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First Drive – 2011 Kia Optima EX

2011 Kia Optima EXRecently I spent a weekend in Baltimore for a family event. Naturally, we needed wheels during our time there, and as such I was able to acquire a 2011 Kia Optima EX to cart our family of five around the city. The main questions I had were how the stacks up against the competition and how the driving experience would differ from the SX Turbo I drove to the Chicago Auto Show in February.

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First Drive – 2010 Saab 9-5: Holy Crap Saab’s Alive!

Do you remember a car company called Saab? Don’t worry, I won’t fault you if you don’t. Just this past year they almost shuttered their doors forever. Crazy when you think about it. Well, they didn’t close the doors. In fact, they were bought by another car company called Spyker. Some of you haven’t heard of Spyker either, but that is for another post.

When Spyker bought Saab, the new 9-5 was already done, ready to roll down the assembly line and into dealerships. The production process was shut down during negotiations and then restarted once the deal with Spyker was inked. With new 9-5’s showing up in dealerships right now, I was eager to get behind the wheel and take one for a spin. Let’s go for a quick drive.

Exterior-

It’s funny, because I swear I’ve seen this look before. Oh that’s right, the new front end is very similar to the Aero X concept from a few years ago. The headlights have a light pipe on the bottom and the entire lens has a blue tint to it. The front clip is aggressive but not overly so.

There is slight sculpting on the side, tightly integrated near the bottom of the doors, while a character line runs the length of the vehicle. The rear is just….gorgeous, With the Saaby (yes, that is now a word) C-pillars and light pipes that run the entire width of the rear, I’m in love. The tail lights feature LEDs which play a part as a significant design element. The rear deck lid is short, but not odd looking in person. Overall, the exterior is a huge win.

Interior-

Take a Saab 9-5 interior that you imagine, throw great materials in it, terrific seats and a flat bottomed steering wheel. You now have the new Saab 9-5 interior.  And yes, there is a flat bottom steering wheel! The navigation unit is a touch screen, but it has plenty of buttons to get you around.

While the ignition is now a push button, Saab has not forgotten its roots. The ignition button is on the console in between the driver and passenger, just like it used to be. The night panel button (another Saab tradition) also remains. Let’s not forget about the green lightning and egg crate vents with single rotating knobs. There is a few GM parts bin items, like the wiper and turn stalks, but they work just fine. The gauge cluster has that trick round center screen also found on the Cadillac SRX. The rear seats have plenty of legroom for people over six-feet tall.

There is a lot of black surfaces in the new 9-5. This leads to a somewhat darker cabin. That isn’t a bad thing, but it is something I noted. The heads up display was easy to see in sunlight and you can turn it off if it proves distracting. Did I mention the comfy seats? I’ve gone on and on. The interior isn’t perfect, but it is worlds better then the last 9-5.

Powertrain-

The first 9-5’s will come in the highest trim level (Aero XWD) with the 2.8-liter turbo V-6 as standard. This setup puts 300 horsepower to all four wheels. 2010 is a very short model year for the 9-5, and the 2011s are slated to show up very soon. MY 2011 will bring a lower priced model, with a standard 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder making 220 HP. It will be available in front-or all-wheel drive forms.

The 2.8 liter turbo in my tester builds speed quickly, hitting 0-60 in around 6.8 seconds. This isn’t a “OMG that’s fast” feeling. It is more of a silent thrust forward. You will never be thrown into the back of your seat. While I haven’t had the chance to drive the 2.0-liter turbo yet, I heard that might be the engine for the enthusiasts. While down on power, it is also down on weight. Also, you can get the smaller engine with a six-speed manual – the turbo V6 is available only with a six-speed automatic.

The bottom line? This is the car that is supposed to help save Saab. It was developed by General Motors and is being launched by the new owners Spyker. With the right marketing this car could work. Of course, the company can’t survive off one car, but that is another story. The new Saab 9-5 is everything I hoped for. Comfortable, sporty and darn good looking.

First Drive – 2011 Chevrolet Cruze: Bringing Good Vibrations?

Chevrolet Cavalier and Cobalt, both cars that well……you know that song Good Vibrations?  What is the opposite of that song?  That is what comes to mind.  There isn’t exactly a stellar legacy left by those nameplates.  Saying Chevrolet has not been competitive in the compact car segment in a while would be telling it to you straight.

Chevrolet recognizes this and is looking to not only be competitive in the segment, but they say class-leading with the new 2011 Cruze.  Have they over-promised again, or do we finally have good vibrations?

The Cruze has been trotted out at plenty of auto shows last season, so we know the basics.  The base car (LS) will come with a 1.8-liter four-cylinder, while the rest of the line up (LT1, Eco, LT2, LTZ) will come with a 1.4-liter turbo four-cylinder.  This will be the volume engine.

The 1.4-liter turbo puts out an estimated 138 horsepower and 148 pound feet of torque.  The base engine and Eco models will come with a six-speed manual standard.  A six-speed automatic is optional on the LS and Eco, and standard (being only option currently available) on the other models.  I’ve heard that a six-speed manual will be available with the 1.4 liter turbo later on.

They are expecting the Eco model to earn an EPA rating of 40 mpg on the highway.  I am not sure if you have been paying attention, but that is a really really good number, and a class leading figure.  The real question is whether the car will really get 40 mpg in real world driving.

In the Cruze it was easy to find a comfortable driving position with the tilt/telescoping steering wheel. The dash design is unique.

Flowing across the dash is a swath of the same cloth material found on the seats. On LTZ cars with leather seating, leatherette replaces the swath of cloth on the dash. The design is fresh and somewhat consistent with newer Chevrolet’s.

I found there to be plenty of room inside, with an airy feel inside the cabin.  One thing I found annoying was the center armrest between the front seats.  The arm rest slides fore and aft, but when in the forward position it does not lock.  It should have more tension.  When two people rest their arms on the arm rest, the slider can slide back, which becomes quite annoying.

What we did not know before was how the Cruze drove.  I was going into this with an open mind, but I have driven both a Cavalier and a Cobalt.  Neither impressed me for the segment.  In the Cruze, you turn the key and slam the gas – the 1.4 liter turbo hits max torque at a mere 1,850 rpm.

From a stop the Cruze is decent off the line, but by about 10 mph the turbo has spooled up and you are off.  The power is more than adequate for driving around town, and there is no worries about making a pass on the highway.  However, this is not a sports car, and isn’t meant to be.  The electric steering is very light at parking lot speeds (almost too light?) but it firms up a little once under way.

We were let loose in the “back country” where there was quite a few hills. In those circumstances, I found that the six-speed automatic was not always hunting and seeking top gear immediately like other six-speeds.  Much of this can be attributed to the torque from the 1.4-liter turbo engine.  Since torque is so readily available, constant shifting is not necessary.  Without question, the powertrain makes a strong statement.

The Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla were on hand to do back-to-back comparison drives with the Cruze.  The first thing you notice is that the Cruze is more spacious then the Civic. In the Civic, I felt so close to the driver’s door and cramped side-to-side compared to the Cruze.  The reason for this is because the Cruze is both wider and longer then its competitors.

The materials in the Civic interior were very mixed. Some pieces were nice and soft touch, while others were cheap and unattractive looking.  The Civic’s transmission also seemed to hunt more when driving on the hills, and the engine was noticeably less powerful (less torque).

The Corolla’s interior is – well, almost a joke- and it drives like an appliance with a missing Kenmore sticker.  The Cruze is much more enjoyable to drive then the Corolla.  The suspension feels more controlled and almost European (especially with the 18-inch wheels).

Chevrolet sees the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra as key competitors.  They recognize that both the Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra are about to be redesigned or refreshed.  For that reason, they did not have those two vehicles on hand for comparison.

Worth noting is the pricing.  The Cruze starts at $16,995. That is over $1,000 more then the Mazda3 and current Honda Civic.

Honda has a new Civic coming towards the end of next year, along with the Volkswagen Jetta, with a base price that is also about $1,000 less then the Cruze.  The Cruze is one of the most expensive vehicles in this segment.

The Cruze’s on hand were all pre-production vehicles.  Thus, the fit and finish was not 100%, however the exteriors were nearly flawless.  On the interior, I did find the cowl covering the gauge cluster was not flush with the piece of plastic it connected to.

Also, the center console had a little cubby in front of the shifter that seemed to have a large gap in between the panel it sat with.  Again these were pre-production vehicles, so we’ll see if these two small gripes are corrected in production vehicles. Of note is that Chevrolet only had Cruze’s on hand with the 1.4 liter turbo, not the base 1.8 liter. They were also LTZ  or LT models – no Eco or LS models were available.

So back to the original question, does this car deliver on the promise of a good compact sedan? Chevrolet makes the claim that the Cruze brings midsize sedan amenities and quietness to the compact car segment.  I truly believe that claim is justified.

The car is definitely competitive with the current competition. With the new Focus and Elantra on the way though, is it enough?  For once, the main problem is not the car – it will be getting people in the car.  The current perception in the segment is not good for Chevrolet, so they will need to get butts in seats. Good marketing will be essential for the Cruze to succeed.  For now though, the new Cruze brings good vibrations to the compact car segment.

Full Disclosure – My travel and accommodations were provided by General Motors

First Drive – 2010 Porsche Panamera 4S

Back in the days of yore if someone suggested there would be a Porsche SUV you would be laughed out of the room but not before getting slapped in the face.  Flash forward to the current year and the best selling model in the Porsche line up is a SUV!  Whoa how did that happen?  It is simple really; a small 2 door car coupe/convertible/etc is not practical for everyone.  To build on that success Porsche figured why not build a four door “sports” car.  People seem to want to purchase a Porsche and some people care about practicality.  The two combined equals a need for more then just two door sports cars.  Now we have a new four door (it is really a five door but more on that later) Porsche sedan.  The real question I had was whether the sedan was a true Porsche or does it just wear the crest?

The exterior of the Panamera is recognizable as a Porsche without question.  The front end has styling elements that make it look like an enormous redone 911.  The two round headlights have LED strips hanging below them on the bumper.  The LED strips are day time running lights and at night the same housing has another set of lights that come on.  These act as fog lights or driving lights in a sense.  The side profile has nice sculpting from right behind the front fenders down the side.  The rear is what is truly controversial.  Let’s just get something out of the way quickly.  I like this car.  I like the way it looks.  I am apparently weird and I am ok with that.  Ok now moving on, the rear is what some call hunch backed or carrying too much baggage.  Some are saying it is droopy.  Call it what you want but I see Porsche design in it.  This car is nothing short of huge.  It is right around the size of a BMW 7 Series, Mercedes S-Class and Audi A8 to mention a few.  Technically speaking the Panamera is a five door since the rear does not have a trunk lid rather a rear hatch.  The quad exhaust peak out from the rear to remind you of the power that lurks in the engine bay both on the naturally aspirated V8 and the Twin Turbo V8.

The interior is not quite as controversial as the exterior.  It is pure sporting luxury.  The seats are comfortable and supportive.  They hug you in all the right places.  These are not barcaloungers and no they will not massage you.  They are meant to hold you in place firmly.  The center console between the driver and passenger runs the length of the car.  In the front it rises up and meets the PCM (Porsche Communication Management System).  This design cue is somewhat similar to the center stack in the Carrera GT.  That center stack houses a dizzying array of buttons though they are all clearly marked and clumped together by function.  The PCM is a touch screen along with plenty of buttons to choose from to help operate it.  This was definitely a complex system but I was able to use it without the owners manual though others in this segment have easier systems to operate.  The interior fit and finish is definitely without question up to Porsche standards if not raising the bar within the company.

The engine in this car was a 4.8 liter direct injected V8 pumping out 400 hp and 369 lb-ft to all four wheels.  Since this was a Panamera 4S all wheel drive was standard.  The one choice transmission was Porsches newer PDK (Porsche Doppelkupplung) dual clutch transmission.  Launch control is activated by pushing the sport plus button then hitting the brake and then the gas.  You get a visual confirmation launch control is activated and let go of the brake.  You will hear a noise and then suddenly all four wheels grab the pavement and launch the car.  You are thrown back into your seat as the car launches hard and fast.  (PSA – Do this on an empty road two lane road).  You can use the transmission in full automatic mode or shift yourself using the buttons (hate those things) or by moving the gear shift to the manual gate.  The 911 Turbo is getting true paddles this year so hopefully they will trickle down and replace those buttons.  The car without question handles like a true Porsche.  Yes I have driven a different Porsche recently and yes, this does handle differently.  It is a big car, but with that said, the faster you go the smaller the car seems.  It shrinks as you go around corners and off ramps.  It shrugs off speed.  Handling is very impressive.

The particular Panamera 4S I was in had quite a few option packages.  I will skip going through them all though the options rang up to a total of $17,550.  That was on top of the base price of a Panamera 4S which starts at $93,800.  When all is said and done the total sticker price out the door would be $112,325.  That is a lot of coin, but the reality of it is that the Panamera is in the thick of it with the rest of the high priced luxury cars.

The original question was whether the sedan was a true Porsche or does it just wear the crest?  This car is a true Porsche.  Sure many Porschephile’s will say this is not a true Porsche because it weighs nearly 4,300 lbs and has four doors (by the way, that is light for a car this big).  My only question to them is: have you driven one? While it will not be for everyone the reality of it is simple, higher volume selling vehicles like the Cayenne and possibly the Panamera help keep the lights on for future development of lower volume cars like the 911 and whatever the next halo car might be.


Full Disclosure- The review vehicle was provided by a local Porsche dealership

First Drive – EVOMS Porsche 997.2 Twin Turbo

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting the great folks of Evolution Motorsports.  The crew, led by fearless founder and owner Todd Zuccone, came into town to tune a monster Porsche GT2 for a customer.  They got to work quickly and set up shop at Imola Motorsports with Kevin and his crew for the week.

You know the saying all work and no play makes a something something something?  Well, to avoid that scenario Todd and the crew brought along their latest creation, which they call the “PDK Car.”  This is a 2010 Porsche 997.2 Twin Turbo equipped with the new PDK (Porsche Doppelkupplungsgetriebe, good luck saying that if you aren’t German) dual clutch transmission, which since this is a 201o model, it has the proper paddle shifters, not those dumb buttons on the steering wheel.

After spending some time talking with Todd, it became very clear why they are one of the leaders in this industry.  When I asked about his company versus the competition, he was very professional.  His responses consisted of statements like “the work speaks for itself” and “really it is about experience”.  After a nice chat, he tossed me the keys to the PDK car.  Of course I had a big stupid grin on my face – because someone just tossed me keys to a 650 hp Porsche.

Below was the set up on the 997.2 TT I drove-

Evolution MotorSports EVT.2 650 HP Performance System
EVOMSit SDI3 ECU Calibration (www.evomsit.com)
EVOMS 65mm Billet VTG Turbochargers
EVOMS ClubSport Headers
EVOMS / Fabspeed 70mm Sport Exhaust w/ GT2 Style Tips
HJS Motorsport 200 Cell Catalysts
EVOMS Billet Boost Diverter Valves

Alright, so I know the real question is what was it like?  Well two things, one I was in the middle of the city and did not have a long time with the car.  Thus I did not have track access.  Secondly, it was rush hour (note to self, plan better for these things).  Regardless the car takes off like a you are being shot out of a rocket.  Keep in mind the turbo 911’s have all wheel drive.  Thus this car was clawing at the pavement from all four corners.  This really made a huge impression with me when launching or even just hitting the gas.  Todd had warned me that the tuning in the software for the PDK downshifts was not 100%.  He was right, it is a little slow on the downshift.  If you pull the left paddle (for a downshift) it has a slight delay and then drops down a gear.  Upshifts are lightning fast and you can feel the shift under hard acceleration.  When I say feel, it feels like a hard fast thud.  Not a sound that makes you cringe however, because it does not sound like it is breaking.  The sound is more of a clean quick shift made at lightning fast speed.  The steering was terrific just like any other Porsche 997.2 TT.  The exhaust sounded great with a strong braaap braaap noise coming with each shift.

The interior was mostly stock, though the seats were not stock – rather they were thin and covered in leather with center inserts to keep you from moving.  They were very tight and you were not going to be moving during an aggressive track session.  The seats also had a harnesses for track days and a fire extinguisher was bolted to the floor directly in front of the passenger seat.  The particular car I was in had a factory navigation and sound system, along with automatic climate control.  That was all fine and dandy, but I turned off the radio and the air conditioning, rolled down the windows and listened to the sweet sound of the tuned 3.8 liter pumping out 650 hp to all four wheels.

They took the car to this past months local Cars & Café , and after that headed over to the track to run some quarter mile figures.  It ran consistent mid 10’s pushing 130 mph.  This was achieved by someone that had never even been in the car.  That in itself is a testament to the ease in which someone who has never gotten into the car can drive it consistently and pull great numbers.

Overall the “PDK car” was a beast.  It was not twitchy or hard to drive, yet it had terrific power delivery.  This is a car that could be tracked on Saturday and still drive to work on Monday.  I already know they are working on a R8 Twin Turbo among other things.  I can only expect to see greater things to come from EVOMS in the near future, and I for one look forward to that.

Full Disclosure- The review vehicle was provided by Evolution Motorsports

First Drive – 2010 Lexus RX350

The Lexus RX350 is the class leader, the segment champion, it is what all others are measured against.  You get the idea.  Without question the competition is trying to knock this vehicle off its podium.  Most “car guys” hate the RX350 and for one reason, it is the essence of beige.  What’s beige you ask.  Beige is boring, bland, not dynamic, uninspiring and overall just blah.  Yet that seems to resonate with the general public in the U.S.

The RX350 is a cross-over utility vehicle that is front-wheel-drive based with optional all-wheel-drive.  The 2010 is the third generation of the RX cross-over.  The second generation RX was very evolutionary while the third generation is a slightly more drastic change, but still in many regards evolutionary.  Though, being evolutionary is not a bad thing, when you are the segment leader.  Lexus is doing something right with the RX and rightfully would like to keep the sales momentum going.  Losing market share over a huge redesign would be a nightmare.  So what is the reason this vehicle sells so well?

The entire experience of both riding and driving the third generation Lexus RX is easy.  Everything is easy: from the ingress into the vehicle, to the light steering, to the simple yet good-looking gauge cluster.  Things seem intuitive and easy to operate.  Everything has a buttery smooth feeling while operating the RX.  The transmission is smooth and never seems to have a rough spot, while the powertrain is refined. The ride is never harsh either.  The dual pane windows make the RX especially quiet as well.  The leather is soft and supple while at the same time the seats are supportive.  The family will definitely be very comfy cruising to the coffee shop in this cross-over.

As I mentioned above the exterior on the RX continues as an evolutionary design.  The styling is called “L-Finesse design” by Lexus and is used across the whole brand.  Highlighted by soft curves and flowing lines the CUV is not “sharp” like the Cadillac SRX styling.  Instead, it’s soft and inoffensive.  The whole front end of the RX does have more sculpting overall then the previous generation.  From the side view, the front fenders have a shoulder like line that continues down the side of the CUV to meet the rear taillights continuing into the rear bumper.  The rear has an integrated rear spoiler, which hides the rear wiper when not in use.  In my opinion, the exterior overall is improved from the last generation mainly due to more sculpting and more character lines that flow into each other.

The interior of the new RX has had a complete overhaul.  The center stack now has a swoosh starting in the center stack that goes across the front passenger seat onto the dash.  The center stack has a LCD screen in the upper brow that shows the radio and climate control information.  The materials all feel terrific with soft touch pieces placed almost over the entire cabin.

There was however, one piece of plastic that felt particularly out place.  This piece felt so out of place I wanted to make a point to talk about it.  The piece of plastic on the center console right to the left of the gearshift and it runs down into the center console between the seats.  This is the lone piece of plastic that felt ridiculously cheap and it was very hard.  It was out of place next to the soft touch dash materials.

Note The Ridiculously Cheap Feeling/Looking Piece Of Plastic

The gauge cluster had a cool blue hue that bled down from the top of the cluster.  The rear seats slid fore and aft to either increase rear seat legroom or rear cargo room depending on preference.  The seats also fold flat at the pull of a handle.  This is a feature I noted on the new Chevy Equinox and GMC Terrain that I thought was especially clever.  This feature is notably absent from the new Cadillac SRX.

The powertrain as I mentioned was very smooth.  The sole engine choice in the RX350 is a 3.5L V6 putting out 275 hp and 257 ft-lb to either the front wheels while all wheel drive is optional.  The power it channeled through the six-speed automatic with manual shifting capabilities.  Rated at 18/25 mpg in front wheel drive I saw an average of 18.5 mpg.  There is an eco indicator that comes on when you are driving gently.  The RX350 I drove was front-wheel-drive and exhibited little to no torque steer (tugging of the steering wheel under hard acceleration).  Going around corners the suspension is soft and you will feel some body roll.  This is not a sports car or even a sporty CUV, though it makes no such claims.

The RX350 I had was equipped with both packaged and standalone options.  The premium package costs $2,400 and added things such as: USB audio connectivity, front seat memory, moonroof, power rear hatch and auto dimming mirrors.  Standalone options included: the integrated back up camera system which tied into the rear view mirror for $350, wood and leather steering wheel and shit knob for $330, heated and ventilated front seats for $640.  The total sticker price after destination came to $42,220.

Personally I never loved the last generation Rx350. Admittedly I liked it more then the first generation.  I somewhat feel the same way about the new third generation.  I am not in love with it but it is better then the second generation.  Clearly, I am not the correct demographic for this vehicle.  This makes sense as it would not be high on my personal list of vehicles to own.  All that said, I would have absolutely no hesitation recommending this vehicle to someone looking for a luxurious crossover to get from point A to point B.

Would it be my top recommendation in the competitive luxury CUV segment?  Only if the RX is what the person already wants to buy because really I have no reason to say it is a bad vehicle.  I just wish there was more engagement to the driving dynamics.

In the end, I can see why this is the class leader in the segment. With this third generation the Lexus RX has the goods to continue holding the sales segment title.  If I were to use cooking as a metaphor for the RX: the third generation has certainly had a bit of spice added for additional flavor, but the chef has not deviated too far from the winning recipe that made it the sales success it has enjoyed.

Full Disclosure- Vehicle was from a local Lexus dealership.

First Drive – 2010 Corvette ZR1

The Corvette ZR1 is one of those cars that just screams “America can do it”.  America can build a world quality sports car.  Yes, you read that correctly.  America can build a car that competes with and can beat Ferrari’s, Lamborghini’s and more.  While in development, the ZR1 was code named the Blue Devil with the reasoning behind that the current CEO at the time, Rick Wagoner, went to Duke and the mascot is the Blue Devil.

Let’s start with the specs.  The hand built, supercharged LS9 V8 pumps out 638 hp and 604 ft-lb going to the rear wheels.  The power is put down through a Tremec six-speed manual.  The power goes to the rear wheels via two half shafts which are each different diameters to minimize wheel hop under hard launches.  The driver’s side half shaft is larger to offset the weight of the battery being on the passenger’s side in the rear.  Ride control features Delphi’s Magnetic Selective Ride Control system.  The shocks in this set up provide real time dampening and change instantly with road conditions.  There is a sport and touring mode which is controlled by a round knob on the center console.  To save weight, the frame of the ZR1 is aluminum and many body panels including the fenders, roof, hood, front splitter and rocker extensions are all made of carbon fiber.  The hood has a polycarbonate window that allows visibility of the intercooler and the polycarbonate window is visible on the hood while driving.

Driving the ZR1 is both surreal and yet also familiar.  The experience is familiar in the sense that everything feels like a normal Corvette.  The interior is, for the most part, the same.  The seats have ZR1 embroidered on the headrests but other then that, they are stock.  The seats are comfortable, just like any other Corvette, but this is not just any Corvette.  The ZR1 is capable of 1.1 g’s of force and these stock seats are fine for the road but on a track, more bolstering is needed.  The recaros from the CTS-V would be terrific, but unfortunately they will not fit in the current C6 interior.

The clutch is light and easy to modulate.  The supercharger whine is noticeable whenever you are on the gas, more than when just cruising.  The gauge cluster is stock Corvette other than a boost gauge and the 200 mph speedometer with ZR1 screen printed on it.

As I mentioned the experience is surreal as it is familiar.  The experience is surreal in the sense that the car just launches like a rocket with 0-60 coming in 3.3 seconds under ideal conditions.  You can hit 66 mph in first gear.  Bringing you back to reality are the brakes which are carbon ceramic rotors originally developed for the Ferrari Enzo and FXX.  Driving is difficult to explain.  The speed builds fast yet the car always feels planted.  Wind noise is surprisingly in check.  The steering is easy and not over boosted and yet, is lighter then some of the competitors.  The dual mode exhaust opens the butterfly valves above 3000 rpm’s and then it just sounds like a symphony. The redline comes quickly under acceleration, reaching the maximum 6800 rpm with 10.5 psi of boost. The ZR1 is the every day super car because the suspension does not beat you up on city streets and highway expansion joints.

The interesting thing about driving a ZR1 on the street is the way people react. You could almost venture that it is a sleeper car in some ways because Corvettes are commonplace.  They are not as uncommon as Ferrari and Lamborghini (depending on where you live) and when you are on the road, most people do not even notice the car.  In fact, the only time the car was noticed was under hard acceleration when the dual mode exhaust opened up and the exhaust turned devilish.  When cruising next to any other car, it never received a second glance.  If you are looking for some serious attention from what you drive, you will either have tell everyone how much power this thing really has, or shop elsewhere.

The Carbon Fiber Roof Panel

The ZR1 I drove was loaded with the $10,000 premium package which includes the leather wrapped dash, heated seats, memory seats, navigation, Bluetooth, premium Bose sound system and much more.  Also optioned on this particular ZR1 was the chrome wheel package.  You do get slapped with a $1,300 gas guzzler tax on all ZR1’s.  All said and done, the total sticker price came to $121,465.00 which is a lot of money for a Corvette, though this is not just any Corvette.

The ZR1 is a testament that General Motors really can build a world class super car.  Taking on the world’s best, both on the road and the track, for a fraction of the price.  The value proposition is insane.  When looking at the competition, the ZR1 falls short in the interior but this car is all about the powertrain and, more specifically, that supercharged LS9 with an intoxicating exhaust note that is like music to your ears.  The question comes down to if would you buy this over the competition.  An Audi R8 starts at $114,200, is not as fast and while having a distinct look and a much nicer interior along with that premium brand name, has less power.  When looking at the competition, you have to ask yourself what is most important: the best bang for your buck and one of the fastest cars on the road or a brand name that costs more and delivers less. If more power for less money sounds better then you should really take a look at the ZR1.

Full Disclosure- Vehicle was provided for a first drive by Classic Chevrolet

*UPDATED* First Drive Video – 2010 Corvette ZR1

While I strongly reject that anyone was put in danger while making this video, I recognize publicly that concerns about reckless driving have been raised.  Reckless driving is a real issue, and I acknowledge that some in the online automotive industry have expressed concern at the driving displayed in the video.  In response to those concerns and more importantly because I share concerns about reckless driving, I have decided to pull the video.  While I was there and personally know that no one was endangered in the situation, I understand that it is hard for some who were not there to see or realize that.  My intent was never to be controversial.

First Drive- 2010 Lexus HS250 Hybrid

2010 Lexus HS250 Hybrid

2010 Lexus HS250 Hybrid

The new Lexus HS250 is a departure for Lexus and its hybrid line. The LS600 hybrid is meant to have the power of a V12 with the fuel economy of a V8, utilizing a hybrid system in conjunction with a V8 which gives it decent fuel economy. The same can be said for the GS450 hybrid. These are hybrids that are standing for something other then being green but more for performance in a different way than the competitors. The HS250 is the Lexus that is meant to be your step up into Luxury while still being “green.”

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So you have had a Prius and you are now a little older, a little wiser, and want a vehicle that is a little more luxurious. What is your next move for a new car? Well, you could go and get a new third generation Prius and load it up with all the optional tech toys. Though the Prius does not have the luxury badge, and you still want to be a little green. Enter the Lexus HS250 which is all new for 2010. At first glance you think Toyota took and rebadged/restyled a Prius and slapped a L badge on it. The HS250 is actually based on the Scion tC platform and the foreign market Toyota Avensis platform. This front wheel drive platform is a fine base, but people still assume naturally this is a rebadged Prius.

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With a 2.4-liter Atkinson-cycle four cylinder putting out 147 hp and adding to that a 40 hp electric motor, you get a grand total of 187 hp and 180 ft-lb. This is essentially the powertrain from the Toyota Camry Hybrid. This is good for a rated 8.7 second jaunt from 0-60 which is almost a full second quicker then the new third generation Prius. Driving is more engaging and much more “Lexus like” than the Prius. With much more sound deadening and a lighter to the touch steering feel, this car feels more luxurious. This is all good because this car is quite a bit more money then the Prius. The car is refined and overall enjoyable to drive. I was taking corners faster than a hybrid usually wants to go, and the car handled comfortably without complaint. Although this is definitely no sports car. Once going, the wind noise and more importantly highway noise is noticeably quieter then the Prius. Something to note, the engine does not require premium fuel. It is content with regular 87 octane gasoline. The car is rated at 35 mpg in the city and 33 mpg on the highway for a combined 34 mpg overall. I have heard reports of people getting mid 50’s, which if you harp on it constantly you can fall into the very low 30’s. These are all respectable numbers, though the new Prius is rated at 50 mpg combined which you can easily beat when trying. One reason for the huge gas milage differences is the Prius’s engine is a smaller displacement putting out less total power.

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The interior is a nice place to spend time. The car I had was “stripped,” no optional equipment was on board. The sound system was OK but definitely not as good as the optional Mark Levinson sound system. The controls all operate silky smooth and are great to the touch. The “buttons” on the steering wheel are not as they appear. The actual buttons are under those icons which are covered in a membrane like material. The trunk is a mere 12.1 cubic feet because the battery pack is sandwiched between the backseat and the trunk. There are a lot of tech toys that are available on this car that were not on the car I tested. If you are into tech this car can be completely loaded up.

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The base price for this car is $34,200 and if you option it out with technology, you could be knocking close to the $50k door. Keep in mind you are deep in entry level luxury range here competing in price with the Infiniti G37, Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, and others. This car does get much better gas milage, and after all, is that not what Hybrids are all about? Lexus is saying this car falls between the ES and IS line and is for young technology savvy people that care about the environment. Notice they did not say green because we all know they have the lower level Toyota Prius for that. In this price bracket I would have a hard time recommending this car, personally I would go with one of the aforementioned competitors. I am into driver engagement and fun-to-drive factor, and in those departments, this car can not compete. If you want an entry level hybrid luxury, car this is the only place to look in town because there is no real competition, yet.

Short Take- 2009 Pontiac G8 GT

In my lifetime Pontiac has never come out with a car that automotive journalists have compared to a BMW, until now. When the G8 came out, the automotive community instantly starting making comparisons to the BMW 5 series.  In the beginning of 2008 when the G8 started showing up in dealerships enthusiasts knew exactly what it was and bought them quick. Now fast forward to mid 2009 and Pontiac is being killed off as part of GM’s restructuring.  According to GM the G8 is following Pontiac into the grave and the enthusiasts are crying. Now to get to why they are crying.

2009 G8 GT

2009 G8 GT

The G8 is based on the Zeta rear wheel drive platform from Australia.  This is a slightly modified version of the platform the new Camaro rides on.  The G8 has a great stance that looks as if it hugs the ground.  The exterior is instantly recognizable as a Pontiac with the dart in between the grills.  The hood scoops are non functional on the GT. With that said, the scoops work for the look of this car.  The low beam headlights are projectors with tint surrounding the lights.  The overall front end is menacing.  The rear of the G8 GT has different tail lights than the plain jane G8 with a more intricate design.  The GT that I tested had a sport package. This gave the exterior 19 inch machine faced aluminum wheels which looked great.  Also included in the sport package was summer tires, sport steering wheel, and aluminum pedals.

Gauge Cluster G8 GT

Gauge Cluster G8 GT

The interior of the G8 is good.  The interior is not the best the GM has developed, but it is a not a bad place to spend your time behind the wheel.  This car originally comes from the Australian arm of GM, Holden.  To keep costs down, GM made the car in a way that allowed as little as possible to be changed going from right hand drive to left hand drive for North America.  Keeping that in mind, certain things are not where we would normally expect them in a GM car.

Window Switches/Mirror Controls G8 GT

Window Switches/Mirror Controls G8 GT

The window switches and mirror adjustment controls are on the center console by the cup holders.  This made it easy for any country the car would be made for.  The radio is Blaupunkt branded which is not something you see everyday.  The stereo sounds good with decent highs and pounding lows.  The LCD in the center stack is not a touch screen and is used to display radio and climate control settings.  There is no navigation option on this car other than OnStar.  In the late 2009 models bluetooth was an option, though the car is not being built anymore so you would have to make sure to check the build sheet on remaining cars.  The trunk release button is somewhat inconvenient since it is in the glove box.  The G8 I was in had the premium package which gave it a leather steering wheel, leather covered shift knob, and leather seats.  The leather seats are heated for those in the snow belt states.

The interior is not what this car is about and neither is the exterior.  This is a drivers car.  It is not every day that you can take a four door full size sedan and say it handles like a sports car.  This also is significant because it is everyday livable.  This would be a fun and comfortable daily driver while you could go outside the city on the weekend to back country roads and toss the car into a corner all while smiling.  The G8 GT has a 6.0L V8 producing 361 horsepower rocketing the four door full size sedan 0-60 in 5.3 seconds.  These numbers are true sports car territory which is exactly what the G8 GT is.  I was happily surprised with the 6 speed automatic.  I truly thought an automatic would hinder the car.  The transmission has three different modes.  While in drive the transmission will upshift and optimize for best fuel economy.  If you slide the shifter into the manual gate it will put the transmission into sport mode. This optimizes shift points instead of optimizing fuel economy.  The third option is the manual shift gate and push the shifter for manual shifts.  I am satisfied with the shifter in sport mode.  The transmission knew when I was going full out and held right to redline before shifting.

The G8 GT is the right car in the wrong time.  Had this car come out a few years ago before gas prices sky rocketed and the economy came crashing down things could have turned out differently.  Unfortunately that was not the hand we were dealt and thus the G8 GT will fade away after this year.

As I mentioned on Twitter the day I was at The GM product and technology event, I did have a conversation with Bob Lutz about the demise of the G8.  Mr. Lutz informed me about the backlash GM was hearing with the demise of the G8 from enthusiasts and their opinions were not falling on deaf ears.  While nothing is set in stone, he did say the G8 could be a Chevrolet.  The car would be a high end model with big brakes, big motor, a modern four door Corvette.  Though it would not be a Corvette model, it would have the essence of the Corvette in a four door sedan.  Time will tell what comes of that.  Until then, if you are in the market for a four door family sedan that is truly a drivers car, the G8 GT is a true value at a sticker price of $31,755 with a big V8 and stump pulling power.