Fiat 500 to launch in the U.S. with Abarth performance model

Fiat 500 Abarth EsseEsse

With every passing week comes another report of how Fiat and Chrysler will be sharing products. If it's not Chrysler-badged Lancias then it's Lancia-badged Chryslers or an Alfa-badged Jeep. As for the Fiat division itself, the emerging strategy appears to be to bring the 500 retro-mini over and set it up as something of a brand of its own, with sights set squarely on BMW's Mini and forgoing the rest of the Fiat line-up.

Earlier reports indicated that we'd be getting four versions of the 500 Stateside, including basic hatch, cabrio and upcoming wagon in addition to the Abarth performance model. But rather than start with the basics and work its way up, or launch the entire range simultaneously, the latest news suggests that Fiat is preparing to hit U.S. soil running by starting off with the 500 Abarth. According to WardsAuto, the Fiat 500 Abarth � complete with 133-horsepower turbocharged four, upgraded suspension and all the sporty touches that make an Abarth an Abarth � will arrive at Chrysler dealers in 2011 with an $18,000-$19,000 price tag. Fiat reportedly targets selling 20,000-25,000 units of the 500 Abarth in the first year.

By the time the 500 Abarth arrives, we'll likely be looking at an updated version with even more oomph. With the standard hatch, the open-top 500C and the upcoming Gardiniera wagon expected to follow, there's no telling if the initial model will be the only Abarth on offer, or whether Fiat will follow up with the even hotter EsseEsse version (pictured above), racing models like the Assetto Corse or R3T, an Abarth convertible or specials like the 695 Tributo Ferrari or an Opening Edition of our own.


First Drive: 2010 Lincoln MKT

2010 Lincoln MKT

In 1998, Lincoln's overall sales made it the number one luxury brand in America. The Navigator, Continental and Town Car weren't exactly world beaters � let alone an enthusiast's cup of Darjeeling, but the typical Lincoln buyer was getting precisely what he or she expected: soft, cozy, squishy cruisers for soft, squishy old people. In the decade that followed, Ford's U.S. luxury arm has seen about as much success as a modern day typewriter salesman. Mistakes have been made. The Blackwood. The Aviator. The LS. All big-time blunders � tragically so with the Romulan cloak-inspired design of the LS, as it was a pretty good car under that anonymous sheetmetal � and all consigned to history.

It's easier than ever to tell a Lincoln from 100 yards out.
Fast forward to 2009, and yesterday's gaffes have been replaced with a group of indecipherably-named vehicles that don't seem to be catching the eye of the car-buying public. The MKS, MKZ and MKX are nice enough, with tons of tech and luxury amenities, but America's buying public doesn't seem impressed.

Admittedly, the biggest reason Lincoln was kicking ass on the luxury sales charts last decade was the Navigator. It was big, it could haul heavy loads and it had an over-the-top style that affluent Americans were looking for at the time. Today's Lincoln lineup continues to feature the Navi, but the hefty SUV is no long the toast of the town and its massive girth and lousy fuel economy are borderline synonymous with PR losers like global warming and dependence on foreign oil. The 2010 Lincoln MKT is sized to replace the Navigator, but with the improved packaging, comfort and efficiency of a car-based crossover. We exercised a pair of EcoBoost-powered luxury barges through the twists and turns of Ann Arbor, Michigan to answer one simple question: does the 2010 Lincoln MKT have what it takes to become the spiritual successor to the Navigator and help shake the Lincoln brand of its decade-long sales slump?

For every vehicle that Lincoln has in its lineup, there is a mechanically identical Ford on the more pedestrian side of the gene pool. The MKT is no different, sharing its platform and powertrains with the boxier Ford Flex. To distinguish the two CUVs, Ford is employing a "differentiated top-hat strategy." That means precisely zero sheet metal and fewer interior parts are shared between the two models. That's a terrific change of pace for Dearborn's luxury stepchild, as the days of Lincolns that looked way too much like their Ford siblings are still fresh in our minds. Heck, the "in showrooms now" MKX is still a dead ringer for the Ford Edge, so thorny reminders of its blue collar heritage are still alive and well within Lincoln's current lineup.

When we first laid eyes on the concept version of the MKT at the 2008 Detroit Auto Show, we were surprised by its odd-looking aesthetics. The tintless glass roof made the massive crossover concept appear to suffer from male pattern baldness, while the exaggerated D-pillar was overshadowed by a bulging hindquarters that made J-Lo's booty look benign. Fortunately the production MKT manages to be better looking than the concept, but we wouldn't exactly say Lincoln's new Freightliner is a looker, either.

Up front, Lincoln turned up the design DNA with its new corporate mug. The split waterfall grille is divided by the four pointed star, and whether you love or loathe Lincoln's new face, it's hard to argue that it's now easier than ever to tell a Lincoln from 100 yards out. The front end rounds nicely into the MKT's overtly chiseled belt line, which moves across the profile undisturbed until it ramps up at the rear wheel.

When viewed from behind, the story gets better, as the smooth transition from the roof to the minimalist bumper and interesting, if over-the-top, tail lamps shows that this Lincoln looks best when it's ahead of you. That rump, by the way, was forged with magnesium and aluminum, shaving 22 pounds from the MKT's 5,000-pound curb weight. Sure, Lincoln's newest crossover is a bit homely, but there isn't exactly a plethora of visually stunning luxury family haulers on the market, either.

The MKT felt more powerful than the 400 pound-heavier Audi Q7.
While we were less than thrilled with the MKT's polarizing exterior, the story improves once you step inside the CUV's commodious interior. High quality leather and soft touch materials abound, with truly impressive blond wood accents that add plenty of visual pop. Ford has faithfully provided very comfortable seating surfaces for some time, and the MKT continues that tradition, but with an added dose of leather-clad luxury.

The MKT can be had in several interior combinations, all of which include a third-row seat. Our Ecoboost-powered test vehicle came equipped with the $4,000 Spec 201A package, which includes Ford's excellent Travel Link navigation package, chrome 20-inch alloys, a panoramic moonroof and second row captain's chairs that mirror the excellent seats in the front row. The third row looks to be about the same size as its Flex sibling; just big enough for a couple of amiable teenagers.

With all rows upright, there is 17.9 cubic feet of space aft of the third row, but available cubes jumps all the way up to 75.9 when the second and third row seats are stowed. Spec 201A also includes a compressor-powered mini-fridge between the second row seats; a feature that MSRPs for $895 as a stand-alone option. The fridge can hold all of seven cans (or about three water bottles) of cooled refreshment, and it can freeze ice in half the time of your Maytag � a good thing considering it costs as much as the appliance in your kitchen.

Behind the wheel, we were immediately presented with the thick, leather-wrapped steering wheel with a real "hold me" feel. Beyond the tiller are Lincoln's corporate white-on-black gauges, which are simultaneously stylish and easy to read. The supple seating surfaces are matched with equally impressive armrests at the door and the center console. The general largesse of the MKT is also evident in the cockpit, as both leg room and hip clearance is plentiful, even for the widest of Autobloggers.

When it's time to take off, the MKT starts with a touch of a button (doesn't everything), bringing Ford's newest powertrain to life. The twin turbocharged 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 boasts 355 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque from 1,500 RPM all the way to 5,250 RPM, resulting in healthy, lag-free acceleration in almost any situation. Ford's claim of the EcoBoost V6 delivering the power of a V8 with the fuel economy of a six-pot are born out through the numbers, returning an EPA-tested 16 MPG in the city and 22 MPG on the highway.

To properly show off the capabilities of the MKT's twin-boosted powerplant, Lincoln provided a V8-powered Audi Q7 to compare and contrast. The Q7's 4.2-liter powerplant flexes its muscles to the tune of 350 hp and 325 lb-ft of twist, similar numbers to the MKT, yet the four-ringed crossover manages only 13/18 EPA numbers, or four fewer highway mpg than the Lincoln. The MKT is also a bit friendlier to the environment than the Q7, as Lincoln claims 19 percent fewer CO2 emissions. When driving the vehicles back to back, the MKT felt significantly more powerful than the 400 pound-heavier Audi, as the Super CUV went from zero to cruising speed with more authority, while providing more punch when accelerating from steady speeds.

The EcoBoost V6 sounds good, too, with a quiet roar on heavy acceleration, and the MKT doesn't just win in terms of power, either, as the large crossover proved to be more agile in the curves while sporting a more impressive, quieter cabin. The Q7 felt tank-like in comparison to the longer, lighter MKT, though the Audi did supply more steering feedback and confidence-inspiring braking compared to the MKT's somewhat numb wheel and spongy stoppers.

The MKT is a fine entry in the large luxury crossover market.
The Lincoln engineering team tells us that special attention was paid to the MKT's road handling prowess, and the Ecoboost-equipped variant received a stiffer suspension both front and rear. The Ford stat machine says that the MKT registers a roll gradient score of 3.8 and a roll dampening tally of 23.6, better than the Q7 or the Acura MDX. Our experience with the MKT showed that the big crossover did remain flat and composed at speed on twisty roads, and we feel that the MKT's lower, wagonesque stance helped keep its 255/45/R20 Goodyear radials firmly planted to the road.

Despite the MKT's fairly impressive performance chops, this three-row crossover is still at its best when cruising, proving flat out comfy in every environment, with a plush, bump-soaking ride, a pristine THX sound system and terrific ride height and visibility. During our road trip we were able to hold conversations in muted tones thanks to laminated glass and sound deadening insulation. We did detect some minor road noise emanating from the spanking new Goodyear radials, but the back roads we traversed could be at least partly to blame for the intermittent issue.

With the 2010 Lincoln MKT, the Blue Oval appears to have a very competent luxury cruiser that can stand up to the competition in terms of performance, efficiency, technology and luxury amenities. But while we enjoyed our time behind the wheel, we still don't see Lincoln's new crossover as being the answer to Ford's prayers. The MKT may have the size and luxury to replace the Navigator, but despite its assertive love-it-or-hate-it design, it just doesn't have that "King of the Road" swagger that made Lincoln's first SUV a smash hit in the urban jungle. The MKT is most certainly a fine entry in the large luxury crossover market, though, and that might be all that's needed to keep Lincoln buyers in the family when the time comes to trade in their aging Navis.

[Source: Autoblog]

First Drive: 2010 Dodge Ram HD

2010 Dodge Ram HD

Back in 1993, truck drivers had no choice but to depend on domestic automakers for work-ready pickups, and only Ford and General Motors offered competitive haulers. That all changed a year later when Dodge set the pickup truck market on its leaf springs with the introduction of its all-new Ram. With a big-rig appearance thanks to an imposing front grille that looked ready to kick you in the Truck Nutz, Dodge's truck sales tripled inside of 12 months and gave load-hauling manly men a real alternative to Ford and Chevy. But while Dodge hit a home run with the 1994 Ram, the Penta-horned brand didn't have a heavy-duty option in its lineup until 2003, and an all-important diesel powerplant didn't come online until 2004. In 2008, Dodge filled out its pickup lineup with heavy-duty 4500 and 5500 variants, finally giving Chrysler's trucking arm the range of choices necessary to get plucky with the competition from Detroit and Dearborn.

Last year, Dodge introduced a new light-duty Ram, with sleek updated aesthetics and controversial coil springs that provide a superior ride at the expense of some towing and hauling capability. Fast-forward a year and the truckmakers at Chrysler are set to unleash a new heavy-duty Ram that's been redesigned to provide customers more capability, more options and a better ride while competing against offerings from its crosstown rivals with a lower cost of entry. We headed out to Ann Arbor, MI to drive, tow, brake, climb and traverse in the new Ram HD to see if Chrysler's truck team has succeeded.

When it comes to passenger cars, it's difficult to discern exactly what your customer base is after. An automaker can make a sedan with good power and handling, fine interior appointments and tons of room for four adults, yet the final product can still go over like a herpes flare-up. Trucks are a bit different. If you can deliver rugged good looks; strong, usable power; plenty of storage and top-notch reliability, chances are customers are going to find you. After all, there were 1.6 million trucks sold in the U.S. last year; about one-in-eight of the total consumer-grade vehicles sold, so there's plenty of reward for a job done right.

But the trick to nailing a top-notch pickup is working tirelessly with customers to figure out who buys trucks and how they're used, and the guys and gals at Dodge have it down to an exact science. How exact? Dodge's marketing team tells us that a typical truck buyer is a 55-year-old male, about 5' 11" and 203 pounds. There is a 67-percent chance that customer is going to have at least one dog (half the animal owners have two or more), and there's a 58-percent chance he tows a trailer.

To cater to that core customer, every Dodge Ram HD comes with a standard Class IV hitch, along with both four- and seven-pin hookups. As is increasingly common these days, Dodge is also offering an optional trailer brake package integrated into the dashboard. And since the guys who use their truck for work all week typically also use that truck on the weekends, the new Ram HD now has a crew cab configuration to ensure there's enough room for the camper, the family and the dog.

The new Dodge Ram HD looks smooth, maybe even a bit sexy.
Truck buyers demand a lot out of their pickups, and utility will always take precedence over appearance in the heavy-duty segment. But that doesn't mean looks are unimportant. HD-class pickups need too look, well, heavy-duty, and this new Ram has bad-ass written all over it. For 2010, the Ram's already substantial crosshair grille gets even bigger, with enough chrome to fry even the most bling-resistant of retinas. The shiny metal parade continues with the bumper, which has been impressively fashioned from a single chunk of metal.

The hood now has a prominent power dome that seems to be all the rage these days and the headlamps received the same treatment as Dodge's light-duty model, only bigger. Arguably the most impressive design feature of the new Ram is a dually exclusive. Dodge decided to shy away from the composite body panels to cover the rear tires, instead opting to stamp the dually rig's rear quarters using honest-to-goodness steel. The look is smooth, maybe even a bit sexy, especially if trucks that can tow 17,000 pounds is your thing.

In all, Dodge manages to make an already manly looking truck even more rough and ready. Gaps are tighter, sheetmetal is curvier and everything just looks brawnier. But today's heavy-duty truck buyer is shelling out anywhere from $30,000 to over $60,000 for the right to go big, and they demand a functional, configurable and comfortable interior. The 2010 Dodge Ram HD has an interior for every taste, from a regular cab for work applications to the crew cab and even a largest-in-class mega cab.

We spent the majority of our time in a Ram 2500 SLT crew cab with a 6' 4" bed. Dodge says this is their volume truck, so we were more than happy to take the Cummins diesel-powered example as our test model. Over the course of our testing at Chrysler's Chelsea, MI proving grounds, it proved to be a nice place to work. First off, the crew cab's cabin is huge � which is expected of a four-door pickup weighing more than 6,000 pounds. There's so much room inside the new Ram HD that Dodge engineers found enough space to throw in 42 storage areas � up from 24 cubbies in the last-gen Heavy Duty. While some of those compartments are only big enough to handle a cell phone or a couple packs of gum, others are large and quite handy. The massive glovebox can fit drinks for everyone in the cabin, while the in-floor cooler can fit added refreshments plus ice.

Beyond a plethora of cab configurations, Dodge is also offering two different levels of interior refinement. The base interior, in which we spent most of our time, is fine for most applications, with harder plastics better suited to a work site than a trip to the opera. It'll be fine for most truck owners, though, with comfortable seats and armrests aplenty. We did manage to spend some time in an upscale Laramie model, which contains the same top-notch materials found in the higher-spec light-duty Ram. Soft touch, leather-like materials abound, and the hide-wrapped steering wheel is one of the best in the business � even eclipsing the offerings from Ford or GM's truck.

But while a great cabin certainly helps both the recreational and work truck buyer do their job in comfort, the most important factor is capability. And since the Ram HD can haul up to 24,500 GCWR, we're confident the newest Dodge has all the skills that most truck buyers could ever need. During our stint with the Ram HD, we were given the opportunity to drive three Dually 3500 models, each towing or hauling something significant. The first model, a regular cab model with a six-speed manual transmission and an eight-foot bed, had over 1,200 pounds of straw strapped to its back. The 350 horsepower and 650 lb-ft of torque provided by the 6.7-liter Cummins inline-six diesel engine (which carries a $7,615 price tag over the standard HEMI V8) hauled this big load without breaking a sweat, though rowing our own gears isn't nearly as much fun when motivating 8,000 pounds of truck.

The giant bale of straw was only an appetizer, though. The big fun was to be had when we got behind the wheel of a Ram 3500 Crew Cab Dually with an eight-foot box. Latched onto the truck's bed was a trailer containing a Case IH Maxxum 125 tractor. That's 16,500 pounds of tractor and trailer � exactly the sort of payload you pictured yourself hauling as a kid playing with Tonka Trucks. With all that weight in tow, the Ram HD's best-in-class 650 lb-ft of torque at 1,500 RPM came in handy. Taking off from a stop was a snap, and coming to a halt wasn't as laborious as expected. The Cummins I6 displayed steady grunt when towing the load, never feeling overmatched. Once up to speed, we were able to shift our own gears thanks to Dodge's Electronic Range Select feature, which lets the driver manually limit the highest available gear. ERS comes in handy when traversing steep grades while hauling a big load, as there are only so many algorithms engineers can program to provide up/down shifts exactly when you need them. Turning was made a bit easier with the aid of the new Ram's excellent sideview mirrors, which kept a crystal clear picture of everything going on around our super-sized cargo.

The Ram HD also has a few features that make hauling a big load safer. Diesel models now come with a standard exhaust brake that can be turned on and off via a switch on the dash. The exhaust brake shuts down the turbos, using engine compression to slow down the mini big rig, which also reduces brake fade when hauling loads on downhill grades. We weren't able to test the exhaust brake during our time hauling the Case IH Maxxum 125 tractor, but we did try out another way Dodge engineers were able to make the Ram HD easier to stop. While coasting at 60 MPH, we were instructed to simply ease off the accelerator and tap the brake. The integrated trailer brake controller worked in concert with the Ram's six-speed auto 'box to quickly slow over 24,000 lbs of steel, glass and rubber without overtaxing the truck's disc brakes.

Dodge appears to have built a work truck for everybody from the grunt to the site foreman, and the horned beast is looking to appeal to the ardent off-roader as well. The new 2010 Ram HD Power Wagon is no joke. Its 33-inch LT285/70R17D BF Goodrich All-Terrain tires, solid axles, locking front and rear differentials and electronic sway bar disconnect have banded together to accomplish one goal: making you a superstar when tackling the wild. Dodge set up a sweet off-road gauntlet within its proving grounds to properly test the Power Wagon's prowess. We simply put the Ram into 4WD low and headed off into the rough stuff.

Chrysler has a great opportunity to improve upon its 23-percent share of the HD truck market.
The course contained uphill and downhill grades, massive boulders, several inches of mud and even a steep, dirt-encrusted log bridge. The Power Wagon cut through all of the obstacles without breaking a sweat, with the 383-hp HEMI V8 (the Cummins diesel isn't available on the Power Wagon) providing plenty of punch for anything we were able to throw at it.

Dodge management challenged its truck engineers to deliver similar ride quality improvements to its heavy-duty offerings as it did with the light-duty Ram, but without the use of coil springs. We wouldn't exactly say those engineers nailed this request like a Rodney Dangerfield Triple Lindy, but we would definitely call the new Ram HD a more comfortable cruiser than the outgoing model. Among the engineering changes for 2010 are mounts that connect the C-Pillar to the truck's frame, resulting in less cabin shake on rough roads. The new Ram is also quieter on the inside with the aid of triple sealed doors and improved aerodynamics. The change is noticeable when holding conversations on the open road, and we were even able to talk in muted tones when traversing the gauntlet in the Power Wagon.

After spending a day with the extensive lineup of heavy-duty Dodge Rams, we're confident that Chrysler's truck division has a reasonable shot at improving upon its 23-percent share of the HD truck market. That's already a big chunk of pie in a segment Dodge has only played in for seven years, and a new-and-improved truck for 2010 that will retail for less money than the model it replaces makes the fight for customers a bit more interesting. Dodge's new trucks are now more competitive than ever with improved aesthetics and ride quality, terrific interiors, more configurations and improved capability. At the very least, the Mopar brand has put a lot of pressure on the competition to hit a home run with new product offerings next year. Because if Ford or GM miss, Dodge will be more than happy to take their customers and run.

[Source: Autoblog]

Mitsubishi sketches out Concept-cX-influenced compact crossover for 2010

Mitsubishi Compact Crossover

It's been two years since Mitsubishi took the wraps off its Concept-cX crossover at the 2007 Frankfurt Motor Show, but before we see the production version at next year's Geneva Motor Show, Mitsubishi has released a teaser sketch of its all-new compact CUV.

Aimed at competing with segment stalwarts like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, the Compact Crossover will be built atop Mitsubishi's new mid-size global architecture with power likely provided by a 1.8-liter turbodiesel channeling around 140 hp and 206 lb-ft of torque through Mitsubishi's Twin-Clutch SST gearbox and all-wheel drive system.

Sales will begin in Japan this February, and we'd expect a petrol-powered version to be released in the States later in 2010


Mitsubishi Motors Corporation announces all-new Compact Crossover - Game Changer

Mitsubishi Motors Corporation (MMC) announces today the forthcoming introduction of its all-new on-road Compact Crossover, to be retailed first in Japan from February 2010 onwards.

Derived from the much-acclaimed 2007 Concept-cX show car, it is the latest development of MMC's mid-size global platform ("Project Global").

This most important product will further support Mitsubishi Motors' strategic shift from being an SUV-focused nameplate to a manufacturer of environment-friendly passenger cars & crossovers*, with a presence in the "authentic off-roader" segment** � itself pre-empting structural changes in market demand.

As such � and after i-MiEV � this on-road Compact Crossover will be the Corporation's next game changer towards lower impact vehicles, in their format and/or in the innovative MMC proprietary technologies they will feature.

The European premiere is scheduled for the 2010 Geneva Motor Show.

Zagato marks the end of an era with custom Ferrari 550 GTZ Barchetta

Ferrari 550 GTZ

When Ferrari took the wraps off the 550 Maranello in 1996, it represented an important step in the company's evolution. Replacing the aging F512M (nee Testarossa), the 550 Maranello marked a shift back to front-engine V12 GTs for Ferrari � the niche market for which the company became known. But if the 550 Maranello was a pivotal product for Ferrari, the 550 Barachetta Pininfarina was even more desirable.

Characterized by its open-top format with rear cowling and leather-trimmed roll hoops, Ferrari only made 448 examples of the open-top 550 before the model line was replaced by the 575M. Another 559 drop-top Superamericas were built on the 575M's basis, but the rarest example was the solitary 575 GTZ built by Zagato for one Yoshiyuki Hayashi, an avid Ferrari collector in Japan.

For better or worse, the window of opportunity that, for a time, allowed coachbuilders like Zagato to create specials like the 575 GTZ is now closing, with Ferrari's own customization program bringing the carrozzeria tradition back to the Maranello gates � to the exclusion of others. But not before the Milanese design house gets in one last hoorah, celebrating the 90th anniversary of the first such collaboration between the two Italian houses of rolling style.

Taking five pristine examples of the aforementioned 550 Barachetta as their basis, the 550 GTZ borrows the shape from Hayashi's 575-based coupe and gives it a roadster body style. There's no word on whether any modifications have been carried out on the coupe's mechanicals, but the rolling stock appears to have carried over unchanged if that's any indication. All five examples have reportedly been spoken for at a price of �1 million ($1.6 million) apiece, which may seem like a lot for a car long since replaced, twice, but hardly too much to ask for historic artifacts of automotive Italiana.

[Source: CarsUK]

Russian designer pens Maserati Kuba concept

Maserati Kuba design study

It was only a few years ago, but how quickly we forget. Maserati actually toyed with the idea of building a crossover back in 2003, even going so far as to unveil a concept for the project called the Kubang GT Wagon at the Detroit Auto Show. The shape was penned by Giugiaro's ItalDesign, but project was scrapped, preserving the Trident marque's chastity in the eyes of many a purist. Now, an ambitious designer out of Russia has revived the idea with a concept he calls the Kuba. Sound familiar?

The brainchild of Andrey Trofimchuk Simeonych, the Maserati Kuba design study is, intriguing take on what a Maserati crossover could look like. Only it doesn't share any design themes with any Masers we can think of. Nor does it have any theoretical specifications attached, though surely a platform and powertrain could be found from the growing Fiat/Chrysler automotive empire.

To our eye, it would look more suitable as a vision for what a future aircraft-engined Veritas sport-ute could look like, or maybe even a weird Citro�n concept of some sort (is there any other kind?). Then again, maybe not. It's a love-it-or-hate-it affair, so have a look for yourself in the high-res image gallery below and share your impressions in our comments section.


Review: 2010 Kia Forte

2010 Kia Forte

It's not that there was much wrong with the Forte's predecessor. In fact, the last time we drove a Kia Spectra, we walked away wondering if anything more might be overkill. The Spectra was good but tended to blend in with a crowd, and Kia's not into playing the role of wallflower anymore. In contrast, the Forte boldly saunters into the middle of the dance floor, comfortable in the hot glow of the pin spot, with the confidence of Tony Manero after a trip to the tailor.

Clearly, the Kia Forte looks remarkably better than the econobox it replaces and attracts the right kind of attention to the brand. Everywhere it goes, the Forte is a surprising conversation piece, though many aren't sure exactly what it is. With Kia's value pricing, you also get a lot for your dollar. So does it have the hat trick of style, value and performance? When the key to this black Forte SX tester was pressed into the palm of our hand

Despite what some believe after only seeing photos, the Forte doesn't bear much resemblance to the Honda Civic. A thick swage along the top of the flanks gives the windows a chamfered, machined look. The Forte's face is bolder than its supposed Civic doppelganger with deeper shoulders formed by the fenders, and the rest of the sheetmetal is carefully creased to look pleasant and stylish, even a bit upscale. Since it doesn't aim to break new styling ground, the Forte has withstood accusations of being derivative, but its clean, precision-milled looks are more unique than that kind of critique might suggest. The lines will age well, and the bodywork grabs and bends light tastefully.

Our SX tester's dapper Ebony Black was set off by just the right amount of brightwork. Lesser trim levels get 15-inch steel wheels, but the SX gets 17s with creative fluting around the lugs, and, thankfully, no chrome. The Forte sits just right on its wheels, and the SX package dresses up the exterior with foglamps in the lower front fascia. This is not a body that carries extra strakes or adornments � there's not even rub strips along the doors. And while the looks are the better for it, we'd take to parking in the far spots, especially with a dark finish that will prominently display blemishes.

Interior styling is clean and simple, but not without flair. Just like the outside, tasteful is the order of the day, and the Forte's cabin isn't overly swooped-up. Dash-strokers will find that the Forte has its share of hard plastics, some may even find the sheen objectionable. But despite any nattering about materials quality, the Forte is right in there with its class contemporaries. The Focus is chintzier, the Civic is plain weird, and the Forte's interior is on par with the Mazda3 and Toyota Corolla. The SX leather package fits perforated leather seats that look upscale and add an air of luxe inside, tacking on $1,000 to the $18,195 MSRP.

The seats could benefit from more support and adjustments, particularly with the lumbar. The seat bottom, too, was impossible to get positioned and tilted how we wanted. Although overall comfort and bolstering was good, without much adjustment, drivers might feel that the Forte was designed for some kind of mutant body type. Rear seat passengers don't have to duck and squeeze to enter and exit, with ample space for four full-sized humans, and the trunk is surprisingly large, too. If three people are comfortable with each other's company and personal grooming habits, they'll find the back seat pleasant enough for short jaunts around town, and if things get stuffy, the $600 power moonroof is worth the extra couple months of payments.

Functionally, the Forte's ergonomics are above complaint. Big, clear knobs operate the climate system, and the radio has genuine knobs for tuning and volume; two areas that can be troublesome for manufacturers to get right. Bluetooth is standard on the Forte, and the steering wheel carries controls for operating the telephone, as well as the audio system and cruise control. During its time with us, the Forte never annoyed us with hidden buttons or incongruous menus � it's a pleasantly simple car to operate � and the gauges follow the same pattern, providing clear, legible information for the driver.

Lesser Fortes get a 2.0-liter four-cylinder that puts out an energetic 156 horsepower, but SX models get an uprated 2.4-liter engine. The bigger mill is borrowed from the Optima, much as Toyota Corollas can be had with a Camry powertrain. The 2.4's 173 horsepower and 168 pound-feet of torque will slake the thirst of the power hungry, but it's overkill here, and the extra 400cc of displacement brings with it an increased appetite for fuel. However, the bigger engine comes mated to an unflappable five-speed automatic that delivers smooth shifts and jumps for higher gears quickly, making the most of the engine's torquey nature. It can be a little reluctant to come out of high gear and extinguish the green "eco" light in the gauge cluster that indicates earth-friendly driving, but the manual gate is helpful � even satisfyingly responsive � when called upon.

The Forte is a stylish, comfortable, frisky automotive companion for surprisingly short dollars.
The biggest annoyance with the powertrain is its overly-aggressive throttle tip in. A very gentle foot is required to avoid blasting away from stops like a teenager with a newly laminated license. Manual transmission Fortes are even worse, with the wonky throttle programming leading to the binary options of peel out or stall that take time to adjust to. The four-speed auto that's paired with the 2.0-liter engine has come under some fire, but either auto trans is acceptable. The five-speed's extra ratio, however, adds more refinement and relaxes the demeanor.

With the big four's beefy torque, the Forte is happy to loaf along, and variable valve timing provides a noticeable dollop of extra urge as RPMs rise. We put the Forte through commuter hell and it coughed up 28 MPG after plenty of traffic-sitting and on ramp pedal flattening, which lands in the middle of its 22 city/32 highway EPA numbers. While the fuel economy is acceptable, regular commuters could make an argument for the smaller engine, which can be had with a special fuel economy package and five-speed auto 'box to deliver 27/36 city/highway.

Enter the freeway aggressively for the first time and you'll be looking to do it again, just to make sure you're not crazy. There are signs of life from underneath. Where other vehicles in this class are merely drone pods, the Forte SX has a sport tuned suspension, and it delivers. The chassis is simple stuff with struts up front, a torsion beam rear axle, some swaybars and gas dampers � nothing fancy. Those specifications may fail to impress in modern times, but there's a long list of impressive performers sporting the same details. Nobody would accuse a first generation Volksagen GTI of being a sloppy-handling little knockwurst. When this type of chassis is sorted, it's very good, and the Forte SX is well fettled.

The steering could use a smidge more feedback and less aggressive boost; it's fast off-center. The Forte feels light on its feet, though, like a boxer that dances around his opponents. This is a spirited, fun car to drive, which bodes well for the upcoming Koup model and its more overt suggestion of sportiness. The downside is a busy ride on the taut side of comfortable. Some might find it objectionably stiff, and there are occasions where the Forte feels like it's ricocheting off expansion gaps instead of just smothering them with a more pliant suspension. But It's a tradeoff we'd make, because it's an entertaining steer that doesn't dive, squat and slobber all over the road.

The drivetrain is well polished, the uprated engine doesn't leave you wanting for acceleration, and the four-wheel disc brakes felt firm, easily modulated and effective. We would've liked a little less cabin noise at speed, but that's akin to dinging Kia because the Forte's interior doesn't have Zebrano wood trim. For its place in the vehicular hierarchy, it delivers an experience that's among the top contenders in its class.

Just like the Spectra we tried back in 2007, the Kia Forte leaves us impressed. It really only has to compete with the Honda Civic and Mazda3 in its peer group as it betters everything else in SX trim. The $20,000 price is certainly attractive, as is the list of features and one of the industry's best warranties. Redact the brand and model names from the window sticker, and this could have easily passed as an Acura or Infiniti not too long ago. While it's not likely to keep pace with any of those brands' current offerings, the Forte is a heck of a value. The fuel economy of the SX could be better and a stiffer body shell might be the key to supple-izing the suspension. Until that happens, the Sport-averse would be advised to try the normal suspension first. But overall, the Forte is a stylish, comfortable, frisky automotive companion for surprisingly short dollars

[Source: Autoblog]

Introducing the Expression Motorsport Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG Widebody

Expression Motorsport ML63 AMG

Those of you well heeled Halo players looking for an upmarket version of the Warthog, here you are: the Expression Motorsport ML63 AMG. Hailing from Belgium, the gents at Expression planned to "differentiate this ML from those of a more traditional variety," and to that we say, "Mission Accomplished!"

Things get a bit tricky up front with a snowplow masquerading as a front air dam, then Lorinser-esque around the front wheels, and just plain thick and juicy in back. Speaking of wheels, we will give Expression credit where it's due: nice wheels, guys

[Source: Expression Motorsports]

Convertible Toyobaru FT-86 in the works

Toyota FT-866

In news that will only shock those that haven't been paying attention, Toyota has reportedly confirmed that if the market demands it, there will be a convertible version of the new FT-86. Though Toyota still hasn't settled on a name for the upcoming budget rear-drive sports car, the announcement of a drop-top option lends a bit more credence to the rumor that the Celica nameplate might be brought back from the dead.

Now, the notion of a convertible Celica really shouldn't shock anyone. However, what should shock you (at least a little) is the possibility of convertible Subaru. Because, besides a few one-offs and at least one was-never-going-to-see-the-light-of-day concept, Subaru has never built a convertible. And of course, this means that the very real possibility of an all-wheel drive, 300+ horsepower, 300+ lb-ft. of torque, six-speed manual Subaru roadster exists

[Source: Auto Telegraaf via Motor Authority]