Filed under: Autos, New car introductions
By John Gilbert
SANTA MONICA, Calif. — As Volkswagen stirs and juggles executives in the wake of its incredible diesel emission-cheating scandal, the company continues to make bold and aggressive moves to keep, and even attract new, customers. The latest moves for the 2017 model year have been toward the can’t-miss sport-utility vehicle segment.
First, Volkswagen restructured the popular SportWagen, which recently was switched from Jetta to Golf livery, then VW specifically reinforced it and altered its objective for all-terrain duty as its new Alltrack, a beefier sibling to the SportWagen. Having tested the Alltrack in the Pacific Northwest, I can attest to how impressive it is with its 4Motion system carrying its new and stiffer frame on some serious offroad trails.
The Atlas is the largest SUV Volkswagen has ever built in overall dimensions, and it answers the demands of VW dealers and customers who have clamored for a VW that will haul a larger family. It is, officially, a midsize SUV, which differentiates it significantly from the popular compact crossover trend. It is 198.3 inches long, 77.9 inches wide, and 69.6 inches tall.
Right on the heels of the Alltrack, Volkswagen invited selected automotive journalists to Santa Monica, where we went out to a nearby enclosed facility on the beach adjacent to the legendary Santa Monica Pier for the unveiling of the Atlas — another new and still larger Volkswagen SUV.
“It is designed for American buyers and will be built at our American factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee,” said Hinrich Woebcken, CEO of VW Group of America. “We are adding $900 million to our factory, and that will help with our impressive electrification program. We intend to have 30 electirified vehicles by 2025.”
The Volkswagen Atlas will, Woebcken said, “offer a feeling of strength and presence, with full seven-seat capability. “Our second-row seats will allow easy fit of child safety seats, and we think we have the best access to a third row of any SUV. And it’s lots of fun to drive,” Woebcken said.
That would be a carryover characteristic of all Volkswagen vehicles; they’ve always have had a secure handling feel to the suspension and steering, and a sportiness to the engines with built-in fuel efficiency.
Of course, missing in the equation is the always dependable VW turbo-diesel arsenal, all of which have been eliminated from sales, and even sales consideration, in the U.S. It goes back, of course, to the trick Volkswagen pulled to design an emission control system that would operate in full force whenever being tested for emissions, but would restrict some of the emission devices when not being tested, resulting in a bit more power and a bit better fuel economy.
When it was detected, nobody in the auto industry could believe the extent Volkswagen went to hide the system, disguise it, and appear surprised by it. Several top executives have lost their jobs in the aftermath, and the word now is that the popular turbo-diesel powerplants — known for being 300,000-mile type durable and 45-50 miles per gallon fuel efficient — would cease to exist as far as the U.S. is concerned. Volkswagen TDI owners are now getting their vehicles bought back by the company, because no efficient fix seems to be coming. So there won’t be any turbo-diesels in the new Atlas, or in the new Alltrack for that matter.
Fortunately for VW, its gasoline engines are all of the highest order right now, and their fuel economy has been increased to the point of actually being competitive with the exceptional turbo-diesel levels. The SUV-style vehicles won’t get that sort of fuel economy, but it should do well.
The Atlas, listed as a 2018 model, won’t reach dealerships until after the first of the 2017 calendar year, probably early summer. As a large and strucurally sound vehicle, it will require some power to move it, and that power will come from either a 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder with 238 horsepower, or the somewhat legendary 3.6-liter VR6, with 280 horsepower.
The VR6 has been a mainstay of VW for decades, although of course it has been upgraded to modern technology. A normal V6 has three cylinders firing opposite each other, driven by the same crankshaft at the bottom of the V; in the VR6, the two banks of cylinders are much narrower, actually alternating in location to facilitate the narrowness required for all the cylinders in both banks to be covered by the same cylinder head.
The engine has always been sufficiently powerful while delivering adequate fuel economy. In the Atlas, the 4-cylinder turbo will only be sold with front-wheel drive, while the VR6 will be available either with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive — the aforementioned 4Motion system.
Both engines will be governed by an 8-speed dual-clutch transmission, which is a clutchless manual that shifts via two encased clutch units, each operating alternating gears — first, third, fifth and seventh shifted by one clutch, while second, fourth, sixth and eighth are shifted by the other.
Inside, the digital cockpit display is designed within a clean interior — Woebcken calls it “elegant” — and the A pillars along the leading edge of the front doors are designed very thin to aid visibility.
Digital connectivity is important to the company, and the Atlas will include Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Mirror Link, standard, and an optional Fender audio system with 480 watts and eight speakers.
“We are making a brand new journey into the heart of the U.S, market,” Woebcken said, noting that the Atlas, will compete with the Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander as its primary targets.
While the Atlas has a tall and somewhat blunt look, Darryl Harrison from VW’s marketing oversight, said, “It will be between the Touareg and Tiguan in size. It comes on the MQB platform, which is scalable, coming on the new Golf, and soon to come on the new Jetta and Passat.”
Wheelbase is 108 inches, which makes a rigid platform, better for durability, and VW always has been adept at making firm-handling vehicles feel supple enough to confront road hazards without being harsh.
The rows of seating are in a 2-3-2 configuration, with the middle second-row seat fixed, but the outside seats capable of sliding fore and aft independently for occupant comfort but also to allow easier access to the third row.
The Alltrack, by comparison, doesn’t look much different from the SportWagen, although it is reinforced considerably, and it is not only rock-solid on the highway, but will do a fair impersonation of a mountain goat whenever you’re tempted to go off-road.
The Alltrack slides under both the longer Touareg and the compact Tiguan, being a more-rugged Sportwagen. Lighter and more agile than we can suppose the so-far static display Atlas, the Alltrack also rides on the MQB platform and is powered by VW’s highly efficient 1.8-liter turbo 4, with fifth generation 4Motion all-wheel drive, which has an electro-hydraulic clutch-pack differential.
With Alltrack models starting in the mid-$20,000 range, the yet-undisclosed Atlas pricing will undoubtedly be mid-$30,000. As a dedicated fan of compact crossover SUVs (CUVs), I am partial to the Alltrack as a lower and more agile version of even a CUV, although it is a couple of inches taller for ground clearance than the SportWagen.
With the rush of 1.8, 2.0, and 3.6 engines, Volkswagen also is introducing a new 1.4-liter turbo 4-cylinder in the Jetta only for the new model year, but it is quick and fuel-efficient, and comes from a newer and more high-tech family than the long-running 2.0 or its 1.8 derivative.
All of those engines, performing so well and so fuel-efficiently but gasoline, and run strongly enough that it almost makes you forget about the late, lamented turbo-diesel.
Filed under: Autos, Weekly test drives
By John Gilbert
In the process of test-driving new cars, sometimes there are surprises and sometimes things just happen to break right. When I had the chance to drive a vehicle back from the Midwest Auto Media Association fall rally in the South Chicago suburb of Joliet, I welcomed the opportunity.
The vehicle would be a 2017 Mazda3, which is the compact vehicle Mazda made a decade or so ago that revolutionized the compact segment, forcing Honda to upgrade its Civic, Toyota to improve its Corolla, Nissan to improve its Sentra, and begin a trend that has led compacts to replace midsize cars as the most popular car segment.
The 2017 model I would be driving didn’t look a lot different than the current 2016 model, but it was a car that had just been delivered to the press fleet outlet I was working with, and there was something special about being the first media person in the U.S. to get a chance to drive a new model.
The Mazda3 has always been a tightly built vehicle, with excellent handling and peppy performance, while delivering outstanding fuel economy. I’ve driven Mazda3 models every year, sometimes more than one, and ever since Mazda developed its technically brilliant Skyactive engine concept, with both the 2.0 and 2.3-liter 4-cylinder engines getting the holistic treatment and both working in the Mazda3, it has been even better.
My older son and fellow MAMA member Jack and I cruised effortlessly from Chicago up through Wisconsin to Duluth, Minnesota, with only one post-breakfast stop, in Wisconsin Dells for spectacular popcorn. We got from 38 to 43 miles per gallon for the trip, more on the first part, in Chicago traffic strangely enough.
The extra sportiness I discovered I attributed to the fact that the test car had a 6-speed manual transmission. Almost a forgotten asset, I couldn’t remember the last time I drove a Mazda3 with a stick, but whenever you drive two identical cars, the one with a stick shift always feels sportier than the automatic. So I figured that’s why the new Mazda3 felt so special.
It handled every curve and every lane change as though it was linked to my psyche, almost anticipating my moves before I made them, which, in turn, made them all smooth and, as the saying goes, as though we were on rails.
The Mazda3 comes in sedan or hatchback, and the hatchback we drove is like a compact utility vehicle in a compact sedan body. It was quick and performed better than it looked, and it looked great! It has a slightly raised rear to house the hatchback and the roomy storage space underneath it.
Mazda, meanwhile, has been working for years to develop a new handling precision feature called G-vectoring. It is a fascinating result of some bold and creative thinking by Mazda engineers, who have long benefitted by the company’s small size and progressive concepts.
The Skyactive engine is an example, a revolutionary method for building an engine from the ground up, combining all the latest technologies into an engine that over-achieves. For evidence, consider that usually an engine with more than 9-to-1 compression ratio requires premium fuel to avoid pinging or engine damage; the Skyactive engines have 13-to-1 compression and require regular. Now that’s engineering.
I wanted to learn more about G-vectoring, which is designed to make the car respond much quicker and more accurately to driver input for sharp cornering. It sounds like it would make a car sportier, but the intention is to make it safer, and more predictable for both the driver and passengers.
Dave Coleman, a Mazda engineer, explained it. “We’ve studied how a car responds to driver input,” Coleman said. “Not necessarily for performance, but more as an interface between driver and car — a sense of intuition. We studied the differences of accelerating, braking, going uphill or downhill.”
Going downhill, with the weight on the front wheels, makes a car handle more critically. Though less acute, the principle translates to level roads, too. Making a sharp left turn, for example, means the driver anticipates, times it right, and turns the steering wheel. If it’s perfect, fine; if not, then the driver has to correct, and then possibly correct again the other way to be heading in a straight vector..
In exhaustive tests, using an electronic switch to activate or deactivate the system, Mazda proved that if the car’s power is lessened just slightly to the outside front wheel, just an instant before a turn, the corner can be taken with far better precision. When a driver makes a sharp turn, he anticipates what’s coming and can brace his head; the passenger can’t anticipate it as well, and gets his or her head snapped around. Car sickness is made of such things.
Pushing down on the outside front tire a bit, and cutting the power to it slightly, reduced the load on it. The tendency for that outside front corner to dip slightly feeds into the driver’s instincts for turning. The driver won’t notice the slightly reduced power, only that the car handles with quicker precision.
With the system that will be installed on some 2017 Mazdas, and will expand to ultimately include all cars and SUVs in the Mazda lineup, there is no optional switch to control it. It simply works automatically, and — trust me on this — you won’t notice it when the computer reads the g-forces and signals the drop in power.
As a skeptic, I told Coleman I had just driven a new 2017 Mazda3 with a stick shift from Chicago to Duluth, and then
around Duluth with extensive hill climbs, particularly up to Hawk Ridge to watch some of the annual raptor flight from the bluff above the city’s east end. I couldn’t imagine any car handling better than this Mazda3 already did. When I went around a turn hard, I never seemed to have to correct the steering, because it was so precise in the first place.
“That was a 2017 Mazda3?” Coleman asked me.
“Yes,” I answered. “They told me it hadn’t been driven and was brand new. But it handled fantastically, which I attributed to the fact it was a stick.”
“That car,” said Coleman, “was equipped with G-vectoring.”
Just like that, I’m a believer.
My long-held theory about highway accidents is that many occur when a driver makes a sharp turn — to go around a curve or to swerve to miss a deer in the roadway — and oversteers, then must correct, and when he corrects, he tends to over-correct, possibly because of adrenaline, and is out of control.
With the Mazda3, maybe that could happen. With the 2017 Mazda3 with G-vectoring, much less likely. Your first tendency to turn is read by the instant-acting computer which alters the outside front wheel’s downforce and power in the blink of an eye, and all you know is that your heightened instinct left no need for correction. And thus, no over-correction.
“We worked for a lot of years, but when we developed the Skyactive engines, and the transmissions, and computers, it finally all came together,” Coleman said.
He added that the system will be seamlessly installed on the 2017 Mazda6 and Mazda3, and will migrate to also include the CX-3 and CX-5 crossover utility vehicles.
If there was a perfect way to test the system and be caught totally off-guard by its success in making the car handle and feel better, getting behind the wheel in the stick-shift Mazda3 for a week-long road test was the perfect surprise.
Filed under: Autos, New car introductions, Weekly test drives
By John Gilbert
It’s difficult enough for a car-maker to try to compete in the most intense segment in the industry, but for Kia it’s even more of a challenge, because it had to additionally compete with Hyundai, its South Korean partner and benefactor, before coming out with the 2017 Kia Sportage.
Compact crossover SUVs are currently the rage in automotives, and finally we’ve got a trend that makes sense. If larger or midsize SUVs have more space than cars and can haul everything at once, they also cost more money, require larger engines and therefore suffer when it comes to fuel economy, and they are more difficult to drive in congested traffic, let alone park.
The trend a decade ago to downsize from large SUVs to midsize was, therefore, logical and made economic sense. Whne the trend continued, down from midsize to compact crossover SUVs (CUVs), they proved enormously popular. If the room is adequate, the compacts could boast of much better sticker prices, and sportier handling with smaller, peppier and more fuel-efficient engines.
A perfect example is the 2017 Kia Sportage, the compact little brother to the solidly entrenched midsize Kia Sorento. It is a parallel vehicle to Hyundai’s Tucson, but there are significant differences, leaving both with distinct advantages.
Hyundai took over Kia almost a decade ago, and the two have been raised as separate but equal companies, both benefitting by the other’s successes. Hyundai was on the verge of an engine-making breakthrough right about then, and Kia came along with some equally brilliant design ideas. That helped make it more of a merger than a takeover, and both kept turning out exceptional vehicles from the smallest compact cars up through luxury vehicles, and with SUVs that filled all the required gaps. Read more
Filed under: Autos, Weekly test drives
By John Gilbert
When summer lingers into fall, and summer-like days reach into November, it’s the time fond memories are rekindled. Similarly, whenever the term “sports car” is mentioned in my presence, I slip into an instant reverie about a curvy roadway on an autumn afternoon, sunshine everywhere and colored leaves scattered all around.
Into that pastoral scene comes a two-seat roadster, top down, engine smoothly sounding out its powerful potential while being kept within the restraints of a light right foot. As the roadster approaches, it carves the curvature of the roadway perfectly, and as it passes, it leaves a swirling wake of blowing leaves.
Now THAT’S what a true sports car should be. It’s always been that way in my mind, and this autumn of 2016 is the perfect scenario, because in the Northland, instead of Gales of November, we’re all pretty astonished that we’re watching thermometers rise into the 60s.
If it’s a perfect scenario for a roadster, there also are a couple of roadsters that perfectly fit the scene as well. We all know and love the Mazda MX-5 Miata, the most enduring affordable sports car on the planet. And the newly redesigned Miata now has a sibling, in disguise this time around — the Fiat 124 Spider.
Back when Fiat used to send cars to the U.S. in the 1960s, one of the most popular was the Fiat 124, both in coupe and roadster form. The coupe was a 2-plus-2 with an actual rear seat. The roadster, however, was the Spider — a true sports car, with a soft top that could be stowed behind the two bucket seats, and a willing and great-sounding 4-cylinder engine.
Fiat is making its return to the U.S., with its little compact 500 sedan, and all its derivatives, and now, for 2017, the return of the 124 Spider. To create the new Spider, Fiat worked out a deal with Mazda for the new MX-5 Miata platform. But it wasn’t content to just rebadge the Miata and use its splendid Skyactive 4-cylinder engine. Instead, Fiat pulled out its own 1.4-liter 4-cylinder from the Fiat 500 Abarth pocket-rocket, and fitted it into the new 124.
As good as the Miata is at performing and handling when you throw it into a turn or whirl around a cloverleaf with perfect precision, the Fiat 124 Spider rivals that. Fiat added 5 inches of length to stretch the 124 out into an elongated shape that becomes distinctive when you park it next to a Miata. Read more
Filed under: Autos, Weekly test drives
By John Gilbert
Dodge intends to end production of the Viper sports car when the currentBu supply runs out. But if it’s painful to accept that the Viper’s time has elapsed, so to speak , it’s easier to accept if you’ve driven the Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat.
The two-seat Viper has an overwhelmingly powerful 8.4-liter V10 engine delivering 645 horsepower and 600 foot-pounds of torque, but it can’t match the bark, or the bite, of the Challenger Hellcat. Lighter and leaner, the 2-plus-2 Challenger has a highly refined 6.2-liter Hemi V8, supercharged to generate 707 horsepower and 650 foot-pounds of torque, meaning the Challenger Hellcat’s bite makes it the most powerful production car in the country.
No less impressive is its bark. Turn it on, and the Challenger Hellcat will turn you on, with a soul-stirring roar that shakes the ground and rattles the walls and leaves you smiling with relief, knowing you didn’t blow out any of the neighborhood windows.
The Viper is a harsh, no-compromise brute, while the Challenger can be bought mild, with a supple suspension under the base 3.6-liter V6, or the 5.7 or even 6.4 ScatPak V8s. But when you select the SRT Hellcat’s supercharged and specially built 6.2 liter V8 gem, you are at the pinnacle.
The Challenger is Dodge’s future-retro coupe that as a faithful reproduction of the 1970s Trans-Am coupes, clearly beats both the Mustang and Camaro. It also has become the largest-selling car in Dodge’s livery. To beat the competition in performance will cost you, of course.
In basic V6 form, a Challenger provides the same look for under $30,000. Moving up past the normal Hemi to the Hellcat moves the sticker price up, and up again, to $62,495. The stunning red Hellcat as-tested during a week on the North Shore of Lake Superior and the cliffs of Duluth was an SRT Hellcat with a sticker of $71,370. That is still $25,000 or so less than the most basic Viper, however, and it fills up all your known senses and lets you discover a few you didn’t know you had.
We can start with the visual, because the factory test Hellcat was painted Redline Red TriCoat Pearl, a darker shade than the usual “arrest-me red” featured on msny sporty cars, and the paint is so loaded with metallic particles it fairly glows at you when the sun hits it. I thought it was a very attractive paint job; my wife, Joan, said if Dodge made the right vehicle in our price range in that color, she would buy it.
Open the door and you are greeted with remarkably rich Laguna Leather SRT bucket seats and, tastefully appointed aluminum trim as occupant-viewed accents. The unique gadgetry that sets the Hellcat apart is located on the large center screen, and imbedded between the large speedometer and tachometer on the instrument panel. That’s where the unique fun of owning a Hellcat comes home to roost.
You code your smart-phone in for hands-free duty, and start playing with the various set-ups. On one page, you get brightly colored choices that let you set the power, steering, suspension, and various other driving plans to street, sport, or track. I didn’t discover this trick until I had spent a couple of days jarring every bone in my body over simple road irregularities. Once I softened up the ride and suspension settings, leaving the engine and steering settings on sporty, the Challenger was much more user-friendly.
I recalled from the introduction of the vehicle that one of the car’s high-tech gimmicks is the red and black key fobs. If you use the red one, you get the full 707 horsepower and 650 foot-pounds of torque; if you use the black one, it inhibits the power to 500 horsepower. So if you’ve got a teenage kid who wants to take the car for a spin, you can give him the black fob…because we all know (wink, wink) you can’t get into much trouble with “only” 500 horsepower.
Over the years, Dodge’s SRT arm has refined the top Challenger. It now rides on 275/40 R20 Pirelli P-Zero tires, mounted on 20-inch matte-black forged wheels, measuring 9.5 inches wide. The Hellcat suspension holds those grippy tires properly in line, and you can control all the power with the reinforced 8-speed TorqueFlite transmission, which, in turn, can be controlled by fingertip paddle shifters on the comfortably padded steering wheel.
But there’s more, and if money is no object, it’s hard to imagine having more performance-oriented legal fun than with a Challenger Hellcat. Fill it up with fuel. Premium seems logical, but there is no designation, so you could try to sneak by with midgrade or regular. Then find a straight, smooth, and remote stretch of highway. Time to get ready.
Rack over the computer apps to find performance, and summon up the proper screen. Switch the electronic toggle under power to 700, te trans setting to track, the paddles to on, toggle the traction from street past sport to track, and do the same with suspension — from street to sport to track. Now go back to the instrument cluster and with your left thumb scroll down until you get to Performance. Click it, and set your choice of 0-30, 0-60, 0-100, or quarter-mile. Next it advises you, “To launch, press brake and quickly apply full throttle.” Another screen comes up to start a digital countdown — 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.
Cut the timing as close as you dare, and the launch control instantaneously releases the Challenger Hellcat with as much urgency as you dare to apply. You can paddle shift it or let it shift by itself, but you will get to your predetermined speed — 30, 60, 100 or quarter-mile — as swiftly as you ever could, this side of a Pro Stock.
When you finish, you will see an accurate electronic readout that tells you your elapsed time to the hundredths of a second. And it will tell you your reaction time. If you are not cutting your starting time close, your reaction time will be lousy; if you cut it close, it will be good. It is, in effect, as neat as a professional drag-race timer.
If your chosen deserted roadway is rural, you might be able to make 0-60 runs without violating the law! If so, you could spend an afternoon, and a tankful of fuel, having the most fun you can have in a car, this side of Brainerd International Raceway.
Amazingly, you can drive the Challenger Hellcat routinely, enjoying all the safety amenities and only small doses of the noise with the precise handling and steering, and you might get it over 20 miles per gallon on the highway.
You don’t have to drive it to its limits, but if you’ve spent all that money, why wouldn’t you?
The Viper is dead. Long live the Challenger SRT Hellcat.