Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Gr8 G8

I just got back from a drive in the hills with the new Pontiac G8 GT, and I thought I'd share my impressions. First of all, the car looks great, as I've always felt. It's no boring family sedan. I've included the picture I was in from Automotive News at the Chicago show last year, but the red version is the one we have. I really feel like the GT model (which includes the powerful V8) should have xenons standard, but they won't even be offered. WTF!!! And of course the approach lighting feature includes the backup lights in the rear, which is something I hate.

Pontiac came last week to drop off the car, and we went for a ride. I drove it pretty much just on local surface roads, so didn't get a good idea of its real handling prowess at that point. The car seemed to have a bit more roll than I'd expected, and the brakes were pretty squishy, feeling pre-faded. It wasn't the best first impression, but the car certainly deserved another chance. I was handed the key again today, and I took it to my new favorite hot spot in the Santa Barbara hills.

When it came to the twisties, my impression changed. The car seemed to hunker down on more challenging, lower speed curves, taking them on with aplomb. The brakes seemed a little better today, though they don't inspire as much confidence and you might hope. It could be particular to this car. It's likely a press mule that's been flung around by Car and Driver, etc. Aside from that point, the car is certainly tossable. It feels lighter than it is, and although one of my colleagues said he didn't like the steering feel, I actually think it's tuned pretty well, with the right weight and good on-center feel. The extra body roll in more relaxed driving seems to be part of the tuning compromise that's likely been made for the American market. The suspension was very comfy, and soaks up speed bumps easily.

Up in the hills its rear drive nature came out, with the relatively easy ability to get the tail dancing. This was exaggerated even more by the touchy throttle tip-in, which can make it difficult to transition back onto the gas smoothly. At this point I was using the shiftable feature of the auto tranny, and as someone who drives a car with a DSG, it's pretty jarring to feel the limitations of a slush box in a car like this. In fact, the configuration of the autostick was not the best. When you first shift toward the manual gate (a bit too high-effort...hopefully they'll fix it by sale time) the car goes into sport mode. You actually have to make a shift to get it into manual mode, which to me defeats the purpose, since the whole point of manual mode is often to let you stay in the current gear longer when the situation calls for it. My R32's gearshift has a seperate position for sport mode, as it should.

Once you're into manual mode, though, it's a decent experience, with relatively quick shifts (for an auto). The quality of the experience is brought down a bit by the shape of the shifter, though, which is made more for an auto, and doesn't feel like it's meant for frequent shifting. This brings us to the issue of the lack of shifter paddles behind the wheel. While one might argue that these are a bit faddish, I did feel a sincere need for them, especially in the twisty sections and with that subpar shifter feel. And Pontiac has even offered them on the 4-speed Grand Prix GXP. C'mon Pontiac, pleeeeeease.

Okay, let's talk about the engine. It's great. Torquey whenever you need it, and it sounds superb, too. With a macho rumble around town (while still not too loud), it builds to a high-energy growl at speed, which was fun to listen to as it echoed off the hillsides. Anything that's lacking in the drivetrain I'd blame on the transmission. That tranny is tuned for the best possible fuel economy, and it seems to be very eager to upshift. 

As we come to the interior of the car, you've gotta compliment those Aussies. They know how to do it, pretty much on the level of the Germans. It's about time GM tapped them not just for RWD platform engineering, but for car insides, too. Of course, with the Down Under design, there are a few curiosities you might have to get over. First of all, the window and mirror controls are on the center console, as opposed to the doors. This makes it easier to offer the car in both left- and right-hand drive, but many customers will be put off by this. I'd imagine that's mostly because of convention, and after a while it would feel pretty normal.

There are also some examples that don't seem to make as much sense. I've included a picture of the show car, because it illustrates nicely the meter screen at the top of the stack. It has digital meters for the battery charge and oil pressure, and they're both unchangeable. It seems weird, and it's possible GM could change this before showroom time. Either way, it's still a great looking interior, and it'll easily outshine anything the Pontiac has had before.

Okay, so it may seem like I have a lot of nits to pick with this car, but the fact is, it's fantastic, especially in light of GM's past. I personally believe, and I think most other enthusiasts would agree, that of the Detroit 3, GM is the one that's really getting their shit together. In my line of work, we tend to handicap brands a lot based on brand equity, and Pontiac certainly has an uphill battle ahead of it in that regard. But in my experience, this G8 is one car that can handle those hills.

Now if they'd only put a stick in the damn thing...

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Big Show, take 3

The Lincoln MKT: when I first heard the name I thought Lincoln truck! I don't think this is quite the impression that FoMoCo was going for, so hopefully this name doesn't carry over to production. And really, who would want to buy a Lincoln Market, anyway? From the front, this crossover looks markedly better than its Ford Flex platform mate. The Flex to me looks awkward in its proportions, especially next to other handsome crossovers like the GMC Acadia. But its interior package is efficient and spacious, so all it really needs is a better wrapper. This Lincoln could be that wrapper, except for its maligned rear end. It's been the object of pretty universal scorn, and if Ford could just touch up this area, they could have a hit on their hands.

Also, with the receding hairline look of that funky roof, it looks like a cross between Rob Corddry and Count Dracula.
The Ford Explorer America concept is well-executed, and it retains many of the current Explorer's SUV-ish styling cues despite its new unibody construction. In fact, with Honda trying to toughen up the Pilot, the two seem to have converged at a common point in terms of attitude. The Explorer seems to win out, though, with its slightly more original styling.

As for the Verve concepts, all I can say is, "Pleeeeeeeeease bring these to the US!" The press seems convinced this is inevitable, in the form of Ford's upcoming B-car, but this carries some contradiction. Peter Horbury seems convinced that Ford should stick with its "bold, American" chrome-grille-bar styling, and the Verve is clearly more in line with Ford's European kinetic theme. A Ford insider I talked to had his doubts about the Verve styling coming here, as well. I really hope we're both wrong about that. The chrome theme works well for crossovers and larger cars like the Fusion, but Ford's designers have clearly had trouble translating it to smaller cars like the Focus, partly because they didn't have quite as much room to squeeze in all three chrome bars. I'd much prefer they just dump this look, and go with kinetic across our entire lineup, taking a similar tack to Mazda, which has brought a similar look to both the Euro and US versions of the next-gen Mazda6, despite their size difference.

The three concepts from Chrysler were pretty underwhelming. The Jeep Renegade concept was especially dumb, since I'm pretty sure I've seen basically the same execution before. But I really don't have the interest to go look it up. The Dodge ZEO was just plain ugly, and the Chrysler ecoVoyager was the epitome of the jelly-bean styling that minivans, particularly Chryslers, were bashed for in the '90s. I won't sully this post with pictures of these...things.

Both Dodge and Ford introduced replacements for their full-size pickups, and both were conservative revamps. I recently posted about Ford's nasty little habit of slapping new fascias on a vehicle and then hiding all the improvements under carryover sheetmetal. What I couldn't mention in that post, but already knew, was that they've done it again with the F-150. Okay, that's not really true, as Ford claims to have changed every body panel on the new truck. But its profile is pretty much identical, as are the body hard points, though Ford has extended the SuperCrew body. And now this redesign conservatism seems to be spreading north to Chrysler. Both the new F-150 and Dodge Ram are improved vehicles, with thoughtful features abounding. But they've become obsessed with the notion that truck buyers don't like change, so they've hidden it away.

The improvements to these trucks are similar, but different. To start, both are acknowledging the growing dominance of the crew cab body style. While Ford is stretching its crew, Dodge is adding a real one for the first time (at least for a light-duty truck). Its Quad Cab just wasn't cutting it, especially with the intro of Toyota's new Tundra CrewMax goliath. The other major area of improvement for both pickups is cargo utility. Dodge is going about this by making pretty much every hollow cavity in the truck available for storage. This ranges from the spaces in front of and under the rear seats, to the bed sides that are getting a lot of attention. Ford, on the other hand, is concentrating on new doohickeys to make the existing bed more useful, such as its tailgate and cargo side steps, and its folding bed extender. These are all great innovations that will make a lot of truck owners very happy. Now if Ford and Chrysler could just hire away some of GM's design staff...

The Hyundai Genesis is another example of how Hyundai is doing a lot of great things, but just can't seem to get their products quite right. Along with styling that is certainly derivative, they've chosen to adorn the front with a strangely stylized grille that is classic Hyundai. And a company rep at the show explained their bizarre badging strategy, which will include a Hyundai logo upfront but no Genesis nameplate in back for the V6s, and no Hyundai grille logo but a rear Genesis badge for the V8. Um...

The Land Rover LRX looks awesome, and I really hope they don't pull a Jeep, and take a sweet rally-inspired 3-door SUV and turn it into a bland 5-door any-ute (think Compass).

I was very excited by the new Mitsu Lancer Ralliart. Finally Mitsubishi has an answer to the base WRX, and since the new Impreza now looks like pretty much every other compact car, the Ralliart could be in a position to steal this niche from Subaru. I'm not crazy about the chrome ring around its snout, but I've thought the Lancer is a fantastic looking vehicle since I first saw it, and it deserves to be the car that saves Mitsubishi in the US.

And finally, a thought that's been stewing in the back of my mind for months: Who the hell is gonna buy the new BMW X6? It seems to combine the worst aspects of SUVs and coupes to create anti-synergy. The extra ground clearance of an SUV--which no X5 drivers use anyway--serves to raise the center of gravity, successfully compromising handling. And the coupe roofline squeezes the heads of the rear passengers and the cargo area's dimensions quite effectively. If this design appeals to you, I award you the lofty rank of Idiot First Class. Makes me long for the days when Chris Bangle was a Bimmer-phile's biggest problem.

Well, that's my take on this year's show. Now go ahead, comment away. And don't hold back. Call me a schmuck if you want. You might be right.

The Big Show, take 2

Okay, just got back from a picnic in the park (I'm in Santa Barbara right now), where the ducks were circling us as if to demand some of our bread. Anyway, this year I thought I'd post some stuff on the show while the show is actually still going on, unlike last year, when my comments were completely irrelevant by the time I got them out. So I'll get right back to posting:

In the first post I mentioned the Buick Riviera coupe. Also in the coupe department from GM is the CTS Coupe Concept. A lot of people are quite taken with this car, and it's easy to see why. The stubby rear end is an interesting and unexpected execution, and you've gotta love the way they've used the taillights to disguise the existence of the rear deck from the front angle. It actually makes the car seem shorter from some angles than others.

One of the most interesting things about the car (to me) was the contrast it presented against the sedan. At the industry preview at least, they had a new CTS sedan parked right near the coupe so you could easily compare the two front ends. From an overall design aspect, they're virtually identical. But when you look closely you notice that the creases on the concept are literally sharper. This is a very tough thing to see in pictures, but if you go to the show, I'd encourage you to check this out. These details get toned down on the way to production, for various reasons which I'm sure include aerodynamics and pedestrian crash safety. But it's an interesting illustration of the subtleties that make a car seem "concepty", beyond the execution of the lights and the glass. And if you know me, you certainly are aware of how excited I get about subtleties...

Next on the agenda: the Mercedes GLK. I actually saw a design buck of this vehicle several months ago, when the Benz people herded a bunch of journalists (there to drive the new ML550 and GL550) into a dark tent after making us leave our camera phones in little plastic baggies outside. I was underwhelmed then, and it seems as though the collective press isn't bowled over either. The Auto Extremist gave it an award for "Best Imitation of a Subaru Masquerading as a Mercedes", and from this angle, that seems a pretty apt descriptor:

The diesel-powered R8 is simply stunning. They took a car that was naturally gorgeous and made it absolutely bad-ass looking. One of the coolest aspects is the pair of carbon fiber intake runners visible through the rear engine showcase window. Just so many things about this car are awesome.

On a sadder note, there was an R8 at my California office last month, but it was only here for a few days. Regrettably, I was in Michigan at the time, so I missed my best chance to drive this drool-inducing supercar.

The Toyota Venza: not very well-received. But the reasons seem to vary. Some just see it as bland styling. I actually disagree, but I have my own issues with it. Yes, you regular readers guessed it: derivative styling. I've mentioned this crossover's resemblance to the Ford Edge to others, but they don't see it. I offer the following as exhibit A and B in my case:

It looks like an Edge has been squashed a little.

The rear end also seems to borrow, but this time from Volvo. Quite honestly, I can't find a good Volvo shot to illustrate this, but I just get a Volvo feeling from this rear:

Okay, I've got more to say, but I'm using Blogger to post, and the software on their website sucks, so it's pretty tedious to do long posts with a lot of pics.

To be continued...

The Big Show

Well, last week I got to attend the Detroit Auto Show (or NAIAS for those who like acronyms). Once again there were plenty of people declaring this year's show a disappointment, just like last year, but I long ago stopped paying attention to these comments. One of these days a truly disappointing show is gonna come along, and no one's gonna realize it because the comments will sound just like every other year. Anyway, here are some of my thoughts on this year's extravaganza (I'll post more later):

The car that has stuck out in my mind as my favorite at this year's show since I laid eyes on it is full of irony. First of all, it's a Buick. Buick has probably been my least favorite car division since I don't know when. It represented everything I hated in cars, such as a lack of excitement (from the floaty ride to the anonymous styling), and old technology (like the still-used pushrod 3800 engine, which is charitably characterized by car magazines as "venerable"). Secondly, this breathtaking car was designed in China. It serves as a fantastic contrast against the photocopied designs from Geely and BYD you'll find downstairs at the show (more on that in a bit). GM's designers in Shanghai have created the Riviera concept, a stunningly beautiful coupe that, in my opinion, well exceeds the legacy of the Riviera name (like I said, Buicks have never really done it for me, even past Rivieras).

Buick design has experienced a revival, which started with the Velite concept and has continued with the Enclave. I've seen the next LaCrosse, and it too will be stunning, a big leap from the current car. As I told some GM people at my last meeting with them, my conception of Buick has been completely turned around. It's even to the point where I'm actually the bullish one on Buick, and my colleagues are more conservative in their perspectives. The point is, though, that GM's semi-premium division has sharpened its focus on a specific target, and Buick will not rest until it's considered the American Lexus.

(Cadillac, of course, is focused on becoming the American BMW, and Lexus, ironically, is now focused--with its revitalized RWD lineup--on beating Infiniti to the punch as the Japanese BMW. When you think about it, everyone's chasing everyone else, who's chasing BMW. But the point about Buick is, they want to replicate Lexus' FWD lineup--which is Lexus' cash cow anyway--but better.)

The Riviera proves, though, that GM is benefiting not only from a rebirth of its American design division, but is also learning how to leverage its global design footprint to make big splashes in this market. I truly hope the General brings this car to production in the US. My reversal on Buick would be complete.

Anyway, here is the Riviera concept in all its glory.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Chinese set to convention center at a time

I don't repost a lot of the stuff from Autoblog, Jalopnik, etc, but this one just had to go up. If you haven't seen this yet, it's absolutely hilarious. The chairman of budding Chinese carmaker BYD (not to be confused with Michael Jackson's PYT) took an unwitting Jalopnik journalist on a rousing romp around Cobo, and right through...well, I won't spoil it. Read his stirring account here

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Down with left lane sloth!

This is some of the best news I've seen in a while: it seems state troopers in Oklahoma have started to actually enforce the state's left lane law! There are few things more frustrating than idiots blocking the left lane oblivious to the plight of those behind them. I've blogged on this before, but this is the first glimpse of hope I've seen in this country. If we're really lucky (read: not gonna happen) maybe other states will follow suit, and this will be the start of a new era of declining accidents and improved traffic flow. A boy can dream, can't he?