Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Sports Cars Will Have Mixed Pedigree

DETROIT -- I’m at the North American International Auto Show sitting in the snug, black leather driver’s seat of the next-generation Mazda MX-5 Miata -- the top-selling, two-seat convertible sports car of all time.
First, I can tell you the MX-5 Miata looks better in the flesh than it does in pictures. The photos I’ve seen make the car look like one of those angry kitchen appliances former GM product czar Bob Lutz railed about 15 years ago. It is not. The face of the new car is a bit meaner than that of the old one, but still has a friendly look. The taillights are a lot like those of the new Jaguar F-Type.
The 2016 MX-5 Miata might even cost less than the 2015 version, which starts at $24,765, including shipping. Mazda says the car has been put on a diet. The heavy, fussy complex folding metal top is gone, returning the two-seater to its roots as a lightweight soft-top roadster.
Sizewise, the new MX-5 Miata is 3.2 inches shorter and 0.4 inch wider than the outgoing model, which should make it even more fun to drive.
None of that, however, assures success. In fact, another automaker, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, may hold the keys to the MX-5 Miata’s future.
Since the MX-5 Miata debuted in 1989, the market for budget sports cars has nearly evaporated. Global sales of the MX-5 Miata peaked in 1990 at 75,798 and have been slowly declining, with occasional spikes with model changes. In the United States, Mazda sold just 4,745 MX-5 Miatas in 2014, down from 5,780 in 2013.
BMW’s sales chief, Ian Robertson, recently delivered what sounded like last rites to the segment when he said:
“The sports car market is roughly half of what it used to be. Post-2008, it just collapsed. I’m not so sure it’ll ever fully recover.”
It would have been unthinkable even a few years ago that Mazda would share the MX-5 Miata with another company. After all, this is the car that lit a fire under Mazda a quarter century ago and helped change the company’s image. Zoom Zoom and all that. Late this year or early next, the 1 millionth MX-5 Miata likely will be produced.
But Mazda inked a deal with Fiat Chrysler to produce a Fiat Spider using the MX-5 Miata’s powertrain, suspension and other bits. The MX-5 Miata-based Spider will have a different grille and interior touches as well as other cosmetics.
Shared production may be the future of budget sports cars. The Toyota-Subaru deal that produced the Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ has worked well so far.
Fiat has 200 dealers in the United States and thousands more globally. If each Fiat dealer can sell an average of one Spider a month, perhaps the MX-5 Miata/Spider will live to see a next generation.
Budget sports cars nearly became extinct in North America in the early 1980s when MG, Triumph and several other brands folded. Fiat soldiered on with its Italian-made Spider until 1985 and the segment remained dormant until the Mazda MX-5 Miata arrived in 1989.
Today’s buyers, though, increasingly want utility along with sporty handling and snappy acceleration.
It could be the sports car of tomorrow won’t be an MX-5 Miata, but a go-anywhere vehicle such as the Jeep Wrangler and Range Rover Evoque.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

3 BestCar

When the first Corvettes rolled out of the primordial postwar haze in 1953, they were far from fully evolved. By all accounts, the shoddy, fiberglass-bodied “sports car” was headed for extinction just as quickly as its meager six-cylinder engine and two-speed automatic transmission could carry it. But then Chevrolet installed its first small-block up front. Thusly and successfully mutated, the Corvette’s genetic code has remained stable for 60 years. With few exceptions, the venerable Vette has always been a powerful V-8 plastic-wrapped with only whatever additional engineering was necessary. The LT1 V-8 in today’s Corvette Stingray displaces 6.2 liters and makes 460 horsepower and 465 pound-feet of torque when paired with the performance exhaust or Z51 packages. Other engines may make more power or have more exotic designs, but there is no engine that feels closer to a living, breathing entity than the Corvette’s pushrod V-8. It is close to sentient, shutting down half its cylinders to conserve fuel and granting the Corvette a 29-mpg EPA highway rating. But the LT1 is no goody-two-shoes; it reminds you constantly of its presence, just on the other side of the fire wall behind the axle centerline. At idle, the Corvette vibrates to its pulses, urging you to uncoil the tension in the p­edals and shifter.
 When you do, it becomes evident that chassis resources were not begrudgingly allocated in designing this seventh generation of Corvette. Grip is far beyond the limits of daily driving. The steering wheel, brakes, and seat bottom tell you more about current events than CNN. Power delivery is immediate, at any sane speed, in any of the first four gears. There is still raw aggression in the Corvette’s acceleration, but the chassis is no understudy to the powertrain. While the rev-matching seven-speed manual transaxle is our obvious preference, an eight-speed automatic is new for 2015. It offers crisp, quick shifts via steering-wheel-mounted paddles and makes two-pedal Corvettes more than just tolerable. Also new: the Perform­ance Data Recorder, an onboard video technology serious enough that its full capabilities are not entirely legal in some states. Criticisms of Corvettes past have been addressed: A modern cockpit and supportive and comfortable seats testify to the thoroughness of Chevrolet’s mission (accomplished) in remaking the car. The C7 is the best-ever Corvette. Even in this, its second year on our list, C7s hypnotize, the convertible and coupe equally. Sitting in the lot among the other contenders, they stand out as if rendered on a Retina display while others are appearing on a CRT. You might think that our familiarity with its many facets and creases has bred boredom, and certainly other beguiling shapes, even a real Italian demi-supercar, vied for our attention this year. But the Stingray looks transplanted from childhood fantasy, an interstellar dragon. We hear it roar, smell the heat of the LT1 cooking its own polymer skin, and the Corvette turns such imaginings into reality.

3 BestCar


Cadillac’s CTS fended off multiple Audis, Benzes, and BMWs to win its 10Best berth. While we are (still) big fans of the twin-turbocharged, 420-hp V-6 that powers the Vsport model, it’s the handling that sets the CTS apart from the competition. To determine how GM sharpened the CTS’s reflexes to cuff the Germans, we returned to the scene with Cadillac’s executive chief engineer, Dave Leone. Turns out that Leone and his development team know these byways located only 30 miles from GM’s proving grounds as well as we do. “We’re here every month to check our progress tuning new models and to assess competitors,” Leone explains. “The bends, bumps, and abrupt elevation changes challenge any car’s integrity, so this loop is an excellent ­supplement to our Milford Road Course and Nürburgring work.” The third-generation CTS builds on the ATS’s Alpha foundation with larger wheelbase and track dimensions. “To optimize mass efficiency and to achieve a [near] 50-50 weight distribution, we created over 40,000 analysis models. We specified aluminum for most of the front components, positioned the battery at the rear of the car, and counted every gram to gain a 200- to 300-pound weight advantage,” Leone adds. “We targeted both the E90 [2006–2013] BMW 3-series and the current 5-series. When the 5 got heavier, our task became easier.” Leone’s strategic weapon, the electronically controlled magnetorheological (MR) dampers that GM developed years ago, has seen use in several sporty European cars. As we sail over a crest, he notes: “Our goal is maintaining the car’s composure in the face of severe road inputs. The MR dampers help keep the body straight and level by sensing suspension travel and by responding rapidly with extra rebound control over rises like this one. The dampers collaborate with the springs and anti-roll bars to keep the body flat in sweepers and to quell waddle [GM’s funny word for head toss] over undulating pavement.” Encountering a stretch of tortured asphalt, Leone switches the Driver Mode Control from sport to tour. “The softer tour setting enhances comfort over rough roads while still providing enough damping to meet our goal of limiting wheel motion to one up-down cycle per bump,” he explains. The body control is astounding over roads like this, but if the steering were less faithful, there’s a good chance we wouldn’t enjoy driving the CTS as much as we do. Leone explains, “Thanks to compliance in the belt connecting the assist motor to the steering rack, there’s minimal interference with the feedback traveling from the road to the driver’s hands.” To Leone, the whole goal of chassis development is to create that elusive special sauce: “After enjoying a delicious dinner, you might ask for the recipe. That will reveal the ingredients while telling you nothing about the chef’s subtle contributions. The car-world equivalent is what we call integration: applying the necessary small refinements to assure that the whole vastly exceeds the sum of the parts.” And it’s amazing how General Motors—long the corporate behemoth most associated with sloppy handling, inattention to detail, and a generalized malaise—has gotten so adept at turning the good into the great. View Photo Gallery

3 List Best Cars 2015

There are roughly 150 new car models on the market today, many of them only narrowly distinguishable from each other. The sedans are flame-surfaced affairs with elongated rooflines, and even the sporty coupes rely on huge grilles to trumpet their brand lineage. Most emit the same muffled calls, so you can’t reliably classify them by sound, either. This guide is intended to help you identify the 10 cars that, through a rare combination of strengths, stand apart. They reward close observation. We hope the following pages will tune you in to the attributes that mark the differentiation. Individual areas of noteworthiness are called out, but the assembled cars share the following traits: They cost less than $80,000, they excel at delivering value for the money, they have a strong mastery of their segment, and they are graceful in motion. These 10 will entertain and delight any driver, but only if you know how and where to spot them. "Should Try To Drive It"

3 BestCar

BMW M235i

I once had a tail attached to the bottom of my spinal column. Don’t judge me; you had one, too. I lost mine a little more than a month into my embryonic development. And, I presume, you did as well. Not all of us lose ours, though. While vanishingly rare, some babies are born with an honest-to-goodness cartilage-, nerve-, and muscle-filled tail. These people have what’s known as an atavism. It’s a physical trait from deep evolutionary time that occasionally pops back up and, in this case, means that the affected person will forever be referred to by the unsympathetic as “Tail Boy.” Because of the probability of significant Levi’s chaffing and never-ending ridicule, most tails are surgically removed almost immediately upon discovery. The BMW M235i also has a tail, albeit a metaphorical one. The car itself is a throwback, its genetic code expressing something that has gone nearly dormant in the last generation of small BMWs. The company is aware of this. It has even advertised this two-door model as the spiritual successor to the 2002, the model that predated the original 3-series. With all due respect, BMW is wrong about that. The 2002 is too far back in the rapidly evolving car world to share much of its character or size with any new car. Modern BMW compacts are larger and more thickly padded animals, both in physical dimensions and in the broad scale of their market appeal. The M235i instead reverts to the same general plan as the E46 M3 of the early 2000s. That’s back to a time, in other words, when our adoration for BMWs was at its most unabashed.

Have a look at the two specimens. The M235i is within an inch and a half of the 2003 M3 in almost every exterior dimension. The M235i carries an inline six-cylinder engine pushing out 320 horsepower, compared with the M3’s 333. Of course, the new car uses a turbocharger to maximize horsepower, where the old engine used stratospheric revs to achieve its numbers. The M235i wears staggered tires on its 18-inch wheels, just like the old M3’s standard setup. When both are equipped with six-speed manual transmissions, the M235i trails the M3 to 60 mph by a tenth of a second (4.9 seconds to 4.8) but is two-tenths quicker through the quarter-mile (13.4 seconds to 13.6). Because automatic transmissions have improved so much over the last decade or so, the M235i with its eight-speed automatic sprints to 60 mph in 4.3 seconds and covers the quarter in 12.9. The M235i also stops shorter and corners harder than the old M car; tire technology has also advanced. As its convoluted name implies, the M235i is neither a fully aggro M car nor just a day-to-day standard sports coupe. Its character is in between the two. And that’s . . . well, that’s perfect. The M235i is easy to drive slowly and rewarding to drive quickly. It is, in fact, just about everything we want a modern 3-series to be: quick, confident, and sexy, with decent fuel economy, a close-coupled cockpit, and an eagerness to romp that’s been suppressed in the current 3. And like BMWs of old, the tall greenhouse allows for excellent outward visibility. The car is a manifestation of nostalgic impulses. The M235i proves that BMW still has the code to driving excellence. This makes us both relieved and slightly annoyed that it’s not used on a broader range of the company’s products. The M235i might be a throwback, but it’s also a decidedly positive step up the evolutionary ladder. Long live the tail.