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  • Jul 31

    The proverbial Swiss Army Knife of the Mercedes-Benz line, the various variants of Benz’ mid-sized E-Class now total four: sedan, wagon, coupe and convertible. They all look good, perform well, and deliver enough luxury and technology to confirm the mojo is back. It wasn’t that long ago that the E-Class was a blobby, wobbly, oval-strewn runner-up. The current generation is leagues ahead and seriously worth a look.

    FAST FACTS
    1. Powered by a 382-hp 5.5L V8, the E550 Cabriolet can hit 60 mph in just 5.1 seconds.

    2. The drop-top E-Class features the first use of the AIRCAP system that pops up from the top of the A-pillars to direct air around the cabin.

    3. At $64,800 Mercedes bills the E550 Cabrio as the “most affordable V8 four-seat convertible” available.

    The most intriguing – bar the hyper E63 AMG – are the convertibles. Taking the body from the coupes and just chopping off the roof is not the kind of product Mercedes-Benz hopes to rebuild its reputation on. There are unique body panels, additional chassis braces to add stiffness, and pretty trick technology designed to keep you and your passengers comfortable and safe at speed.

    INNOVATION FOR COMFORT, PRACTICALITY

    While so many other cars have moved towards folding-metal hardtops, the ‘E’ uses a traditional three-layer fabric top that powers down quickly with one button. That also means a reasonable 11.5 cu.-ft. trunk that loses less space when the roof is stowed than its rivals.

    Perhaps the most aesthetically questionable new feature is Benz’ AIRCAP system, which is essentially an electronically activated spoiler that pops up off the windshield header to divert airflow over the cabin. It does work more deftly than the bulky screens and blockers that usually cover the rear seats in competitors’ models, but when deployed, looks a little foolish, especially in a brighter color.

    Otherwise, the transformation from coupe to convertible hasn’t lost any of the former’s aggression. It’s a long way from the old CLK convertible this essentially replaces in Mercedes-Benz family. And if a buyer wants something a little more aggressive, there are optional AMG tweaks to spice things up.

    BIG V8 DELIVERS FUN, NOT FUEL ECONOMY

    Although there is a V6-powered entry-level version, the V8-powered E550 is hard to resist, so that’s what we’re focusing on here today. The large 5.5-liter V8 produces 382-hp and 391 lb-ft of torque, which is sent to the rear wheels through the standard seven-speed automatic transmission. Even with the convertible’s not-terribly tiny 4,050-lb curb weight, that’s still powerful enough to push the drop-top E550 to 60 mph in just 5.1 seconds.

    There is a penalty, though, and that’s at the fuel pump: the big V8 consumes 15 mpg in the city and just 22 mpg on the highway. If you put your foot in – as the rorty exhaust would encourage – expect those to drop off significantly.

    But the payoff is a responsive throttle, aided by the smart gearbox that smoothly changes down a gear or two when called for. Switching to Sport and using the standard steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters gives you significant control over your progress, and is one of the better systems out there.

    Perhaps the one big drawback is knowing what’s in the development pipe, with Mercedes certain to offer the E-Class drop-top with its new twin-turbo 4.7L V8 that makes significantly more power and vastly improved fuel economy.

    The coupe’s responsive handling has been left nearly intact, but the added weight and loss of rigidity to take a small toll. Turn-in is good, the E550 is nicely balanced, and has one of Mercedes-Benz’ better steering setups that communicate what the 18-inch front tires are up to. The wider rears aren’t troubled much unless you’re truly vicious with your inputs, but even then the traction and stability control won’t allow much slip.

    Other safety systems that help save your bacon include nine airbags, active front head restraints, pop-up roll bars, and the company’s PRE-SAFE, which activates seat-belt tensioners and moves the front seats to the best position possible if it senses that a collision is imminent.

    BUYING A BENZ FOR VALUE?

    It’s hard to imagine when a Mercedes-Benz is a segment value-leader, but the company claims the $64,800 E550 is the “most affordable V8 four-seat convertible” on the market. We suppose that’s true. The E550 is less expensive than the larger BMW 650i ($85K), or the $67K M3 Cabrio, but with 414 hp and a track-ready suspension, the M-badged Bimmer would be hard to pass up. Audi doesn’t play in this realm since it reserves its V8s for the S5 Coupe. The excellent S5 Cabrio is only $59K, but its supercharged V6 is down on power to the Benz.

    In a truly literal sense, both Ford and Chevrolet offer V8 four-seat convertible Mustangs and Camaros for nearly half of what Mercedes-Benz wants for the E550, so that clearly disproves the claim. But the cross-shop between the two would be virtually nil. There isn’t likely to be a single ‘Benz buyer would put up with the hard plastics, and down-market feel compared to the solid E-Class. The three-pointed star does bring with it a certain air – earned or not – of exclusivity.

    THE VERDICT

    The E550 Convertible is a great car, and successfully banishes the old CLK from our consciousness. For the lucky few who purchase one, though, it will inevitably spend most of its life being a trophy, rarely topping the speed limit, never pushing the limits of the driver or the car itself. So kudos to Mercedes-Benz for making this car much better than it ever needed to be.

  • Jul 31

    If you’re in the market for a luxury car that’s a bit different, choices are slim. But I wager that Acura’s RL may just be what you’re looking for — if you can forgive a few foibles.

    FAST FACTS
    1. The RL’s 300 horsepower isn’t going to set the world alight, but it is competitive with rivals.

    2. The standard car has pretty much everything, but radar cruise control and “solar-sensing climate control” can be ordered

    3. Who says Japanese cars no longer undercut their rivals? The RL is $6,000 less than a BMW 535i xDrive Sedan.

    THE UGLY STICK

    Apparently, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But in this case I disagree. If you take a look at the “old” RL and the “new” RL, it’s obvious that a quick restyling of the front and rear fascia was all Acura had in mind to make it look like its siblings. That mentality created two problems. First, the RL is no longer one of the most attractive modern luxury cars on sale. Second, it looks just like the better-selling (and better performing) TL SH-AWD — that also happens to be less expensive. Sales of the RL were never very strong, sure, but at least buyers could claim the extra went toward paying Acura’s talented design team.

    Where the extra cash goes to now, I don’t know…oh wait, what about its toys?

    BUTTONS GALORE

    “How bad could it be,” you ask? Well, on the steering wheel alone, there are 19 buttons. That’s more than enough to make a Blackberry addict feel at home. Acura has shied away from installing a BMW iDrive-like system on the RL, instead content to give every single vehicle function its own button. Except the coolest one.

    They call it a “GPS-linked solar sensor.” Say, for instance, you park beside a building and leave the RL stationary for several hours. The sun will pass overhead, East to West, gradually sending that building’s shadow onto different parts of the interior. The materials heat up inside the car at different rates; the right side of the vehicle may have leather cool to the touch — but the passenger seat may feel like a barbecued cowboy boot. Acura’s sensor uses GPS to detect where the sun will be at any given moment, and use the climate control to keep each side of the car at the same temperature.

    It’s all automatic, too. But you’ll have to buy the RL with the “Technology Package” for $50,300 to get it.

    JAPANESE SENSIBILITIES

    In Japan, this car is sold as the Honda Legend, the latest in a long-running line of cars that feature the company’s very latest technology. You may scoff at the number of buttons inside the car, or how terrible it looks, but the entire package feels so incredibly refined.

    Technology is used in the RL to improve it; nothing was installed onto the car to its detriment. Everything from window sunshades to how the Bose stereo system can actively cancel unwanted cabin noise by as much as 10dB are designed to make the driving experience as relaxing as possible. AcuraLink realtime traffic updates, Zagat restaurant ratings, and a (pretty good) voice command system are all technologies designed to be utilized on a daily basis — not just popped into the car like many manufacturers do to claim a “world’s first.”

    TECHNOVERLOAD

    Back to the noise canceling system for a minute: it uses two microphones located in the ceiling to monitor for low-frequency noise in the cabin. When sound is detected, the Active Noise Control (ANC) unit passes an inverse waveform to the Bose amplifier unit, where it is amplified to an inaudible volume that cancels the original sound.


    Some things on the car can be a little unnerving, though. Take the Collision Mitigation Braking System (CMBS) for instance. Featured on my tester, CMBS is powered by a radar transmitter mounted behind the RL’s grille. If it detects a possible collision, it will sound audio and visual alerts to warn the driver.

    Or, if you don’t heed the warnings (like I didn’t — and not a scratch on me!) CMBS will begin light braking and automatically “tug at the driver’s seat belt.” Really. It’s the strangest feeling.

    Third step? If a collision is unavoidable, the front seat belts tighten, and strong braking is automatically applied to help reduce the collision force.

    CMBS comes as part of the Active Cruise Control (ACC) system, optional on RLs with the Technology Package for $3,800.

    THE VERDICT

    I like the RL. If you’re a badge snob, buy the BMW 535i xDrive for $6,000 more and be like everyone else in your subdivision. The RL isn’t the cheapest car in its class and it’s not the most powerful, or the most efficient, but it is such a nicely balanced car that it’s worth a look.

    I, for one, hate when technology stands out in modern cars like a sore thumb. The RL may look like one, but it’s the most relaxing luxury car you can buy.

  • Jul 30

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  • Aston Martin V12 Zagato production

    Aston Martin says it will build no more than 150 copies of the V12 Zagato.

    By: Jake Lingeman on 7/07/2011

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  • Aston Martin on Thursday confirmed that it will put the gorgeous V12 Zagato into production.

    The handmade exotic will have a limited run of 150 examples, with prices from about $527,000, converted from British pounds.

    Earlier this year, the Aston Martin V12 Zagato won an award for design in the Concepts and Prototypes class at the Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este on the shores of Italy's Lake Como, then it completed the Nьrburgring 24-hour race.

    Aston Martin says there is more than enough interest from customers to confirm production.

    Orders are now being taken on a first-come, first-served basis. Production is scheduled to begin in the summer of 2012.

    The V12 Zagato uses a 6.0-liter engine to produce 510 hp and 420 lb-ft of torque. The panels are made of handcrafted aluminum and carbon fiber. Aston Martin says each panel is formed using an English wheel and traditionally crafted body bucks. The Zagato influence can be seen in the double-bubble roof created from five separate pieces of material.

    The car was created to pay homage to the Zagatos of the past, specifically the DB4GT Zagato, which was created 50 years ago.

    "The original DB4GT Zagato was a true icon, powerful and graceful," Aston Martin director of design Marek Reichman said. "The new design is a true representation of the sprit of the DB4GT Zagato. The muscular, organic forms define the thoroughbred nature of the car's racing potential."

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  • V12 Zagato
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  • EBay exotic: 1991 Aston Martin Virage
  • Million Dollar Fiat: 1953 Zagato Fiat 8V Elaborata
  • The quest for eights in a Nissan GT-R
  • Aston Martin's AMR-One prototype receives approval from consultants
  • Stirling Moss adds an Aston Martin Cygnet to his wife's garage
  • AUTOWEEK TV: Fast times with the Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG coupe
  • Concours-winning Aston Martin Zagato heads to the 'Ring
  • Aston Martin Zagato, Alfa Romeo take honors at Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este
  • Aston Martin V12 Zagato rolled out for the Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este
  • Aston Martin and Zagato team up for new car
  • Aston Martin on Thursday confirmed that it will put the gorgeous V12 Zagato into production.

    The handmade exotic will have a limited run of 150 examples, with prices from about $527,000, converted from British pounds.

    Earlier this year, the Aston Martin V12 Zagato won an award for design in the Concepts and Prototypes class at the Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este on the shores of Italy's Lake Como, then it completed the Nьrburgring 24-hour race.

    Aston Martin says there is more than enough interest from customers to confirm production.

    Orders are now being taken on a first-come, first-served basis. Production is scheduled to begin in the summer of 2012.

    The V12 Zagato uses a 6.0-liter engine to produce 510 hp and 420 lb-ft of torque. The panels are made of handcrafted aluminum and carbon fiber. Aston Martin says each panel is formed using an English wheel and traditionally crafted body bucks. The Zagato influence can be seen in the double-bubble roof created from five separate pieces of material.

    The car was created to pay homage to the Zagatos of the past, specifically the DB4GT Zagato, which was created 50 years ago.

    "The original DB4GT Zagato was a true icon, powerful and graceful," Aston Martin director of design Marek Reichman said. "The new design is a true representation of the sprit of the DB4GT Zagato. The muscular, organic forms define the thoroughbred nature of the car's racing potential."

  • Jul 30

    Thanks to Ford’s “Fiesta Movement” social-media marketing strategy, as well as plenty of buzz from American auto journalists who spent time behind the wheel of the car while traveling to Europe, the 2011 Ford Fiesta may have been one of the most-anticipated small cars to hit American soil in some time. Now, we’ve finally had the chance to drive it.
    FAST FACTS
    1. The Fiesta is powered by a 1.6L 4-cylinder with 120-hp and 112 ft-lbs of torque.

    2. Ford rates the car’s fuel economy a 29/38-mpg (city/hwy) for the manual, and 30/40-mpg for the six-speed automatic.

    3. Models range from $13,320 to $16,320 for the sedan and from $15,120 to $17,120 for the hatch, plus options.

    For those that have been living under a volcanic ash cloud for the past year, the 2011 Ford Fiesta is coming to America to fill in a gap in Ford’s lineup. Ford hasn’t had a B-class car for sale on American soil in a while, and its past efforts have been less than inspired.

    Ford is aiming this car squarely at “urban millenials” along with empty-nesters. Don’t know what an urban millennial is? Think single or married without kids, living in the city, and you’ve got the idea.

    Before we were giving a chance to drive the car, Ford told assembled journalists that the company expects the market for small cars in the U.S. to grow, no matter what happens to fuel prices. Simply put, Ford is betting big on small cars.

    120-HP 4-CYLINDER LESS THAN EXCITING BUT GREAT ON FUEL

    This particular small car is available in two flavors—five-door hatchback and four-door sedan. All models are front-wheel drive. A single engine choice is available—a 1.6-liter four-cylinder with Ford’s Twin Independent Variable Camshaft Timing (Ti-VCT). This powerplant makes 120 horsepower and 112 ft-lbs of torque.

    Two transmissions are offered: A conventional five-speed manual and a six-speed automatic that Ford dubs PowerShift, due to its lack of a torque converter. The transmission instead uses a dual dry-clutch setup. Paddle shifters aren’t available at the moment.

  • Jul 30

    Every Monday I roll into the office in a new press car and the same group of guys always ask me the same question. “What are you driving this week?” Then, through a democratic process, they pass judgment on the car.

    FAST FACTS
    1. The Forte has a powerful 2.0L base engine with 156hp and 144 ft-lbs of torque.

    2. Pricing for the Forte ranges from $13,695 to $17,195 ($15,695 to 20,995 CDN), but the $16,795 ($19,195 CDN) EX model with the automatic transmission is sure to be the most popular.

    3. A $600 fuel-economy package for the mid-level EX model adds a five-speed transmission and a few other items to increase mileage from 25/34 mpg (city/hwy) to 27/36 mpg.

    4. The top level SX model gives you a 2.4L four-cylinder engine with 173hp, 17-inch wheels and a six-speed manual (or optional 5 speed auto).

    If it’s an Audi R8, they all come take a look. If it’s a new Corolla, they pass. Surprisingly, every one of them wanted to see the new Kia Forte. So did my father in law… and my brother in law.

    As all of them knew nothing about the car, I’ll have chalk up their interest to Kia’s brilliantly dorky marketing campaign. And as those TV commercials don’t mention the engine, fuel-economy, safety features or handling, there’s just one thing that’s drawing people in. The look.

    A FRESH NEW CAR WITH A FRESH NEW DESIGN

    By all accounts the Forte has a clean European design to it, with a side profile that barely has any lines all – just nice smooth sheet metal coated in a surprisingly high quality paint. My tester came with a metallic brown (which Kia calls bronze) coating. I know what you’re thinking. “Brown? Yuck!” But it’s actually very nice – especially in the sun.

    I won’t be the first, or the last, to accuse Kia of lifting the design of the Forte’s headlights directly from the Honda/Acura parts bin. In a way it’s a compliment. The rest of the front end looks great too with Kia’s new corporate grille adding just the right amount of chrome around a gaping black grille. Below there’s a three part intake setup that adds to the car’s sporty flare.


    Out back, Kia’s designers didn’t neglect any details either. The trunk juts out just a little in a style reminiscent of the original Audi A4.

    EX models even come standard with turn-signal indicators built into the side mirrors.

    So… it’s got your attention, but can the Forte keep it? You bet!

    MOST POWERFUL STANDARD ENGINE IN ITS CLASS

    Those TV spots for the Forte do give you one piece of info about the car – the price. Base LX models start at $13,695 ($15,695 CDN), but you’re much more likely to find yourself in an EX for $15,795 ($17,995 CDN). Those who want a little extra performance can also opt for the SX model. But we’ll get to that later.

    The price on the base LX model sounds great, but without any power options or even AC it’s not a very attractive package. The EX, however, comes well-equipped and when you add an auto tranny and the optional Premium Package that includes a sunroof as well as 16-inch wheels and tires, the damage is an acceptable $17,595.

    So what else do you get for your money?

    For starters there’s a powerful 2.0-liter four-cylinder under the hood, making 156hp and 144 ft-lbs of torque. That’s 18 more ponies than the Forte’s sister car, the Hyundai Elantra. In fact, it’s more horsepower from a base-trim engine than you’ll find in any other compact car.

    Is Kia going after the youth market? You bet!

    With all that power, fuel-economy would normally suffer. But it doesn’t. LX and EX models get 25/34 mpg (city/highway), edging out the Elantra and coming close to the Civic and Corolla.

    The transmission is a four-speed unit and while we’d like to complain that a five-speed should be standard… that wouldn’t be fair. Five-speed autos are still a rarity in the compact car segment.

    Besides, with all that power the four-speed doesn’t feel like it’s holding the car back and fuel-economy certainly doesn’t seem to be hurting.

    OPTIONAL FUEL-ECONOMY PACKAGE DELIVERS 27/36 MPG

    Those who do want a few extra miles per gallon (and who doesn’t?) can opt for a five-speed auto as a part of Kia’s $600 fuel-economy package. Also included are improved aerodynamics, low rolling resistance tires, electric (versus hydraulic) power steering and a low-drag alternator. These features combine to up fuel-economy from the 25/34 mpg rating to a best-in-class 27/36 mpg.

    CABIN DOESN’T LIVE UP TO THE EXTERIOR

    When getting into the car the door handles do feel a little cheap and the interior is a bit of a let down compared to the Forte’s sleek exterior design. And yes, there is an over-abundance of hard plastic. Still, it’s far from bad and we’d rate it mid-pack in terms of materials and design.


    There’s only one interior color, black, which is probably a good thing, as black always tends to look a little more up-scale, even when the materials aren’t.

    The design of the dash and materials used are definitely a nice step up from the last Kia I drove – a significantly more expensive Optima. Still, I strongly suggest opting for the metal finish for the center stack and door trim, which breaks up the monotone monotony. Our tester didn’t have it, but when examining other cars in the Kia press fleet, the difference was noticeable.

    We don’t want to get carried away with add-ons, but the optional leather shift knob and steering wheel would also be ideal. Having some leather to hold on to, instead of that hard plastic, would enhance the feel behind the wheel. Kia also offers a full leather seat package if that’s what you’re after.

    As for the gauges, they look sporty and are more premium than you’d expect. They also include Kia’s Eco Minder light. It illuminates green when you’re driving efficiently, playing off the idea that a significant part of fuel-efficient driving is driving style.

    Standard equipment on the mid-level EX includes power windows and locks with remote keyless entry, AC, a tilt wheel with redundant audio controls and cruise control, Bluetooth, a four-speaker AM/FM/CD player with MP3 capability, USB and auxiliary jacks and even floor mats (which is nice because a dealer charging you extra for floor mats is just annoying).

    Unfortunately telescopic steering is only offered on the more powerful and more expensive SX model.

    SX MODEL GETS BIGGER ENGINE WITH 173 HORSEPOWER

    The base 2.0-liter is more than sufficient, but if you demand a little more from your car then the 2.4-liter found in the $17,195 ($19,195 CDN) SX model will serve you well with 173hp and 168 ft-lbs of torque. SX models also get two more speakers, a standard six-speed manual (yummy), a sports suspension, larger front brake rotors and 17-inch wheels with 215/45/17 tires.

    In the safety department the Kia boasts the same list as most any other compact car, with the usual six airbags (driver and passenger front and side, as well as side curtain for all outboard seats). Also included are four-wheel disc brakes with ABS. Both traction and stability control are standard, as is a tire pressure monitoring system.

    Rear passenger room is surprisingly roomy for a compact. Even with the front seats a good way back there’s still ample legroom for most passengers (not just children). Cargo room is also excellent with a 14.7 cubic foot trunk and 60/40 split folding rear seats will increase cargo space significantly when needed.

    THE DRIVE

    From the driver’s seat, the Forte acts much like it looks. The steering is tight and the both the gas and brake pedals provide plenty of feedback. This dynamic will certainly appeal to younger buyers, although the touchiness of the controls might be a turn-off to more mature ones.

    As for handling, it’s just ok, and the Forte tends to feel a bit vague in the corners at speed.

    I hate to rag on the car’s torsion-beam semi-independent rear suspension setup too much, as generally most driver’s, under most driving conditions, aren’t likely to feel the difference between it and the fully-independent kind. Still, it has issues; and not in terms of handling, but in regards to comfort.

    On stretches of uneven asphalt, the rear of the car has a discernable inability to soak up bumps. As a result the undulations are translated up through the chassis to the front of the car. The good news is that Kia can likely make some adjustments (and hopefully will do so with future models) to correct this.

    THE VERDICT

    The Forte is the car that will finally give Kia a presence in the ultra-competitive compact car class. And while the competition is tough, the Forte has a lot going for it.

    Younger buyers will love the powerful engine choices as well as the tight steering and immediate throttle response. More sophisticated buyers might find those last two a bit much, but are sure to like the safety features, spacious rear seating area and the large trunk. And everyone will appreciate the fuel-economy.

    The name says it all; Kia’s new Forte will be a strong competitor for years to come.