Quick Spin: 2013 Honda Civic Hybrid

Filed under: Hybrid, Sedan, Honda, Quick Spins

2013 Honda Civic Hybrid

Even after Honda’s Great Emergency Refresh of 2013, it still takes a sharp eye to spot the visual differences between the 2013 Honda Civic and its 2012 counterpart. While annual styling changes used to be commonplace back in the 1950s and ’60s, this has become a much rarer practice in the industry due to the high costs of doing so, and sets the tone for just how important the Civic is in the Honda lineup.

One thing that hasn’t changed for the Civic is the wide selection of models available including the fuel-efficient HF, Natural Gas and Hybrid models. For this Quick Spin, I spent a week with the 2013 Civic Hybrid, which has always been a kind of un-Prius with its more-conventional sedan styling. The Civic’s top-mpg offering now finds itself under fire from newer rivals like the Chevy Cruze (Eco and Diesel) and VW Jetta (TDI and Hybrid). With the growing number of hybrids, diesels and high-fuel-economy gas models car buyers currently have at their disposal, if you’ve been clamoring for more fuel-efficient cars in recent years, now’s the time to be putting your money where your mouth is.

Driving Notes:

  • The only part of the 2013 Civic Hybrid that was left alone, was the one area it could have used a little modernization: Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist system. On the fuel economy front, sandwiching the 27-horsepower motor between the 110-hp 1.5-liter engine and the CVT returns EPA estimates of 44 miles per gallon for city and highway, which is far better than the mild-hybrid eAssist system used by General Motors but not as advanced as other hybrids in this segment. Unlike eAssist, Honda says that the motor can send power directly to the front wheels (but only during deceleration as a way to lessen the load on the engine), but unlike a more advanced hybrid, the Civic can’t accelerate under all-electric power. Honda stepped up its game with a new lithium-ion battery for 2012, but it needs to come up with an equally advanced answer for the rest of the system.
  • The advantage of IMA, though, is a less intrusive hybrid experience. Except for the stop-start system, the only way most drivers will really know this is a hybrid is by how much better it is at the pump. During my week with the car, I was pleasantly surprised at how the Civic never ‘felt’ like a hybrid but returned excellent fuel economy. Based on the in-cluster estimates I averaged just over 40 mpg on the highway, and in the city my numbers were consistently above the official 44-mpg rating.
  • Aside from the powertrain, Honda made numerous small improvements that paid off big time with the styling of the 2013 Civic sedan lineup. The exterior received new fascias, taillights and a modified decklid to give all sedan models a more mature appearance, and the Civic Hybrid probably comes off as the most stylish of the Civic models now with its grinning chrome grille, LED running lights and the clear-lens, light-pipe taillights.
  • Interior updates were equally subtle but make a huge difference in terms of comfort and style, such as the added padding to the door panels for added comfort, the reworked instrument panel with a cleaner, less awkward design and much better HVAC controls. Despite being a big step up from 2012, the 2013 Civic’s interior is still a step behind class leaders (in roominess and styling). All of these interior and exterior changes were most likely already in the product pipeline as a midcycle refresh, so it will be interesting to see how Honda updates this design in another couple years.
  • Starting at $24,360, the Civic Hybrid has about the same premium as most hybrids or diesels in this class, but my fully loaded tester with navigation and leather came out to $27,850. This is still a reasonable price for such a well-equipped car in this market, but for dedicated green-car enthusiasts, it might be a little too close to new plug-in or full-EV models to warrant the price.
  • Considering that a Civic Hybrid buyer could have just as easily bought a Civic Si, I’m not going to harp on the Hybrid too much, but the 110-hp engine and the equally buzz-killing CVT don’t make for an exciting car. Still, going back to the IMA, the true saving grace of this system is that it doesn’t add too much weight. At 2,879 pounds, the Civic Hybrid weighs almost the same as the non-hybrid Civic EX-L. In terms of braking, the weight saving means better performance along with pedal feel that is neither too spongy or frightening.
  • A new feature for 2013 is a lane departure warning system that uses a forward-mounted camera to sense the road lines and flash a bright warning on the upper screen if the car swerves out of its lane. Unfortunately, this camera takes up an unusually vast amount of windshield real estate, which was obvious as I was pulling out into traffic on more than one occasion.
  • When it comes to the idea of small, fuel-efficient cars, I’ve always been in the diesel camp, but I also enjoy taking long road trips. Those with regular city commutes should appreciate Civic Hybrid as much for what it brings to the table (excellent fuel economy) as for what it leaves behind (an overly flashy “I’m a hybrid” design). There is no doubt that this refresh has bought the Civic some time to keep pace with other compact cars, but I think that as much that has changed in this segment in the last few years, Honda isn’t going to have much breathing room in this segment until the next-gen Civic can get here.

2013 Honda Civic Hybrid originally appeared on Autoblog on Fri, 30 Aug 2013 12:03:00 EST. Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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Quick Spin: Infiniti Emerg-E Concept

Filed under: Concept Cars, Coupe, Hybrid, Infiniti, Quick Spins

The Infiniti Emerg-E is a two-place hybrid gasoline-electric concept that made its world debut at the 2012 Geneva Motor Show. While its sleek shape and stunning styling dropped jaws, those on the green side of things immediately recognized it as a reskinned and updated Lotus 414E – itself a concept based on the Evora that debuted at the same show only two years earlier. Yet there is little wrong with a reworked, Infiniti-badged Lotus boasting 402 horsepower and 738 pound-feet of torque, especially when it features a lightweight, all-aluminum bonded chassis beneath an attractive carbon fiber skin penned by the automaker’s Southern California design team.

The hybrid powertrain is all contained aft of the cockpit. Primary propulsion is accomplished with two electric motors, one on each rear wheel, both featuring its own single-speed transmission (this design eliminates the need for a differential and provides electronic torque vectoring control). Energy for the electric motors is stored in a 15-kWh lithium-ion battery placed behind the seats, which is chemically different from the lithium-polymer pack Lotus used in its 414E. Auxiliary propulsion comes from a Lotus-designed, all-aluminum, 1.2-liter three-cylinder gasoline engine, rated at 50 horsepower, that serves as a range-extender after the 30-mile life of the battery pack is extinguished. Teamed with an 8.1-gallon fuel tank, the combo allows the Emerg-E to cruise about 300 miles without stopping.

Offered the chance to take the Emerg-E for a quick loop around an autocross course in Southern California, I jumped at the opportunity.

Driving Notes

  • Climbing into the low-slung cockpit wasn’t overly difficult, but it did take a bit of maneuvering to clear the wide floor sills of this right-hand-drive test car. Once in place, there was decent room for my six-foot, two-inch frame, and I found the bucket racing seat comfortable. In addition to the aforementioned battery changes from the 414E and a fresh new skin, Infiniti has redesigned the cabin with a unique dashboard, instrument cluster, seats and steering wheel.
  • Despite all of the power on tap, driving the Emerg-E at low speeds was drama-free. There is no built-in creep, but a well-weighted accelerator pedal made crawling across the paddock in pure-EV mode effortless. Infiniti claims the 0-60 sprint is accomplished in 4.1 seconds, but my full-throttle launch felt a tick or two slower (the engineer sitting next to me warned that performance may be reduced as the battery was just about depleted). Other than the expected whir of the two motors, and the sound of gravel being thrown off the tires, all was silent for the first second. Then the combustion engine burst to life with a pleasing deep growl and boosted system power.
  • Braking was strong, as the Infiniti concept shares its four-piston monobloc calipers and drilled rotors with the production Evora and supplements it with a regenerative system. The pedal had a solid feel, and modulation was good. When lifting off the throttle, I didn’t note the strong drag often associated with aggressive regeneration – maybe I was concentrating too much on the first corner that was rapidly approaching.
  • Initial turn-in wasn’t as sharp as I had expected, about equal with the new C7 Corvette if a comparison is required, but the Emerg-E had no problem ripping around the tight circuit and navigating all of the cones. The center of gravity is impressively low, with most of the weight positioned slightly in front of the rear wheels, and I didn’t note any understeer through the slalom (the Pirelli P-Zero Corsa rubber gripped tenaciously). Thanks to abundant torque and instant throttle response, flinging the coupe around the old concrete runway was a pleasure. I’d prefer a little less overall weight, but I’ll take the powerful hybrid powertrain and chassis tuning just as it is – that’s a huge compliment to a concept car.
  • While the Emerg-E is an impressive little package, and the automaker has built a handful of prototypes, Infiniti has no plans to rush it into production. Consider its efficient technology nothing more than a test bed for future models as the automaker works towards introducing its first electric car.

Infiniti Emerg-E Concept originally appeared on Autoblog on Fri, 23 Aug 2013 11:57:00 EST. Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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Quick Spin: 2014 Porsche Panamera 4S Executive

Filed under: Performance, Hatchback, Porsche, Luxury, Quick Spins

2014 Porsche Panamera Executive

If the idea of a Porsche sedan (or, long hatchback) is still off-putting to you, then you might want to look away now. For 2014, the polarizing Panamera has received a midcycle refresh bringing slightly different styling, as well as adding two new models to the lineup, the S E-Hybrid and the stretched-wheelbase Executive. Having focused most of my recent trip to Germany on a First Drive of the intriguing plug-in Panamera, I also got to spend some time with the roomier Executive model.

Offered in both 4S and Turbo guise, the Panamera Executive has been stretched by almost six inches for the sole purpose of improving rear passenger space. Although it’s hard to imagine anyone would willingly buy a Porsche and opt to sit in the back seat, I’d have to say that if I’m going to be chauffeured around in a car, why not make it a Porsche? For the most part, though, I’m guessing that many Panamera Executive sedans will be owned by people who want to one-up their buddy driving a stretched BMW 7 Series or Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

Driving Notes:

  • Regardless of who is going to buy this car, it’s hard to argue with the amount of space and luxury afforded to rear-seat occupants on the Executive models. Whatever time I wasn’t behind the wheel, I spent sitting in the rear seat. Not that the standard Panamera rear seat is cramped, but there is plenty of room to stretch out in the Executive. Porsche has yet to release official figures for rear legroom or total passenger volume to give exact comparisons, but suffice it to say that the extra room in the Executive is noticeable. Both rear buckets recline and offer adjustable lumbar support, but the right side is the place to be since the front passenger seat can be controlled from the rear, and moved out of the way.
  • For optimal comfort, each rear seat has its own climate control zone (with individual controls for left and right passengers) and all four seats are heated and ventilated. A pair of small vanity mirrors were also added into the rear headliner as a finishing touch.
  • Porsche made plenty of styling changes to the Panamera for 2014, and while most are relatively minor, there’s no missing the six-inch wheelbase stretch. A lot of the car’s finer details look to have been inspired by the 2012 Sport Turismo Concept, but it all looks good, and the wheelbase stretch doesn’t look awkward. At the right angles, it’s even a little challenging to tell the Executive models apart from a standard-length Panamera.
  • The front quarters of the 2014 Panamera’s cabin have changed little. This means that the absurd amount of buttons and switches carry over from last year. However, the addition of some new technologies do make living with this stretched car a bit easier. The new Surround View option, for instance, gives a bird’s-eye view of the car when backing up but can also be changed using the touch screen to give six different views of the car using seven exterior cameras.
  • While the styling changes and the new models have grabbed most of the headlines, I was looking forward to driving the new 4S Executive more for its new engine. Replacing the previous 4.8-liter V8, S and 4S models are now powered by a twin-turbo 3.0-liter V6 putting out 420 horsepower and 384 pound-feet of torque – that’s 20 more hp and 25 more lb-ft than the outgoing engine.
  • If I had to describe this new engine in a single word, it would be “strong.” I’ve never had a problem with the Panamera’s acceleration, but this new 4S Executive model, which packs on an extra 300 pounds over the non-stretched 4S, is still impressively quick. Porsche specs a 0-60 time of just 4.5 seconds for the Executive equipped with the Sport Chrono option. For comparison’s sake, the Panamera 4S Executive is less powerful and 400 pounds lighter than a comparable BMW 750Li xDrive, but it can hit 60 mph a tick faster and should get better fuel economy, too – although final 2014 estimates have not been released yet.
  • Thanks to the standard adaptive air suspension, the Panamera managed to offer a sporty ride that handled the twist roads of the Bavarian Alps quite well, while still offering a smooth, comfortable experience when desired. Top speed is listed at 177 miles per hour, and I almost made it there as I blasted down the Autobahn at 175 mph (my new personal land-speed record, by the way).
  • Opting for the extra rear space will cost you, literally, as the 4S Executive’s starting price of $125,600 is a $27,000 premium over the standard-length 4S, which means that you’re paying $4,500 per added inch! While an exact as-tested price wasn’t available, I calculated using the consumer website that this car would retail for $133,780 as equipped. The Turbo Executive is almost $20,000 more than the Panamera Turbo with a base price of $161,100. That makes it the most expensive Panamera in the model lineup, and the second-most expensive model in Porsche’s whole 2014 lineup. Still, it could be worth the money for that extra 100 hp and 132 lb-ft of torque.
  • We can all thank car buyers in China (with a penchant for long wheelbases) for the existence of the Panamera Executive, but credit definitely goes to Porsche for making this car as fun as it is. There are no lack of long-wheelbase alternatives on the market, but there’s just something a little more exciting about driving a car that already looks like a stretched 911. I mean if you’re going to schlep friends and family around town or punch the clock chauffeuring wealthy business people, why not do it in a Porsche, right?

2014 Porsche Panamera 4S Executive originally appeared on Autoblog on Fri, 09 Aug 2013 11:57:00 EST. Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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Quick Spin: 2013 Chevrolet Camaro SS Hot Wheels Edition

Filed under: Coupe, Performance, Chevrolet, Toys/Games, Quick Spins

2013 Chevy Camaro Hot Wheels Special Edition - parked in front of Toys R Us store

Pairing your car, truck or SUV with another brand is a tried-and-true method to create the sort of positive association that sells vehicles, or at least gives them an attractive new look and higher margins. Ford knows this, having paired the Explorer and rugged apparel brand Eddie Bauer in the ’90s with great success, and the F-150 with iconic motorcycle maker Harley-Davidson since 2000 (that partnership, however, has ended with the 2012 model year).

Not every partnership is geared towards making a vehicle appear more macho, though. The Fiat 500 by Gucci, for instance, matches the cute Cinquecento with a high fashion icon (something Cadillac tried back in 1979), and Lexus has a history of Coach Edition models that came with higher grade leather and matching luggage. Indeed, this 2013 Chevy Camaro Hot Wheels Special Edition isn’t even the only pairing of toy and car, another example being the recent Call of Duty MW3 and Black Ops editions of the Jeep Wrangler. It isn’t even the only Camaro co-branded with a toy – the 2012 Transformers Edition with Bumblebee paint job preceded it.

Pairing your automobile with something sold inside a Toys R Us, however, can be tricky. Fashion and apparel brands have more universal appeal among adult buyers than, for instance, the latest first-person-shooter video game. Partnering with a brand that markets primarily to children can also communicate the wrong thing about the person who buys such a vehicle – that he or she has a Peter Pan syndrome, not wanting to grow up, buy that sensible sedan and get on with life like the rest of us. Then again, buying a Hot Wheels Special Edition Camaro could just mean you remember the fun side of life and have the extra disposable income to show it.

Driving Notes

  • The Hot Wheels Special Edition options package is a $6,995 question that needs answering when ordering your Camaro 2LT (V6) or 2SS (V8) coupe or convertible. The package includes Kinetic Blue metallic paint; 21-inch black aluminum wheels with red striping; the Camaro’s RS appearance package; Hot Wheels badging, decals and embroidery; premium floor mats and a painted engine cover. Nothing here makes the car go quicker, turn better or stop shorter, which is fine, as the Camaro’s got plenty of other packages and models that do that. This test car was also equipped with the optional dual-mode performance exhaust for $895 and navigation system for $795, bringing its out-the-door price minus tax to $45,720.
  • In creating this Hot Wheels Special Edition model, Chevy designers have done a good job walking the fine line between attention-grabbing aesthetics and gratuitously over-the-top looks. The Kinetic Blue paint pops, but not nearly as much as some other Camaro colors (remember Synergy Green?). The design of the wheels is a matter of taste, and they appear neatly inspired by their 1:64 scale counterparts, but no one will guess this is a Hot Wheels car by wheels alone. What will tip them off is the badging, which includes Hot Wheels logos on the grill, front fenders and the rear. I wouldn’t mind if that badge count were halved, but wouldn’t dare touch the wide single matte black stripe or subtle blue flames on the rear fenders. The red striping on the wheels that’s mirrored around the grille and headlights is another subtle and appealing design touch.
  • I was less fond of this Camaro’s interior, which sports huge Hot Wheels logos embroidered in the seat backs, large logos on the side sill plates and an eency-weency logo embedded in the bottom of the steering wheel. The branding message while entering the vehicle is a bit obnoxious that way. Speaking of the wheel, General Motors needs to move on to a new tiller design. We’ve seen seen this one for years in everything down to the lowly Sonic, which makes grasping it in a $45k special edition Camaro feel less than special. Also, this was my first experience with a navigation system in the Camaro, and while the MyLink system Chevy uses is fine enough, its application in this pony car’s interior is a miss. More physical buttons to navigate the system, or more clearly marked ones, would help.
  • What you’re ultimately buying with a Camaro like this is a burnout machine. While other models, particularly ones with the 1LE package and the top-shelf ZL1, are engineered specifically to expand the Camaro’s handling envelope, this Hot Wheels model is basically an SS with wheels an inch larger in diameter than you could otherwise order. It feels neither particularly spry nor nimble when turning, which isn’t helped by the Camaro’s now-trademark tank-slit outward visibility. Not knowing the exact location of the car’s front corners while carrying that much inertia made me feel less-than-confident while cornering, so I gravitated more towards having fun in a straight line. My colleagues in the industry appeared to agree judging by the amount of tread left on the car’s rear tires upon arrival.
  • And what a performance the Camaro gives when getting on the gas. The 6.2-liter V8 producing 426 horsepower and 420 foot-pounds of torque is everything an American muscle car’s engine should be. The optional dual-mode exhaust was a gloriously guttural flute through which to play the motor’s music, and I often found myself throttle-goosing for encores of the performance. Power is available everywhere in every gear, and the six-speed manual transmission was not at all a bear to operate around town. It feels stout enough to handle the engine’s fury at full bore, but the engagements are smooth and the pedal isn’t too firm.
  • Would I buy one? The Hot Wheels Special Edition model is a limited edition, and Chevy has said when they’re gone, they’re gone. We don’t know if all have been sold yet, but you can still build one using the configurator on Chevy’s website, which suggests they are still available. Regardless, my answer would be no, this isn’t the Camaro I would buy myself. As special editions go, I like its aesthetics a lot and a few less badges and logos would get me even more on board, though on some level, taht defeats the point of co-branding. But if you’re a parent with a kid who collects Hot Wheels and feel a mid-life crisis is coming on, could there be a more perfect purchase than this?

2013 Chevrolet Camaro SS Hot Wheels Edition originally appeared on Autoblog on Mon, 29 Jul 2013 14:58:00 EST. Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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Quick Spin: 2014 Roush Stage 3 Mustang

Filed under: Aftermarket, Coupe, Performance, Ford, Quick Spins

2014 Roush Stage 3 Mustang

Up until now, it’s been some years since I managed to get behind the wheel of the hot Mustangs tuned by the folks at Roush Performance. My memories of those vehicles are fond, as the Roush up-fits usually make for better-driving examples of the iconic Ford pony, with better-tuned suspensions, excellent short-shift kits and, of course, huge additions of power. The wake-your-neighbors aural characteristics of these cars have been nothing short of outstanding, too.

But in the years since my last experience with the Roush formula, Ford’s own development team has churned out some pretty potent ‘Stangs. We currently live in a world where the Blue Oval will sell you a Mustang with 662 horsepower from the factory, and the recently departed Boss 302 remains one of the best Mustangs – and best sports coupes – the Autoblog crew has ever driven.

So with great-driving and hugely powerful Mustangs coming straight off the line at Ford’s Flat Rock Assembly Plant, does the Roush package still offer that extra special something to make it stand out? I spent a week with a Stage 3 coupe to find out.

Driving Notes

  • Within the Stage 3 model range, there are three different “phases” of engine tune that can be had. Our test car, in Phase 1 spec, adds a supercharger to the Mustang GT’s 5.0-liter V8, the end result being 575 horsepower and 505 pound-feet of torque. Plenty powerful, for sure, but if that’s not enough to get your motor running (pun totally intended), the Phase 2 kit will net you 625 horsepower and the Phase 3 option packs 675 horsepower. Take that, GT500.
  • One of the most notable characteristics of any Roush package is the exhaust treatment, and as you’d expect, it’s loud. Sorry – loud. Like, tough-to-hold-a-conversation-with-your-copilot loud. There’s a huge roar on startup, and the harder you mash the throttle in every gear, the more robust the noise. We love a tough-sounding Mustang, and in terms of getting noticed and letting folks know that this isn’t your ordinary factory Ford, the Roush treatment is a hilarious thrill. The sound does have a tendency to drone at highway speeds, but it’s a sweet note. Besides, the Mustang’s stock Shaker stereo is pretty horrible at higher volumes, anyway.
  • The big disappointment with the Roush package is the interior, where it feels like a few steps were missed in the customization process. The optional leather Roush-specific seats are nice and decently comfortable, but seriously lack lateral bolstering. Considering you can now get Recaro chairs on every engine configuration of the stock Mustang, these are a must-have for the more hardcore Roush tune. Our car featured the optional rear seat delete, replaced by a functional cross-brace, but that aside, it’s base Mustang GT spec in here. No upgraded stereo and no fussy MyFord Touch, though both can be had for an additional cost. We just miss any big feeling of exclusivity from the cabin.
  • Outside, it’s a different story. The Roush looks fantastic. We dig the visual enhancements like the hood scoop and vents, as well as the revised lower front fascia with pronounced foglamp housings. The added trim along the rocker panels is a nice touch, and while the side window louvers wreck visibility, they look nifty. The upgraded 20-inch wheels look good, too, wrapped in sticky Cooper RS3 275/35R20 tires.
  • With 575 hp and 505 lb-ft of twist on hand, there’s no denying that this Stage 3 Mustang is quick. Roush estimates that hitting 60 miles per hour will take just four seconds, and from behind the wheel, it feels every bit of that. However, even with supercharged thrust, power delivery is very linear, and the Roush is pretty easy to drive at slower speeds around town.
  • Roush has given the Stage 3 a full suite of suspension tuning, and the end result is something that’s far better able to put down all that power than, say, a GT500. But here, too, the car feels many steps away from being an all-out monster. The steering is still sort of vague, and the action of the six-speed manual shifter is rough when trying to quickly row between the gears. The cue ball shifter is cool, yes, but having a proper short-shift kit here would help things tremendously.
  • Larger StopTech brakes with red-painted calipers provide plenty of stopping power, and again, the upgraded suspension is welcome with the added thrust from the 5.0-liter V8, but in a sort of old-school fast-Mustang way – the on-road action still has all the precision of trying to cut tissue paper with a chainsaw. It’s vicious and fun, but it’s not even close to matching what the Boss can throw down.
  • And really, that’s how the Stage 3 Mustang left me feeling after my week behind the wheel: not as good as the Boss 302. The latter remains one of Ford’s best performance creations, and it will indeed be missed. But that’s not all bad for the Roush. Fact is, it’s better to drive than a GT500, even with a reduction of nearly 100 horsepower. (When do you actually need 662 hp, let alone 575, anyway?)
  • As-tested, however, the Stage 3 sits just above the $65,000 mark, which is over $10,000 more than the aforementioned GT500. (That’s $17,000 for the Roush package, over $10,000 in optional extras, and the $38,000 Mustang GT Premium donor car.) If you aren’t just power-hungry, the added cost can be justified by the added exclusivity of the Roush treatment, with a more ferocious exhaust note and unique styling, and the better suspension geometry that results in a more composed on-road demeanor, as well. Of course, there’s the added value of Roush being a full-on OEM, not just an aftermarket tuner bolting accessories onto Mustangs – everything found on this car was specifically designed for it. Really, the Stage 3 kit is just as awesome as it ever was. But these days, it’s just tough to beat what’s coming out of Ford’s own factory.

2014 Roush Stage 3 Mustang originally appeared on Autoblog on Fri, 26 Jul 2013 11:57:00 EST. Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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Quick Spin: Ford Mustang GT Bi-Fuel CNG

Filed under: Coupe, Hybrid, Performance, Ford, Quick Spins

2013 Ford Mustang GT Bi-Fuel - front three-quarter view
Highly intrigued, we recently visited a Southern California Gas Company office to check out several hybrid vehicles promising something new. Unlike more commonplace gasoline-electric hybrids, we were there to evaluate innovative gasoline-compressed natural gas (CNG) hybrids – yes, they run on unleaded gasoline and compressed natural gas. According to the experts on hand, this arrangement delivers extended range and reduced emissions while chipping in with lower operating costs than pure-gasoline vehicles. There are advantages over its gasoline-electric counterparts, as well.

The program is part of a three-way collaboration between The Carlab, a Southern California-based automotive consulting firm, Landi Renzo USA, a company specializing in alternative fuel solutions, and America’s Natural Gas Alliance, a group that promotes CNG. Long story short, the team has engineered a way to allow a modified internal combustion vehicle to seamlessly switch between two fuels (gasoline and CNG) with no driver intervention. In theory, and if it works as well as promised, it’s a win-win for the vehicle owner and the environment.

Parked at the Gas Company office were six different gasoline-CNG hybrid vehicles. To demonstrate the technology’s versatility (just about any gasoline vehicle may be modified) Carlab brought a varied assortment of bodystyles, each from a different automaker. After taking a quick glance at the half-dozen in the parking lot, we made a beeline for the performance-oriented Ford Mustang GT – a 2012 model – with the six-speed manual gearbox.

Driving Notes:

  • The conversion to bi-fuel requires the installation of a four-gallon composite CNG tank (3,600 psi) beneath the rear trunk liner, CNG bi-fuel port injectors, a special fuel controller, integrated dash display and some other hardware. With the exception of the blue “CNG” diamond on the rear of the trunk, the exterior of this Mustang hybrid offers little clue to what type of fuel it consumes. The interior of the cabin is equally discreet, but a closer look at the digital panel on the instrument cluster reveals an OEM-like four-bar “GGE” gauge with the tank level. Peering under the hood, the only obvious changes are the new injectors (the CNG tank is filled through a nipple located behind the OEM fuel filler door). The conversion adds about 150 pounds to the coupe’s curb weight.
  • From a driver’s standpoint, vehicle operation is unchanged. A sophisticated controller determines which fuel is best for the job (or a mix of both), so gasoline is often used for the cold start. However, after a few moments of operation, the vehicle will seamlessly switch to more efficient CNG operation for partial throttle and during cruising. A firm press on the accelerator immediately delivers gasoline into the combustion chamber, bringing the Mustang’s full 420 horsepower on tap. During our drive of the manual transmission coupe, we noticed a very slight delay – almost a hiccup – at about 3,000 rpm during the bi-fuel transition (we later drove a BMW X3 automatic, and the changeover from CNG to gasoline was unnoticeable). Once it made it over this hurdle, power delivery was smooth and strong.
  • In addition to the improved efficiency and lack of power compromise, the CNG tank provides a bonus boost in vehicle range. The tank is good for about 55 extra miles, so it adds upwards of 20 percent to the Mustang’s cruising distance. That’s a nice plus.
  • Carlab is touting the gasoline-CNG bi-fuel model as an alternative to plug-in hybrids. Instead of heavy battery packs requiring nightly charging, they envision a world where owners would have a home CNG refill station that would make fueling effortless and bring prices down to about $.80/gallon – a fraction of the price of gasoline.
  • The cost of conversion to the typical passenger vehicle is slightly less than $3,000 (assuming a production rate of 20,000 annual units), meaning the average owner would earn back the cost after about 2.2 years – that’s quicker that the return on investment for a Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Volt or Toyota Prius, says Carlab.
  • While we were impressed after our first experience with the hybrid gasoline-CNG vehicles, natural gas still has a mountain of hurdles to overcome. Even if one assumes that the non-renewable resource may be easily obtained, the refueling infrastructure will take many years to build.

Ford Mustang GT Bi-Fuel CNG originally appeared on Autoblog on Tue, 23 Jul 2013 15:00:00 EST. Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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Quick Spin: 2014 Audi R8 V10 Plus

Filed under: Coupe, Performance, Audi, Quick Spins

2014 Audi R8 V10 Plus - front three-quarter view, red
Ignore the naysayers who say the Audi R8 is too refined to be a proper supercar, or that it has begun to show its age – after a few tweaks for the 2014 model year, the automaker’s flagship remains one of my favorite exotics.

Audi has treated all of its R8 models to a host of enhancements for the 2014 model year that include new LED headlights and tail lamps, larger steering wheel-mounted shift paddles, new exhaust finishes, updated alloy wheel designs and fresh exterior colors. However, the most significant news is the arrival of a proper seven-speed S-Tronic dual-clutch automatic transmission (it replaces the six-speed R-Tronic). The rapid-fire gearbox shaves a coupe tenths off the 0-60 sprint and improves fuel economy for both the eight- and ten-cylinder models (thankfully, a traditional six-speed manual is still on the order form).

I recently spent time with the new-for-2014 V10 Plus model, which is only available in a coupe body style. Compared to the standard V10 models, the Plus sheds upwards of 130 pounds thanks to lightweight manual seats (not fitted to my test car), carbon-ceramic brakes, reduced sound bay insulation, a smaller fuel tank and an assortment of carbon-fiber pieces (including side blades, front splitter, rear diffuser and spoiler). But that’s not all, as the V10 Plus also receives a bump in output that pushes its ten-cylinder to an even 550 horsepower.

Driving Notes:

  • My six-foot two-inch frame has always found the R8 Coupe to be very comfortable – a standout in a segment of cramped coupes. The enhanced cabin is nothing short of breathtaking, with beautiful carbon-fiber and aluminum accents, tactile switchgear and a fit-and-finish to rival Rolls-Royce. My Brilliant Red test car was fitted with the optional diamond-stitching full leather package ($6,300) that seems a worthy investment, if just to watch your passenger’s jaws drop when they climbed in.
  • The naturally-aspirated 5.2-liter V10 has been massaged to produce 550 horsepower and 398 pound-feet of torque, a 25 horsepower increase over the standard V10, which Audi says is good for a 3.3-second sprint to 60 mph (with the help of launch control). Nobody will miss the old, sometimes clunky, single-clutch gearbox. The new dual-clutch unit shifted smoothly during normal driving, yet it eagerly cracked off the gears when driven aggressively (don’t waste your time with the console-mounted shifter, as the wheel-mounted paddles are much easier to use). Power at the low end of the tachometer was plenty strong, but the V10 really came to life once it started vigorously spinning. Run it to the 8,500 rpm redline between each shift, and its screaming audio track will remind you why enthusiasts still appreciate fine, naturally aspirated engines.
  • Zipping through the canyon roads in the mountains above Malibu put the R8 V10 Plus right at home. Its mid-engine handling and balance was exceptional. The damping is fixed to a very firm setting, even though lesser R8 models offer a variable magnetic suspension, but it never felt overly harsh for its role. A low center of gravity and a wide stance provide excellent stability, and the turn-in was quick, accurate and sharp. The massive carbon-ceramic brakes are unflappable – right up there with the world’s best.
  • Audi has engineered the Quattro all-wheel drive system to send upwards 85 percent of the torque to the rear wheels, translating to a rear-bias driving dynamic (override the stability control, and then mash the throttle mid-corner, and the R8 V10 Plus responds with an easily controlled powerside). Floor the accelerator out of the corner, and the front wheels pull the nose around as if it were hooked on a wire.
  • The R8’s strength has always been its ageless styling, comfortable cabin and driving demeanor. As a result of the enhancements, the new V10 Plus is much more feisty than its lesser siblings while exhibiting a performance edge that only increases its appeal.
  • With the spectacular limited-production R8 GT but a memory, this is the new king of Audi’s model range – it wears the crown very well.

2014 Audi R8 V10 Plus originally appeared on Autoblog on Mon, 22 Jul 2013 15:03:00 EST. Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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Quick Spin: 2013 Porsche 911 Carrera 4S

Filed under: Coupe, Performance, Porsche, Quick Spins

2014 Porsche 911 Carrera 4S - front three-quarter view, red

I don’t care who you are; when a new Porsche 911 rolls up in your driveway, that’s a pretty good day. This was my very first experience with Porsche’s 991 911, and after having spent time with just about every tune and trim of the last car, I was hotly anticipating comparing and contrasting.

Somehow (I don’t remember sending out any cash-filled, unmarked envelopes) I’d scored a week in the 911 Carrera 4S over a long holiday weekend, too. That meant that I’d get to A) log a ton of miles in one of the best cars in the world, B) get to show-off the Porsche to family and friends and C) tempt cops in three states to pull me over. Good thing I’ve got the Autoblog traffic lawyer on speed dial…

Driving Notes

  • I’ve never been one to find every-single 911 ever completely attractive – I find the 996 Cabriolets are a particularly bad representation of the legend’s style – but I think the 991 generation is sexy as hell. When my test car showed up in Guards Red over black wheels, I was smitten right away. Silver or black might be safer choices with this body shape, but I can’t help but think the profile of the car – sleeker than ever now – is nearly perfect. With that said, erecting the retractable rear spoiler completely ruins the body line, even if it helps keep the car pinned to the Earth at triple digit speeds.
  • The longer wheelbase of the 991 Carrera does set the car up as a better all-around driver and grand touring car than its 997 predecessor. On the negative side, this means that this 911 doesn’t feel quite as quick to turn in and rotate on a dime. Also, slightly more grown-up chassis and suspension tuning mean that I get less of a sense of overall road feedback, too. The positive side of that trade-off is a greater level of high-speed stability, with what remains an ultra-smooth, ultra-confident driving experience on the best of roads. And, while the electric power steering system’s feel might not be quite as good as the last-gen 911’s hydraulic setup, or the current Boxster and Cayman, it’s still light years ahead of many other sports cars.
  • I put more than 700 miles on this Porsche over the long 4th of July weekend, with a trip to Chicago from Ann Arbor, including plenty of backroads along the way. It’s not particularly sexy to say so, but the Carrera 4S is as just about as practical as anything in the “near-supercar” category is likely to get. Seats for the two passengers up front are comfortable and supportive, with plenty of head, elbow, and leg room for a car this size. Visibility is actually pretty decent, too, considering the silhouette of the machine. I was shocked to see highway fuel economy over the EPA estimated rating of 26 miles per gallon, especially considering I was doing a pretty steady 80 miles per hour most of the time I was on the interstate. And, it’s a story you’ve heard before, but there’s more than enough luggage space for two people as long as both occupants can get along with two standard-size rollerboard suitcases.
  • Of the roughly $40,000 worth of options on my 911 4S (stickering at $145,305 over a base of $105,630), perhaps the best value was the $360 rear windshield wiper. (In fact, in terms of German-car options sheets, that’s downright thievery.) Every car should have a rear wiper – I’ll now be saddened every time I see a 911 without one, knowing the owner was just a couple hundred bucks away from all-weather rear visibility.
  • There aren’t too many cars in the world that are this fast and this grippy. I had to resort to flooring the throttle, with a whole handful of lock on a wet road to kick the heavy tail out with any conviction. The all-wheel-drive system is impressive, to be sure. And, considering the output figures of 400 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque aren’t all that impressive by modern sports car standards, this Carrera 4S still feels astonishingly quick from point to point. Wide open throttle – in Sport mode with the exhaust opened all the way up – sounds about as close to perfect as it gets, too. If you have the chance, drive this car.

2013 Porsche 911 Carrera 4S originally appeared on Autoblog on Fri, 19 Jul 2013 11:57:00 EST. Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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Quick Spin: 2013 Mercedes A45 AMG 4Matic [w/video]

Filed under: Performance, Europe, Videos, Hatchback, Mercedes-Benz, Luxury, Quick Spins

United States customers desiring one of the new smaller AMG models from Mercedes-Benz will really enjoy their 2014 CLA45. It’s swift, authoritative, more alive in your hands than any other AMG model has ever been, and it’s the only compact practical AMG you’ll ever be able to get anyway.

Little ghost-like leaks keep on happening from some apparent “source” in Germany, telling young cub reporters from the US that the A-Class hatchback range is also coming to the land of hashbrowns. The way we read it, the A-Class, however, will never come to the States, folks, at least not in this decade, anyway.

More’s the pity, because, as we and all others noticed at the recent drive event in Germany, for both the A45 and the CLA45, it’s the hatch that truly pulls no punches on dynamism. The CLA has clearly been massaged to be just a touch to be more civil than the excitingly bratty A45.

Driving Notes

  • As we said in the recent First Drive for the CLA45, the A45 is a decidedly different concoction from the usual straight-line marauders of the AMG lineup. The chassis is dramatically more alive and communicative, and we really like it.
  • From now on, AMG is putting some form of 4Matic traction under every car. That means some compromises – good and not so – will happen. In this case, the hang-on all-wheel-drive unit creates a much more capable sporting drive versus a straight front-wheel-drive setup.
  • That said, some people who talk like they’ve driven the car will shower both the A45 and CLA45 with their prejudiced derision. They’ll proclaim – no matter what we say – that these are cheapo overpriced front-drive Euro econoboxes. It also means that there’ll be more of these great cars for those of us who dig ’em.
  • While we dashed around on roads and Autobahn, our track time for this event was relegated to AMG Performance chassis-prepped A45 AMG Edition 1 units, a limited-run setup for Europe that pimps the ride out to around €57,000 base price (roughly $75,000 due to exhilarating European taxation policies and an overvalued Euro). Ride along for a spot of this action, in the video below.
  • Realistically, an A45 would need to start at around $45k in the US. The fully tricked Edition 1 as at this track, however, would bring about $60k for starters. Enough to make American blog comments go ballistic.
  • The optional matte Mountain Grey Designo exterior paint and darkened multitudinous-spoked 19-inch AMG wheelset of our street-tester A45, go together like ham and eggs. This unit had everything on it apart from the Edition 1 trickery and overly excited aero bits, and we think it’s all the better for it.
  • The experts on hand at this drive event finally admitted that the ratings of the elasto-kinematics fore and aft of the suspension were, in fact, different for the A45 versus the CLA45. The handling that is possible with the hatch is pure premium hot and it’s a sensation we’ve never had before in an AMG.
  • Mercedes conservatively claims a 0-62 miles per hour acceleration time of 4.6 seconds for the A45, but we’re certain a 4.2 will be possible and repeatable.
  • This M133 2.0-liter motor is a remarkable piece of work, and it meshes really well with the seven-speed AMG dual-clutch, with shift action that is equal to that in the SLS AMG GT. A manual six with good heel-and-toe pedal placement would have been entertaining, but the automated DCT is hot stuff.

The 2013 Mercedes A45 AMG has already gone on sale in its initial markets in Europe and it is bound to be a popular with compact-performance addicted Europeans. People can say whatever they want about the front-drive chassis, but in Europe, this is how compact sportsters roll, and we wouldn’t be at all surprised to see this exact car on the World Rally Championship circuit by next year. The hang-on 4Matic unit is a solid solution for this niche-monger car, and we regret only that we will never drive it on our favorite Stateside highways and byways.

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2013 Mercedes A45 AMG 4Matic [w/video] originally appeared on Autoblog on Wed, 17 Jul 2013 15:00:00 EST. Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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Quick Spin: Freightliner Cascadia Pikes Peak Special ride-along [w/video]

Filed under: Motorsports, Performance, Truck, Quick Spins, Racing

Mike Ryan's Freightliner Cascadia Pikes Peak Special drifting on track

It seems as if every type of powered vehicle is attacking the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb these days, each in search of a new record as they climb the 12.42-mile road course to its finish at a gasping 14,110-foot elevation. While the “anything goes” Unlimited class provides plenty of powerful eye candy, the Open class is where we find Mike Ryan and his new Freightliner Cascadia Pikes Peak Special.

Last year at Pikes Peak, the professional stunt driver campaigned a Freightliner and set his seventh record; that time climbing to the top in 12 minutes and 38 seconds. This year, he is back with a big rig that is significantly quicker – and “significantly” just may be an understatement.

We caught up with Ryan at Southern California’s Irwindale Speedway late last week as he was putting his latest creation through shakedown testing for this week’s event. When he offered us a ride, we had no hesitation.

Riding Notes

  • The Pikes Peak Freightliner is nothing like its cross-country load-hauling cousins. Rather, it is a purpose-built beast featuring a custom aluminum-rail frame and carbon-fiber and fiberglass body panels. Even so, it weighs a whopping 10,200 pounds wet.
  • Power comes by the way of a turbocharged 14.0-liter inline-six Detroit Series 60 marine diesel. The seven-foot long engine makes 825 horsepower in stock form, but the team at Gale Banks Engineering have fitted it with an 8.3-liter supercharger in addition to a 110-mm turbocharger (Banks calls it a “Super-Turbo”). But that wasn’t all, as the guys also added a methanol injection system to improve combustion and an intercooler spray system to reduce the intake temperatures. The modified engine, sitting a foot lower and six feet further rearward than stock, now delivers 2,400 horsepower and 5,000 pound-feet of torque – while burning No. 2 pump diesel fuel!
  • The transmission is a five-speed road racing automatic sending its power rearward to a Detroit locker limited-slip differential (permanently locked, so the rear wheels always scrub). The steering rack is from Howe Performance, designed for a Baja Trophy Truck, while the tires are custom-compound sticky racing rubber molded by Michelin to look like stock truck tires.
  • In addition to the 12-gallon diesel tank, there are five other tanks of fluid including 14 gallons of water/methanol for the engine, 7 gallons of water for the intercooler spray and 14 gallons of water to fog the brake rotors for additional cooling – yes, the brakes are water cooled.
  • Climbing into the cab requires a bit of gymnastic ability, and the seating position is startlingly high off the ground if you’re not used to a big rig. Ryan faces a thin plastic steering wheel and a custom aluminum dash chock full of temperature/pressure gauges and switches. Primary instrumentation is a Racepack digital cluster. The transmission control lever, and a separate handbrake just for the rear wheels, sits high between the two bucket seats.
  • The blown diesel engine is startling loud, even at idle, and full throttle (redline is 2,700 rpm) sends it into a whining frenzy. Despite its prodigious power output (weight to horsepower ratio of 4.25:1), acceleration is strong rather than truly brisk. Nevertheless, the two rear wheels have a very difficult time maintaining traction. The throttle response is slightly delayed as the boost builds, but once everything is pressurized, nothing holds it back. Shifting through the gears is surprisingly smooth, mainly because the rear tires had trouble maintaining contact with the track. The throttle response reminds me of a powerful off-shore power boat – a slight delay followed by incredibly strong thrust.
  • Oddly enough, especially after looking at the pictures, the truck doesn’t feel top heavy or unstable. However, Ryan would later run me around the oval at high speed, and the Freightliner fought all of the steering inputs as he attempted directional changes (the locked rear axle caused plenty of scrub/understeer on the front tires). His solution was to break the rear tires free, set the five-ton truck adrift and then point the nose in his desired direction.
  • I found myself hanging on to the cage with white knuckles as the semi floated on self-made molten rubber sliding sideways around the track (scroll down to watch the video). Thick, acrid smoke filled the cabin, making it hard to see, and I was thrown hard against my five-point harness straps (the most violent maneuvers were side-to-side as the tires gained and lost grip as the surface changed). It was crazy fun, but I constantly reminded myself that I was a passenger on a very safe and contained track. Doing the same thing on the treacherous Pikes Peak circuit, with sheer cliffs on each side, feels like it’s bordering on lunacy.

Mike Ryan and his Banks-tuned Freightliner, attack the mountain this week – best of luck to the team.

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Freightliner Cascadia Pikes Peak Special ride-along [w/video] originally appeared on Autoblog on Thu, 27 Jun 2013 14:58:00 EST. Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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