Nine on the Street – One in the Dirt – Six on the Track
By Kevin Gordon
Recently a few of the staffers from Autosavant had the opportunity to attend an event at which multiple manufacturers provided vehicles to be tested over a two-day period. The first day consisted of road tests through winding mountain roads. The second day took place on the road course of Pocono raceway in Pennsylvania. Because we were only able to spend around 20 or 30 minutes in each vehicle, we decided that the best way to share the experience with others was in the form of several smaller “capsule” reviews.
To pull the curtain back a bit on the setting for this event, there is a parking lot of cars from the manufacturers with the keys in them that you get in and take for a drive. Generally, there is a planned route, but once you are out of the lot, you are on your own. On the track, you are free to drive as hard as your capabilities allow, with a no-passing rule the only restriction. During the track day for these tests, it rained hard for the entire day (the reason for the lack of photos) and provided an interesting view into the dynamic capabilities of these vehicles in less-than-ideal conditions.
Nine on the street…
2010 Audi S4 Sedan 6 Speed Manual– As almost an insult, I can only say that the new S4 is a very nice car. The interior is normal Audi – that is to say, gorgeous, the technology is excellent and Audi’s MMI interface is on par with the best, if not leading, the field. The stereo was good with clear strong bass, but overall the sound was a little hollow. The car drove nicely and is quick. My issue with the car appears to be that the combination of supercharging and all wheel drive,conspires, in normal street situations, to mute the expected sporting feel the S badge promises. (More on this later during a review of a 2010 S5 with Audi’s dual clutch gearbox). The new supercharged V-6 is a strong motor that pulls through all revs and has a nice peak at the tach climbs. As a quick aside, Audi performance tuner, APR has found that the stock S4 puts down 330+ hp at the wheels, meaning that this is closer to a 400hp car than the 330hp Audi quotes. My ultimate impression of this car was that it competes with a 335i BMW, not the M3, and that may have been Audi’s plan all along. Unfortunately, this car left me feeling, well, not much at all. It felt very German, very precise, but not very exciting. I am sure that any owner would be happy to have one, but for this price and in this category I would want a little more involvement and character.
2010 Jaguar XKR Convertible– With 500+ hp on tap, this Jag rips. Interior materials are excellent, but some ergonomic details feel a little off. With traction control off (hold the stability control button for 10+ seconds) smoking tires are only a stab of the throttle away. In fact, with traction control in dynamic mode (a checked flag appears on the instrument cluster), a hard press on the throttle was able to overcome the electronic nanny resulting in a large amount of warning lights and electronic errors. The only thing that remedied the situation was a full restart. Jaguar’s electronics are clearly a bit lagging compared to its German/Japanese rivals. On the plus side, the stereo is mind-blowing with almost limitless clarity and power. I’m not sure if it was an issue with car or operator, but I could not figure out how to get the top down. I was pushing the appropriate button, but all that happened was the windows were raising and lowering. This was a shame because the Jag’s exhaust sounds so good. Whoever is tuning the exhaust soundtracks at Jaguar deserves an award. It sounds great everywhere: idle, at wide open throttle, and it even has a fantastic burble and pop during rev-matched downshifts. This is one of the rare times when the basic model of the car would receive my recommendation over the one with the special letters following the name. The new 5.0 V-8 is an excellent motor without the supercharger and the injected vigor that the extra horsepower provides does motivate this car at unnatural levels. Ultimately the naturally aspirated version is such an excellent car I can’t see the need for the “R” version.
2010 Mercedes E550 Coupe– A very strong V-8 has transformed this car. After driving the V-6 earlier this year, I walked away from this car feeling like it was classically Mercedes, silent, capable, but a little numb. The 550 version removes this numbness and brings the car alive. Mercedes’ seven-speed transmission rips off shifts and make a wonderful soundtrack. The seats are excellent and MB’s button-heavy interface becomes more friendly with time.
2010 BMW M3 Sedan with Dual Clutch Gearbox– This is what may be the last of a breed. The 414-hp naturally-aspirated V-8 in the BMW is magic. When all of the knobs are turned to 10, this is a race car for the street, even chirping the tires as the dual clutch gearbox shifts. This is the reason BMW keeps getting “best of everything” awards by the automotive press. It may be perfect. If you’ve lost your motivation to keep fighting for your next promotion at work, stop by your local dealership, take a test drive, and your next day at work will be 12 hours. I call it the last of a breed because of the gas guzzler tax on the window sticker. It appears as though most of BMW’s future M division is going to be based on turbocharging. (Labeled as “Efficient Dynamics”) Understand, I love a turbocharged car. I like the extra torque, efficiency, and feeling of elasticity as exhaust gasses spin the compressor wheel and power jumps is one of my favorite sensations. With that said, the naturally aspirated motor in the M should give anyone with a pulse and a slight interest in cars goose bumps. It may not be the most efficient way to burn former dinosaurs, but no other way connects you so directly to a machine. Every run to redline brings you closer to motoring heaven. The only thing comparable is the 4.3 liter motor from Maranello and when you compare the two it makes the BMW a bargain. In full disclosure, I’m sitting here hating myself for slathering this car with so much praise. I too, tire of everyone giving BMW accolades, and as far as I am concerned you should buy an Infiniti G37 over the similarly priced BMW 328i. The catch, if they didn’t sell so many 328s, is that I can’t imagine that BWM would be able to put together the business case to build this car. So please, despite knowing better, recommend that your friends pick a 328i’s panache over the G37’s practicality so BMW R&D will have the budget to continue building brilliance.
2010 BMW 750Li– Smooth, powerful, capable, and long, the new “10 til 8 L” is a car that can make miles disappear for its driver and gives rear seat passengers a reason other than problems with their Bernie Madoff-run investments to sell their Gulfstreams. This iteration of iDrive is very good, and the large wide screen of the nav interface only improves things further. The new twin turbo V-8 is going to make the V12 version a hard sell. A fellow Autosavant staffer noted pronounced wind noise (for a full size luxury car), which I didn’t have the chance to experience as I had to much noise coming out of the bevy of speakers surrounding the cabin. In the end, I think the 750 is a great car, but to me, the short wheelbase model is the better choice. If you want a long wheelbase tourer, buy a Mercedes. If you still want some involvment in your commute, buy the short-body Bimmer.
2010 Acura TL Type-S 6 Speed Manual– On the street, this car is a disappointment. I commend Acura for building it and giving a chance for its SH-AWD to show what it can really do, but the execution fails the expectation. The clutch is feather-light and hides any thought of an engagement point. The motor overrevs during hard shifts to an extent that makes quick driving more of a chore than a pleasure. In addition, this Honda V-6 (in all of it’s iterations) manages to hide its ability to propel cars with fury. This is not a slow car, but it just doesn’t feel fast as fast as it is.
2009 Mini John Cooper Works Convertible – This is what every Mini Cooper should be. This little car will make you giggle like a fourth grader hearing their first good fart joke. It pops and whistles like a well-tuned import from the Fast and the Furious series, and once the turbo has spooled, it pulls hard. Oftentimes, it pulls sideways as well as forward, with torque steer a very obvious issue with the Mini JCW cars. The major issue, a $38k+ price for a car that did not even have navigation. I’m missing the point, right? I’m not. This car’s optional add-ons (now sold installed at the factory) are outrageously priced. All Mini Cooper Ss should have this car’s power, brakes, and handling. The fact that you need to buy a special package to get them is a disappointment.
2010 Lexus HS 250h Hybrid – After spending a morning avoiding anything remotely economical, the little Lexus hybrid had a bit of a tall task in front of it. My initial impression: A four door Toyota hybrid that has a few extra luxury features and Lexus badges. But after spending a bit of time in the car, and re-framing your mindset on what it is, this may be Toyota’s best iteration of it’s hybrid drive yet. In the end, I would still recommend a Ford Fusion hybrid over it, but when you take your Fusion for service, don’t expect the treatment you will get from your local Lexus service manager.
2009 Dodge Challenger SRT8 6 Speed Manual – I have been prejudiced against this car since it first came out and I spent time with a low-end V-6 version. I have always thought that it looked good, but was a bit of a poseur and wasted its size and weight with poor packaging and oversized dimensions. The SRT version and a three pedal 6-speed delivers on the promise of the exterior’s muscle car looks. Spend a little time with the big-boy version of this car and you’ll want to develop a new hobby built around cruise nights and leaving black stripes of rubber at your local stoplights. Even the computer conspires against good behavior clicking off your time to 60 (and other metrics) at every stop.
…one in the dirt…
2010 Land Rover Range Rover Supercharged– I do not possess the writing ability to explain how capable the top of the line Range Rover is off-road. I am reasonably sure that there isn’t anyone that does. If there is, they are going to need 5000+ words to accomplish the task. Not only is it capable, it has a big bulging brain and a suite of technology that only improves the experience. In truth, a Jeep Rubicon probably can get into and out of more difficult off-road situations, but the operator needs more experience and skill. In the Rover, the computer, cameras, electronically adjustable suspension, and decent controls make serious off-roading a point and shoot experience. At one point I was concerned that the Rover was beeping that I was about to tip it over from the extreme lean angle I was at. After speaking with one of the spotters, I was informed that I was just hearing the ultrasonic parking sensors picking up the ground. I had another 10 degrees to tip before I was in any real trouble. This may sound like a bad thing, taking away all of the fun of the experience. Possibly, but when you take your $100k+ luxury SUV offroad, you’ll be happy the electronics have your back.
…and six on the track.
2010 Subaru STI 6-Speed– The first car I had a chance to drive on the track, which was an unfamiliar one to me and covered in rain. As it turned out, the STI was a good choice. This particular STI had a large collection of SPT performance parts on it. The two most noticeable items were the aftermarket exhaust and short shift kit. I have to admit that I’m a fan of Subarus (having owned several in the past) and generally stand on the Subaru side of the STI vs. Evo MR battle. In this instance, I would still pick the Subie if, and only if, I wanted something fun to drive, not if I wanted to be the fastest in my class. As has been pointed out by most automotive journalists, there is something about a true manual transmission that sequential manual gearboxes cannot replace. (Understanding that there is still a true manual to be had in the lower-class Evos) Also, the addition of the performance parts made this car sound and feel like a track-day toy should. Would I call the shift action of the short shift kit good? No, but I would say it fits the expectation of the rest of the package. Is the exhaust system the best you could buy? No again, but at least it isn’t voiding your factory warrenty. In the end, it is a fun car in a very practical package.
2010 Mitsubishi Evo 10 MR– Having the opportunity to drive the Evo 10 MR directly following the Subaru STI was ideal. It exposed how different these two cars are. The basic genetic formula may be the same, but the genes of the Subaru are not quite spliced with the same precision. The EVO pulls hard, but feels a bit more muted than the STI. It may have been a lack of noise from the factory exhaust, but the Subie feels faster once the turbo is spooled and pulling (it does have an extra 0.5 liters of displacement over the Evo). The major difference between the two is the transmission, and the dual clutch box in the Evo is excellent. It makes anyone but the most ham-fisted drivers look brilliant. Attached to this engine/chassis package, there is no doubt that the Evo would pull seconds a lap on the Subie. My only issue was that the experience is just not as engaging. I feel like my wife (not known as a great driver) could keep up with me behind the wheel of the Evo, where if she was in the Subaru she would struggle to be with in 15 seconds of my times.
2010 BMW X6M – Sweet mother, you may hate that BMW chose to build this “thing,” but after some time in it’s enveloping seats you’ll understood why management in Germany approved it. Nothing this big and heavy deserves to be this capable and fast. On a track, this car is mind -bending. I can only equate it to what people say about their first experiences in open wheeled winged cars. You just have to believe that the car can go THAT fast through a corner. That you can wait THAT long before breaking. That anything this big, with this much luxury, could match a GT 500 step-for-step down the back straight. Do I agree that BMW should build it? Not really. Do I think they have watered down the M brand? A bit. Do I think the engineering exercise needed to be done? Absolutely. This car/truck/SAV/stolen AMC Eagle design, brings to market a suite of tools that will filter down the BMW line and continue their tradition of building some of the best driving cars on the market. Let there be no doubt: there is magic in their madness.
2010 Audi S5 Convertible DSG– Please forgive the following, because it conflicts with the impressions of both the Audi S4 and the Mitsubishi Evo 10 spoken to earlier. The track brings out a whole new character in this car. While on the road, the new supercharged V-6 in the S4 felt a bit bland, almost “electric motor” linear in its power delivery, and the all wheel drive system conspired to remove any tail wagging fun during sane driving. Then in the Evo 10, the dual clutch gear box took away too much interaction with the car to be considered what I would want in my rally-inspired vehicle. In this package, these three pieces fit together like the proverbial pieces in a Swiss watch. George Carlin has a great quote which goes something like: “Realize how stupid the average person is…Then realize that half of the people are stupider then they are.” I would venture that the same could be applied to the skill of drivers. With this car applied to the bottom half of that equation, you could fool spectators that the slightly dim individual behind the wheel is brilliant and skilled. While in the Evo 10, the excellent all wheel drive system, flexible and strong motor, and shift better than you could transmission made the trip around the track bland and removing. The S5’s similar formula somehow focuses the driver on taking the perfect line, waiting until the last moment to break, and then applying throttle impossibly early, all while the car carefully ensures that you proceed with an implied telepathy. Consider me obviously impressed. Add this to the list of cars that I did not really want to like and walked away from loving.
2010 Mercedes SL550– I can see why they Mercedes Benz sells so many AMG versions of their cars. I was initially fooled when I sat behind the wheel of this hardtop convertible. Without paying attention to the badging, I had assumed that this was the AMG model. After launching into a lap, it immediately became apparent that something was missing. It isn’t to say that the V8 version of the SL is a bad car. Instead, the SL felt a little soft, a little too sluggish in its responses. Where the 5.5 liter V8 in the E Class coupe woke up the car and connected it to the road, the SL550 struck me as too muted. If you frame your mind and expect this to be a luxury tourer, you will find everything you expect, but for the money, I would want a little more.
2010 Mustang GT500 – As Alex found, the 2010 GT 500 Mustang flirts with joining the supercar club. I have not had the chance to spend any time in the 2009 version, but I have heard not-so-nice things from those who have. Generally, criticisms point to the iron block 5.4 liter V8 putting too much weight on the front wheels and the solid rear axle causing it to jump, hop, and skip over corner imperfections. Without being able to provide a back-to-back comparison, I can only venture to guess that the 2010 version is a good size step forward from last year’s car. This car was neutral and handled mid-corner undulations with more poise then physics should allow. The feeling may be a little unnatural for those only familiar with independent rear suspensions, but if you continue to turn and put down power, this top-of-the-line Mustang maintains its line and explodes toward the next corner. The supercharged motor is an excellent playmate. It sounds wonderful, the supercharger acting as a tweeter to the subwoofer of the big bore V-8. It is the type of motor that is going to get you into trouble with local law enforcement. You want to hear it run through more than two gears, and by the time you see the top of third gear, you’ve lost your license. For $48k, can you find something that would beat it around a track? No doubt, but if you value anything that equates for the American version of muscle, the GT 500 is hard to beat. One word of caution. If you plan riding this pony hard for anything more than a few minutes, you’ll need upgraded brakes. At the end of my turn, the pads on this car were almost on fire and were filling pit lane with the distinct odor of cooked brakes. This would be understandable for a car that had been out on hot laps all morning, except for the fact that it was wet all morning and the coefficient of friction wasn’t that high. That and there wasn’t another car that needed a break from its abuse. That is, other than the stock Mustang GT.
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