Friday, October 7, 2016

Becoming One With The BMW M2 – A Transcendental Exercise

Time behind the wheel of the 2016 BMW M2 is transformational. You can review a car by the numbers or you can review a car by the seat of your pants. For me to tell you that the M2 produces 365 horsepower and 343 pound-feet of torque becomes a tedious exercise in trying to prove something that only has meaning when it's experienced first hand.
After all, a Ford Mustang GT makes 435 horsepower, and a Dodge Challenger Hellcat is beastly powerful with 707 horsepower, but neither make me feel the same exhilaration I have felt the past week every time I've been at the wheel of the M2. This is a car that flirts with nirvana.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

2017 Subaru Outback Creates Enduring Impression

The 2017 Subaru Outback lends lots of credence to the maxim that first impressions are lasting impressions. The substantial click-swoosh on first opening the driver’s-side door, the easy ingress onto a comfortable, firm leather seat, and the plush, soft-touch surfaces all around proved to be markers for a rewarding five-day test-driving experience.

The 2017 Outback 2.5i Limited never gave me reason to think I had merely been overcome by the rush of new-car scented air.

New Englanders are no strangers to the Subaru Outback. Consistently among the top-selling vehicles in this part of the country, this 5-passenger midsize wagon thrives in all seasons, showing the kind of pluck we’d like to think is our birthright. On the surface, though, the Outback is not a car that quickens one’s pulse as a spiffy sports car might.

I’m sure that’s not what I expected either, as I pressed the push-button starter for the 4-cylinder Boxer engine and prepped for my daily trek from Acton down Route 2 to Interstate 95 and eventually home. Surprisingly, I felt a bit relieved. My somewhat worn, end-of-day concentration made easy sense of the array of vehicle systems before me.

Judiciously laid out, it was without a cavalcade of buttons running down the console from the voice-activated 7-inch touch screen multimedia system with optional navigation to the dual-zone climate control. The Outback Limited demanded little but simple intuition to connect my Bluetooth enabled phone, tune the radio, and set the air conditioning. Later, when I needed to dive into the inner workings of either the navigation system or vehicle settings, the multi-touch display served up the necessary menus logically and quickly.

The entry-level Outback 2.5i receives a smaller 6.2-inch touch screen display while a new-for-2017 flagship Touring trim includes navigation as standard.
Notwithstanding the setting sun behind me causing occasional glare on the LCD display that made it difficult to view, I settled into the drive home with a feeling of confidence inspired by the commanding ride height and expansive view all around the vehicle. The 175 horsepower 2.5-liter engine provided sufficient thrust to prevent any sense of straining to get up to speed or to pass other vehicles. The continuously variable transmission delivered none of the racket often associated with this type of powertrain. Meanwhile, paddle shifters mounted on the steering wheel offered a pleasant alternative when a little more driving engagement was desired, allowing manual shifting through six pre-set gear ratios.

Output jumps to 256 horsepower when equipped with the 3.6-liter 6-cylinder Boxer engine available on Limited and Touring trims.

It doesn’t take long to appreciate the poise of this vehicle. With its raised four-wheel independent suspension, symmetrical all-wheel-drive, and electric power-assisted rack and pinion steering, the Outback Limited seems to glide down the highway in a way that defies its price point.

Take it on a longer trip, as I did, going to the Cape Cod National Seashore and Provincetown, and the benefits of its many available safety systems prove indispensible for making the day’s driving more stress-free.

Subaru’s award-winning EyeSight® Driver Assist Technology, optional on Premium and Limited trims and standard on the Touring, is the centerpiece, providing conveniences such as adaptive cruise control, pre-collision braking, lane departure warning, and lane keep assist functions. With cruise control, the camera-based technology monitors the speed of forward traffic. When traffic slows it will reduce vehicle speed to match that of the vehicle ahead, resuming set speed when passing or when traffic speeds up. The system performed flawlessly all along the crowded Mid-Cape Highway.

At one point, in stop-and-go traffic, an EyeSight® alert popped up in the display telling me that the car in front of me had moved, an indication that I should move forward, too. It is a much preferred way to get my attention than having the driver behind me blast the horn.

Standard on the Limited and Touring and optional on the Premium is blind spot detection with rear cross traffic alert. As careful as I’d like to think I am as a driver, these systems gave me eyes behind my head, whether it was seeing an approaching vehicle that I missed or detecting a bicyclist zipping across the parking lot out of my field of view. I avoided accident scenarios like these more than once in the busy National Seashore parking lot and in the crowded Provincetown public parking lot. The high resolution, wide-angle rearview camera that’s standard equipment was mightily helpful, too. Fortunately, it never came to deploying the new reverse automatic braking.

You always run the risk of getting stuck in Cape Cod traffic, especially on Labor Day weekend. An extra half-hour averaging 10 miles-per-hour might not only be exasperating but can get expensive if the vehicle isn’t very fuel efficient. Fortunately, I didn’t suffer on that account in the Outback. Even with two extended episodes of bumper-to-bumper traffic, on the way in and on the way out, the Outback rewarded me with a combined average fuel economy of 28.2 miles per gallon. That’s right in line with the EPA rating for this vehicle.
There are many ways to leave lasting impressions. A key utilitarian feature that I didn’t have a need to use during my test of the Outback was the step-style doorsills. Not only do they make it easier to access the roof rails, retractable crossbars, and tie-downs, they also are a lot safer. Then there are the 73.3 cubic feet of available cargo space and the removable, washable cargo area tray that speak loudly to the car’s versatility. Finally, there are the heated front AND rear seats—surely proof that the 2017 Subaru Outback 2.5i Limited is a family-friendly, all-weather warrior ready to impress New Englanders.
This review first appeared in the Boston Globe, Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Thrill of Compromise in the Alfa Romeo 4C Spider

All the excitement of driving the 2016 Alfa Romeo 4C Spider can be addictive up until you take it for a weekend retreat that's more than 90 minutes away. Then you'll be second-guessing its practicality.

This is a magnificent vehicle that belongs on a road course track, not on a crowded freeway and certainly not in your driveway for the neighbors to gossip about your finances while ogling its curvaceousness.

Despite the 4C Spider’s primitive intentions, you'll get no complaints from its 237 horsepower 1.7 liter turbocharged engine as it launches you from zero to 60 in something like 4 seconds, and you'll quickly find that manual paddle shifting is actually the way a car like this was meant to be driven, even if the hardcore among us would prefer a foot-operated clutch instead of the one electronically controlled by the 6-speed automated-manual transmission.

Don't look for comforts, either, notwithstanding the Alpine audio system. This is a car where you need to contort yourself not only to get into either of the two seats, but also every time you want to grab your beverage from the cupholder that's just behind your shoulder.

Are the compromises worth it? Absolutely. There are more thrills to be had from the 4C Spider than what might be considered legal. Just engage dynamic mode, set manual drive and stomp on the accelerator. Hyperventilating is not covered under the four-year, 50,000-mile warranty.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Zipping, Zooming & EZ Parking with MINI Cooper

There’s one description for the MINI Cooper Hardtop that you won’t hear me using anymore – “It’s cute!” 
After doing lots of zipping – and the occasional zooming – around in a spiffed-up version of the four-seat coupe for a good part of a week, I can absolutely conclude that “cute” does not do this charmingly adept bit of refined automotive engineering any justice. And justice IS what it deserves after being saddled with such a chic, trendy, bountifully adorable image.
From the moment I engaged the 2014 model year test car’s 6-speed automatic transmission, wound my way through the office parking lot and accelerated onto Route 2A, I could feel a transformation of consciousness. This was not merely the darling little, go-kart-like runabout I was led to believe, and the kind of fun I was about to have would have little to do with the cheery smiles I’d get in the supermarket parking lot. This car has some serious on-road skills.
It takes very little time behind the wheel to recognize that the MINI Cooper Hardtop is extremely responsive to driver input. As effortless as it is to turn the steering wheel, it still feels like something you’re directing and not some remote mechanical/electrical activity. Why is that good? Two words: confidence and control.
The twisty roads through Concord by Walden Pond never gave me reason to feel the car might get away from me. If I wanted to go tightly through a turn, the car obliged precisely and willingly. And when it came time to ramp it up onto Interstate 95, the turbocharged 1.5-liter 3-cylinder engine provided plenty of thrust, offering 134 horsepower and 162 pound-feet of torque. That may not sound like much, but given the car’s small dimensions and consequent 2675-pound low weight, the MINI Cooper Hardtop as tested can accelerate to 60 miles-per-hour in about 7.3 seconds (the uprated Cooper S is even better at 6.4 seconds with its turbo 2-liter engine).
Surprisingly, I never felt threatened by the multitude of semi-trailers, heavy duty pickups and bulky SUVs that shared the highway. Despite its size, the MINI Hardtop inspired more confidence among these giants of the road than I felt in either the Fiat 500 or the Volkswagen Beetle, as much as I enjoyed those rivals for their own merits.
But perhaps one of the most unexpected realizations about the MINI Hardtop is how much of a city car it can be. There’s lots to be said about the practicality of having a small car if you live in the city. But small is really not enough if it means sacrificing style, comfort and drivability for the sake of a blip in fuel efficiency and being able to squeeze into a tight parking spot. The MINI Hardtop has it both ways.
A Speedwell Blue plaid pattern
embellishes the floor mats and door sills.
There are millions of ways to factory customize the MINI Cooper Hardtop – it’s one of the brand’s hallmarks. The tested model was decked out in a Speedwell Blue plaid pattern embellishing the side mirrors, door scuttles, floor mats, door sills and removable sunscreens for the rear windows. It also came with several optional packages including a $1500 Sport Package with LED headlights, 17-inch wheels and sport seats, a $1750 Premium Package with a panoramic sunroof, automatic climate control and a harman/kardon® premium sound system, and a $600 Cold Weather Package that includes heated front seats.
For urban New England drivers, the Cold Weather Package might be the only necessity from that list but there is one additional option that will prove itself invaluable wherever finding city street parking is most challenging.
Park Assistant may seem like a novelty at first glance, and spending $1000 for the package after everything else may stress some budgets. But, even if only for sparing the annoyance of figuring out if a parallel parking space is big enough for the car, this option is a worthy time saver. It does more, though. After sizing up a potential parking spot and determining it’s big enough, the system takes over and steers the car into it. This is definitely a value-added feature for anyone who lives or works in the city.
Altogether, the extras on the test car (including Park Assistant) boosted the base MSRP from $19,950 to $33,095 (the 2015 Mini Cooper Hardtop gets a $750 bump up in base price but is essentially unchanged except for some minor shuffling of feature content).
Complaints were few to be found. Most notably, the headlight beam has a purplish/blue halo that can be an occasional distraction, and the mouse-like console controller for the MINI Connected infotainment system is awkwardly placed, being especially difficult to use comfortably when the center armrest is in position. But the system itself is quite sophisticated and generally easy to navigate, making short-work of connecting a Bluetooth® enabled smartphone.
Sport mode engaged.
Government fuel efficiency ratings put the MINI Cooper Hardtop in the sweet spot for gasoline-powered subcompacts, giving the current model a 40 highway/ 29 city rating when equipped with the standard 6-speed manual transmission. The test car earned a rating of 39 highway/ 28 city, but real-life achievements will surely be affected by how often the driver switches from normal Mid driving mode to either the Sport or the Green modes. Each mode automatically adjusts settings for engine, steering and transmission adding another dimension to the fun (I’m saving cute for the puppies) experience.

This story first appeared in the Boston Sunday Globe, Nov. 2, 2014.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

2015 Chrysler 200 Sets New Benchmarks

WHAT’S NEW: For 2015, the Chrysler 200 is completely redesigned and now offered as a 5-passenger sedan only.

Call it casual elegance or affordable luxury, but either way, the 2015 Chrysler 200 steps up the mid-size sedan driving experience with a whole new set of benchmarks that showcase the brand’s updated design language and state-of-the-art technology. Trims include the base LX, uprated Limited, sporty 200S and premium 200C.

The graceful new exterior styling is highlighted by integrated grille and headlight elements, creating a fluid look that extends along the sides. Standard equipment includes fully automatic projector beam halogen headlights, power side mirrors and LED taillights. The 200S model replaces the standard chrome trim with gloss black and adds integrated dual exhausts.

Rotary Shift Dial and Uconnect 8.4-inch Touchscreen
The well-crafted interior features a low-profile state-of-the-art electronic rotary shift dial enabling a unique pass-through storage space beneath. For driver convenience, the standard tilt/telescoping steering wheel incorporates audio and cruise controls. Tech savvy options include a 7-inch LED instrument cluster display that provides important vehicle information such as speed and real-time fuel economy, and the Uconnect 8.4-inch touchscreen multimedia command center with hands-free voice command and smartphone app integration.

Engine choices start with a 184 horsepower 2.4-liter inline-four. Optional on the 200S and 200C is a 295 horsepower 3.6-liter V6. Both engines are mated to an all-new 9-speed automatic transmission. Front wheel drive is standard, while V6 equipped models can be equipped with all-wheel-drive. An optional sport mode with paddle shifters provides a more spirited driving experience.

Here are the highest and lowest estimates for fuel economy:
Highest: 23 City / 36 Highway (2.4L)
Lowest: 18 City / 29 Highway (3.6L, AWD)

Standard safety features on the 2015 200 include an electronic park brake with SafeHold, which secures the vehicle if the driver opens the door and unlatches the seat belt while in gear. Optional ParkSense Parallel/Perpendicular Park Assist guides the driver into parking spaces.

The 200 is backed by a 3-year, 36,000-mile basic warranty and a 5-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty.

Offering a premium-level motoring experience in a value-packed mid-size sedan, the all-new 2015 Chrysler 200 sets a new standard for affordable elegance.

2015 Chrysler 200 Mid-Size Sedan
  • Completely Redesigned For 2015
  • Fully Automatic Projector Beam Halogen Headlights, Power Side Mirrors, LED Taillights; 200S: Gloss Black Trim, Integrated Dual Exhausts
  • Electronic Rotary Shift Dial, Pass-Through Storage Space, Tilt / Telescoping Steering Wheel w/ Audio & Cruise Controls; Optional: 7-inch LED Instrument Cluster Display, Uconnect 8.4-inch Touchscreen Multimedia Command Center
  • 2.4L I-4, 184-hp, 173 lb-ft of torque (9-AUTO, FWD)
    3.6L V6, 295-hp, 262 lb-ft of torque (9-AUTO, FWD / AWD)
  • Electronic Park Brake w/ SafeHold; Optional: ParkSense Parallel / Perpendicular Park Assist
  • Basic: 3 Years / 36,000 Miles; Powertrain: 5 Years / 100,000 Miles
  • Well-Crafted, Affordable, Elegant

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Will Changing Times Change The Auto Industry?

We’ve come a long way in a short 100 years with the automobile. Out of the minds of a few lone inventors and a handful of small bicycle shops and carriage manufacturers, emerged an automobile industry that has developed into a powerhouse of production and employment whose survival now seems inexorably linked to the success of world economies.
But as the big players in this industry stumble in the current mess of financial woes, one wonders if the playing field could fast be redefined by smaller start-up companies.
If so, will these new players need to make a gigantic leap across the entire last century of industrial growth in one jump? Or, will they be something that functions completely different?
Will Detroit’s automakers need to redefine their manufacturing model? Can corporations so massively industrialized become agile enough to rapidly alter production in the face of sudden changes in demand?
Each year, automakers offer consumers improvements and new features in their product lines. The evolution of the automobile into today’s lineup of vehicles has shown remarkable progress in safety, performance, function and durability.
But there’s a difference between what’s new and what’s really new. A new feature does not fundamentally change the concept of a vehicle; a new model doesn’t necessarily mean a totally new automotive entity. A new design is not a new way of bringing cars to market.
When Honda introduced North America to its first production gasoline/electric hybrid vehicle, the Insight, a decade ago, that was something really new. In both design and means of propulsion, the Insight defied convention. Toyota wasted no time in bringing out its hybrid, the Prius, soon afterwards.
The original two-seater Insight was in production until 2006 and is making its way back to market this April as a 2010 five-passenger model. Meanwhile, Toyota has launched a redesigned Prius that is bigger and more powerful.
American automakers were slow to respond to the hybrid challenge and have been playing catch-up since. At times, there were indications that they might not even embrace the technology at all.
Times have changed.
Ford tiptoed into the hybrid market (the first domestic automaker to do so) with a version of the 2006 Escape SUV. Now, it is set to go gangbusters with the Fusion Hybrid – a more mainstream type of automobile that will be in showrooms this spring. Looks like Ford wants a share of the Toyota Camry Hybrid market.
Bob Bancroft, owner of Ashley Ford in New Bedford, Massachusetts described the new Fusion Hybrid as the highest mileage hybrid made in America - chalking up a mileage rating of 41 mpg.
High-mileage is the new mantra.
“Ford’s CEO (Alan Mulally) has made a promise that every vehicle will get better fuel economy than the vehicle it replaces,” noted Mr. Bancroft. “That’s the big story.”
Good news for sure. Ford is showing good effort to change the perception that big automakers are not making the cars people want.
But big automakers worldwide may soon find their foundations being rattled by an innovative start-up company, Local Motors, located in Wareham, Massachusetts. The company describes itself as “the first disruptive entrant in the US automotive industry in decades.”
Local Motors is not looking to mass produce vehicles. If they can build 2,000 vehicles per year at each of eventually 25 locations, that would please company founder Jay Rogers. It will be proof that their idea of “challenging the paradigm of highly centralized manufacturing, embattled dealerships and dispersed service locations,” is the way to go.
Ultimately, it could change the way consumers buy (and think about buying) their vehicles.
“The world changes faster than we develop cars,” observed Mr. Rogers. “It doesn’t need to be that way.”
He expects to turn heads by demonstrating that there is a different and faster way to get the cars people actually want out to market than the way it is currently being done.
But comparing Local Motors to the small manufacturers at the dawn of the auto age is hardly accurate according to Mr. Rogers. There’s a lot of automotive infrastructure that’s developed and capable of producing high quality, off-the-shelf parts and supplies most of which is now going to non-OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) purchasers. This is what Local Motors plans to tap into instead of manufacturing automotive parts themselves.
“You can stand on the shoulders of product development,” explained Mr. Rogers.
Easy access to everything from engines to brakes is an advantage previous start-ups like the ill-fated DeLorean Motor Company did not have thirty years ago.
Aiming to produce lower-weight vehicles that are designed by an online consensus of car enthusiasts (a internet savvy technique called crowd-sourcing), built from off-the-shelf parts and marketed to specific geographic regions, Local Motors’ business model completely redefines the way cars get to market.
But how will selling 50,000 cars shake up the Detroit automotive establishment that looks at sales in the millions per year.
“We hope to be a tipping point,” said Mr. Rogers.
He’s not alone in that wish.
Dean Kamen, the inventive creator of the Segway personal transporter is busy developing an electric vehicle called the Revolt which utilizes his version of a type of external combustion engine called the Stirling (after Robert Stirling, its 19th century inventor) to provide an electrical assist to the vehicle’s batteries.
Even though Kamen’s DEKA Research & Development Corp. hopes to have a production version of the vehicle on the market in 2 years, his goal may be less that of becoming an automaker and more of becoming the inventor that paves the way for other automakers to use the technology.
The Revolt design is based on the Ford Think which was cancelled in 2002. Ford sold its stock in the company and ultimately the Think brand wound up in Norway and today is producing electric cars for the European market.
Think describes its vehicles as, “emission free and three times as energy efficient as the cars used today.” The Think City model is designed to muster 62 mph with a range of 126 miles on a charge.
But Jim Lutz, president of Alden Buick Pontiac GMC Truck in Fairhaven, Massachusetts is not holding out hope that these new smaller companies will last.
“If you look at the history of startups, it’s dismally bad,” he observed. “Even craft businesses have gone by the wayside.”
For him, the car industry, in terms of its business sophistication, ranks just below the aircraft industry. Starting a car-making business from scratch may be just too formidable a challenge to succeed.
“The development costs are so high, they create such a barrier to entry,” he said.
But faced with the economic battering they are experiencing, the big automakers are taking their hour of despair and looking differently at how they do business.
“At GM, they’ve really put all their focus on the electric hybrid,” noted Mr. Lutz referencing the hulky new Yukon Hybrid.
Although the 20 city/20 highway mpg ratings show the vehicle to have improved fuel efficiency, the numbers themselves seem to come up short of startling. But Mr. Lutz put that into perspective given the size of the vehicle and what consumers could expect in this type of vehicle not so long ago.
“It’s a very interesting technological progression to get to mileage unthinkable 20 years ago,” he said. “This is starting to show the advantage of electric power.”
On both ends of the car making spectrum, at big and small companies, long-established businesses and fresh startups, everyone is using the word change in new hopeful tones. That’s good. A change in perspective is at the heart of innovation.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Lies Spin Hybrid Battery Undercurrent

I came across a quote the other day attributed to Mark Twain that goes something like this, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” It’s an apt description of what’s been dogging hybrid automobiles and keeping them marginalized.
I realized I needed to say something about this when my wife Susan came home the other day and asked me if it was true that hybrid automobile batteries needed to be replaced every two years at a cost of thousands of dollars.
Well, the simple answer to that question is NO.
This lie about hybrid batteries is a choice bit of misinformation put in motion by the spin doctors of the internal combustion gasoline engine lobby. They are hard at work undermining public confidence in hybrid technology.
Last winter, I first detected there was a bonafide effort afoot in some quarters of the auto industry to sideline the hybrid when a keynote speaker at the Northeast international auto show in Providence took pot shots at hybrid batteries and their disposal.
It was clear his words were meant to create doubts about the future of hybrid technology.
Looks like the spin is working when a humble consumer like my wife, who is considering a hybrid for her next automobile purchase, comes home with sudden second-thoughts.
Before I even address the “two year” part of the lie, consider this. At Toyota all hybrid-specific components on the Prius are guaranteed for at least 8 years or 100,000 miles.
Specifically, here’s what Toyota says: “Prius' hybrid-related components, including the HV battery, battery control module, hybrid control module and inverter with converter, are covered for 8 years/100,000 miles. The HV battery may have longer coverage under emissions warranty.”
You’ll find similar warranties with other hybrid manufacturers.
Regarding the alleged two year lifespan, that might apply if your driving you’re your car to death at the rate of over 50,000 miles a year. But even here there’s anecdotal evidence that a Vancouver taxi driver drove a Prius over 200,000 in 25 months and the batteries still held out strong.
But other than unusual driving like that, the average hybrid driver is likely to get well over seven years use from their batteries.
So much for the two year lie.
The batteries of a hybrid automobile system function a little differently than ordinary rechargeable batteries such as the ones in cell phones. Hybrid batteries never get fully charged or discharged. They operate in the 40 to 60 percent range of charge. This prolongs the useful life for this type of nickel-hydride battery.
In U.S. Department of Energy tests of hybrid batteries, it was determined that although the capacities of the batteries tested had diminished over time, their ability to absorb energy had not degraded even after 160,000 miles of use.
I realize that hybrid technology may not be the ultimate answer to our gas guzzling ways. It is at best a transitional technology. But it is a step in the right direction.
Consumers should be well advised not mislead. There’s a lot a stake both economically and with the environment. Lies are not the way forward.