Wednesday, June 18, 2014

First Impressions - 2013 BMW M5

The following article is an earlier post done for another website that is no longer in business. I've moved it here in an effort to consolidate all of my posts. Consider it ride back in to time. Enjoy!

2013 BMW M5

It's been 40 years since BMW's secret skunkworks M Division has been pumping out uber powerful, yet subtly styled cars for the discerning executive driver. The kind of driver that wants super car performance without drawing attention to himself. Since it debuted, the M5 has been the de-facto bogey by which all other pretenders to the crown of super sports sedans are judged. Through each generation, the M5 offered opulent levels of luxury with seating for five, while packing enough horsepower and handling to make even the stalwart Ferrari jock think twice before a challenge.The last generation E60 M5 packed a Formula One inspired, high revving 5.0 liter V10 which powered the rear wheels with 507hp at a screaming 8200 rpm redline. Naturally aspirated, high revving engines have been a BMW M hallmark ever since the outfit's inception. Equipped with a fast shifting 7 speed sequential gearbox, the E60 could sprint from 0-60 in 4.5 seconds while belting out the closest thing to Formula One race car's engine wail. Despite this performance, the E60 was often derided as being too raw (one of my personal favorite qualities), too complicated (3 settings for the engine, 11 settings for the transmission plus countless others for varying systems) and the dimwittedness of the transmission when not going balls out. Basically, the M5 worked extremely well on the track but felt misplaced at saner speeds and calmer settings.

2005-2010 E60 M5

Enter the new F10 model, which BMW probably wouldn't admit as much, but addresses most of the E60's minor (okay, major) shortcomings. Gone is the high revving-but-quite-thirsty V10 and herky-jerky SMG single clutch transmission, replaced by a new "M TwinPower Turbo" twin turbocharged, directed-injected, 4.4 liter V8 engine and an equally new seven speed dual clutch transmission to dole out the twin-turbocharged engine's impressive 560hp and 500 lb-ft of torque (more on this impressive yet major departure of an engine later). The basic 5 Series chassis has been substantially revised with an aluminum-intensive suspension (the rear components mounted in a rigid cradle to alleviate the flex of rubber bushings), an electronic version of the M differential which can split torque between the rear wheels for maximum grip, a tuned hydraulic steering rack (because the standard electronic unit lacked feel) and six piston brake calipers per wheel.

2013 BMW M5

One of the more peculiar traits of the new F10 M5 is the engine's lack of aural character, at least compared with its raucous predecessor. The E60's V10 had such character that it made the hair on your skin stand up every time the driver touched the gas pedal. The new forced induction V8 on the other has hand is almost too refined. M engineers allegedly tried everything to alleviate this muffling effect of turbocharging (and the isolating effect of the 5's platform) by employing a number of options such as routing the intake housings closer to the firewall and cabin, installing microphones next to the intake and piping the sound directly into the cabin, none of which worked to their favor. They finally decided to use recorded sounds of the engine revving through its range and playing the sound back through the sound system in tune with the driver's placement of the throttle. Artificial yes, but it could be worse.

2013 BMW M5 Interior

One thing this new M5 improves on is in the electronics area. The E60 driver was simply overwhelmed with settings for everything controlling the car and no simple way to access or change them. This was the effect of the oft-derided iDrive system. The new F10 seeks to change this with simpler settings and easier access to them with either buttons or a simplified version of iDrive. Where the previous SMG transmission had ELEVEN (how quickly would you like your head snapped off?) settings, the V10 having THREE (how much power do you want?) settings along with a myriad others (some as trivial as allowing timer settings for the interior/exterior lights...really?), the F10 pares all of this customization down to the driving details in four simple modes: Economy, Comfort, Sport and Sport+. In Economy and Comfort mode, the transmission and suspension are tuned to make the M5 as docile as a regular 528i, the transmission slurring between gears (shooting for the highest in Economy) and the suspension absorbing bumps and giving a very compliant ride. Switch to Sport and the engine note becomes noticeably angrier, the transmission swaps gears more aggressively, steering gains more load and the suspension firms up. Sport+ stiffens up the springs even more, adds even more heft to the steering and turns the M5 into an apex eating, turn gobbling, straights chomping monster. These settings are programmable through two M buttons on the steering wheel, allowing the driver to customize and store preferences (easier done here than in the E60). North America can take comfort in the fact that unlike the previous M5 which offered a manual transmission late in its life cycle, one will be offered in the new F10 from the start (without the penalty of not being able to switch off traction and stability control completely...and the heavens rejoiced!)

2013 BMW M5

Now, about that engine. Why turbos? Why forced induction? Why abandon a central theme important to M heritage by throwing away natural aspiration in favor of turbocharging? If you're an M enthusiast you can recall some time in BMW's history when uttering the term "forced induction" in a BMW building was akin to showing the Nazi sign. At Buckingham Palace. While dining with the Queen. It was unthinkable. Well, you'll have to get over it and cut BMW some slack. We now live in an era where fuel isn't as cheap as it once was and the reduction of vehicle emissions is now a central part of every automaker's R&D. The Germans are not immune to this and in order to comply with ever tightening emissions regulations, BMW has had to forego this central tradition (if you need any more proof, the next M3 will also use some form of turbocharging while downsizing from its current V8 back to a six cylinder). However, it's not all gloom and doom. With the new turbo V8 comes a new emphasis on economy. The S63B44Tu is an evolution of the S63 engine (itself a M-ified version of the regular N63 4.4 liter in 550i/750i sedans) used in the X5 M/X6 M high performance SUVs. As such, it boasts 30% better fuel economy ratings than the old 5.0 liter V10 of the E60. Sure the engine redlines at a tamer 7200 rpm, but for that you get 53 more horse over the old V10. Much more impressive is the jump in torque from 383lb-ft to an even 500lb-ft at a more accessible 1500rpm and the torque curve is as flat as the Great Plains. Drivers of the old M5 take notice: revving is not required but if you do, hang on.

Despite the F10 M5's gain in weight (thanks to the 5 Series architecture being based on the larger 7 Series) BMW has worked hard to minimize this penalty by using as much lightweight materials as possible throughout the car. Aluminum comprises the hood, fenders and doors as well as ultra high-strength steel through much of the chassis. Still the M5 comes it at a porky 4250lbs, some 200lbs heavier than the outgoing E60. Continuing the M tradition for Q ship styling, the M5 sports subtle exterior tweaks over the regular 5 Series that only the M faithful will identify at a distance. Larger air intakes at the front, larger fender flares framing 19 (or optional 20) inch wheels, a lowered suspension, the signature quad pipe exhaust and a subtle trunklid spoiler along with a sprinkling of M badges are among the calling cards for this cruise missile on wheels. Compared to the Bangle-esque styling of the E60 with its dramatic, flame surfaced exterior, the F10 model is quietly exotic. In many ways, it recalls the executive yet wolf-in-sheep's-clothes styling of the cult-status E39 model.

The 2013 BMW M5 should be on sale as of this writing at an MSRP of $90,795 (including $895 destination/handling). Go crazy with options like the Driver's Assistance package which includes systems such as blind spot warning, lane departure warning, side and top view cameras; the Executive package which further enhances luxury with heated rear seats and steering wheels, power trunklid, soft close doors plus a DVD entertainment system with screens in the front headrests (in case the kids get bored with your track driving)  and you're looking at a price tag of well over $110,000. Eye watering for sure but look on the bright side, that Porsche driver in the next lane will never know what hit him.

Images courtesy of BMW

First Impressions - 2015 Ford Mustang

If you're a fan of sports cars (or any car for that matter) saddled with live axle rear suspensions,stop reading right now.

The 2015 Ford Mustang is perhaps the most widely anticipated car this year, next to the Chevy Corvette Stingray. And for good reason. The sixth generation pony car marks not only the 50th anniversary of the model, but also the first fully comprehensive redesign since the Fox body took the reins for the Mustang's underpinnings in the late 1970s. And with the redesign, comes a beautifully sculpted body that takes its inspiration from the Evos concept of 2012. While Ford shied away from diving into the deep end of the retro-design pool (like the 2005-2013 S197 generation), subtle cues in the body details and lines link the new Mustang to its predecessors. Let's indulge shall we?

First let's get this out of the way: the 2015 Mustang isn't simply a 2-door Ford Fusion although the snouts do look similar. The design mantra first and foremost was "get it right". That said, almost nothing from the previous generation was carried over, giving designers and engineers the freedom to get the proportions of the new car right. Fifty years of out-of-proportion looks and 1970s-era platform nip-and-tucking are swept out the door with the 2015 Mustang's stunning new looks. A brand new platform, lighter and stronger than before provides a suitable anchor for the new independent rear suspension featuring a sophisticated multilink design (take that Camaro). The front end is fitted with struts featuring a ball jointed design that improves ride isolation and steering feel while allowing for bigger brakes to be fitted. The wheelbase is carried over but everything else was altered: the track was widened, the hood and roof lowered while overall length is a tad longer giving the Mustang a true performance stance.

Outside, the 2015 Ford Mustang looks like no other. The shark-like snout features the pony emblem front-and-center in the grille while the headlights are slimmed and menacing, made all the more so by three diagonal light stripes in each bezel. The wide lower intakes add to the width of the car and the hood features details such as creasing that begins at the snout and a domed look to emphasize the power lurking beneath. From the side, the Mustang has heavy details in the sheetmetal with a character line that begins at the top of puffed-out front fenders, runs down the side just below the window and is then carried up over the similarly widened rear fender ending at the tail. The rear end is signature Mustang with individual, sequential three-light bar vertical tail lights framing a blackened center with the chrome pony emblem again in the center (GT models will have the letters 'GT' instead). Below that, a diffuser is framed by twin exhaust pipes. Overall, the exterior design is clean, crisp and new age edgy. On first glance, not only are you assured you're looking at a Mustang but the design featured subtle cues that hark back to previous generations for example, the blacked out B pillar and the angled rear end. Low, mean, ready-to-pounce-on-Camaro-and-Challenger. Apt descriptors.

Inside, the Mustang finally leaves the 20th century behind in favor of higher end materials and a clean, sophisticated. almost aviator-like theme. Longtime Mustang owners will sing kumbaya at the sight of such advanced features as remote start, keyless entry, tire pressure monitoring and a track app for GT models which includes launch control. They might be divided at the thought of a drive mode selector coming between them and pure driving bliss but the majority should welcome the feature. With the selector, drivers will be able to choose between three stages of stability control thresholds, throttle input, steering feel, traction control and shift points on automatic equipped models. Row-your-own-gears Mustangs will also feature a new rev-match option similar to the kind on Nissan 370Zs. Of course, Sync and MyFord Touch are options as well as an abundance of USB and 12V ports.

No Mustang would be worth its pony emblem without a lineup of engines to match the aggressive looks. With the 2015 model, the engines are more or less carried over with a few tweaks and one brand new option. First, base Mustangs carry on with a 3.7L V6 with 305hp and 280lb-ft of torque hooked up to either a 6 speed manual or 6 speed automatic. If you need a V8 in your life, the GT is your model and it carries a tweaked 5.0L V8 with engineering from the Boss 302 program. Expect output to exceed the current model's 420hp and 390lb-ft of torque with your choice of either a manual or automatic, both also featuring 6 speeds. The real big news under the hood will excite those who long for a return of the SVO badge fitted 80s-era Mustangs. For the first time since 1986, the Mustang's engine bay will play host to a turbocharged inline four with EcoBoost technology. Displacing 2.3L, the new mill will produce 305hp. matching the 3.7L V6 but trouncing it with over 300lb-ft of torque. A twin scroll turbocharger along with direct injection and variable timing along the valves are at the heart of this new engine (which will see duty in the upcoming Focus RS).

Pricing for the 2015 Mustang has elevated slightly. Base V6 models with manual transmissions start at $24,495 (add $1195 for the 6 speed automatic). The base EcoBoost model will begin at $25,995 (premium EcoBoost models will sticker for $29,995) while the base GT will open up at $32,925. The most expensive Mustang will be the GT Premium which starts at $36,925 and, of course, a wide range of options will be available. All MSRPs include a destination charge of $825. Convertible Mustangs will follow within a year of release with a a few thousand more greenbacks tacked on to their MSRPs. What would my ideal Mustang look like? Starting with a base GT with the 6 speed manual (while the EcoBoost is an enticing option, a V8 just sounds more proper and I like rowing my own gears) I'd add the GT Track Package for $2495 (includes front strut tower brace, gorgeous black 19" wheels with summer tires, larger radiator, Brembo front brakes, heavier duty front springs, a Torsen rear limited slip differential and deletion of the rear spoiler...who needs it?), a Reverse Parking Sensor system for $295 (can't scratch the paint) and the Recaro Cloth Front Seating for $1595. All in, we're talking a track ready Mustang for $37,310. Oh, and let's not forget that it would be painted in black....cuz that's just how I roll.

With a huge sweep of the broom, Ford has redesigned and re-engineered the 2015 Mustang in such a way that it is primed for the next 50 years. With styling that looks toward the future, cues that provide a glimpse in its past and swathe of engines that are powerful as well as efficient, the 2015 Ford Mustang looks set to take the muscle car wars to the next level. If your heart is still set on live axles, you'd better get a move on to your Ford dealer to catch the last of the 2014s. Otherwise, welcome to the 21st century pony car. 

Images courtesy of Ford.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Long Term: 2006 Mazda6 S

The STEED has finally hit the100,000 mile marker, after an ownership tenure that has spanned just over 5 years. The momentous occasion happened, rather low key, the night of Memorial Day on my way back home from a food charity event. Having left the church, I looked down on the odometer and noticed I was a few miles shy of the milestone and I could potentially hit it that night. Opting for the long way home, I careful managed my routing with the result being the odometer turning to the magic number just as I pulled into my complex. I'll say this though, getting there over the last half decade has been mostly a smooth affair with moments of hair pulling thrown in.

As I've stated in my last long term update (which was, yes I know, the first), most of the maintenance was hands on with the more difficult, complex tasks left to the experts. Oil changes were done strictly at 3000-5000 mile intervals and with only synthetic oil, a coolant flush was done at around 75,000 miles and the brakes are still pretty strong, even after not being touched since the 85,000 mile marker. Overall, the STEED still feels tight as a drum, rides like a champ and the transmission still snickety-snicks from gear to gear with rifle-bolt precision and action. That's not to say all is well with her though.

Let's start with the engine. Even after five years of exuberant driving, it sounds pretty much how I got it. Which is to say, as throaty and balanced as a port injected, Duratec 3.0L V6 can sound when attached to a manual transmission. However, since the 81,000 mile marker, I've noticed the engine tends to lug when at low speeds between 1000-2000 rpm. If you've ever tried to accelerate away from a slow speeds in high gear (say 4th or 5th) without bringing the RPMs up, then you know what I mean. Only this happens even in 1st or 2nd gear. If I goose the throttle too heavily before bringing the revs above 2000 rpm, the STEED will hesitate as if the engine is misfiring, before smoothly going up the rev range. While upshifting I've had to be careful not to let the revs fall below 2000 rpm, lest I go through another round of apparent cylinder misfiring and 'check-engine-light-flashing' before the engine finds its voice again. Delving through the Mazda forums, I've read up a few reasons for this. One specifies bad spark plugs, another suggests a vacuum leak and still another thinks bad ignition coils. First thing I'll try are the spark plug replacements which (according to a DIY Youtuber) aren't as simple to do. Why? The first generation Mazda6 was not originally designed to have a V6 engine. Then-partner Ford insisted on having a V6 engine to satiate US consumers and as a result, the Duratec 3.0L V6 was shoehorned into the bay. This doesn't leave a lot of space under the hood to perform a lot of DIY work (still a lot easier than a Volkswagen GTI though).

Another, particularly annoying, item on my to-repair list is the climate control system. It conked out about 2 years ago around the 70k mark and when I took the car in for diagnosis, I was told it needed a new compressor (!). Hearing that such work along with the parts themselves would cost just shy of $2,000 I opted for a second opinion which slashed the repair cost in half. The cost was slashed even further when the mechanic noticed that the clutch which engages the compressor was at fault. This led to a very cool 2013 summer season....right up to Thanksgiving when the AC went kaput, yet again. With the repair warranty already expired I'll be taking the car back to the repair shop and hope (and pray) that it's just the compressor clutch again. Seriously, it's not even fully summer yet and already daytime temperatures are already exceeding 90 degrees. There's only so much that driving with the windows down can do; which, interestingly enough, has lead to the next item up for repair: the headliner.

Yes, the mouse-fuzz material that lines the ceiling of the roof is slowly starting its downward journey towards my noggin'. It's not as bad as it sounds, and a dose of 3M glue has stymied the deterioration somewhat. But before long, the central area around the sunroof is going to start sagging and I'll have no choice but to replace the entire headliner.  Besides, it looks wrong driving and seeing the material flapping away in the breeze.

Other items? Well the headlights have become clouded and hazy, this despite repeated uses of 'headlight restorer' products. I've been toying with the idea of replacing the headlights outright with new, state-of-the-art LED units, IF they can be acquired at reasonable cost (swapping them should be a no brainer). One particularly annoying (and ill-timed) repair I had to make was to the water pump, which failed just over 98,000 miles (the same day and literally a few hours before my flight to begin the West Coast Road Trip). It was one which I had meant to coincide with the timing belt replacement, the two big-ticket items that are usually performed around this time. Despite all these, I still thoroughly enjoy driving her and she has been otherwise very reliable. Passengers never stop gaping at the fact that this is a manual transmission (one of my students apparently has never seen one these days). The performance minded drivers that have also been passengers have expressed a hint of jealousy that a 4 door sedan with a V6 can be had with three pedals. At the moment, I have no desire to part with her and I'm hoping with a bit of luck and time that all her present maladies will be repaired. Don't get me wrong, it's hard not to be tempted by newer metal (the new Mazda 6 has certainly caught my eye) but the fact that the six cylinder/three pedal sedan combo is no more sort of compels me to cherish what I have.

Here's to another 100k STEED!

Short Test - 2014 Audi RS5

"You ok boss?"

"Yeah, I good."

Cruising around some B roads, I remarked at how smooth the ride was. This being a performance car, the Audi RS5 I was piloting rode quite comfortably in Comfort mode, though the firmness in the suspension was apparent.

"Switch it to Dynamic mode."

"Ok, sure."

A few seconds later: "Holy %#$!"

Through the bottom of my seat and the steering wheel in my hands, I felt the RS5's personality do a pretty dramatic shift. Everything suddenly felt tense. Gone was the docile steering, the soft (relatively) ride, the purring of the engine in the distance and slurring of the transmission through the gears. The suspension got tighter, the throttle got touchier (the exhaust got notably louder), the steering went extra firm and the transmission dropped a gear as if anticipating a corner. And then I got the nerve to goose the gas. In an instant, the dual clutch transmission dropped to second gear, the revs swung to the far right of the 8200 tachometer and the cabin was positively filled with the glorious sound of a naturally aspirated, direct injected 4.2L V8 clearing its throat and belting out a ferocious battle cry. Or it could've been the sound of Zeus firing off multiple lightning bolts milliseconds apart in Hades' direction. All I know is that the Bob Marley song being piped via Bluetooth through the fantastic sounding Bang and Olufsen audio system suddenly became irrelevant.

Bob Marley being irrelevant doesn't ordinarily happen. Bob Marley being turned down doesn't ordinarily happen.

This wasn't an ordinary occasion.

I'm behind the wheel of a 2014 Audi RS5, the tip of the spear as far as the A5 lineup is concerned. Gone is the dinky 2.0L turbo four of the base A5, gone is the supercharged 3.0L V6 puppy of the S5 and in their place sits a Quattro GmbH-tuned 4.2L V8, fortified with direct injection, forged pistons, a strengthened aluminum engine block and a screaming 8200 rpm redline. All in, output registers at 450hp and 317lb-ft of torque routed through a seven speed, dual clutch transmission to all four wheels via Audi's signature Quattro all wheel drive system.

Outside, you can tell the more aggressive nature of the RS5 relative to its tamer stablemates by eyeballing the lowered ride height as it sits, hunkered on its massive 20" wheels. The Daytona Gray paint is also an RS5 exclusive and, though a tad plain, goes quite nicely with the silver-finished mesh grille and the forged aluminum, turbine wheels. A positively bonkers front splitter underlines huge intake openings, themselves framing the one-piece grille and topped by Audi's signature LED running lights. Looking at the RS5 from the side, "ready to pounce" would be an accurate descriptor. At the rear, large dual oval exhausts announce the RS5's presence and frame the lower diffuser. Equipped with the Sport Exhaust option, the 4.2L V8 becomes deliciously raucous with every dip of the throttle, opening flaps in the mufflers and enticing you to drop a few gears just to hear the motor's pops and crackles on overrun.

Despite the meager torque figure, the Quattro AWD system makes this car seriously quick. From a standstill, booting the throttle pressing you into the cosseting seat as the RS5 rockets forward with nary a hint of wheelspin. Just all four tires digging into the asphalt like a cheetah in full acceleration. The free revving nature of the engine makes it quite easy to hit the redline before you realize an upshift is necessary. Attacking a tight corner reveals just how nimble this chassis is when equipped with Rear Sport Differential. Just like the Audi S4 I tested last year, the differential can route power between the rear wheels, adding more torque to the outside wheel when cornering to aid in rotating the car. Unlike the S4 however, the RS5's huge tires cling to the road with such alacrity that there was no wheelspin to be had. Just the relentless acceleration through the corner and a planted, confidence-lending feeling. Yes, you have to ignore the initial brain command to back off the throttle once the first hint of understeer shows up but bury the throttle mid-corner and the RS5 rewards you by tucking in its nose and thrusting you through the apex and on to the straight, the V8 on full boil.

Once back to calmer, saner speeds with the Audi Drive Select switched to Comfort, I had a chance to take in the RS5's sumptuous cabin. Bumps are felt but don't make their way through the sports seats to your behind and the exhaust, which was all LeMans racer a few minutes ago, is barely heard in the sumptuous cabin. Audi cockpits are arguably the industry standard when it comes to quality and design and here the RS5 doesn't disappoint. Leather is buttery soft and the seats are at once supportive and comfortable for long distance stints. The steering wheel is grippy and features paddle shifters that fall easily to hand while the gauges are legible and easy to read at a glance.This being a coupe, rear seat room is marginal at best but surprisingly I was able to sit behind myself without too much trouble. Wouldn't want to take a road trip back there though.

With a base price of $69,600.00, the RS5 does battle with the likes of BMW's new M4 and the outgoing Mercedes C63 AMG. To that price, my tester was fitted with the $750 Matte Aluminum Optic package which features the silver finished grille, aluminum painted front splitter and silver finish 20" wheels on summer tires, Sport exhaust system with black outlets for $1000, the $2750 Driver Assist Package that brought adaptive cruise control and dynamic steering and the always-brilliant $4000 Audi MMI navigation package. Other doodads pushed the as-tested price to $79,600 (destination not included).

If you're a fan of naturally aspirated engines, you'd better order your Audi RS5 pronto as this is the last and only place you'll still find the magnificent 4.2L V8 in all its unboosted glory. While Audi's new 4.0L twin-turbo V8 is a marvelous piece with big horsepower and greater efficiency, the 4.2L still has it on the ropes with a sound that is earsplittingly good. The RS5 might be getting on in years but its designed has aged beautifully and still offers enough performance to make that M3/M4 driver in the other lane think twice.

Special thanks to Mr. Khan for his time and support!