Thursday, June 24, 2010

Smiles No More - Mazda walking away from 'Nagare' design language

Despite assurances to the contrary while speaking to Mazda's rep at the Rocky Mountain Driving Experience event - we are hearing today via the UK's AutoExpress site that the new design chief of Mazda (Ikuo Maeda) is conducting a new design contest under the tag line of 'Thrusting Motion' and will debut the resulting new language for Mazda at the Paris auto show next year.

Mr. Maeda is apparently taking inspiration for the brand from Alfa Romeo in that the products will maintain their sporty flair but will also combine this with a premium feel.

I, for one, have felt that the new design language for Mazda looked much better in concept form than on production products - with the exception of the next Mazda5 - though the avant garde nature of the look was likely a turn-off to some buyers.  I was more a fan of the sleek, muscular look that Mazda's had in the mid 2000's with the original Mazda3.

Nagare was supposed to bring interesting surfacing, but all that ultimately came of it was the giant 'smile' that all Mazda's are sporting now.

We're keeping our fingers crossed for the new language to get back to that sporty, attractive theme quickly. 

Friday, June 18, 2010

Short Take: Audi A3 TDI

Lots has been made of the Audi A3's roots in the 'a5' VW-philes, this is shorthand for the VW Group's small car 'a' now in its 5th incarnation. Other cars on this platform are the prior version of the Golf (Rabbit at the time), the current Jetta, as well as cars sold in Europe under the SEAT and Skoda brands.

What you see here is the most premium level of this platform that we get (let's just say that the TT is far enough removed to not be considered a true variant of the a5 platform and move on).  This is the A3 TDI, meaning it get's one of the only passenger-car diesel engines available in the US market.  2.0l, turbo-charged, and fuel efficient - the TDI grants this little 5-door with a mountain of torque (236 lb*ft to be exact) to go with its luxury market position.  In our driving, it was difficult if not impossible to detect that this was anything but a normal powertrain - just one that seemed a bit resistant to rev-ing but moved the car quite well.  Fuel economy ratings of 30/42 mean that you can have near-hybrid levels of economy in a car that otherwise feels quite normal (though if you like the electric drive and auto stop-start tricks of a hybrid, you'll miss them here).

However, the Euro isn't being nice to VW or Audi and sticker prices reflect this.  With this car packing the S-Tronic transmission (DSG to the VW faithful), which is an impressive piece with near instantaneous shifts, as well as an S-line package of body kit, charcoal wheels, sporty interior add-ons, and a sport suspension - a sticker price of $37000 seems a bit much.  Base price is just shy of $30k, though some features you'd expect in a luxury car (bluetooth hands-free, for one) are optional at that price - blame the exchange rate and the high cost of TDI hardware.  However, if you consider this to be Audi's 'hybrid' then the price isn't quite as hard to swallow.

That isn't to say that the A3 isn't something special in the hatch market - with bespoke interior throughout that certainly feels Audi in many ways - it is just that there are a couple areas where your reminded that this is the bargain Audi.  1. The 'metal' rings around the vents that turn flow on/off are off-putting.  They appear to be molded from plastic and metalized such that they remind me of the the model cars I built as a kid - the chrome plating comes across as cheap and out of place.  2.  The controls for the dual-zone climate control (located low in the center stack) are styled to look like dials, however they are actually a 2-way toggle that rotates just left and right of center to select lower and higher temperatures.  An example of style trumping function and the fact that the motion had a noticeable 'clickly' feel didn't help either.

The only reason that these nits get picked here are that the overall interior is so rich and well put together - how these minor issues made it out of headquarters is a bit baffling.

Earlier, we mentioned the sport suspension on our example.  At a day of driving cars at the Rocky Mountain Driving Experience as varied as the A3 to the Camaro SS and Cadillac CTS-V sedan, the A3 turned out to have the harshest suspension tuning of the lot.  If you want your luxury hatch with a larger than expected dose of sport-sedan road feel - this is your guy.  Just be aware if your local roads are not well maintained.

So, would we recommend an A3 TDI?  It is difficult to suggest that $37k is the right price for the package.  If you love the Audi aesthetic, with the LED accented headlights, brushed metal accents, and want near-hybrid levels of fuel economy to boot - this is your car.  However, you might want to at least look at a Golf TDI first - just to be sure.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Wagons Ho! - Opel Astra Sport Tourer could be small Buick wagon

Buick is already expected to bring over the Opel Insignia wagon as a Regal wagon.  Its success could result in further wagon options from Opel bring brought over under the Buick brand.

Opel unveiled this week a wagon version of the new Astra.  You may remember the Astra as the Saturn Astra that was unloved when it came over to the US (mainly due to the fact it was imported from Europe and was therefore sold at a loss to keep Saturn retailers in a small-car, and was not promoted as a result).

When Buick gets their version of the new Astra, it will debut in US-friendly sedan form with plenty of Buick differentiation (think waterfall grills, etc).  The wagon could help expand this low-end of the Buick family (along with the upcoming coupe) to boost Buick's profile with a much younger buyer than has been the norm for many years.

In Europe, the Astra Sport Tourer is available with a wide range of diesel and gas engines from 95 to 180hp, expect a US version to play mainly in the higher end of that HP range and exclusively with gas engines.  Fortunately, given the availability of the Insignia-based Regal in manual transmission form - there should be a manual option in the Astra-based range as well.

Expect the wagon to be a late introduction (several months after the sedan version, if at all) likely at the same time as the coupe (again, if it is made available to US buyers).

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Short Take: 2010 Camaro SS

...or, the fastest cave I've ever driven.

The Camaro SS was one of the myriad of vehicles that were brought out to play at the Rocky Mountain Driving Experience event held by the RM Automotive Press. The Camaro SS is GM's latest entry into the decades-old pony-car race often dominated by Ford's Mustang.

The new Camaro is based on the Holden division (GM's Australian arm) designed Zeta rear-drive platform. While GM did spend significant resources customizing the Zeta platform to maintain the Camaro concept's neo-60's look (witness the move of the front axle line to give the long hood/short deck look). The downside was the weight inherent with a platform that was intended for 5-seat mid-sized sedans and El Camino-esqe 'Utes. This leaves the Camaro with a 400 lb disadvantage to the Mustang.

On the open road, the Camaro accelerates smartly with plenty of the classic V-8 rumble from it's 6.2l small block. However, open roads during the RMDE were mostly straight as an arrow and flat as a pancake (if you haven't been out this way, this portion of Colorado looks a bit too much like Kansas and Nebraska for a sporty car like the Camaro). On the up-side, this did give the the opportunity to take in the interior.

This Camaro was packing the color-matched accents inside - giving a narrow swath of shiny, body-colored plastic in the dash that wraps into a broad wing of color in each door. It is certainly what the all-black plastic needed to brighten the mood, though the overall feeling is still a bit cave-like - more below.

On the down-side, is a climate control pod that looks just like the concept and shows exactly why most cars don't have concept car controls. An owner would learn where things are located, but its combo of toggles, rotating trim rings, etc. are a bit much to master in a few minutes unless you have a long empty road ahead and can take your eyes off the road for the several seconds to find what you want.

Audio is in old-school (not 60's, think early 90's) blue-green displays. The graphics are a bit chunky and pixelated - but do the job - they just detract from the experience a bit.

Once you turn your attention back to the outside world, you'll find a great expanse of hood framing the world in front of you - just as a Camaro should. Just don't expect to see much out the sides or back. To give the classic look with a modern, slammed, slant - GM has given both a low roof and high doors that leaves you with gun-slit tall side glass. If you're claustrophobic - look elsewhere.

However, this likely won't matter to those that lust after the new Camaro (witness how it has been outselling its Mustang competition for most of the months it has been on sale) and if you have to have some light and air - wait a few months for the debut of the upcoming convertible.

It's just a shame that style and price-point have caused the overall experience to suffer. Especially since this is arguably the best looking pony on the market. The Camaro SS is oh-so-close to being the perfect pony - maybe after an interior freshening or the next-gen, Alpha based car, they'll have it just right.

Ultimately, the new Camaro is a great car to be seen in - but not one that you might enjoy living with all the time.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Rocky Mountain Driving Experience

7:40 - arrived and registered. Appears to be 20+ other reviewers and journalists here. Lots of shiny cars just waiting for us to drive the bejesus out of them.

8:09 - leaving for May Farms in an Audi A3 TDI

9:00 - eating breakfast at May Farms. A3 left me a touch cold. Not worth 20k more than a 5-door Golf.

10:15 - at High Plains Raceway. Got here in a 556hp CTS-V. So, I'm in a good mood. We get to drive it, the Corvette GS, the Viper ACR, as well as a bunch of other fun stuff soon.

10:45 - just did my first 3 laps ever on a real track. The instructor was very helpful and the Suzuki Kizashi was a willing participant, but I'm taking a quick breather before trying again.

1:45 - At lunch at May Farms after spending some time driving both the Mercedes E350 cabrio and a Camaro SS. Next up, driving to CO Offroad Extreme.

8:15 - leaving after the wrap-up dinner. Got to ride in several hot-laps on the off-road rally track that were an absolute blast and drove to 2011 Volvo C70 convertible back to where it all started this morning. All was a complete blast. Expect short-take reviews soon on the vehicles I drove today.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Engineer Spotting

Colorado is a nice place to live for a few reasons. Weather, scenery, wildlife (I mean elk and deer, not clubing) ;-)...

One nice perk is that the automakers bring product out here for high altitude validation.

I've seen Dodge Journeys in camo, a small fleet of Fiat 500's (from almost a year before the Chrysler merger), and yesterday I saw a group of no fewer than 9 Chevy Cruze's in various trims as they were stopped in Boulder for lunch.

Looked pretty nice and very close to production ready to me.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

*tap* *tap* *tap*...Is this thing on?

Long time, no post.

It's been a busy 3 years over at UOwC headquarters...none of which matters to you, my reader.

What you do need to know is that I'm back on the case - with a slate of test drive/auto reviews as well as our famous high-level analysis of what is going on now in the auto biz.

In the meantime, you can also follow us over at the where my more in-depth reviews, centered around Cadillacs have been appearing.

Also, you can follow me over on Twitter or Facebook - both of these are feeds for the CaddyEdge site - but also contain items that might not make it to the main tCE site.