Staff Writer - CheersandGears.com
June 18, 2012
Eight hours I tell myself. Eight hours to drive from my house in the Detroit area to Elkhart Lake, WI. I keep telling myself it was for a good reason; the chance to drive ninety vehicles, meet almost a hundred journalists, and drive on a variety of courses. This magical event I’m talking about is the the MAMA Spring Rally.
The Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA for short) is a non-profit group based in Chicago that brings together automotive journalists and public relations people. The group holds two rallies during the year: one in the spring and one in the fall.
During the course of two days, the assembled group of journalists would take the variety of vehicles on the Road America racetrack, scenic roads around Elkhart Lake, autocross course, and an off-road course.
During my time there, I had the chance to drive nineteen different vehicles. I’m not going to talk about all nineteen. Rather, I’m going to talk about the vehicles that a left a big impression on me. Shall we jump in?
Next, A Compact Crossover Surprise
Honda has been getting bad publicity in the press for the past year or so due to their vehicles not moving the bar like they used to. The Civic, once renown for being a fun and advanced compact car, now lags behind the competition.
I wondered if the same would apply to the new CR-V. Would I be joining the chorus of complainers or would I find the CR-V to be one of the better small crossovers?
The CR-V’s exterior and interior design are a textbook example of evolutionary design. The exterior carries the same shape as the previous generation, albeit with a few tweaks. For the interior, the only real changes are a new Econ button to help improve fuel economy, a five-inch color screen displaying radio information, and a new Bluetooth system.
Honda is sticking with what worked in the previous generation CR-V for the powertrain; a 2.4L DOHC four-cylinder delivering 185 HP and a five-speed automatic. I wished Honda would just add one more cog to the automatic to help improve fuel economy numbers.
As for the driving, the five-speed and 2.4L do a good job of getting the CR-V up to speed. The ride is very comfortable, soaking up all of the bumps and divots. Steering is surprisingly firm, but not to the point where you’ll get big muscles from it.
The CR-V was one of those pleasant surprises at the Spring Rally. I wasn’t sure how I would feel before getting into CR-V. But after driving it, it has become one of my favorites.
Next, A Crossover That is Fun to Drive? Why Yes.
Mazda proudly proclaims its vehicles to have soul of a sports car. The CX-7 and CX-9 are highly regarded for their excellent handling and are a perennial favorite for enthusiasts. Now, Mazda is hoping to work its magic on the small crossover with the new CX-5.
Exterior wise, the new CX-5 is the first Mazda to use the company's Kodo design language. Gone is the big stupid grin that has appeared on Mazda vehicles for the past few years. Instead, the CX-5 goes for a sharp and aggressive look.
Inside, the CX-5 is nicer than other Mazda models, but that isn’t really a complement. Build quality is good and the dash uses a lot of soft touch materials. But when compared to the new Ford Escape or the Chevrolet Equinox, the CX-5 lacks that special touch of design.
The CX-5 is the first Mazda to come equipped with the full suite of Skyactiv technologies. That includes a 2.0L Skyactiv four-cylinder producing 155 HP and 150 lb-ft of torque, the choice between a six-speed manual or automatic, and a lightweight Skyactiv chassis.
The 2.0L engine has decent power around town and keeping up with traffic. One place I wished for more power is when you try to make a pass or have some fun. As for the ride, the CX-5 offers one of the better driving experiences in the crossover market. The steering is weighted perfectly and the suspension does a good job of keeping the CX-5 stable when cornering.
With the new CX-5, Mazda delivers on its promise to put soul of a sports car in its lineup. The CX-5 is perfect for someone who has to give up his sports car or would like something sporty to join alongside it.
Next, The Best Midsize Hybrid At The Moment
Kia Optima Hybrid
The current landscape of mid-size hybrid sedans includes the stalwart Toyota Camry, Ford’s surprising Fusion, Chevrolet’s mild Malibu Eco, Hyundai’s curvaceous Sonata, and the swoopy Kia Optima Hybrid.
The Optima Hybrid’s exterior is pretty much the same as a normal Kia Optima, except for a of couple small differences. The Optima Hybrid gets some aero tweaks to the body including a rear spoiler and slightly revised rear fascia, new wheels, and a hybrid badge on the back. Inside, the same story applies with the only changes being a new gauge cluster, new screens in navigation system displaying hybrid information, and an Eco button that alters throttle response to help improve fuel economy.
Power comes from 2.4L four-cylinder and an electric motor delivering a combined 206 HP and 195 lb-ft of torque. As for the transmission, Kia bucks the trend of using a CVT, instead using a six-speed automatic.
Driving around, the hybrid powertrain left me wanting a little more oomph when leaving a stop. But once up to speed, the hybrid powertrain kept up with traffic very well. Ride is somewhat on the sporty side with the car feeling stable in corners.
So is the Kia Optima Hybrid the best mid-size hybrid? Possibly. The new Camry Hybrid bests the Optima in fuel economy. But the Optima Hybrid fights back with an impressive design, a long list of standard features, and a pricetag that undercuts many of its competitors.
For now the Optima Hybrid is the king of the hill for the mid-size hybrid.
Next, The Big Sedan Surprise
Another pleasant surprise at the MAMA Spring Rally was the new Hyundai Azera. The new Azera is a dramatic departure from previous model thanks to Hyundai’s "fluidic sculpture" design. Not everyone will like the look of the Azera, but at least you will notice it, unlike the last generation.
Inside the Azera, the design follows the exterior with a muti-layer design them, contrasting trim pieces, and soft touch materials. Seats are comfortable for both front and rear seat passengers.
Power comes from a 3.3L Lambda II V6 producing 295 HP and 255 lb-ft of torque, going through a six-peed automatic. The Azera pulls forward with nary a hint of torque steer and the six-speed makes smooth and confident shifts. The ride is soft and comfortable, a staple for the large sedan class.
Hyundai appears to be running on all cylinders with its recent releases. The new Azera continues that trend.
Next, The Car The ATS Has To Beat
BMW 328i Modern Line
Without fail, automotive journalists go gaga over a new 3-Series. They declare it without fail to be the best luxury sports sedan due to its powertrain lineup, handling, and steering. As I got into the BMW 328i Modern Line for a quick drive, I wondered if I would go gaga like everyone else or shrug it off, wondering why this car gets so much love.
The 328i’s exterior follows BMW’s design language used on the larger 5 and 7-Series sedans, with a rounded front end, two distinct character lines running along the side, and a short, tapered rear end. Also similar to the 5 and 7-Series is the interior, with minor changes.
Before we go any farther, it would be a good time to explain the 3-Series Lines. With the new 3-Series, BMW introduced Lines that brought forth minor changes to exterior and interior to help differentiate each one of three on offer (Luxury, Modern, and Sport). The Modern Line adds to a basic 3-Series a unique dash material that looks like wood (doesn’t feel like it though), a color-coded instrument cluster, and a set of eighteen-inch wheels.
The new 3-Series also marks the end of the straight-six used in the 28i model. Gone is the 3.0L six and in its place is a new 2.0 turbo inline-four delivering 240 HP and 260 lb-ft of torque. The choice of transmission is either a six-speed manual or an eight-speed automatic.
Power from the new turbo-four comes on fast and smooth, making you feel there is a six underneath the hood. The eight-speed automatic does a great job of providing smooth, seamless shifts. However, the stop/start system on the 328i isn’t the smoothest. Leaving from a stop, the engine sputters a for a moment before fully turning back on. It gives you the feeling that might have a breakdown.
And then there is the handling. BMW gets the balance of comfort and sport just right with the 328i. Driving on rough surfaces, the suspension does a good job of soaking up the imperfections and the steering is light. Turn the wick up via the sports setting and the 328i changes into something completely different. The suspension gets stiffer and provides good bite when cornering. The steering becomes heavier and provides a good feel.
The 328i left a favorable impression on me, but I’m not quite ready to join the chorus of everyone else saying it’s the best. I will need to take a few more vehicles out for a spin before I decide that. But, the new 3-Series makes a good case for it.
Next. The Predator's Brother
Lexus GS350 F-Sport
The Lexus GS has been the forgotten car in the mid-size luxury. Despite being here for three generations and picking up Motor Trend’s Import Car of the Year in 1998, the GS has been the wallflower, hiding among other vehicles in the class. Lexus decided to go a different route with the new GS to make it stand out among its competitors.
The GS’ exterior design is a dramatic departure from the last generation model’s design. Gone is the rounded shape of the previous generation GS and in its place are aggressive lines, sharp corners, and the new spindle grill that is making its way to the rest of the Lexus lineup. In pictures, the GS appears to be distant cousin to the Predator. But in person, the spindle grill does make a statement, especially when the GS is equipped with F-Sport package.
As for the GS’ interior, Lexus appears too been studying the Germans very closely. The overall layout is very reminiscent to the BMW 5-Series; with a large LCD screen dominating the center of the dashboard and HVAC vents and controls sitting just underneath.
Powering the GS350 is a 3.5L V6 delivering 306 HP and 277 lb-ft of torque, going through a six-speed automatic. Power comes on smoothly, but it doesn’t feel as fast as you think, except when you look down at the MPH and realize you’re going a lot faster than you think.
And then there is the optional F-Sport package. The package adds 19-inch wheels, 14-inch front brake rotors, firmer suspension, a variable gear ratio steering system, and the optional Lexus Dynamic Handling System which adds a rear steering actuator, capable of turning the wheels up to two degrees improving handling.
The F-Sport package can make anyone believe a Lexus can be something other than a luxury barge. The GS350 F-Sport holds on to corners like superglue and the steering is weighted just right.
Has Lexus created a vehicle that can give everyone in the midsize luxury sedan class something to worry about? Oh very much so. But the bigger question for the new GS is this: Can it become a player in the midsize luxury sedan market instead of wallflower?
Next, Defying The Laws of Physics
Mercedes ML63 AMG
If there was one vehicle that started the whole luxury high-performance SUV class, that vehicle would be the 2000 Mercedes-Benz ML55 AMG. Since then, automakers like BMW, Porsche, Land Rover, and even Jeep have thrown their hats into the high-performance SUV ring, while bettering Mercedes’ idea. So, could Mercedes-Benz and AMG keep up with the competition with the next generation ML63 AMG?
The AMG version of the ML gets minor changes for both the exterior and interior. Outside, the suspension is lowered by a few inches, new bodywork and a quad-pipe exhaust, and a set of of 20-inch wheels hiding a large set of brakes. Inside, a new steering wheel and contour seats hold passengers in as you try to defy the laws of physics.
Helping you test Sir Issac Neuton’s theories is a 5.5L twin-turbocharged V8 delivering 518 HP and 516 lb-ft of torque. Add the optional AMG performance pack and thepower and torque are raised to 550 hp and 560 lb-ft, respectively.
For an SUV that weighs 5,170 lbs, the ML63 goes off like a Saturn V rocket. From a standstill, the ML63 hits sixty in 4.7 seconds (4.6 seconds with the performance pack) and the top speed is limited to 155 mph (raised to 174 mph with the performance pack).
Also defying the laws of psychics is the handling. Steering is surprisingly good with the feel and weight being close to dead on. Also, AMG’s handling package made up of damping control system, active anti-roll bars, and a air suspension keep the ML63 stable and predictable when taking corners.
The Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG shows that the automaker that started the luxury high-performance SUV still has a few tricks up its sleeve.
Next, Winner of The Best Noise of The MAMA Rally is...
Jaguar XKR-S Roadster
If I was to give out an award for the best sounding vehicle at MAMA Spring Rally, I would have to give it to the Jaguar XKR-S Roadster. The noise that flows out of the twin exhaust is nothing short of astonishing: burbles, pops, cracking, and a howl that will give anyone a big grin.
The noisemaker is an uprated version of the 5.0L supercharged V8 found under the hoods of the XKR, XFR, and XJ Supersport. This version delivers 550 HP and 502 lb-ft of torque, going through a six-speed automatic. This makes the XKR-S roadster one of the quickest Jaguars in production, delivering numbers of 4.2 seconds for the run to 60 MPH and a top speed of 186 MPH.
But don’t think that the XKR-S roadster is a one trick pony; the XKR-S roadster can hang with some of the best sports cars. The steering is weighted nicely and provides very good feel when cornering. The suspension keeps the roadster planted when going through a turn. If you’re expecting the XKR-S roadster to be a bone shaker, it’s not. The ride is a little bit stiffer than the XKR, but not to the point where you’ll be crying uncle.
Exterior changes for the XKR-S roadster include a more aggressive face, carbon-fiber splinter, lowered ride height, 20-inch blacked out wheels, new lower fascia, and back wing. Inside, the XKR-S is like your normal XKR; a stitched leather dash, piano-black trim, new steering wheel, and other minor changes. It’s a place that you’ll feel very comfortable.
The Jaguar XKR-S roadster besides being one of the best noise makers is one of the better sports cars on the market. If I won the lottery, my first stop would be down to the Jaguar dealer to buy one.
Next, The Most Expensive Vehicle Driven By C&G
Bentley Continental GTC
“You didn’t ask me the question that most everyone has asked,” the guy sitting next to me says.
“Which question is that?” I ask.
“How much does this cost?”
“Oh. That question!”
This conversation was taking place in what could be the most expensive vehicle that has ever been featured on Cheers and Gears, the Bentley Continental GTC.
The GTC is the drop-top version of the Bentley Continental GT coupe. Since its introduction in 2006, Bentley hasn’t made any drastic changes with the design. The exterior is still same as it ever was, albeit with a few tweaks and tucks.
The interior has changed a bit with a refreshed dash, steering wheel, and infotainment unit. One problem I had with the GTC’s interior was with the position of the paddle shifters. Bentley decided to put them close to where the turn signal stalk was. During my short drive, I kept hitting the paddle shifter instead of the stalk. Bentley, will you do us a favor and either move the paddles or get rid of them?
Power comes from 6.0L W12 twin-turbocharged engine producing 567 HP and 516 lb-ft of torque. The power goes through a six-speed automatic to an AWD system. Power delivery is smooth, quiet, and fast. Handling is comfortable and sporty thanks to the standard air suspension.
The Bentley Continental GTC is one of more interesting vehicles I have driven. It appears to do everything almost perfectly.
And if you’re wondering about the price tag, the base model starts at $212,000.
William Maley is a staff writer for Cheers & Gears. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow him on twitter at @realmudmonster.