Wednesday, January 16, 2013

First Impressions - 2014 Lexus IS250/350

2014 Lexus IS F Sport

The current-generation Lexus IS has aged gracefully since its inception way back in 2006 and was among the first models to introduce the then new-L-Finesse design theme. With compact proportions, rear wheel drive and a duo of V6 engines ranging from 2.5L to 3.5L, the IS presented a more focused attack on the luxury sports compact segment reigned over by the BMW 3 Series. This generation IS also brought with it the introduction of the first in-house performance model branded as the IS F which brandished a hotter variant of the corporate 4.6L V8 found in the full sized LS sedan, stroked to 5.0L and producing 416hp, revised suspension and styling and a sportier nature to challenge the M, AMG and RS vehicles of the segment. However, with this design came a cramped cabin (someone famously told me that the IS is actually a 2 door with 2 extra kiddie-doors grafted on), a somewhat harsh ride and a cheapish interior that hasn't followed the exterior in aging well.

2014 Lexus IS F Sport

Enter the 2014 Lexus IS which aims for a bigger slice of the luxury sports compact segment. Gone is the almost anonymous face and rounded styling in favor of sharper creases, edgier styling and the implementation of the corporate Lexus spindle-grille face that is proliferating throughout the lineup.Styling cues from the now out-of-production LFA super car are evident in the long, low hood and headlights. The spindle grille is perhaps the most dominant feature of the redesign which is proliferating through other Lexus models. In a word, the grille is HUGE, with the pinched section almost jutting forward like an angry mouth about to swallow prey. Flanked by twin flared air intakes on either side (and an extra pair on the F Sport), the grille is at once aggressive and polarizing. The brand's signature arrowhead LED running lights that were integral with the headlights on other models now have their own housings just below the twin xenon jagged-shaped headlamps which, along with the low flat hood, are LFA-like in there appearance.The rest of the body appears ho-hum and slab sided until just before the rear door cut line where an up-kink in the rear quarter window adds a bit of drama. The side sills get a twist towards the rear and a character line trails from there to meet the stretched tail lights. Sitting on a longer wheelbase, the new IS projects a lower and wider stance than its predecessor. The rear view is also subtly redesigned where the tail lights slim towards the center and a diffuser sits below with twin exhaust pipes peeking underneath. As whole, the exterior is more dramatic and a styling gamble for the once-sedate Lexus.

2014 Lexus IS F Sport Interior

Inside, more LFA touches abound in the center console and steering wheel. Thanks to the longer wheelbase (now about Audi A4-sized) and touch more width, indoor occupants should have more room to move with rear seat passengers benefiting the most with more legroom. The digital "driver meter" is an almost direct lift from the LFA, while electrostatic surfaces now control the climate system. The navigation has been substantially revised to allow 3D visuals and will now feature the Lexus Enform infotainment system. The dashboard is now more driver centric and is lined with higher quality, soft touch materials. The seats are thinner in design and are positioned a tad lower to improve comfort for the driver and front passenger.

2014 Lexus IS F Sport

On the engineering front, the 2.5L and 3.5L V6 powerplants return for the 2014 model with similar power figures of 204hp and 306hp respectively, although the manual transmission for the IS250 has been dropped. The IS350 however, gains the eight speed, paddle shift automatic, lifted from the IS-F which should provide for sprightlier performance in sporty driving conditions. A main focus for Lexus was for the IS to be the sportiest sedan in its class (a direct command from Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda) so to that end, every facet of the IS was looked at. In addition to the new gearbox, the electronically boosted steering was lifted from the larger GS sedan and enhanced for more steering feel. Also poached from the GS was its multilink, rear suspension, modified for IS duty and fitted with the Adaptive Variable Suspension that adjusts damping along five driver selected programs: Snow, Eco, Normal, Sport and Sport+. The body-in-white was also stiffened using additional spot welds along major junction points to improve rigidity. For the first time, all wheel drive will also be offered and made available regardless of engine choice.

2014 Lexus IS F Sport

Three models will be offered when the IS goes on sale later this year: IS250, IS350 and IS350 F Sport. Prices shouldn't budge much from the outgoing IS and remain in the ballpark of other competitors.If the exterior is any indication, you can expect Lexus to be hotter under the collar as it seeks a new dynamic path. No longer is this the relentless/passionate pursuit of perfection. With the new IS and recently introduced GS and LS, Lexus is now in hot pursuit of sportiness.

Images courtesy of Lexus

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

First Impressions - 2014 Chevrolet Corvette

2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray

Corvette loyalists might have been gawking when the wraps were pulled off the seventh generation (C7) Chevrolet Corvette this week at the 2014 North American International Auto Show. Whether those were gawks of horror or gawks of adoration is something else entirely.

After weeks of teasing, spy shots and leaked material, the C7 Corvette has finally seen the proper light of day and at first glance, it is quite a striking thing to behold. It might not be the drop-dead gorgeous lines of the 2009 Corvette Stingray Concept, it might not have a mid-engined pose but the proportions all read engine at the front, RWD at the back. In other words, this is still a Corvette in the classic sense.

2014 Chevrolet Corvette

Instead of launching one model and then complimenting it with variants later in the product cycle, Chevy has introduced two distinct flavors of the C7. The base model (if you can call it that) is the Corvette Stingray and though that name may invoke images of the 2009 concept (or the 1957 Stingray for you older readers), almost nothing is carried over from those cars. In comparison to the out-going C6, the new Corvette strikes a lean, almost futuristic and aggressive stance. Where the C6 was smooth and rounded at the corners, the C7 is creased, angular and sprinkled with vents all around (and all of them functional so says Chevy). The front now features a single piece air intake and the headlights are now more vertically oriented. The hood, now made of carbon fiber along with the roof panels, also features a heat-extracting vent that reduces front end lift while offering more efficient cooling for the engine. The greenhouse now features rear-quarter windows, something not seen on a Corvette since the C3 generation. Along with the blacked out A pillars, this gives the Corvette an almost Nissan GT-R look in some views, particularly the rear 3/4 view. That's not a bad thing, particularly when the engineering that necessitated such a styling feature is revealed.

One of the rear fender mounted vents - trick racing technology here

In a classic case of trickle-down technology, Chevy looked to its C6.R ALMS racing cars to improve the C7. Atop both rear fenders are intakes that feed fresh air to radiators for the transmission and differential.. These bookend the new flat rear glass and replaces the wraparound rear window of the C5/C6 versions. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the new C7's styling is the treatment of the tail lights. For decades, the four round elements have been a Corvette hallmark (right up there with pop up headlights) and for the C7, they have been restyled in a way that mimic those on the Camaro. Instead of being round, they are tightly packed into an angular cluster and have more styling depth and detail to their housings. The housings themselves also feature small vents at their outer extremities that serve to vent hot air away from those same transmission/differential radiators. The exhaust pipes are now arranged neatly in a single row in the center above a defined air diffuser. In profile, this is still a Corvette in overall stance but the styling is visually a lot more interesting than the C6 and more aerodynamic in nature.

Perhaps the most controversial styling aspect are the tail lights, but they look great

The C7 Corvette aims to fix the niggling faults of the C6. One main complaint from owners (and the auto media) was a lack of steering feel. Chevy addressed this by bolting the steering rack directly to the front cradle and tightening up the front end, yielding a massive increase in rigidity. Every Corvette will now ride atop an aluminum frame in order to save weight, a page taken out of the ZO6/ZR1 playbook. By itself, weight savings technologies such as making the suspension mounting points aluminum keeping the reinforced plastic body panels yielded about a 100lb saving over the outgoing C6. Electronic steering replaces the hydraulic unit in the C6 and though these systems have never been a favorite of enthusiast drives due to their 'video game' like operation, Chevy worked hard to retain as much steering feel as possible.

2014 Corvette Interior - finally looks world class

Another sore point in the C6, and one I've personally experienced, is the interior. I've sat in quite a few Corvette cabins and every single time I found myself wondering why the interior didn't match the price tag. Even a lowly Chevy Sonic would turn up its nose at such low rent materials and quality. Chevy has finally addressed this eye sore by making the cabin both functional and luxuriously appointed. The steering wheel, which looked like every other wheel in the Chevy stable, is now uniquely Corvette and smaller in diameter. Craftsmanship quality and the materials now look to be first rate. The dash features stitched leather and is canted towards the driver for a more focused look and soft-touch materials are sprinkled liberally throughout the cabin. The uncomfortable and woefully inadequate seats of the C6 have been banished in favor of thrones that finally live up to the Corvette's mission as a sports car. Two seat options are available: GT and Competition Sport. Both offer support and comfort (including heated and cooled modes) that are decades ahead of anything the C6 offered (and hopefully that horrible plastic smell has been eradicated from the interior). The leather looks great and the central touchscreen interface looks as if it has finally been brought into the 21st century with vibrant graphics and detailing.

6.2L LT1 V8 - 450+hp/450+lb-ft of torque

You can't talk about a Corvette without talking about the engine so here goes. Twin turbo V6? Nope. Chevy opted to stick with the Corvette's tried and true pushrod, small block V8, here still displacing 6.2 liters. While it's based on the LS series, enough of it has been either redesigned or revised to demand a new code name: LT1. Sounds familiar? It should but it's not to be confused with the LT-1 designation of engines that powered C4 Corvettes and various F-body Camaros and Firebirds. This is a whole different beast that employs the latest in power generating and fuel saving technologies in Chevy's arsenal. Direct fuel injection, continuously variable valve timing and redesigned combustion chambers help the LT1 to pump out preliminary figures of 450hp and 450lb-ft of torque. While this represents an incremental increase over the LS3, Chevy boasts that torque delivery is similar to the bigger ZO6-equipped LS7 7.0L V8 in that, between 1000-4000rpm, the engine is already generating over 400lb-ft of torque. Cylinder deactivation is also standard on all C7s, manual transmission cars included (a first in the industry). Together, these bump up fuel efficiency by as much as 20% when coupled with either the revised 6L80 six speed automatic (equipped with paddle shifters and rev matched downshifts) or the new Tremec seven speed manual (that's right, SEVEN speeds). The manual is identical to the one offered on the old C6 with the exception of the new seventh gear being an ultra-tall and long ratio in a nod to increase fuel efficiency. Remember the Corvette was one of the few lauded performance cars (the ZO6 especially) for being reasonable on fuel.

Top down, the flowing lines point the massive aerodynamic work done to the body

As was mentioned before, two C7 models will be offered at launch: the Corvette Stingray and the more performance-oriented and more aggressively-styled Z51. While the Stingray features a stiffer suspension with standard Bilstein shocks all around, the Z51 is equipped with the third generation of Chevy's superb Magnetic Ride damper system as well as upsized brakes, wheels and tires (now Michelin Sport Cups instead of the longstanding GoodYear Eagles). The Z51 also sports an electronically controlled mechanical limited slip differential that is capable of apportioning torque between the drive wheels, thereby cutting understeer and enabling a more neutral poise. All C7s will come equipped with a Drive Model Select system operated by a rotary knob on the console. Five distinct modes are available to the driver: Tour, Sport, Track, Wet and Eco and they affect various vehicle parameters such as steering heft, throttle response, damper settings (Z51), cylinder deactivation, exhaust note and traction/stability intervention points. What's more, the driver is able to mix and match all of these settings into various programmable modes that are available at any time.

The Stingray is back

Pricing hasn't been announced as of yet but chances are if you were in the market for the previous C6 (or the rival Porsche 911), the C7's ultimate price shouldn't be a bother. One of the Corvette's core philosophies involves providing world class sports car performance that the everyday worker can afford. Let's not forget that the ZR1, even in the sunset of its existence, was still trouncing exotic performance cars two, or even three, times its price and this was due to the C6 being a fabulous starting point.With the new C7 Corvette, Chevy has fixed the flaws of its predecessor while sharpening the claws that make the Corvette driving experience one to remember. Sure the C7 might not have gone the exotic mid-engined route (maybe the C8 or C9?) but the  new 2014 Corvette is enough of a comprehensive redesign that will give the European competition nightly sweats.

Images courtesy of Chevrolet and EGM Car Tech