Filed under: Autos, Features, New car introductions
By John Gilbert
ESTEPONA, Spain — A year ago Volvo replaced its aging XC90 with an entirely new SUV that ran the table of SUV-of-the-year awards. Bolstered by proper financing from its Chinese owners, plus a new plant in China and a planned one in the U.S., the iconic little Swedish company has grown far beyond its home in Gothenburg.
Only a few months after the consensus proclaimed the XC90 as perhaps the finest SUV ever built, we find ourselves searching for superlatives again, this time about where the all-new S90 plugs in among the hotly contested luxury sedan segment.
Competition includes such luminaries as BMW 5-Series, Audi A6, Mercedes E-Class, Lexus GS or LS, Acura RLX, Infiniti Q70, Jaguar XF or XJ, and Porsche Panamera. After only brief driving stints in the new S90, there seems no question it can compete with all of those established stars in performance, features and spacious comfort, and the new Volvo is unexcelled when it comes to safety, of course, and maybe also to technology.
Despite the acclaim given the XC90, Volvo knows the auto media is filled with cynics, so nothing was left to chance when the time came to introduce its all-new S90 sedan. Volvo summoned selected auto journalists to Spain, and more precisely to the Spanish Riviera. My thought is the cynics must have stayed home, because everybody I talked to was as impressed as I was about the new car.
Volvo designers took the XC90 — their “Swedish Sanctuary” — and lowered it down to sedan size, keeping the new signature grille and nose, but wrapping the same superb platform in a stylish shape with pleasing contours. It looks absolutely nothing like any previous-generation Volvo sedan, but retains a familial appearance with the XC90, while further establishing the corporation’s new direction for style.
Officially, the S90 replaces the outgoing S80 in Volvo’s lineup. A V90 station wagon accompanies the S90, with smooth lines on what is, surprisingly, 3 inches shorter than the sedan.
Under the hood and body is the same powertrain as the XC90, which means a potent, high-tech 2.0-liter, dual-overhead-camshaft 4-cylinder, which feels much larger armed with a turbocharger, and MUCH larger when fitted with both a supercharger and turbocharger for all-wheel drive. Still to come is the T8, with supercharger, turbo, and a sophisticated hybrid system running the rear wheels.
Volvo engineers stress that Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Ford, and others are also building small 4s and using turbos to bolster the power of larger displacement. True, but Volvo caught the world by surprise by vaulting to the forefront of such impressive technology.
In the S90, the optional supercharging gives the little turbo 4 startling acceleration off the line, and turbocharging allows it to mimic V6 or V8 power at higher RPMs.
“Of course we had some the normal issues during development,” said Lutz Stiegler, a high-level German engineer hand-picked to move to Gothenburg three years ago and become senior director of Volvo powertrain controls and calibration. “Since we launched the car, nothing happened to worry us any more than any previous engine.The complexity increased, but our quality also increased, and even under extreme conditions, we’ve gotten similar or better results in reliability than in our previous engines.”
Different models with different packages start with the 250-horsepower, front-wheel-drive T5 at $47,945, while the all-wheel drive 316-HP T6 version is $53,945. Volvo officials anticipate 50-50 sales between the two. Moving up to the best-appointed Inscription model fills the S90 with features and luxury and boosts the T5 sticker to $51,445 with FWD, or $57,145 for the T6 AWD.
All engine varieties are coordinated to either front or all wheels by an Aisin 8-speed automatic, which Volvo engineers claim is better for efficiency than those with more or fewer speeds, or CVT, continuously-variable transmissions. It has second-generation shift paddles mounted on the steering wheel for manual operation.
“We use an Aisin 8-speed transmission from Japan, which Volvo has been using for 41 years now,” Stiegler said. “The transmission is so important in combination with our engine, and we need extremely fast torque-reduction.”
The turbo-4 in the T5 model has 258 foot-pounds of torque with its 250 horsepower, and runs 0-60 mph in 6.5 seconds, while the supercharged and turbocharged T6 has 295 foot-pounds along with its 316 horsepower, and can burst 0-60 in 5.7 seconds. All Volvos will be powered by that 2.0 engine, and Stiegler said, “We will never again make a normally aspirated engine.” He did indicate that a new replacement for the compact S40 will be powered by a turbo 3-cylinder, which will be the 2.0 with one cylinder lopped off.
Volvos always are unexcelled when it comes to seats, and the S90’s are improved, if that’s possible, with thinner backrests but still orthopedically designed for optimal comfort and also to minimize injuries and prevent the occupant’s body from being compressed in an accident.
We were anxious enough without any distractions, but we had them, for certain. As the old Hoyt Axton song goes, “I’ve never been to Spain,” so with great eagerness I flew from Duluth to Minneapolis, to New York, and then nonstop to Malaga, Spain. There, we hopped on a charter bus and rode for an hour toward the southwest, arriving at a place called the Kempinski Resort Spa. Another hour and we’d have been at Gibralter.
When we walked into the huge Kempinski lobby, there was a new S90, parked as an indoor display to entice us a bit more. The rooms were fabulous, with balconies looking out to a courtyard with swimming pools and small food and beverage stands. Walk down another row of stairs, past the lounge chairs, and you are about 50 feet from sticking your toes into the Mediterranean. Another thing I had never done before.
A week would not have been sufficient for enjoying all that the Kempinski had to offer. We had a downtown sidewalk dinner of never-ending family-style courses that were delectable, if sometimes unidentifiable. A night of sound sleep fought off jet-lag, and the next morning, after an expansive breakfast buffet looking out on the blue-green Mediterranean, we were off in our fleet of Volvo S90 Inscriptions.
The car performed admirably, with surprising speed and cornering agility, especially while handling the Spanish freeway system and, even better, the mountain roads laid out for our prescribed course. The firmness of the new platform the S90 shares with the XC90 added to the secure, solid feeling, and the new suspension with double wishbones up front and transverse leaf or optional air-suspension at the rear aided handling.
The solid feel is part of Volvo’s traditional safety focus, a constantly evolving focus on occupant safety. The S90 is made of high grade steel, with over 30 percent of it made of ultra-high-strength steel, which is better than “very high strength,” or merely high strength. After making the car as safe structurally as it can be, Volvo now is focused on making the driver safer and easing the interaction between driver and car.
“This car has the latest active safety,” said Thomas Broberg, who is in charge of Volvo’s elaborate safety facility in Gothenburg. “With our sensors, radar, cameras and computers, this car can see and feel what the driver is doing. It is prepared for the next step of connectivity, too, and is an enabler for what you want and what you’ll need in the future.”
On our final day, we went by bus to Malaga, which is the birthplace of Picasso, and we were able to tour an old castle as well as walk through Picasso’s own hometown museum. We learned that all those weird Picasso paintings with two different-looking faces juxtaposed, represent relationships between lovers, where they blend into one unified person. I may have to take a new look at Picasso’s work — including the one we have hanging in our house!
Filed under: Autos, Features, New car introductions
The rich memories of my childhood include our family drives, usually on Sunday afternoons, in the rural areas north of Duluth, Minnesota. From the back seat of our black, 1951 DeSoto sedan, my sister and I would join my mom and dad playing word games, usually picking some everyday object and trying to prevent the rest of the family from identifying it. While asking for clues, the common starter was: “Is it bigger than a breadbox?”
There’s no time for family drives anymore, it seems, and our own two sons are adults, growing up before current electronic connectivity, videos and smartphones replaced guessing games. And what the heck is a breadbox, anyway?
Chrysler LLC has done its best to recapture that nostalgic era of family drives and possibly rekindle the demand for the family utility of minivans when it introduced the 2017 Pacifica, a totally renovated version of its once and present — and maybe future — premier family hauler. The Pacifica is Chrysler’s new minivan, a vehicle which might best be described as the automotive version of a breadbox; it stores people the way breadboxes used to store assorted loaves of fresh-baked bread.
In a unique idea, Chrysler invited auto journalists to The Resort at Pelican Hills, just south of Los Angeles, and to bring our families along. No limit on how many kids in a family, but they they had to fit into one room. However, The Resort at Pelican Hills offers more than just a room. More of a series of individual 3-bedroom condos complete with three bathrooms, a living room, dining room, kitchen, and enormous space, including outside decks, overlooking over a golf course with the Pacific Ocean just beyond.
How sophisticated was The Resort at Pelican Hills? The condo immediately next to us housed Ben Roethlisberger, the gigantic Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, with a revolving assortment of friends. Ben usually left the garage door open, giving us a good view of his gleaming white Ferrari, and a more symbolic view of why big-time quarterbacks need multi-million-dollar annual salaries.
For the auto journalists, there was no age limit on the “kids.” Unfortunately our younger son, Jeff, couldn’t join his older brother, Jack, and my wife, Joan, and me. Joan and Jack always have contributed opinions to my reviews for Newcarpicks, so it was sort of like a field trip for the three of us. Joan always has helps me evaluate test cars at home, and Jack provides views, and supplements my passion for photographing cars at car shows or Midwest Auto Media Association rally events.
As we first approached the Pacifica, and before we had even climbed aboard, Joan said: “I like the design. It’s really beautiful and sleek — especially for a minivan.”
The plan included each family getting a Pacifica for a full day of free time, either on your own or following planned trips itineraries in Los Angeles, Hollywood, or on down the Coast to San Diego — the perfect way to learn first-hand all the Pacifica could offer as a contemporary family hauler.
The striking appearance of the exterior led to some questions for chief designer Brandon Faurote, because while designing the Pacifica, it was an all-new breadbox, but a breadbox nonetheless. “There’s no better way to move people and cargo than a minivan,” he said. “If you have three kids, there’s nothing better.”
On the road, we drove south, and then through the Southern California mountain curves inland from San Diego to the Safari affiliate location of the world-famous San Diego Zoo. It was plenty twisty, but the tight steering allowed us trace perfect arcs around the tightest, more like a sports sedan. As if to provide a subtle analogy, the Safari staff provided a speed test with a cheetah, which sped past in an elongated cage, chasing a spring-loaded bait and nearly catching it, with a 0-70 mph burst that eluded the naked eye, but, fortunately, was caught on camera.
Later we cruised to Laguna Beach, various coastal towns and shops, restaurants and other attractions, always in spacious comfort. Jack, mostly encased in the rear seats, enjoyed the flexibility of the Stow ‘n Go arrangement to fold the second-row buckets flat into the floor. He didn’t get as much time as he’d have liked to watch the video screen and use the wireless speakers on the optional Infinity sound system, but he could appreciate the tight stability and handling from back there.
“It’s the perfect vehicle,” said Jack, a confirmed 2-door coupe zealot who once played guitar in a rock band. “It handles like a sports car, with enough room for the whole band. The Wi-Fi on board is one of the most useful things ever.
“It’s extremely quiet, for as rigid as the suspension is. Maybe it’s because we’re driving on roads without potholes. We’re just not used to that in Minnesota. And the Stow ‘n’ Go seats are now power operated.”
Joan was the ideal scrutinizer for the finer interior touches, such as the large and stylishly finished nav screen, flush with its border. She liked the soft-touch material that covered the whole dash and gave it an extra feel of luxury.
“Inside, I like everything, including the layout of the instruments and things like the rotating shift dial on the console,” said Joan. She was more impressed the second day, when we moved up from the fully competent base model to the Limited. “Back seats are not always comfortable in minivans, but this one is,” she said. “The front seats are more comfortable in the Limited, too. If we had a family of young kids, I’d get one of these, because there is not one thing to not like.
“The way it’s set up for baby seats is great, and the Stow ‘n’ Go gives you a place to put your purse or other valuables. Every car should have that. They must have a mom on the design staff.”
That was all part of the plan, said Faurote, the designer who created a vehicle that most resembles an amalgamation of a minivan, SUV, and station wagon. “We wanted to appeal to both side of the brain, both the rational and emotional sides. We started from the ground up and changed the proportions by stretching the wheelbase, enlarging the wheels and tires, and widening the track significantly to give it a really strong presence on the road. We tried to round the corners off the box, to make it more appealing to the emotional side, versus the rational side. Something people really wanted to buy, rather than just needed to buy.”
In this connective age, we all know that features such as the Pacifica’s video screens in the backrests of the front buckets, and the larger rear-seat ceiling screen, have become the modern method for eliminating the constant “Are we there yet?” questions from kids who have lost their patience.
That, in fact, was perhaps Joan’s only criticism. We know that video games have become the pacifier/babysitter for a new generation. Can we imagine kids from today someday reminiscing about how they can’t remember anything about the family trip to the Grand Canyon, but that was the trip where they recorded their highest score in (insert name of favorite overused video)?
“I wouldn’t want the back video screens,” said Joan, recalling some great memories from actually looking out the windows at the real world speeding past, the way we used to do when our sons were kids.
Filed under: Autos, New car introductions
By John Gilbert
What would happen, I hear you ask, if all the slick new styling, interior features and attractions of SUVs and CUVs were combined with the family-friendly spaciousness and efficiency of a contemporary minivan, in one all-new vehicle? The result would be the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica — a brilliantly designed and finished family transportation module that could recapture the popularity once enjoyed by minivans.
A lot of the changes are subtle, and from a distance the Pacifica certainly looks like a minivan. But make no mistake: The Pacifica is entirely new, from its platform on up to its panoramic sunroof, and from its sleekly aerodynamic nose to its bob-tailed magnesium and aluminum liftgate. More than that, it drives brand new — more like a sports sedan than a soccer-mom-mobile, while pampering its occupants in quiet luxury.
The minivan as a U.S. automotive craze apparently ran its course in the three decades since.the sibling Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country created, expanded, and then dominated the segment that once sold about a million units per year. That number has dropped by about 50 percent as consumers become more and more infatuated with sports utility vehicles and now CUVs. But a half-million potential sales are still a lucrative target, and demographics indicating more kids are on the way might foretell a comeback for a vehicle that never really went away. Read more
Filed under: Autos, New car introductions
By John Gilbert
Hyundai has been on an impressive upwardly-mobile roll ever since the 2011 model year, reaching levels of achievement in design and technology that couldn’t have been predicted. The Sonata has become a midsize mainstay, the Santa Fe and Tucson dependable entries in the sports-utility segments, the Genesis among sports-luxury sedans, the Accent as a subcompact, and the Veloster as a quirky specialty coupe.
There also is the compact Elantra, which was restyled for 2014, amid major upgrades to all the other vehicles coming from the South Korean manufacturer, and the Elantra surprised many even at Hyundai by winning the North American Car of the Year award in 2014, when it was last redesigned, right there among the world-class competition such as Civic, Mazda3, Corolla, Sentra and Jetta.
But now Hyundai has done it. The newest redesign of the compact Elantra for 2017 is so good it might be TOO good! I suggested to Hyundai officials that if the Sonata wasn’t one of my favorite vehicles in the automotive world, I would say the new Elantra is so good I’m not sure the Sonata is still needed.
The Sonata looks good, and the new Elantra looks like a slightly downsized Sonata, so the comparison begs to be made. A bit longer than the current model, considerably stiffer, stunning in its exterior restyling, and with driveability that is vastly improved in engine performance, steering and suspension, the new Elantra rates a “10” in every aspect, including a level of quietness that is startling for a compact. Read more
Filed under: Autos, New car introductions
By John Gilbert
The refrain sounded similar: a luxury auto-builder claiming that it could build a car that was so advanced that it would be bigger, stronger, stiffer, wider, and better-performing than “the competition.”
The competition of large luxury cars always seems is the same German triumvirate — the Mercedes S-Class, the BMW 7-Series, and the Audi A8. And while the new claims are impressive, the refrain seems wearisome, because it simply doesn’t apply once you get the car on the road.
But this time it had a different sound, because the new contender is the Cadillac CT6. You’re excused if the alpha-numeric tendency of contemporary car-makers leaves you perpetually perplexed. If not, see if you can name and identify all the Toyota Scion models, but do it quickly, before the Scion line disappears. In this case, the CT6 has nothing to do with the CTS, except by surname.
The CT6 is Cadillac’s new big sedan, a worthy replacement for all those big land yachts Cadillac used to turn out, only this one is loaded up with cutting-edge technology from its platform to its suspension, to its unique-to-Cadillac twin-turbo, dual-overhead-camshaft 3.0-liter V6.
It was first described to us by a speaker with a distinct German accent. It was Johan DeNysschen, whose name might be familiar because he is the CEO of Cadillac these days, after holding similar titles at such august companies as Audi and Infiniti, where we learned that his cars and his companies rose to prominence just as he said they would.
And he knows the German competition. He was addressing the auto media assembled at The Level, a modern, trendy hotel in Los Angeles, chosen to give us all the feeling of how the new Cadillac CT6 would fit into life in the big city. But reality got in the way of logistics. Read more