Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Long(-ish) Term Review - 2016 Ram 1500 Big Horn Quad Cab

What happens when you take a strapping young fellow who's been driving sedans for the last 20 years and put him in a half-ton truck for a week?

I'll tell you what, he gains a new appreciation for those drivers who commute in these beasts on a daily basis.

Not that I've never driven a truck for a day or two before. Those times, the experience was um, hairy-chested feeling to say the least but, mercifully short when reality set in. This time around, an opportunity that was a bit negative at first, presented itself. Since my regular car, *ahem* the STEED, was totaled a few days prior and the rental car agency had no sedans available, I took a long look at a big Ram Quad Cab truck sitting in a corner and quietly whispered to myself, "YOLO!"

 I decided that, barring the progress made on finding a permanent vehicle replacement, the Ram would serve as the all-purpose vehicle for a week. Walking around the truck, I began to take in its sheer size. The big cross-hair grille is front and center in all is chromed and slatted glory. Flanked by angled headlights with a large lower bumper (also chromed out) integrating fog lights at the corners, the whole 'face' just forward slightly. See this face taking up your rear view mirror and you'll be instantly intimidated to move over. Hell, if this truck were doing one twenty on the German autobahn, I'm pretty even more exotic material wouldn't hesitate to get out of its way. Being a Quad Cab (in Ram-speak), this 1500 half-ton model has four doors, two regular sized (but surprisingly light) front doors and two smaller doors behind them. Don't be fooled, this isn't a true crewcab design, but the interior is surprisingly roomy. The truck bed measures 6'4" in length and was not equipped with a bedliner, but the big, bright dual exhaust tips are nice styling feature and call out to the brawn under the large hood. Taken as a whole, this Ram 1500 seems to the "trucker's pickup" compared to it's rivals from Chevy and Ford.

Inside, however, you could be fooled into thinking the cabin belonged to a full sized sedan. Material quality exceeds that of many cars I can think of and storage space is abundant. The front space is occupied by comfortable bucket seats with a large center cubby, useful for storing folders and big enough to stash a small laptop. Three cup holders adorn the front of the cubby, large enough for you 7 Eleven Big Gulp. When maximum seating is needed, it folds up to fit a sixth person, though he'd/she'd better be of small stature and not mind a 5-10 minute ride to the store. A bench occupies the rear of the cabin but even there, space is adequate and, when not in use, can be folded up to reveal yet more storage space underneath. The dashboard is feels richer than you'd think for a truck and panel gaps and nice and tight. With the amount of 'RAM" and "Big Horn" logos dotting the cabin, you'll never forget what brand truck you're in. Instead of the big 8.4" screen, this tester was fitted with the one-step down UConnect package consisting of a 5" touchscreen with integrated Bluetooth and voice command. A smaller LED screen sits between the speedometer and RPM gauge gives a variety of vehicle information. One curiosity is the electronic rotary gear selector placed just under and to the right of the steering wheel. In such a large vehicle that's meant to work, operating the selector feels rather dainty. P, R, N, D are your choices with manual gear selection available by using buttons mounted on the steering wheel. Shift paddles would be a better choice but in operation, I imagine an owner would only use these buttons when towing something.

Speaking of towing, this truck is certainly equipped for the job. The 5.7L HEMI V8 rumbles to life on startup, scaring a some squirrels a few times. With 390hp and 407lb-ft of torque, the roughly 5700lb Ram feels surprisingly light on its feet and power is but a throttle tap away. Doling out the power is a ZF eight-speed automatic which, when compared to the five speed unit attached to essentially the same engine in a Chrysler 300C I tested a few years ago, feels much quicker in response to throttle inputs and was vastly smoother in operation. The ride was also much better and less busy than a 2014 Chevy Silverado I drove briefly a few months ago. Credit Chrysler for turning the truck world on its head and fitting the Ram's rear suspension with coils rather than traditional leaf springs. Though still sporting a solid rear axle, coil springs give a vastly improved ride and better wheel control than leaf springs and Chrysler engineers managed to preserve the Ram's load carrying capability, now rated at 10,490lbs. Pretty much equal to what Ford and Chevy boast. As an option, the Ram can even be fitted with an air suspension but this was absent on my tester. Still I was pleasantly surprised at the truck's demeanor on the road. You don't forget that you're driving something big and heavy but at the same time, controlling it is easy. It's not hard to get into a comfortable driving position and the doing so gives you a clear view of the corners of the big hood, though you're always conscious of blind spots. Backing up would be easier is a rear-view camera was standard but as this was also absent, I had to proceed with caution. You can easily lose a compact car behind the tailgate if you're not careful.

The 390hp beast under the hood

No leaf springs here buddy

These dual bazookas give voice to the HEMI

On the highway, the Ram was relaxed and offered ample stability. Loafing along at 1400 rpm, I managed to get a constant 21 mpg on the instant fuel economy readout, the HEMI softly rumbling in the background. The 8 speed automatic certainly helps along with V8's standard cylinder deactivation system which shuts down four of the eight cylinders under light loads. The Ram would make an excellent road trip vehicle. In urban settings however, this 19 ft vehicle is a chore. A huge turning circle and a 140" wheelbase does not lead to a maneuverable machine. Not to mention running some in-city errands quickly dropped my fuel economy to around 12 mpg. Well, that an hearing the HEMI roar under full throttle is intoxicating, if not economical. (Yes, I have a heavy right foot). Despite, this in mixed driving over the course of a week, I managed to get 16 mpg. Not bad for a heavy, V8, four door truck. Sure the EPA rates this vehicle at 15 city/22 highway, but in the real world you'll probably get worse, especially if you use the Ram for its intended purpose.

At the end of the week, I asked myself if I could really live with this truck. Yes, I did have dreams of owning a boat one day and towing with a HEMI-powered truck to the docks. But honestly, this was a smidge too much truck for me. The 26 gallon fuel tank certainly helps to make fillups infrequent but still pricey and if your trips don't involve lots of highway travel and towing you're probably better with the standard Pentastar 3.6L V6. Sure it's no HEMI and it screams more than it rumbles, but rated at just over 300hp, it'll do 80% of what the uplevel V8 can. Plus it will get much better fuel economy doing so. In my week with the 2016 Ram 1500, while I enjoyed driving it, I also felt like I was doing it a disservice. This truck wants to work and my daily errands didn't offer much opportunity to really test the strength of this vehicle. That said, if you can afford the cost of driving it, it'll certainly do it's job well. And towing or hauling doesn't comprise much of your day it's all good. Just hearing that 390hp monster under hood will bring a smile to your face everyday. Hell, I'm still smiling.

As of this writing, the search for a new vehicle is still ongoing. In the meantime, I've got another vehicle reviewing and I hope to complete the search pretty soon. Thanks to Omar at Enterprise!

Friday, March 25, 2016

Long Term Update - Death of The Steed

In happier times

There comes a time in everyone's life when a car comes along. It doesn't matter if you're a lover of automobiles or if you see cars as just an object to fill transportation needs. Doesn't matter if it's your first car, or your fourth. There's a slight feeling of anxiety when you leave it in the shop for repairs, or  (heaven forbid) you lend it to a friend for use. Just driving from A to B is an experience that no other car can provide. That sense of fellowship, of oneness, of knowing that this isn't any ordinary car. This is your car. Your baby.

Car enthusiasts are a peculiar lot. We speak of our cars as if they are living, breathing organisms. Sentient beings that seem to communicate on a level that only their owners can understand. When something is amiss, the owner can instantly tell. "The steering doesn't feel quite right," an owner would say, his front seat passenger looking on with puzzled eyes. "She's not pulling away like she usually does." Later on, he parks in the garage and an open-hood, on-the-lift session commences. Sure enough after some poking and prodding he finds the culprit: a small, hole in one of the vacuum lines. To other drivers, this wouldn't be noticeable, but to a car enthusiast in tune with his vehicle, every unknown nuance is mentally noted.


This is a long-winded way of me saying that, as of March 24, 2016, my pride and joy, my baby, my 2006 Mazda 6s, affectionately known as the STEED, is no more. While stopped in traffic, a distracted driver speared into the back of the car, sending it into the rear of the car in front. Two huge impacts which left the STEED in a slightly accordion-ed state. Luckily she was still able to start up, despite a heavy coolant and oil leak, and move to an open lot where the emergency services did their thing. Surveying the severe damage, I anticipated my insurance deeming my baby a total loss and, a few days later that was exactly the result.

I had refinanced the loan to pay for my flight instructor course and had just over a year left, after which, I planned to keep her around till the wheels fell off. During the last 20k miles (she was at 137k at the time of the accident), I was mulling replacing her after the lien had run its course. However, I became so involved in her maintenance, doing everything myself, that I felt a sense of ownership with her. Other than some HID headlights installed a few years ago, I elected to keep her stock. No fancy wheels (though I did consider some nice 19" RX8 wheels), no suspension alterations, no engine upgrades, no kajillion-watt sound system or body kits. She was elegant enough in her black paint and tinted (legal) windows. The slight paint defects and chips only added to her character. Perhaps the crowning jewel in my affection was that she was a rarity: how many four door sedans today can you buy with a V6/stick shift combo? Maybe a few BMWs, the old Infiniti G37 (before it became the Q50) but that's it. Even then, you're talking upwards of $40k brand new. No one buys a manual transmission anymore. Not even the used car market is rife with may options. Sure you can find the odd 4 cylinder/stick shift combo in some compact/sub compact offerings, but in the mid-sized category? Fuggedaboutit.

Mazda did an excellent job in designing the first generation 6. Even today, the styling still looks sleek and purposeful despite the lack of detailing in the sheet metal compared to current mid-sized designs. Low on power compared to current engines, 215hp was plenty when I had a manual transmission to play with. Driven in anger, the 6 was alert, playful, composed and a joy to drive when twisty roads presented themselves. Freeway ramps were huge fun, the steering communicating just how much grip was left as I approached the adhesion limit of the tires. Once understeer showed itself, backing off the throttle tucks the nose back towards the corner. Mulling along in a typical commute, I could easily average around 27mpg on the highway, once I kept it at 70mph or below. While refinement wasn't a strong point compared to even its competitors of the day, the 6 was still enjoyable and comfortable enough on long freeway trips. Carrying loads? A breeze. I baffled many when they saw I didn't need a truck to transport my music equipment. It all fit in the 6.

I shall miss her. For now though, the search is on for another vehicle, though there will never be another like her. In this day and age when tiny turbocharged engines are starting to replace the V6 and manual transmissions struggle to find a place in even sport cars, pickings are slim. Credit to Mazda for sticking to its guns and keeping the manual transmission alive, although even they have shunned the V6 (see the new CX-9, its V6 jettisoned in favor of a turbocharged 4 cylinder). As it stands, Mazda is leading in the poll to be the next car although I may have to put my V6/manual dreams to bed. The Ford Focus is also under consideration (an ST would be perfect if the price is right) as well as the Mazda 3 (tight backseat not withstanding) and 2008-2013 Mazda 6. A hard price cap is in place so we'll see what the next week brings. I'll update once a decision is made.

In the meantime, I'm trundling around in a rented 2016 RAM 1500 Big Horn pickup. Call it instant gratification, but I feel like a big rig driver whenever I haul myself aboard. And the sound that 5.7L HEMI makes on startup is glorious, which sounds even more so when I bury the gas pedal. Of course the downside to all this is fuel economy that averages in the low teens. Currently I average anywhere from 14.5-16.1 mpg but only because I'm doing my best egg-between-my-foot-and-gas-pedal impression. Stay tuned for the full review to come soon.

If you're not a car enthusiast, I don't expect you to understand. As a matter of fact, I can see you raising your eyebrow in whimsical fashion after reading all of this. But that's ok. Keep driving your vanilla flavored Corollas in indifference to what us car guys know. There will always be THAT car.

Take a look back at the STEED's history here, here and here.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Short Take - 2017 Jaguar XE-S

Do you remember the X-Type? That supposedly premium clone of the European Ford Mondeo that Jaguar tried to market as a BMW 3 Series competitor? Yeah, no one really does either and Jaguar would prefer to keep it that way. Now with Tata Motors as its parent company (and one that is willing to spend the necessary cash without the look-over-your-shoulder mentality of previous suitor, Ford), Jaguar has decided to lob a second, more proper dart at the bulls-eye that is the BMW 3 Series and, dare I say, they might've succeeded.

At the Jaguar Audition event, I was introduced to the new 2017 XE, a car Jaguar will use to anchor its lineup at the more affordable end, giving the mid-sized XF some much needed breathing room to do battle with 5 Series/A6/CTS/E-Class. Gone is the jellybean, doughboy style of the X-Type, the XE adopting the look of the larger XJ and XF with sprinkled cues from the F-Type sports car. Walking in to the main hall, the entire lineup (including the new F-Pace crossover of which an intro review is upcoming) was presented and taking all cars into account, the familial styling is instantly recognized. To say the XE is as beautiful as the F-Type would be a stretch. After all, we are talking about a three-box shape on to which Jaguar chief designer, Ian Callum, has to make the XE stand out in a sea of BMW 3 Series, Audi A4s and Mercedes C Class sedans. However, with the previous XF as proof of his master craft, I'd say he pulled it off. The sheet metal is drawn taut over the aluminum-intensive chassis and features clean lines, leaving any sort of intricate detailing to its more expensive brothers. However, cues such as the rectangular grille and tail lights inspired by the F-Type and J-blade LED running lamps inset into sinister headlights give the car XE its own Jaguar look.

As before, the all new, modular platform makes extensive use of aluminum to cut down body weight, although on the scales, it doesn't really show. Weighing some 3700 lbs, the XE is right up there next to the 3 Series. As a matter of fact, the XE's dimensions closely mirror that of Bavaria's finest, coming within an inch or two in length, width and wheelbase. Under the hood, however, is where the differences end. While the 3 Series, specifically the 340i, employs a silky turbocharged inline six cylinder, the XE shares the supercharged 3.0L V6 from the F-Type. In my XE-S example, the V6 stomps out 340 hp and 332lb-ft of torque through either the rear wheels or optional all-wheel-drive (coming later in the model year). Looking at the engine, I was amazed at how large and long it was. Then I remembered its 90 degree cylinder spacing is the same as that of the larger 5.0L V8 in Jaguar's uplevel sedans. As a result, in order to cut costs, Jaguar made both engines to use the same engine mounts. While most other luxury compacts have migrated to front struts and simple multilink rear suspensions, Jaguar went its own way and developed a double wishbone front suspension with integral links anchoring the rear. The result is a car with a ride/handling balance that many, more expensive cars struggle to approach.

Inside, the XE presents a simple, clean layout of all controls and a premium-feeling cabin. You won't find the larger XF's robot air vents doing there dance whenever the vehicle is powered up or down. However, the gear shift continues to be a rotary unit which rises from the center console when you start the XE. Gimmicky at first but forgettable after a few uses. I didn't play with the infotainment screen much but I can report that the unit is clear and legible, responding quickly to inputs. I'd much rather have dedicated, hard controls for simple functions as radio tuning or volume control but steering wheel controls make that largely a non issue. Sitting in the backseat, there was enough space to get comfortable and not feel cramped. It may not be a full sized car, but it's less cramped than say, a Cadillac ATS backseat. The leather front seats though are gorgeous and what they lack in bolstering for track use, they make up in support and comfort. The cabin overall feels very airy and open thanks to the low cowl and huge sunroof.

Pressing the glowing start button, my ears were met with the howl of the big 3.0L (bigger in size than the one in my Mazda 6). One thing Jaguar engineers know how to do is tune a car's exhaust and intake noise and if the F-Type is any indication, they've done magic in the XE. Turning the rotary shifter to D, we roll out of the parking lot along Opa-Locka airport's B-roads in Eco, one of the four settings that changes the car's mood according to the driver's wishes. In this mode, the XE's throttle response is dumbed down, the exhaust goes silent and the ZF 8-speed transmission falls in love with the upper two gears. Approaching an empty stretch of arrow-straight road, I switched the transmission one notch over to S and instantly, the XE felt racier. The display between the speedometer and RPM dial turned red, now displaying the current gear, the exhaust baffles opened up to create that characteristic (some might say obnoxious) engine bark that Jaguar vehicles of recent are known for and the steering effort increased and stiffened considerably. Flooring the accelerator, the XE dropped from loafing in 8th gear down to 4th and surged ahead, the exhaust doing its best impression of a NASCAR racer. Within a few seconds, we had left 40 mph in the dust and were now cresting 75 mph. Seeing an intersection rapidly approaching, I lifted off the gas and simultaneously engaged the steering wheel-mounted paddles. The ZF transmission responded smartly to my commands, all the while my ears were treated to the aural pleasure of the exhaust popping and crackling. This supercharged V6 may not have the smooth, turbine sound of BMW's straight six motors, but it definitely trumps them in terms of exhaust tuning. I must say, through all the ruckus of the road drive, Jaguar did an excellent job in nearly silencing the characteristic whine of the supercharger. It's only heard in the very upper reaches of the RPM range and I struggled to hear it during normal driving.

Jaguar's intention for the XE is to anchor its lineup at the affordable end of the market: allowing the driver a sports sedan while still being civil enough to take the mother-in-law out to dinner. In this role, the XE is a pleasure to drive. While the ride is firmer than most, it isn't punishing. The structure is vault-like in feel and the suspension only allows the worst road imperfection to filter through to the occupants. Even then, you'll know you hit a pothole by hearing a "thump-thump" as opposed to feeling it through your rear end. Back at the airport, I was given the opportunity to put an XE-S through its paces at small autocross course. First would be a flat-out speed run, followed by a hard stomp on the brakes for a long sweeping left turn. That left turn would suddenly become a sharp 60-80 degree left, then an acceleration run up to a series of quick right-left-right corners followed by another hard braking section. Once given the signal, I floored the gas and the XE jumped off the line, the transmission smoothly selecting gears before abruptly jumping off the gas and on to the brakes. Those binders bit hard and the XE quickly shed speed for the upcoming corner, the transmission smartly anticipating the corner and downshifting to the proper gear. Steering feel was excellent and about mid turn, I was able to get the tail out slightly to help rotate the car. Yup, there's definitely a hit of F-Type in the way the tail-happy way the XE attacked corners. However, the slide was manageable and easily controlled. Through the tight, twisty section of the course and under acceleration, the XE never lost its poise, deftly threading the turns with just enough throttle steer to keep the nose pointed in the right direction before coming to the end of the course. The last car I had driven in anger this way was a 2015 BMW 320d and it was uncanny how similar the XE felt. While yes, the BMW was diesel powered and would've been trounced by the XE in a straight line, the sporty goodness was certainly there, although I'd give the nod to the XE in terms of sheer all around enjoyment. The steering feel was better in the XE and while the BMW had a very slight tendency to float before taking a set, the XE was more buttoned down and willing to rotate with very little body roll.

While the unloved X-Type was a very expensive lesson, the 2017 XE proves that Jaguar is a keen learner. The only way to take on the established set is to have a premium compact, luxury sedan of your own and build it from the ground up rather than using the metaphorical method of trying ti turn a goose into a swan. Here, I think Jaguar has hit the target squarely. It also helps that, in its chase for more sales and volume, BMW has dulled the 3 Series to appeal to more buyers, making its perch very unstable. While the 3.0L V6 is a very good engine, it also inherits some of the thirstiness exhibited by its larger V8 brother. For buyers sensitive about fuel economy, Jaguar will introduce a new line of four cylinder engines dubbed 'Ingenium'. A 2.0L four cylinder in the 240hp range will be the base model, followed by a diesel engine based on the 2.0L four. To tackle the likes of M, AMG and Quattro GmbH, you can be almost certain of an XE-R/RS/SVR model to follow a few years later. With some $3 billion dollars spent on its development, the XE needs to not just bring the fight to BMW and the other German rivals (not to mention the very good Cadillac ATS), but be a great vehicle in its own right. Jaguar has a lot riding on this platform, what with the XF sedan and F-Pace crossover following up. In this blogger's mind, the 2017 Jaguar XE could perhaps be the new king of the hill. Your move, BMW.

Special thanks to Jaguar for the invite and making this review possible. I tried out for a commercial featuring the new Jaguar XE and the video can be viewed here. I make no bones of being an actor but hey, it was fun!