Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Short Test - 2013 Subaru BRZ

Subaru. Rear wheel drive.

Two things that shouldn't go together right?

Not anymore though. In Toyota's quest to become a more sporting, emotional brand and create exciting new cars (and under direct marching orders from Toyota CEO, Akio Toyoda) the Toyota GT86/Scion FR-S was birthed. However, it took the industrial strength of Fuji Heavy Industries (parent company of Subaru and partly owned by Toyota) to bring this amazing car to fruition.

Not that they were particularly thrilled with the concept at first.

And why would they? Ever since Subaru developed their signature all-wheel-drive vehicles, that's all they've been known for, with the sportiest of them being the turbocharged WRX rally monsters. So you can imagine the shock they got when Toyota approached them with a rear wheel drive project to be shared between the two automakers.In any case, enthusiasts can rejoice for now we have two, affordable rear wheel drive coupes on the market. Today's focus will be on the Subaru BRZ.

It's a small car, this BRZ. Its Impreza cousin is slightly bigger in comparison with a far roomier cabin (though to be fair, the Impreza was designed to have a people-sized back seat). Despite this, the long hood, short deck and wheels-to-the-corners proportions betray the BRZ's true nature. It is unmistakably sporty looking, especially in Subaru's signature WR Pearl Blue paint. As far as body panels go, the BRZ may look identical to its Toyota/Scion counterpart, but Subaru goes its own way, A trapezoidal grille give it familial ties to its AWD brethren and signature "Hawk Eye" HID headlights give a slightly more upscale look compared with the FR-S. Underneath, the 17" dark wheels shod with summer tires are mounted to a rigid chassis comprised of MacPherson struts with offset springs up front and a double wishbone set up at the rear. A Torsen limited slip differential comes standard as well as an anti-roll bar that ties both front struts together.

The cabin is distinctly driver oriented and my 5 foot 10 inch frame was snug but comfortable in the driver's seat, manually adjustable in six directions. It wasn't difficult to find a comfortable driving position and, once found, everything fell right to hand. The seating position is low slung, but the BRZ is blessed with excellent vision in all directions. The shifter for the Aisin six speed automatic with manual shift gate was well placed for quick shifts when manual control was needed and the simplistic steering wheel (devoid of any secondary controls) is fitted with shift paddles if you don't feel like touching the shifter. The gauge cluster puts special emphasis on the tachometer being front and center, the speedometer and fuel/coolant ancillary readouts flanking left and right. Climate controls were no-nonsense knobs just ahead of the shifter and below the standard infotainment system. Navigation is standard fare and the 6 inch touchscreen is simple and easily manipulated with quick responses and logical layout. This is a 2 + 2 car but with my seat positioned for driving, a look back in rear gave no indication of rear passengers having any legs to speak of. I suppose a car seat could fit, but getting it in would be a challenge. Subaru does say that with the rear seats folded, an owner who uses his BRZ for track days can fit four racing wheels with mounted tires, plus all necessary tools behind the front seats. With the trunk itself being modest in size I'll give them the benefit of the doubt.

What's the BRZ like to drive? Well anyone who's ever driven a Mazda Miata will be at home. Powered by a 200hp 2.0L boxer four cylinder (chosen for its ability to be placed low in the chassis), the svelte 2700lb car does have sprightly acceleration but 151lb-ft torque isn't eye-popping by any measure. A six speed manual transmission is standard and any enthusiast worth his heel-and-toe measure would be stupid to pay the extra $1100 for the automatic. Don't get me wrong, the Aisin slushbox is quick enough to answer manual shift calls and for someone who doesn't do track days is quite suitable in the daily grind. Puttering around airport B roads, the automatic does earn its keep in dulling gear changes and always reaching for the highest gear when you're not caning it. Slotting into Sport mode does quicken throttle response and forces gears to be held for longer periods than normal. When you really get frisky however, nothing beats having a manual at your behest. The ride itself is firm, befitting the BRZ's role but not too uncomfortable (you'll feel severe road irregularities) and the steering is very responsive. Directional changes are just a flick away from center and the car will eagerly dart into corners.

My passenger (the car's owner) was along for the ride but wasn't quite knowledgeable about the BRZ's abilities. First, I explained, there's a reason why the car feels low, wide and stable. Subaru's engineers were able to place most of the weight  low and rearwards, particularly the flat four engine. This results in excellent balance and a low center of gravity, giving the car great dynamic handling qualities. Secondly, power is modest. It's enough to enjoy the car's easily approachable limits but not so over the top to as to overwhelm the driver and the car's target audience. Third, this being a light ,rear wheel drive chassis plays into the former two reasons: drifting. Mind you, flick the BRZ into a corner and the nose will plow into safe understeer if your entry is sloppy, but goose the throttle mid-corner (make sure the Sport VSC button behind the shifter is depressed, which throttles the nanny stability and traction control systems back a touch) and the tail will predictably drift out in a safe and controllable manner. Being a flight student, the passenger understood the importance of CG limits and how easily controllable a vehicle can be once weight is positioned optimally. Frankly, he was having the time of his life.

Flicking the BRZ into yet another corner, the nose instantly follows steering wheel input and the 17 inch tires find grip. Push harder and the rear gradually steps out just enough to get the tail out before the lawyer systems reel you back in by applying differential brakes and simultaneously cutting power. Depressing the left most button behind the shifter for three seconds will turn all nanny systems off, allowing you to do lurid drifts to your heart's content (wasn't quite able to do this within the short time allowed). I was also amazed at the feel coming through the steering, this being an EPAS (Electrical Power Assist Steering) system. Usually these types of steering offer various tunes for either quickness or heaviness depending on the application, but are almost entirely silent on communicating what the front wheels are doing. The Subaru's steering is magnificent. Through a series of left-right transitions, steering was direct and there was very little roll and dive. Pick a pebble at the apex of a turn and not only can you nail it every time, but feel it through your hands..

My Miata comparison is no mistake. Having driven one at an autocross event a few years ago, the BRZ instantly reminded me of my time in Mazda's little roadster. However, the Subaru is smaller, lighter and more direct in its motions. It isn't about gobs of power or tonnes of grip (though surely, owners will want to enhance those aspects through forced induction and larger grippier tires) but about lightness, flickability and very neutral handling: the same basic goodness Mazda bakes into the Miata. The 2.0L flat four isn't the nicest sounding engine, but a dose of induction noise piped through the firewall at high revs is pleasing enough and gives just a hint of WRX sounds. The BRZ is a grin inducing car and after my short test,my colleagues couldn't help but notice the stupidly huge smile on my face.

Subaru also followed along Miata lines in terms of price. As tested, this particular 2013 BRZ Premium stickers for $27,444 (including $770 destination) off the lot, but you can get a bare bones Premium for just over $25,000 and it will still come with a good array of standard equipment. Step up to the Limited for an additional $2000 and you get foglights, HID headlights with LED accents and a rear wing. Finally, an affordable and genuinely fun-to-drive RWD sports coupe has made it to market and from an unlikely source. Not that its point of origin matters, but the BRZ will do wonders for Subaru by bringing in a new type of customer to their showrooms and, as the FR-S/GT86, begin a renaissance of Toyota sports cars.

Now about that Supra revival Mr Toyoda....

Special thanks to Santiago and Orlando!

Friday, January 17, 2014

2014 North American International Auto Show - 2015 Chrysler 200

Let's face it, the current Chrysler 200 (and by extension the Dodge Avenger) only exists to fill your need for an affordable rental vehicle at the Hertz counter. What was the Sebring in 2007 and substantially refreshed for 2010, gaining the 200 moniker, was already a bad car to begin with. That refresh amounted to nothing more than applying lipstick to a pig. Despite this (and largely to Chrysler using the car to debut its "Imported from Detroit" marketing pitch), the 200 saw quite an uptick in sales. Driving one briefly a few years ago led me to believe this car wasn't bought because it had a good ride, fancy electronics or a huge cabin (although that powerful Pentastar 3.6L V6 did wonders for it). You got one because either Hertz didn't have anything else available or because the dealer was practically giving you one for free.

The new Fiat-owned Chrysler would rather you forget about that dud of a car and feast your eyes on the brand-spanking new 2015 Chrysler 200, a car that Chrysler hopes will do for its fortunes what the 300C did way back in 2005: put it back on the map.

The 2015 200 doesn't just premiere Chrysler's new assault on the mid-sized car segment, it also previews a new design language for Chrysler's future products moving forward. Quite unlike the previous 200's bulbous, shrunken look, the new model embraces the sleek, 4-door coupe look that seems to be all the rage today. It sits long and low on a stretched and widened version of Chrysler/Fiat's CUSW (Compact U.S. Wide) platform (also underpinning the Dodge Dart and Jeep Cherokee) which should thoroughly advance the 200's ride/handling qualities. The slim headlights now flow into the grille and are accented by LED light pipes with a slightly revised version of Chrysler's winged emblem smack between the headlight clusters. It is elegant and fetching. The rear features dual exhaust outlets on higher trim 200s and the LED tail lights will remind you of those on a Maserati. If you've seen a Dodge Dart, the new 200's stance will be familiar but the design is an entirely more cohesive and classy take with more than a touch of Italian flair.

Power will come from your choice of two engines. Base 200s will be equipped with Chrysler's 2.4L 'Tigershark' inline four cylinder, fitted with Fiat's Multiair 2 valve-lift technology. Rated at 184hp and 173lb-ft of torque it is essentially the same engine fitted to uplevel Dodge Darts and is competitive with other base midsize car engines. The optional engine will be the 3.6L Pentastar V6, one that has been proliferating throughout the Chrysler empire, here making a stout 296hp and 262lb-ft of torque. Both engines will spin through a brand new ZF-designed, nine speed automatic transmission, higher trim models offering the option of paddle shifters on the steering wheel. Front wheel drive will be standard and, a rarity in this segment, all wheel drive will be option. Based on the same system in the new-for-2014 Jeep Cherokee, the 200's will have the ability to completely decouple the rear axle when power to rear wheels isn't needed, improving fuel economy. When situations deem four driven wheels are necessary however, the system can send as much as 60% of the engine's power rearward. Even when equipped with AWD, the 2015 Chrysler 200 will boast fuel economy either matching or exceeding those of its competitors. Figure high 20s around the city at least 35mpg highway for front wheel drive models.

It is the 200's interior which will perhaps be the biggest sign that Chrysler has sweated the details. Carrying over nothing from its predecessor, the 200 will boast a cabin that approaches top of the class. Quality craftsmanship in the materials and textures seem to abound everywhere, the seats look substantial and comfortable and the center console design appears thoughtful and logical. Chrysler's outstanding UConnect infotainment system will be front and center, housed in an 8.4 inch touchscreen while below sits a floating console which houses a new rotary shifter for the nine speed automatic as well as climate system controls and storage for smartphones and other portables. The driver will face a 7 inch information screen between the standard circular gauges that offers customization touches through buttons on the steering wheel. The infotainment system will feature voice control operation, the ability to read text messages out loud and SiriusXM Traffic Link which can build a weather map around any route and will even display fuel prices at nearby fuel stations.

A host of high tech devices abound on the safety front also. Adaptive cruise control, a forward collision warning system, lane departure warning system and selectable driving modes which can not only influence throttle response, steering and driveline behavior but also invites the all wheel drive system and adaptive cruise control to the party are all available.

Pricing for the 2015 Chrysler 200 will start at a competitive $22,000 with higher trim 200 Limited, 200S and 200C variants available. Dealer shipments will begin later in the spring but start fiddling with Chrysler's online build-and-price tool right now. With a beautiful exterior, a host of whizbang tech, fuel efficient engines and an enhanced look to quality, the 2015 Chrysler 200 looks well equipped to permanently erase the mistakes of its former self and take the fight to the midsized segment. From all indications, this will be the 200 you'll actually WANT to buy.

Images courtesy of Chrysler.

2014 North American International Auto Show - 2015 Ford F-150

If ever American automakers have a chance to shine, surely it would be in Detroit aka the Motor City. The North American International Auto Show is possibly the single most important place where legacy automakers Ford, General Motors and Chrysler can really strut their stuff and this year was no different. However, other automakers see the show as the event as both a place to cement the importance of the American market to their individual brands and the chance to heighten competition in wide array of segments. I've personally looked forward to attending in person one day but alas, I've never gotten a chance (braving the merciless northern winters be damned).

While basically every automaker with an interest in the U.S. market has a presence, I'll focus on the significant debuts as well as a few surprises, starting off with what I think is the most important debut this year.

2015 Ford F-150

2015 Ford F-150

Just how important is a pickup truck to an automaker? So American is this vehicle, that fierce rivalries develop between not just the automakers that build them, but owners as well. While foreign brands have tried to infiltrate the market to varying degrees of success (re: Nissan Titan/Frontier and Toyota Tundra/Tacoma), it remains a distinctly three-way fight between Ford, GM and Chrysler. As far as sales go, only one stands cab and wheel above the rest and that is the Ford F-150. Not only is it the best selling truck in America, it is the best selling vehicle ever, with annual sales around the 700,000 number. When a vehicle defines your bottom line, you really can't afford to screw it up (to put it another way, the Ford GT supercar wouldn't have been possible without the cash-cow F-150 selling as well as it does). With the fiercest ever competition from Chrysler's Ram and the GM Silverado/Sierra twins (both either all-new and significantly revised themselves) Ford had to do something pretty radical to fend off the others. Enter the first-ever aluminum bodied F-150.

That's right...ALUMINUM.

The F-150 has always been a porky truck, even by half-ton standards and compared to the Ram and GM twins. In the truck world, heaviness usually amounts to towing power and a stout frame with which to do work. It doesn't however, help with fuel economy and efficiency. Even trucks must bow to the fuel economy gods. With the F-150's last mid-life update in 2011, Ford partially addressed this by ditching the old Triton 5.4L V8 and sticking a new Ecoboost twin-turbo 3.5L V6 in its place with the aim of providing V8 power with V6 fuel economy (also replacing the old base 4.6L V8 with a 3.7L V6). To satisfy the naysayers however, Ford also equipped the F-150 with two more efficient V8 powerplants: a 5.0L V8 that slots below the Ecoboost 3.5L and a powerhouse 6.2L V8 as the top spec engine. The buyers however, spoke with their wallets, reversing the V8 trend and ordering the 365hp/420lb-ft twin turbo V6 in record numbers. Even Ford was pleasantly surprised at the orderbooks, such that today, the Ecoboost motor accounts for nearly one third of all F-150s sold (see my review here). However, for 2014, Ford goes a step further thoroughly redesigning the frame and body of the F-150 to, not only be stouter, but lighter. And not just by a few pounds here and there. Using experience gained from working with aluminum when it owned Jaguar, Ford has managed to dump as much as 700lbs from the F-150. I don't need to tell you that a lighter vehicle is a more efficient vehicle. 

2015 Ford F-150

While aluminum (a military, dent-resistant grade used on the U.S. Army's M2 Bradley) covers every body panel, including the bed, the fully boxed frame uses more high and ultra high strength steel, further reducing the F-150's lard load. Ford went the extra mile in ensuring the aluminum was also dent resistant and easily repaired, though that last part remains to be seen. Under the hood, the 3.5L Ecoboost is carried over along with the 5.0L V8, but an even smaller Ecoboost 2.7L V6 was introduced that will slot above the base V6, itself downsized from 3.7L to 3.5L. The monster 6.2L V8 is killed, leaving the the larger turbo mill as the top engine. An improved six speed automatic will back all engines While no power figures for the new engines are available as yet, its a safe bet that payload and towing figures will increase as well as EPA fuel economy figures. Currently, the Ram EcoDiesel (no relation) holds the fuel economy crown of 17 city/25 highway and Ford is keen to upstage it. In switching from steel to aluminum, Ford may have put the pickup market on its head, but also, it will give body shop businesses growing pains. Aluminum has traditionally been an expensive material to work with, it's high cost relegating it to liberal use in more expensive vehicles (the Jaguar XJ, Audi A8 and high end sports cars among them) so it will be interesting to see how repair costs are affected.

2014 Ford Atlas Concept

Aside from weight savings, the new F-150 will also boast a look that stays faithful to the Atlas concept that was previewed in 2013. Muscularity and power are instantly transmitted by the in-your-face grille, the tall, broad hood and the semi-stacked headlights (high trim models will feature segment-first LED headlights and LED lighting all around). Aerodynamics also played a key role in the styling, the windshield base moving forward and allowing the glass itself to be raked further back. Active grille shutters, a prominent air dam and a squashed top surface on the tailgate are all aero-cheating tricks to help the F-150 move more silently through the wind. Inside, owners will find a high end interior that will rival luxury cars in terms of technology and sheer opulence. Every F-150 will get vibrant screens in the instrument cluster and in the dash: 4 inch size for lower trim models and larger 8 inch units for higher trims. Since this is a pretty big truck, a 360 degree camera system will be featured that will help in maneuvering and reversing and slate of driver assistance tech such as lane departure warning, blind spot assist and forward collision mitigation will be on offer.

2014 Ford F-150 SVT Raptor

In all this though, the one F-150 model that I've lusted after is the Raptor. With the F-150 being redesigned it's unclear if Ford will bring it back a second time, what with its signature 6.2L V8 being put out to pasture. However, one positive is that the Raptor sold very well during its tenure so it would be unwise for Ford to not at least examine the possibility, dent resistant aluminum be damned. Who knows? A 700lb-lighter Raptor would make for some truly awesome desert running and dune-jumping.

With the introduction of the 2015 F-150, Ford has once again raised the bar and delivered a truck that pushes the envelope on how efficient a half-ton pickup can be. One can only imagine how Ram and GM will respond, let alone Toyota and Nissan.

Images courtesy of Ford.


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Short Test - 2013 Toyota Camry LE


It's the flavor of ice cream that makes no bones about being one of the top flavors you can order at your local ice cream shop. It's neither flashy nor does it call attention to itself but it satisfies the masses by being cream. When something just works, no one argues against it and that my friends, is the essence of vanilla ice cream. As far as cars go, the Toyota Camry is the vanilla flavor of the mid-sized car segment (yes, yes, not a very exciting segment...the vanilla segment if you wish). Though some manufacturers try to at least make their competing products interesting (read Hyundai Sonata, Mazda 6 etc), when something is as successful at being plain and inoffensive as the Camry, you don't mess with the formula, which is why for years and years, Toyota has sold boatloads of the things. As a matter of fact, the Camry is, and has been, the best-selling mid-sized car for a number years (only losing out to the cross-town rival Honda Accord one or two of those years). Why is the Camry so successful you ask? Just ask your neighbor...or your mother...or your aunt.

The Toyota Camry was most recently redesigned for the 2012 model year and, rather than do a ground-up change of things, Toyota left the essential parts alone and decided to spice up the exterior a bit (a dash of sprinkles?). Gone is the pudgy, rounded look of the 2011 car, giving way to sharper edged sheet metal with creases and angles. The face is just ever so slightly more aggressive while still very much approachable. The body sides are plain and void of any styling while the rear end features scimitar-shaped brake lights. The overall look is different enough from the outgoing Camry to elicit some visual interest (per CEO Akio Toyoda's mandate to invoke "emotion" into Toyota's products) but safe enough that the familiar Camry DNA is undiluted. Inside the cabin, all feels intimately familiar. My family has had Toyota products for years and a two-generations-down Camry (codename XV30) was very recently gracing our garage so it's no wonder. The interior was roomy, spacious and airy with good quality materials on all the touch points. The front seats were comfortable with good support for long distance cruising though, like our old Camry, lacked lateral support. The rear space was also plenty roomy featuring loads of leg space and head room. If the new Corolla is any indication, Toyota knows how to make the most passenger room for a given space.

Powering my LE tester was Toyota's ubiquitous 2.5L inline four cylinder hooked up to a six speed automatic. The engine's adequate 170hp and 178lb-ft of torque won't set any records and a look at the Camry's competitive set indicates the base four banger is well, competitive (a robust 268hp 3.5L V6 is uptick option). On my short test, the Camry offers no surprises. Like that toaster you simply put your bread in and engage the lever, the Camry drives in a similar fashion. The ride is comfortable and smooth, though body roll was extreme during some vigorous driving. The all-strut suspension has been a Camry hallmark for many years and aids making the ride very supple. The transmission would rather you didn't ask for a kickdown from the fuel sipping 6th gear for a lower one when passing and hestitates, although the engine offers enough go to suit the vast majority of the people buying this car. Noise is mostly subdued with the engine only making its presence known whenever the transmission does decide to kick down a gear or two after pinning the throttle. Again, settling into the driver's seat was instantly familiar. This isn't a car for enthusiasts or people who relish the drive between points A and B. Like the Corolla, the Camry aims to be as painless and unobtrusive as possible, scooting you to your destination with little fanfare. It is a car that does very little to call attention to itself....or you for that matter.

The center stack is not stylistic in that Hyundai-Sonata sense, but all the controls are logically placed and easily manipulated from either front seat. My LE tester offered a 6" touchscreen to access the infotainment system. Bluetooth (both phone and audio streaming) as well as AM, FM and a CD player but Toyota's EnTune system is available on higher trims. The material quality throughout the cabin is indicative of Toyota's legendary reliability as not many surfaces I touched were offensive, except maybe for the strip of plastic around the touchscreen that exhibited a sense of cheapness.

In all, the Camry is a pretty good car and will satisfy the needs of the many. It is an honest, no-brainer buy for someone who wants the space of a midsize car with good fuel economy and Toyota reliability. As someone who has lived with Toyotas for most of his life, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the Camry. Plus, with other variants on offer (a sporty SE model for the man who wants a good drive without upsetting the wife and a hybrid model for tree huggers who need something larger than a Prius) the Camry does most things well. Sure, you can't really go wrong the reliability of vanilla ice cream, but there are simply too many other excellent flavors to ignore.

Special thanks to the R.P.E. Foundation for aiding in facilitating this review!