Review: 2010 Audi R8 5.2 FSI V10

2010 Audi R8 5.2 FSI V10

Sigh. Another day, another 500+ horsepower supercar to babysit for a week. Such is my lot in life. Obviously I'm joking, to a degree. To be honest, I wasn't that particularly jazzed about the Audi R8 with the defanged Lambo LP560-4 V10 shoehorned behind the seats, especially as I had prior knowledge that the more proper six-speed manual R8 5.2 FS I was supposed to get had been unceremoniously replaced by the slusher, R-Tronic version. Before continuing one sentence further, am I aware that I sound like the world's most spoiled rotten brat? Oh yes.

But see, the thing is, I've driven the regular-strength V8 R8 and you know what? There's nothing wrong with it. Perfectly neutral handling, 420 eager horses and looks that kill, or at least attract eyeballs like nothing I've seen this side of pornography. While more horsepower is always welcome, the notion that the 5.2-liter V10 "only" makes 105 ponies more combined with the extra weight just didn't set off any great alarm bells of excitement. I'll put it to you like this: I was much more excited when the 2010 Nissan GT-R showed up at my door.

It's now seven days, four tanks of gasoline and 870 miles later. I drove the wheels off the world's most expensive Audi, thrice. On every type of road, over every type of surface, never venturing more than a few miles from home. I mention that last bit because discounting long trips, I've never put so many miles on a press car. Has my tune changed? Is the ten-cylinder R8 worth the $25,000 price premium over it's "lesser" sibling? Perhaps most importantly, is the Audi R8 5.2 FSI an actual, honest-to-goodness everyday supercar? Jump and find out. And if you don't feel like jumping, please for the good of your eyes, take a few minutes to peruse the gallery, as it is one of our finest ever.

There are two ways to tackle this review. The first would be to make as if I'm texting my 18-year-old soon-to-be sister-in-law: OMG! OMG! OMG! The other would be the responsible, semi-journalistic approach where for every high point, I balance it with some bad news (0-60 mph in 3.7 seconds and 3.7 mpg while doing so). For the sake of informativeness, I'm choosing the later. But let me just say one thing before we start: OMG! OMG! OMG!

Let's get this part out of the way now. There are several problems with the R8 5.2 FSI. The first is the name. R8 5.2 FSI sounds like what NASA might name a new star and is only half as sexy. The easy solution would have been to call it the RS8, but I've long ago stopped trying to make sense of Germanic automotive nomenclature (BMW X6 xDrive35i springs to mind). And since the average man on the street (and that street is probably Rodeo Drive) has zero clue what 5.2 FSI means, Audi stuck several "V10" emblems on the coupe, in case said man wants to know why your R8 costs $25,000 more than his.

The R-Tronic transmission is really terrible. Still. After 20 minutes in city traffic, I arrived at a fellow auto scribe's house and told him to drive because I simply hated the car. In full automatic mode, the R8 lurches between gears worse than any autobox I've ever experienced. Here's the awful kicker, in manual mode it's just as slow and lurchy. You have to hit the "Sport" button to get kinda quick gear changes. Compared to say the real dual-clutch in the Nissan GT-R, Audi's R-Tronic feels at least one generation behind the times. At least. Also, the GT-R's paddles are column mounted (where God and those red-color loving Italians intended them), whereas the Audi's move around with the wheel.

There are almost no situations where it's a good idea to be changing gears mid-turn, and quite a few where it's dangerous to do so, especially because wheel-mounted paddles make it all too easy to accidentally swap cogs. And these feel like they're the same paddles on the A3. The A3 that has DSG mind you, unlike the sinfully more expensive R8 5.2 FSI. And the R-Tronic transmission (only six-speeds, by the way) is a $9,000 option. That said, when the engine revs up to around 5,000�8,000 rpm, Audi's claimed gear change time of one-hundredth of a second is (almost) believable. Luckily there's an easy fix for this: get the gated manual.

Speaking of the A3, our R8 came with over $7,000 dollars worth of interior "enhancements." Going from least to most, $1,300 for an Alcantara headliner, $2,500 for carbon fiber sigma interior inlays and $3,500 for the enhanced leather package. All that filthy lucre gets you an interior that feels like... a tarted-up Audi A3 with a $1,300 alcantara headliner. In case you didn't know, you can't tell the difference between real and fake carbon fiber just by looking or touching, as they both look and feel like plastic. Also, if that's "enhanced" leather, I'd hate to have to sit in the cheap stuff. And the less said about the useless, illegible navigation system the better.

But the major issue with the R8 5.2 is the engine. Now, there is actually nothing in the world wrong with a V10 that puts out 525 horsepower, 391 pound-feet of torque and revs to 8,750 rpm faster than you can say "direct injection." Especially one that seems to get off on exploding unburned gasoline in the exhaust headers when you come off the throttle. But... that very same engine makes 552 horsepower and 398 torques when "Lamborghini" is stamped on the valve covers. While you're chewing on that, let me share our R8's price tag: $172,250 (base price is $155,000 + $2,100 gas guzzler + $1,100 destination + all the extras).

What I'm getting at is that Audi has to find buyers comfortable with spending seven quarters eighths of $200,000 on a car with a detuned motor. I don't know about you, but if I spent $172,250 on anything short of a house, I wouldn't want it to be second fiddle. I would damn well expect said high dollar purchase to be the very best it could be. In this situation, perhaps ignorance is, in fact, bliss. Meaning that Audi might be able to track down a few folks who are not only interested in its top dog R8, but who are also totally unaware of the R8/Gallardo engine connection. Last I heard, there were three of them, all living in Florida. Put another way, are you fooled by the M5 badge on the back of the 525i? Also, the cabin's a little quiet, even under full whap.

Now that all that's out of my system, OMG! OMG! OMG!

Let's start with the looks. In my mind, the R8 still isn't an attractive car, but it sure is something to look at. It's the kind of vehicle a Cylon would drive. To a strip club. Angry, alien, outlandish. Short of the TT and the Bugatti Veyron, there's nothing else (save old Karmann Ghias) that looks anything like it. Not that this is objective in any way, but more heads were turned by this Sepang Blue R8 than by any other car I've ever driven. Retina-searing yellow Lamborghini Gallardos included.

In case you come across both a debadged "regular" R8 and a V10 version and want to spot the differences, here's what they are. The V10 has three black plastic strakes across the rear fascia, while the V8 has four. Huh? Why would the more expensive model have fewer anything than the lesser model? Look closely at the new car's rump and you'll notice a big fat vent in the rear valance. That hole is to vent hot air away from the twisted exhaust headers. Take a second peak and you can actually see the collectors snaking down towards the bottom of the car. This is nothing but pure speculation on my part, but it wouldn't surprise me if the V10 mule that burned down to its aluminum frame on the N�rburgring didn't in fact have the V8's sealed rear end. More empirically, you can feel the heat flowing out of the twin slots after the R8's been in park for 30 minutes.

Speaking of venting, the V10 model has faux-ovoid exhaust tips like the RS4 and RS6. Faux because if you look past them you see the two actual exhaust tips (the Lexus IS F pulls this same trick). The big R8 also has flared side blades, which I quite like, In the same way that I like the asymmetrical sill-air scoops on the Murcielago LP640-4. Awkward for a very good reason � pulling more cold air into the famished engine. The rear portion of the underbody is also different from the V8, looking as if it might provide some downforce. Up front, the headlights are different and then, of course, you have have the 24 LED daytime running lights on each side, there to symbolize Audi's dominance at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. To steal a line from Clarkson, that bit of trivia is sure to impress your date...

Finally, we come to driving. The quickest way to sum up the R8 5.2 FSI is to call it a big, fat, fast Porsche Cayman S, which, please believe me, is a huge compliment, as the Cayman S is perhaps the best handling car I've ever driven short of something severe and doorless like a Lotus Se7en. The big, mid-engined Audi has absolutely no understeer. Shockingly, and quite seriously, none. I know this because after 45 minutes of straight-up canyon terrorism, I got the brakes to fade. I panicked, dug deep into the ABS, then turned the wheel hard to the left � a classic recipe for understeer if there ever was one. To my massive surprise -- I was anticipating that nasty feeling of skipping along on the right front tire -- the R8 just turned. Impressive for any car, but in one that weighs 3,726 pounds? One word: wow.

In big powerful monsters like the Nissan GT-R and Chevrolet Corvette Z06, the handling is without question great. That said, they will understeer when pushed. Even the incredible-for-its-price Mazda MX-5 Miata will plow like a farmer if you cross it up enough. Not the R8. Other modern cars that don't understeer? Porsche Boxster, Porsche Cayman, a couple of $200,000+ supercars, and that's about it. Again, hugely impressive. However, the steering feel is a little numb (like a certain Nissan, you just sort of saw at the wheel and the car goes exactly where you point it). There's basically no feedback, either. This is a little surprising as fully 90 percent of the R8's power is routed to the rear wheels, though I suppose when you have the wheel cranked in anger, some computer is telling the tranny to mete out more juice to the front wheels. Anyhow, she handles like a peach. An angry, tarmac-ripping peach.

The chassis magic doesn't stop there. The R8 is so well set up, balanced and over-tired (Pireli Pzero 235/35/19Rs up front, 295/30/19Rs out back) that not only is the grip seemingly never ending, but you have to really work hard to induce oversteer. 8,000 rpm and some janky, ill-advised steering wheel inputs seems to do the trick. Back to the grip for a moment, it's just tremendous, and rivaled only (in my mind) by the Nissan GT-R, the latter being the best road-hugger I've ever driven. One way to look at the R8 5.2 FSI is 9/10s of a GT-R for double the money. However, another is to understand that Nissan sells the GT-R for half of what it cost them to build and this here Audi is about 98/100s as good to drive. Maybe 99...

Finally, there's the thrust from that mighty, though slightly devolved V10. It's epic, though certainly not as quick in a straight line as the LP560-4 Gallardo. In fact, we know that the Lambo will beat the Audi to 60 mph by three-tenths of a second. And if you can tell the difference between 3.4 and 3.7 seconds, you're a liar. Or very close to one. At the end of the day, a 3.7-second blast to 60 mph is only achieved using the car's launch control (sport suspension on, sport transmission on, hold down the ESP button for about six seconds, left foot on brake, right foot floors the throttle, side-step the brake pedal, buh-bye) and doing that more than once is clutch-homicide. Bottom line, does the V10 R8 feel supercar fast? Yes, it most certainly does.

The real story is what the R8 5.2 FSI feels like when you've just blipped the motor up to 8,000 rpm and have the steering wheel rheostated at 45 degrees before dusting off a sharp turn. It's beautiful. It's glorious. It's wondrous. It's revelatory. Forget all that nonsense I spewed earlier on � nothing but words. Like any supercar � and oh, my yes this sucker is super � all you want to do is push harder and dig deeper. Everyday? I should be so lucky. And I truly wish that every pistonhead everywhere could experience the R8 5.2 FSI on their favorite road approaching full clip. Because as far as cars go, this $172,250 seems like money very well spent.

[Source: Autoblog]

TPCRacing Cayman S Turbo picks up where Porsche left off

TPCRacing Porsche Cayman S Turbo

When Porsche introduced the Cayman in 2006, one thing was abundantly clear: Porsche had muzzled its midship coupe to prevent cannibalizing 911 sales. Despite a more favorable weight distribution and an unflappable chassis, the Cayman lacked the power to exploit its excellent underpinnings, even in "S" guise. So like its Boxster sibling, the Cayman was destined to play second fiddle to Porsche's iconic rear-engine flagship. From a business perspective, Porsche's decision made sense. For enthusiasts, it was yet another bitter pill from Zuffenhausen.

When the Cayman underwent a refresh, there was always hope that a turbocharged variant would be included in the line-up. Predictably, that never happened. So the Cayman continued to stand on the lower/middle rung of the Porsche ladder, offering less power and a lower price than the 911. The Cayman could dance. It just needed an extra bit of oomph.

That's where Mike Levitas comes in. Mike is the brains behind TPCRacing of Jessup, MD. Born of a family of automotive tinkerers, Mike spent most of his formative years learning about turbos and turning that knowledge to race cars � fast, reliable race cars that won championships. Like most other Porsche enthusiasts, Mike thought the Cayman could use more power. Turbocharged power. But unlike most of the marque's devotees, Mike made it happen.

Levitas began producing race cars back in the late Eightes, and over the course of the next decade and a half he managed the turbocharger programs for the Nissan 300ZX, Mazda RX7, Lotus Esprit and Consulier GTPs in the IMSA Supercar Series. Mike's background and advanced aeronautical training eventually led him to build some of the best Porsche race cars around. Porsche Club racing, Motorola Cup action, and a brief dip into Mercedes sedans eventually led him to the Grand American Rolex Sports Car Series.

In 2000, TPCRacing began racing under its own banner, racking up more than 20 class wins (including one at Daytona in 2006) and an unprecedented 1-2-3-4 sweep of the driver's championship. The team was so dominant that the lead car during that championship season never missed a podium. With all of that race history as a test bed, TPC thought it was time to offer some of its accumulated wisdom to the masses.

TPCRacing is now known as one of the premier outlets for readying your Porsche for track duty. Turbochargers, suspension upgrades and computer reflashing are all available to professional and club racers. And for those who'd like a little more performance out of their daily drivers, TPCRacing has you covered in spades. While most of the company's work is devoted to 911s, TPC thought the Cayman needed a little something extra as well. They picked up a Guards Red 2006 Porsche Cayman S a couple of years ago and went to work.

The result is the TPCRacing Cayman S Turbo Kit. Producing around 485 horsepower, it's packing more ponies than � until recently � nearly any vehicle in Porsche's lineup, save the GT2. And that's only with 5.5-pounds of boost. With such a low amount of pressure, the turbo kit puts barely any additional stress on the stock internals of the 3.4-liter flat-six.

TPCRacing sells its Cayman Turbo Kit (with intercooler) for a buck less than ten grand. It includes nearly everything needed for installation: a cat-back exhaust, turbocharger, liquid-to-air intercooler, new intake plenum, all brackets/plumbing/fitting/hardware/clamps, upgraded injectors and custom silicone piping. The ECU needs to be shipped to TPC for reprogramming, but anyone with a fair amount of mechanical aptitude can do the installation. The total tab for our tester was about $12,000 according to the owner. Of course, he also went nuts with suspension, brakes, wheels, tires and body mods that more than doubled that figure.

A few extra bits are recommended by TPC, although they're not included in the kit. Pop for a set of GT3 spark plugs as well as the factory Porsche front-center radiator and associated ducting and brackets, and it will add around $750 to the tab. Tiptronic cars can skip that last item, as they're already equipped with the front-center radiator. The downside for Tiptronic owners is that the installation requires modifications to the transmission mounting brackets as well as relocating the transmission oil cooler.

TPC is also working on a non-intercooled Turbo Kit that eliminates the need for the liquid-to-air intercooler as well as the front center radiator and all the additional plumbing and water pump. Boost levels are a bit lower, but so is the price � an estimated $7,490.

We got a chance to sample the full-on intercooled turbo kit and, needless to say, it's like no Cayman we've met before. It's a mid-engine Jekyll and Hyde. In normal commuter duty the TPC drives exactly like any other Cayman on the road. That's to say it has near perfect handling, with some of the best brakes and most precise steering ever engineered into a road-going vehicle. But dip into that throttle a bit deeper and... whoosh! As if a giant hand dropped down from the sky and gave you a gentle shove, you're hurtled along into extra-legal speeds in seconds.

There's no drama, only a throatier roar from the exhaust that fades as the RPMs drop. Although not quite as transparent as the factory turbo setup in the 997 Turbo, it feels just as fast. The power is available at seemingly any RPM too. There's a progressive feel rather than the expected lag and burst of traditional tuner turbos � further proof that Mike and his crew know more than a thing or two about balancing linear performance and potent thrust.

Our seat time was all too brief, but it was more than enlightening. Levitas is a manic bit of energy, equal parts mad scientist and grassroots racer. Two of his customers, David and Kevin, happened to be computer engineers and even they were hard pressed to keep up with Mike's constant stream of technical babbling. The one thing they definitely picked up is Mike's passion for his work and ability to build an impeccably well-thought out and professional turbo kit.

Our sentiments and disappointments were echoed by several of Mike's customers. While most would prefer a factory Cayman Turbo, Porsche didn't build one. That left the door wide open for tuners and TPC happily stepped in to fill the void. For around $12,000 over the price of a Cayman, customers can have a unique, track-friendly daily-driver that's ready to trounce its rear-engine grandfather, while still costing less and retaining its reliability. That's a 400-hp formula we can get behind. Now we just need to start trolling Craigslist for used Caymans...

[Source: Autoblog]

Mitsubishi releases updated JDM Outlander Roadest with unique look

2010 Mitsubishi Outlander Roadest

Normally when an automaker updates a model, even if it's just a quick cosmetic change, the earlier version is treated like cheek meat � nobody wants it unless it's a real good deal, and the dealers just want them gone. Mitsubishi evidently thinks its home-market will be kinder to the compact crossover-ute-thing we know and love as the Outlander.

While a new Evo-esque beak has been grafted onto our Outlander for 2010, the softer, older version will continue to be offered to JDM buyers alongside a more cosmetically aggressive model. To avoid confusion, a country-specific rhinoplasty-enhanced model will be branded Outlander Roadest (note that the fascia and, grille and foglamps are all distinct from the U.S. model), while the older bodywork model will continue on as just plain "Outlander." Regardless of the looks, both iterations will get a new 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine as standard, good for 148PS (about 146 horsepower). The offal-likeness is in play with pricing as well, with the new-old Outlander selling for just �1,995,000 (about $22,000) while the Roadest will command �2,475,900 ($27,100).

[Source: Mitsubishi]

Proper winter tires are more important than all-wheel drive

winter tires
With the adoption of front-wheel drive as the mainstream power delivery system of choice, the semi-annual ritual of swapping snow tires has largely disappeared for most Americans. In many northern areas, all-wheel drive has become an increasingly popular choice when offered as an option. But as much help as putting power through all four wheels can be, it simply can't substitute for a good set of snow tires.

Ultimately, grip comes down to four patches of rubber and if they're unable to make solid contact, the number of drive wheels becomes irrelevant. This became abundantly clear this past weekend while driving a new 2010 Subaru Legacy. The Legacy is a plush, roomy mid-size sedan with excellent outward visibility and Subaru makes an excellent symmetrical all wheel drive. Unfortunately, its all-season tires lacked traction. Read on after the jump for more.

On dry pavement all-wheel drive can be a major boon by splitting the tractive workload and leaving the front wheels to take handle steering. In the snowy conditions we endured this past weekend, it can also help claw its way through the snow. However, most cars can put out more drive torque than the tires can transmit. That means it's not at hard to spin up all four wheels when accelerating, at least until the traction control kicks in.

Now as much as we enjoy to exploit slip angles, it's best to keep the car within the limits of adhesion. Lack of grip is a fundamental problem with all season rubber and all-wheel drive won't help you get around an icy corner or halt forward progress at a stop sign. Without traction, the Subaru still had trouble turning and it was pretty easy to get sideways before the stability management kicked in.

The only solution to is fit tires that maximize grip in these conditions. All the major tire manufacturers produce winter tires and we highly recommend them to anyone living in areas subject to snowy winters no matter how many wheels are driven. The easiest thing to do is just by an extra set of rims and have the tires mounted. When winter arrives, put on the snows and stack the summer tires in the corner of the garage or basement, then reverse the process in the spring. It's money well spent, and certainly cheaper than body repairs and hiked up insurance premiums.

Review: 2009 BMW Z4 sDrive30i

2009 BMW Z4 sDrive30i

BMW's storied history of building roadsters dates back to the original 328 of the 1930s. However, there have been gaps in the brand's open-top lineage, including one extended stretch through the '60s, '70s and '80s. After a dalliance with the bizarre European market Z1, BMW finally got serious about roadsters again in the '90s with the introduction of the Z3.

Earlier this year, the Munich brand introduced what's essentially the third generation of its modern mainline roadster (discounting the aforementioned low-volume Z1 and the Z8) in the shape of its all-new Z4. Upon its introduction, the esteemed Mr. Harley took our first crack at the new "E89" at its Southern California launch last spring and came away with mixed feelings.

To be fair, whenever an automaker builds a new model, there's always a distinction between what the engineers and designers expect of it and what consumers bank on. There's also a big difference between spending a few hours on a prescribed driving route under controlled conditions versus living with a car as a daily driver for a week or longer. So we wanted to spend time with the Z4 on more familiar turf to see what life is like with BMW's newest roadster.

Aside from the Z4's new styling, the most notable change from the previous "E85" generation is the adoption of a retractable hard top in place of a fabric roof. In general, we're not big fans of hardtop convertibles due to the additional space they consume when folded � not to mention the additional weight they carry around. The new Z4 is about five inches longer overall than the last generation, and most of that length has been added to the rear end to accommodate the tin top.

Fortunately, the staff at BMW's DesignworksUSA studio have done an admirable job of maintaining the classic long-hood, rear cockpit proportions in this new iteration. In general, this new Z4 is a huge aesthetic improvement over its predecessor. Elaborate surface development was the order of the day the last time around, but to many eyes, the Z3's sheetmetal seemed to go every which way without much coherence. This time around, there's a more clearly defined flow to the Z4's curves and creases, with forms over the fenders and flanks evoking muscles stretched over a skeleton.

Much to our chagrin, Michigan's rainy skies afflicted much of our time with the Z4, meaning that we had to keep the roof up. However, this situation did help demonstrate that hard-hatted convertibles do offer a couple of functional advantages over fabric lids. When driven in the rain, the Z4 remained as tight and dry as any coupe with a permanent roof. The slim C-pillars also meant that apart from the headrest on the passenger seat and the fixed roll hoop immediately behind it, rearward visibility was outstanding.

Raising or lowering the roof proved to be as simple as holding down a switch at the leading edge of the center console for about 20 seconds. From outside the car, the stowing process appears decidedly convoluted as the rear deck opens, the rear window lifts up and all the assorted bits and pieces fold themselves away. The complexity of these tops always give us pause as a long-term ownership consideration, but we've yet to see any evidence of reliability issues with this top, so perhaps it's just our inner Luddites that long for the simple manual Z-fold of, say, a Mazda MX-5 Miata.

Our tester was a base sDrive30i, and as an entry-level model, our Bimmer was devoid of many higher-end toys like satellite navigation, which in turn meant that it had no iDrive controller. As much as the latest iteration of this all-in-one GUI controller has been improved, we were actually quite happy to have a driving environment free of such complexities, as going without seems more in keeping with the spirit of a roadster anyhow. Thankfully, in the iDrive's place there's a set of well arrayed and pleasingly straightforward controls.

Front and center in the console is a pleasantly short lever for rowing through the six-speed manual gearbox. Directly in front of the driver is a small, reassuringly thick-rimmed three-spoke wheel. Thankfully, it's not so small that it obscures the large speedometer and tach that dominate the instrument cluster. As with most modern BMWs, between the analog gauges is a red-orange LCD display that displays secondary information like mileage, radio stations and so on. The readout is easily legible except when wearing polarized sunglasses.

Unfortunately, there are two elements of the interior that strike us as decidedly out of place in a car that costs $50,000. Higher trim levels get a better covering on much of the dash panel, but the aluminum-look piece on our car was actually plastic and it wasn't fooling anyone. In an apparent move to placate drink-happy Americans, BMW also has tacked a cupholder onto the passenger side of the transmission tunnel, which just begs to be snapped off by an errant knee. There are a pair of cupholders under the center armrest, but they're too far back to be easily accessed. Tellingly, European models don't even bother with the forward cupholder and if we had our druthers, we wouldn't either.

Beverage gripes aside, there's plenty of good stuff to talk about � particularly the seats. The Z4 may not be a hardcore sports car, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't have excellent chairs, and here the roadster scores a solid ten. The seats don't have a lot of adjustments, but they don't really need it. The side bolsters are ample and firm enough to hold occupants in place during truly spirited driving, yet comfortable enough for long interstate slogs. Those with a long hip-to-knee span often find the lower cushion of many seats only reach mid-thigh. Fortunately, the upgraded seats that come as part of the Sport package in the Z4 have adjustable thigh supports that allow the seat cushion to be extended out closer to the mid-leg joint.

BMW's (labored) sDrive30i appellation denotes the company's normally aspirated 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine. While we're just as enamored with roaring V8s as the next guy, there's something simply sublime about a great straight-six, and it's a BMW hallmark. Unlike a V6 of any bank angle, inline sixes are inherently balanced without having to resort to band-aids like balance shafts. While the two turbos on the sDrive35i do an excellent job of inflating the torque curve, the more moderate 220 pound-feet of our un-boosted sDrive30i arrives at an eminently usable 2,600 rpm. That means cruising around town is a smooth and effortless process that doesn't require drawing excessive attention to one's self by revving out the engine all the time. That is, unless you want to � in which case the six will happily spin up to nearly 7,000 rpm all day long.

In urban traffic or on the freeway, the Z4 is a happy cruiser. With the top up, it's also a remarkably quiet place for a road trip, although you can still can still hear the pleasant engine note coming through. It's not the glorious wail of a high strung race engine, but it does have a mechanical sound that evokes precision machined internals. With the top down and the side glass up, buffeting is surprisingly subdued � even without any sort of wind blocker. For those interested in running the numbers, a normally aspirated Z4 like our tester will scoot to 60 mph in about 5.5 seconds, yet the EPA rates the Z4 at 19 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on the highway regardless of transmission choice. We saw 23 mpg in mixed driving.

If you enjoy listening to something besides the tires thrumming along on the brushed concrete or the air flowing over your head, you may want to consider a serious upgrade to the stereo system. The base entertainment system simply does not have the auditory oomph required to overcome high speed air flow. Even maxed out, the volume was totally inadequate at 70+ mph.

We had an all-too-brief opportunity to sample another Z4 in the vicinity of California's celebrated Mulholland Highway earlier this year, and while our man Harley was right that the Z4 ultimately lacks the knife-edged feel of at least one of its primary competitors, this is still a car with a a very well-balanced chassis. As it approaches its cornering limits, the rear axle will smoothly drift out at least to the limit of what the stability control system will allow. And when the Bimmer's electronic overlords do intrude on the fun, they do so in a very smooth and progressive fashion. Rather than jerking the car back into line, the system simply holds the car at its the maximum allowable slip angle. As the time for directional changes approaches, the steering allows the driver to make adjustments with precision while feeding back information about how close the tires are to their limits.

Back here in the decidedly less glamorous environs of southeast Michigan, the opportunities for that sort of vehicular merriment tend to be more limited. Most of the roads are of the straight and flat variety, and they're often poorly maintained. The patchwork of random materials that make up many of the surfaces may not be good fun for fans of winding roads, but they do provide an ideal over-the-road laboratory for assessing structural rigidity, and they routinely have windshield frames quivering madly. All due credit, then, to BMW engineers, who have managed to create one of the most solid-feeling convertible structures we've ever experienced � the A-pillars exhibited no movement relative to the rest of the body.

Like all hardtop convertibles, the Z4's roof eats up a significant portion of the trunk space when retracted, and what's left is only accessible through a narrow slot. With the top up, the trunk is rated at eight cubic feet and with the roof stowed, the available space shrinks to just five or six cubic feet. Couples planning a road trip are advised to pack very lightly or run with the top up until they get to their destination.

Admittedly, BMW's latest is probably not the best track day companion, but after spending a week with the Z4, it's clear that BMW never intended it to be. Instead, this is a roadster that excels in the everyday world, yet is still one whose limits can be safely explored without fear that it will reach out and bite. Between its friendly power delivery, robust structure and snug-fitting hard-top, the E89 is a legitimate daily driver for virtually any region in the country. Even mounted with proper snow tires it would make a reasonable case for itself in the winter. So while the Z4 may not provide the last word for the weekend brain-bucket and Nomex set, for the average enthusiast it's a genuine pleasure and a worthy addition to BMW's roadster canon.

[Source: Autoblog]

2011 Ford Mustang GT and 5.0-liter V8 unwrapped early

2011 Ford Mustang G

Thanks to some embargo breaking that's already occurred, we've known for a week that the 2011 Ford Mustang GT would pack a brand new 5.0-liter V8 producing 412 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque. We thought those tidbits might hold over the internet 'till the official embargo date lifts early next week, but we were wrong and therefore are still awake at 1:30 AM on Christmas morning writing this post. Thanks to Jalopnik via MustangHeaven via BurlappCars, we have the first images of the 2011 Mustang GT and its new 5.0-liter V8.

You can read more about some of the engine's details that have already leaked here, but let's just take a look see at what we've got. Kudos to Ford for leaving the engine's tippy top unadorned and we also dig those 5.0 badges on the engine and fenders. Nostalgia FTW � OMG! An old fat guy with a sack of stuff just crawled out of my fire place! I think he's a burglar. Gotta go hide the silver

[Source: BurlappCars via MustangHeaven via Jalopnik]

First Drive: 2011 Toyota Sienna

2011 Toyota Sienna

The Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan minivans revolutionized family transportation when they were introduced back in 1983. Nevermind that Volkswagon had been selling people-friendly vans for decades, it was Chrysler's "magic wagons" that came to define the minivan for Americans. With decent car-based road manners, easy-access sliding doors and clever packaging, minivans quickly replaced the station wagon as our favored Wally World-bound chariots. Minivan sales peaked at more than 1 million sales in 2002, but the following year, customers discovered something else: The SUV.

The minivan has a chance at a comeback... cool or not.
Overnight, minivans and their drivers turned into punchlines � an emblem for those who'd given up on driving excitement. Despite the traditional minivan's utility, drivability and fuel efficiency, the masses flocked to Hummers and GMC Denalis, but the SUV's reign was short-lived. Skyrocketing fuel prices have made family-friendly crossovers the new hot commodity, but Toyota � even with its line of competent CUVs � hadn't given up on the minivan just yet. In fact, Toyota predicts that the minivan market will grow by 30 percent over the next few years (to about 600,000 units), as young families and empty-nesters once again discover the inherent merits of a car-based box with sliders. But while minivans are no doubt practical, they're far from cool.

The 2011 Toyota Sienna was designed to challenge that assumption.

Patterned after the F3R concept, the new Sienna apes the Honda Odyssey's square shoulders but grafts on a Venza-like nose and tail. There's something for everyone with five different trim levels, two different engines, front- or all-wheel drive, and even a sport-tuned SE edition. Yep, Toyota thinks the world is ready for a sporty minivan. They recently invited us down to sample their new range of people movers, and we spent a day driving them up and down the coast, along freeways and around neighborhoods, and even down one of Southern California's famed canyon roads, all in an effort to prove that the minivan is ready to be thrust back to the top.

When first approaching the 2011 Sienna, you're immediately taken with its width. The Toyota family face is spread wide across the low snout, the body is more muscular with high shoulders and hidden slider rails, and the tail is cleaned up with its large roof spoiler covering the relocated rear wiper. It's a clean, contemporary look that boasts an un-box-like drag coefficient of just .306. The van was designed at Calty, and all of the engineering and development work was done in Ann Arbor. Production will continue at the Princeton, Indiana plant that builds the current Sienna, making this an All-American effort. Toyota thinks it can sell 100,000 of them per year. On looks alone, ToMoCo probably has a good shot.

There will be five different trim levels when the Sienna goes on sale next February: Sienna (base), LE, XLE, Limited and SE. There are several detail differences to tell them apart. The grilles on the Sienna, LE and XLE have black bars with a lower chrome surround, while the Limited grille is all chrome. XLE and Limited get extra chrome bits and XLE, Limited and SE come standard with foglamps. The SE really stands out (below, middle) with a blacked out mesh grille, a front airdam, recontoured rear apron, rocker sill extensions, darkened chrome all around and clear taillight lenses. Although it's only been lowered a bit due to its stiffened coils and dampers, the SE's aero tweaks really emphasize its low, wide stance.

The other major trim-level tell will be the wheels. They're all alloys, ranging in size from 17 to 19 inches, and even the smallest fill those rounded wheel wells nicely. The base Sienna and LE get budget-looking five-spokes, XLE models wear shiny seven-spoke designs, Limited and AWD models sport sharp-looking polished ten-spokers and the SE gets a darkened six-spoke pattern. The AWD models really caught our attention because they were wearing the latest Bridgestone Turanza run-flats. During our driving, those run-flats were a bit of a revelation, riding and handling just like conventional tires. They promise much better performance when air levels drop, thanks in large part to their scalloped sidewalls that keep them cool.

As big as the exterior changes are, the interior is this van's main attraction. Although the third-generation Sienna has the same wheelbase and sits on the same platform as the outgoing model, it's actually a bit shorter overall, yet still manages to cram an extra two inches of interior length into the cabin. Cargo volume has gone up, with space behind the third, second and first rows measuring in at 39.1/87.1/150 cubic-feet respectively. It feels even bigger than that inside thanks to a new tri-tone color scheme that keeps everything above the beltline light and airy.

Despite the addition of a four-cylinder option for the first time, Toyota says it's reduced total Sienna vehicle combinations by a whopping 80 percent. Options lists will shrink as Toyota is going the Honda route of making the customer move up a trim level to get extra equipment. Despite that, there are even more combinations of trim levels, drivetrains and seating configurations than before.

Lowering the third row is now a one-motion affair, with a single handle pull bringing either portion of the 60/40 split bench up and over into the floor. A power option makes it even easier to make the seats disappear and reappear. We positioned ourselves back there for a spell and have to say, this is where minivans shine. Compared to a third row in an SUV, we wouldn't have nearly as many reservations about riding back there on long trips. Heck, the seats even recline now and getting to that comfy bench is a whole lot easier thanks to the new second row Tip-Up and Long-Slide feature.

Lounge Seating plus a 16.4-inch LCD turns the Sienna into a private theater on wheels.
However, the second row seats in this newest Sienna are probably going to get the lion's share of oohs and aahs. Whether in seven- or eight-seat variety, they have a long slide range of nearly 26 inches for great third row access or to allow parents room to stand in front of the seats as they buckle their kids in. The optional eighth seat is a foldable unit that easily pops out and fits into a clever storage cove on the driver's side of the rear cargo area. That brings up the one issue some people might have with the second row seats: They don't fold flat into the floor like the Chrysler Stow 'n Go system. When asked abut this seeming oversight, the Toyota reps were quick to explain their choice.

Anyone who has sat in the Chrysler's second row seats can tell you that they aren't the most comfortable place to be on long trips. The sacrifice in padding needed to get them to fold flat into the floor is noticeable even on short jaunts. Toyota thought long and hard about it and decided that people are in those seats more often than large objects occupying the cargo area. In short, Toyota's engineers say they chose passenger comfort over cargo loading ease. As if to put an exclamation point on that decision, Toyota now offers a Lounge Seating package on Limited models that features two ottoman equipped recliners -- similar to the rear thrones in the $408,000 Maybach 62.

Second- and third-row passengers can also enjoy an optional 16.4-inch dual-view LCD screen that unfolds from the headliner while dropping jaws. It can display two separate signals side-by-side or one single standard or widescreen program. Despite its large size, it doesn't block the driver's view out the back � we checked. That screen also adds A/V jacks to the back of the center console, a DVD player in the lower portion of the center stack and a remote control. There are optional wireless headsets too, that, with the addition of the Lounge Seating, turns the Sienna into a private theater on wheels.

The front seats are enlarged, multi-adjustable, supportive and comfortable. The Limited model adds a two-position memory function for the first time and between the seats you'll find a handy floor (purse) tray at the base of the center stack. Not all models include a center console, but those that do get a huge central compartment, cupholders and an optional rearward slider feature. All trim levels get a tri-zone AC system that's been painstakingly engineered to reduce sound from the fan and through the vents. The reps went on about a sophisticated system of phase-shifting noise cancellation, "Air Cap" ducts, and additional sound deadening material. We tried it out and have to admit it wasn't any louder (or quieter) than any other system we've used. The system is manual except on XLE and Limited, which get automatic climate control, and the HVAC controls are right where you'd expect them to be � well laid out along that signature dash swoop and easy to use.

Stylish as it might be, the swoop is there to give front seat occupants a "60/60" split of the space. By bisecting the area, it makes it feel like you are getting 60 percent of the space, whether you're in the driver or passenger seat. It actually works well in practice, especially on models with the floor console. The swoop is solid colored on most models, carbon fiber-esque on the SE and wood on the XLE and Limited, with the Limited variant getting a smart-looking leather and wood steering wheel as well. And to keep everyone safe, there are seven airbags and active headrests as part of the Sienna's pre-collision system, ABS, traction control, stability control, brake assist and electronic brake distribution.

Stereo systems are all AM/FM/MP3/CD and with XM-readiness, Bluetooth, auxilary audio jacks and USB ports standard on most models. The Limited gets an upgraded ten-speaker JBL system to itself, while XLE and Limited buyers can also add a voice-activated touch-screen DVD navigation system that takes the spot normally occupied by the stereo. That sat-nav system is a sixth-generation Denso unit that's incredibly intuitive and capable of understanding English, Spanish and French voice commands. You can even search by company or chain name, making it almost too easy to find the closest In-N-Out Burger. And that's not even the best part of the system.

The unit also displays Toyota's new Panorama backup camera feed, which offers an industry-first 180-degree view of what's behind the vehicle. It makes backing up and parking both easier and safer, with handy guidelines and steering-based projections projected on the screen to help you slot in perfectly. We did, however, find one parking lot with weathered lines and the system decided to basically create its own space for us diagonally across three spaces. It's not infallible, but the wide-view feed of what's behind you is terrific in most all conditions.

On vehicles with backup cams but no navigation, the image is displayed on the 3.5-inch multi-information display at the top center of the dash. That unit also displays clock, outside temp, HVAC info, open door indicators, cruise info and Eco Driving mode graphs. That Eco graph shows fuel consumption in a simple black and white bar graph that struck us as somewhat counterintuitive, with the white bar getting longer the harder you pressed on the accelerator. A minor quibble, but kind of odd given the high quality displays elsewhere. A front radar parking assist system is standard on Limited and optional on XLE, and the Limited also offers an optional Dynamic Radar Cruise Control that keeps a safe distance between you and traffic ahead.

The overhead console has an eyeglass holder, conversation mirror, the Safety Connect controls, power slider controls (standard on all but the base Sienna) and sunroof controls on vehicles so equipped. Limited models can actually be ordered with dual sunroofs. The dash features an upper and lower glove compartment, both of which should be big enough for most needs. Although these were preproduction cars, the materials felt good and featured graining that should keep them free of fingerprints a little better. The fit of some of the dash pieces was a little off, but we expect that to be fixed by the time the vans go into production early next year. The cloth material on the Sienna and LE models left a bit to be desired, but the cloth, leather and leatherette fitted to other trim levels felt good overall.

A hybrid Sienna might work its way into the mix, but Toyota's tight-lipped for now.
The gauges look essentially similar on all trim levels, with an overlapping combination meter design. The SE gets sporty-looking black on white units with red needles and there's a "Start/Stop" button on Limited models (and some XLEs) with Toyota's Smart Key System, allowing keyless entry at any port. Overall the interior is clever, versatile, functional and comfortable. Visibility is good and the color scheme really makes it feel even roomier inside. Controls and switches are intuitively placed and feel high quality for the most part. We even got used to that dash-mounted gearshifter in no time flat.

Behind that shifter is Toyota's new six-speed automatic transmission, which handled the tasks we asked of it well. Front- and all-wheel-drive Siennas are available with the carryover 266-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6. The bigger news is that Sienna and LE models can now be ordered with the Venza's four-cylinder engine. We thought the 187-hp, 2.7-liter unit might struggle to move the new Sienna (which has gained almost 100 pounds over the current generation), but it handled most duties just fine. Compared to the V6 mill, however, fuel economy of the four-pot isn't stellar. It still leads the class, though, clocking in at 19/26/22 mpg for city, highway and combined cycles respectively. But with the V6 models' similar ratings (18/24/20 for FWD models and 16/22/18 on AWD variants), the four-pot seems to be there just so Toyota can keep the entry-level 2011 Sienna below the current van's $24,600 starting price. A hybrid might eventually work its way into the mix, but for now the Toyota folks are tight-lipped.

The brakes felt strong and had good feedback, giving us a confidence that somehow made the whole vehicle feel lighter on its feet. We can't really say the same for the steering, however. Toyota is using an all-electric power steering system on the Sienna and although we like the fact that it reduces weight, complexity and cost, the brain behind it seems to get tripped up too often. It tries to predict conditions based on driver and sensor inputs, then constantly adjusts the ratio, with the net effect of creating an artificial feel that doesn't inspire much confidence when pushed � even a little bit. We know that most people won't be chucking their minivans through the twisties, but with the marketing emphasis on this being a sporty, cool minivan, we'd like a bit more from this system. Too bad they all can't have the SE setup.

The SE takes the same basic components and stiffens everything up with a quick software update that makes the vehicle much more driver-oriented. Coupled with the suspension changes that make up the SE package, we can honestly say that the SE was an eye-opener. All of the new Sienna models handled and rode reasonably well with very little body roll, squat or dive. The SE, on the other hand, felt almost tossable, although bumps were less dampened. How'd Toyota pull it off? Chief Engineer Kazuo Mori is an autocrosser.

After 17 years stuck designing commercial vehicles and minivans instead of his favored sports cars, Mori-san says he finally decided to hide a sports car under a minivan to slip it past the guys at corporate. He says he had to fight to get the SE into the lineup as the higher ups didn't think it made sense. Of course, it doesn't make sense. It's a minivan with carbon fiber bits inside, a lowered stiff suspension and a body kit. And that's exactly why we like it. Even if it doesn't sell in any significant quantity, the mere fact that it exists automatically elevates the entire range. While we'd probably choose a Sienna Limited for its lounge seats, widescreen monitor, dual sunroofs and all the bells and whistles, we would still want the SE's stiffer suspension and firmer steering as an option.

When Toyota told us it was hoping to be a major player in a revitalized minivan market, we didn't really know what to think. While we understand the inherent goodness of the minivan as a family hauler, we weren't privy to Toyota's research about younger families. They don't necessarily see "minivan" as a bad word. They want functionality above all else, but wouldn't mind a bit more style. When Toyota told us they hoped to make the minivan cool, we thought they may have dipped too deeply into the holiday eggnog.

Then we saw the 2011 Sienna at its LA Auto Show unveiling in November and decided they had a chance. After driving the whole lineup, including the sport tuned SE, we were impressed with the Sienna's composed road manners and surprising performance, even with the new four-cylinder base engine. Prices haven't been announced, but if they start at less than $25,000 as anticipated, Toyota has a good chance of selling the 100,000 Siennas it's predicting. And having the SE in the lineup might just be the ace up its sleeve, proving that the minivan has a chance at a comeback... cool or not.

[Source: Autoblog]