the torch as "The Ultimate Driving Machine" for the company since the 2002 model of the 1970s. Known for its compact size, yet playful nature, this model evolved into what we now call the 3 Series. With each generation, the 3 has gotten bigger, more powerful and more technologically complex. As we know the car today, it has been an all six cylinder lineup. The turbine smoothness and sonorous snarl of the inline six cylinder has been a BMW calling card for the 3 Series, from base model all the way up the last generation of the fire-breathing M3. Today however, the economic and environmental climate has changed and so too have automakers' take on efficiency. In response to this new challenge for environmental awareness and increased efficiency, BMW has chucked the naturally aspirated 3.0 inline six from the base model of its new F30 3 Series and introduced a new turbocharged 2.0 four cylinder. Outgunning the old six in terms of power and efficiency, the new four chucks out 240hp and 260lb-ft of torque, improvements of 10hp and an astounding 35lb-ft of torque. As part of BMW's 'Efficient Dynamics' program, the 328i is equipped with a host of technologies to deliver not only outstanding performance, but outstanding fuel economy as well. Available transmissions include a 6 speed manual transmission and a new 8 speed automatic. Of course if you need your inline six fix, the up-level 335i aims to please. Equipped with the 300hp/300lb-ft of torque N55 turbocharged 3.0 inline six, that flows its power through either the 6 speed manual or a 6 speed automatic, you won't have a want for more speed and power (and for the crazies, the 414hp V8 M3 is always there though based on the now obsolete E90 chassis).

2012 BMW 328i Interior

In remaking its most important model, BMW decided against a drastic restyle (remember the Bangle era?) and instead focused on a subtle yet noticeable surfacing of the exterior. The old E90 model was a handsome car that has aged well but in order to be more distinctive, BMW applied a slightly bolder approach. The signature twin kidney grill is more pronounced and the headlights now flow into it, the other signature BMW look - the "angel eye" driving lights - have a squatter appearance with the headlight fixtures flowing further back into the fenders. The lower intake is now a full length piece that also incorporates the fog lights. The new 3, always panned for cramped rear accommodations, features a longer wheelbase and slightly wider tracks front and rear. This translates into better interior room for four with more legroom for rear seat occupants (3 rear passengers is still a squeeze but at least they won't riot as before). German cars have always been known for stark, cold interiors and BMW is probably the best known (or most infamous) for this. My tester was a Modern Line 328i decked out in sumptuous leather called "Dakota Oyster" with a nice "Fineline Pure" wood trim (seriously, who comes up with these names?). The seats felt good and offered great support and finding a good driving position was made easy by the full powered 8 way adjustable seat and tilt/telescoping (unpowered) leather steering wheel. The interior felt rich and nicely complimented the Mineral Grey Metallic paint of the exterior. The iDrive system (ridiculed for years by the journalist community for its too-complex operation) has been further revised and is now simpler to operate. Climate controls are now separate items and no longer do you need to dive into menus just to tune the radio or adjust the volume settings. It must be noted here that the old ordering system is no more. BMW now offers the new 3 Series in four distinct "lines": Base, Modern, Luxury and Sport. Base models allow for a bit more personalization of equipment and features, Modern comes with more features standard while Luxury comes with yet more features as well as exterior revisions (chromed kidney grill and lower fascia, different wheels) to distinguish them from lesser models. Sport Line models feature large 19" wheels with summer tires and altered suspension settings as well as a blacked out grill and fascia.

 On start up, one expects to hear the whine and steady, smooth idle of an inline six under the long aluminum hood. Surprising then that, even with the knowledge of an inline four present, that the idle would shock me as it did. The turbocharged 2.0 four comes with direct injection and its clatter, although quiet was almost diesel-like, the *tick-tick* of the direct fuel injectors working away at the cylinders.  The 328i always starts up in Economy mode along with Auto Start/Stop engaged. This system is controlled by the 328i's electronic brain and, after learning the driver's habits, shuts down the engine to conserve fuel at appropriate times when the car comes to a complete stop. Once the brake pedal is released, the engine fires back up allowing the driver to continue on his way. The 8 speed auto also receives a remap of its shift points and, once underway, will quickly shoot for top gear. In order to encourage efficient driving, a display in the instrument panel tracks in real time how economical your driving is and will actively coach you, even by applying opposite pressure on the gas pedal to ensure smooth slow take offs from a stop. The start/stop feature was unnerving at first and was hardly subtle in its operation but one gets used to the sensation of the engine firing up and shutting off after a while. The computer is smart enough to know when the car is in heavy traffic and will not shut off the engine unless the car is stopped for periods longer than 5-10 seconds. Or you can completely shut the feature off by pressing a button if it annoys you. I certainly did. Fuel economy ratings for the 328i are 24 city/32 highway (revised by the EPA from previous numbers of 24 city/36 highway).

2012 BMW 328i Modern Line's 8" Central Screen

Driving through the Coral Springs area, the car rode comfortably and absorbed bumps that would have otherwise been felt in the old car. BMW has pretty much perfected the ride/handling balance of its cars but tribute should also be given to the new electronic dampers fitted to 328i. In Comfort mode, the ride was almost limo smooth but not floaty, the new electric power steering was quick but almost devoid of feel and communication, quite unlike the last car's hydraulic steering which was chatty by comparison. The 8 speed slurred through its ratios but was still quick to downshift a few gears when prodded. The turbo four is tuned for almost zero lag and delivers its torque across a broad RPM range and as such, passing maneuvers were effortless. At a traffic light, I switched to Sport mode and the change in the 328i's character was, in a word, noticeable. I could feel the electronically adjustable dampers stiffen, the engine's note change to a more aggressive idle while the computer remapped the transmission's shift points. The change was also noted on the 328i's 8 inch central screen by showing the damper setting and tune of the engine. It was as if the whole car went into attack mode, ready to pounce on the Audi A4 driver that was in front. The light went green and a stab of the throttle was met by instant thrust. Where the old car necessitated revving the engine to get power (a joy in itself), the new turbo four doesn't require it, exhibiting right-this-second torque delivery. Through a turn, the 328i exhibited almost no roll and remained flat as I negotiated a series of quick left to right lane changes to get around slower traffic. This car is remarkably quick off the line and the A4 that was in front a few seconds ago? A red blip in my rear view mirror. Sensing the aggressive driving (don't try this at home kids!) the 8 speed learned my style and properly held gears all the way to redline. Manual shifting produced quick enough shifts but leave the transmission in auto and it's intelligent enough to know which gears are sufficient for the task at hand.  A race track or autocross would've been the proper place to wring out the 328i but even here on public roads, it's good to know that despite the car's nod to comfort, BMW hasn't neutered its playfulness. Lightweight materials in its construction play a role here and is yet another effort to increase the car's efficiency. Fitted as it was with the equipment onboard, the 328i weighs barely more than its predecessor. An aluminum hood and trunk lid, aluminum intensive suspension components and ultra high strength steel construction all contribute to the 328i's minimal weight gain. The engine itself, which is some 50lbs lighter than the heavier inline six it replaces, also serves to lighten the weight over the front wheels, increasing the car's quick turn-in behavior.

328i Modern Line's 18" wheels

Throughout the drive I faced a bit of a conundrum: I was actually having more fun here than I anticipated. Not once did I yearn for the excessive power of the 335i's 300hp/300lb-ft of torque, turbocharged 3.0 inline six. Having driven the old 328i, the old naturally aspirated inline six sounded sweet throughout the RPM range (in fact, it relishes revving right up to the fuel cutoff point), but I always felt that it needed more power. With the new model, you lose the turbine-like quality of the six but gain such an impressive amount of torque with almost no lag that the tradeoff is very reasonable. Besides, unlike the old six that made power right up to redline, the four is pretty much out of breath by 6000 RPM, though it does emit a pleasant bark from its twin tailpipes, not the sound one expects from a BMW but sporting and aggressive all the same. In fact, I would imagine that the heavier engined 335i's transient responses might be slowed somewhat by the increase in weight over its front wheels. So good is the 328i's power and torque delivery that, equipped with the requisite M Sport package (larger wheels, stiffer suspension), this might be a better sports sedan than the more powerful 335i. Put both on a racetrack and, while the 335i will hold the straight line acceleration advantage, the 328i driver will always catch up in the turns. I'm even starting to suspect BMW has underrated the 328i's power rating.

With each generation of new car getting larger and more complex, it's good to see BMW holding the line with its new 3 Series. Yes the new 328i may be a bit larger than the car it replaces, but BMW has worked hard to preserve the spirit and playful nature that makes the 3 Series such an exciting car to drive. Sure the naturally aspirated inline six is gone from the lineup in a nod to increased fuel efficiency, but the smaller, more powerful turbocharged four more than makes up for that.

Now price isn't the only reason to go for the base model and you won't be disappointed.

Special thanks to Aaron Shapiro and the BMW team as well Vista BMW of Coconut Creek, FL for facilitating this test. BMW is a proud sponsor of the US Olympic Team and I was fortunate to meet Terese Terranova, a double gold medalist in the 1986-87 Paralympics in Seoul, Korea. Find more information about her numerous accomplishments here.