Thursday, July 16, 2009

Road trip: The Grossglockner

About The Route:

Best time to Go: Weekdays during May, June, September and October

Places To Stop: Tourist kiosks and restaurants at the passes peak, as well as the Grossglockner lookout just above, Grossglockner Glacier, Celtic monument, Hot Springs

Total Distance:  48 km

Altitude: 757m - 2,428m, 2504 at the lookout

Starting Point: Begin in Lienz, Austria. Head north on highway #107 or “The Grossglocknerstrasse,” over the Grossglockner mountain, and on to Bruck, Austria

Road Type: High speed flowing Alpine Pass with a good smooth road surface

Warnings: Watch for Hikers, Marmots and Sheep. Also expect a 28 Euro Toll charge. Open between May and October and only between 6am and 9:30pm, check road conditions before leaving.

Additional info: 



Welcome to the first installment of our search for great driving roads of the world. As an automotive enthusiast I believe that a great car is only as good as the road you drive it on. So in an effort to find these great roads I’ve traveled to Europe and enlisted the help of Test Drive Engineers form several manufacturers to guide me to some of the worlds most spectacular stretches of tarmac. Who better than the skilled test drivers who’s sole purpose is to find chanlenging and rewarding roads that will take a car to its absolute limits, to guide us to their favourite playgrounds. We begin this first installment by talking to Andreas Proebstle, the Chassis Testing Project Manager for the Panamera at Porsche. Mr, Proebstle recalled that given the oppritunetly, he would jump into a Boxster with his wife, and head for the Alps. Alpine passes such as the Grossglockner, a route he uses regularly in testing the Panamera. Funny name yes, but this heavenly strip of tarmac that reaches over Austria’s tallest Alp turned out to be one of the finest bit of driving pleasure I have ever had the pleasure to encounter. Given a free weekend Andreas hinted that the Boxster would be his personal favourite car for this route, given its open top design, its great balance and fun to drive attitude that makes it an ideal holiday car. So, with Mr. Proebstle’s recomondations in hand, off I went to find out just what the Gross, as I will call it, is all about.



For those who have seen Top Gears search for the worlds greatest driving road, you’ll remember that the good James May insisted on going to Austria, only to be out voted by Jeremy and Hamster to name the Stelvio as their greatest road. Well its too bad they never made it across the border as the Gross out-shone the Stelvio with a much more playful and high-speed route.


Traveling north from Lienz, Austria, hwy #107 leads towards the Grossglockner National Park. The whole region is sacred to the Austrians as several mythes and tails can be mixed in with the scenic beauty of this protected park. The run up the 107 is a much more pleasurable experience than most roads leading to alpine passes. Speeds where kept high in the 80 km/h range, and there are not many villages to slow you down.


I won’t get into all the fairy tales, but I will give a quick history lesson. Austria’s defeat in the First World War brought about a devastating economic downturn. In an effort to increase motorized tourism and trade, plans were made to build a three meter wide roadway over the ancient Celt and Roman trail through the Hochtor Alp range. While the ancient trail has been in use for over four thousand years, the roadway was completed in 1935, with a international hill climb race celebrating the road opening. The event was a hit and was run two more times before the onset of the Second World War.


Today, this impressive pass now hosts flocks of auto and moto enthusiasts hell bent to take on one of the greatest Alpine passes, along side several car manufacturers who use the challenging nature of the road to test performance and safety systems. The business starts at the toll booth at the base of the main climb. Here you must part with 28 Euro’s for the pleasure of tearing through their sacred park. Soon after I realized it was a small price to pay for such a glorious road. The first section traverses the base of the mountain, with substantial drops off the left side, however, the road is smooth and wide, by European Alpine pass standards anyway, allowing drivers to reach higher speeds, challenging the tires grip. As I began to gain altitude, the fast winding road started to challenge me even further by throwing in some hairpins. Not massive amounts like Stelvio or Furka, but just enough to give the Gross an even variety of challenging terrain. As my altitude rose, along with my speed, tires began to cry of overuse, brakes were being strained entering corners, while the back end was beginning to loose the fight coming out. Adrenaline had now filled my blood, and sweat was began to saturate, as I flung the car around one of only a few blind corners to see the road filled with sheep. Most passes have electric fences to keep livestock off the dangerous roads, but not with the Gross.


After weaving through the fluff, who seemed quite interested in my car, I was off again. Only to find fog was forming at the higher altitudes, but no problem, I’ve driven in fog before, just have to be a little more cautious. Then a group of hikers appeared out of the haze. Then again another group of hikers stealthly appeared. Something isn’t right here, soon the scattered groups became an onslot of humanity, casually parting to allow me through. The thousands of hikers, all with Nordic sticks in hand, had turned my extacy into a monotonous knightmare. Slowly I crawled against the wave of people, over the peak and half way down what was an equally glorious down slope. Fog and hikers ruining what was the greatest road I had ever seen, let alone driven. With a tight schedule demanding a hasty retreat, I will have to wait for another day to properly tackle the Gross.

Review: BMW Z4 sDrive35i

BMW’s last version of the Z4 had two different variants, a ragtop roadster and a hardtop coupe. With the second iteration of the Z4 now upon us, BMW have taken a slightly different path. The two different versions have now been merged into one. A hardtop roadster that can be a coupe when weather turns nasty, or an open-top roadster when cruising under the sun.


Now, there are several problems that usually come with employing a retractable hardtop. The first is the look. Retractable Hard-Top Vehicles, or RHTV’s as I will call them, tend to look good in one guise, and look a little off when transformed. I must admit that the Z4 seems to have pulled off an exception to this trend, as it loo

ks great in any guise. Not to mention both the interior and shapely new exterior styling are quite captivating, and intriguing. The new design gives the car a more stylish and refined look to match its sporty character.


The second problem with a RHTV is storage space. That big roof has to go somewhere, and trunk space is almost always the sacrificial lamb. The Z4 is no different here as the 310 L of truck space is reduced to 180L with the roof packed away. Now for two people packing light for two weeks, we were just able to get the roof down. However, lazy in packing and some souvenirs soon meant the roof was stuck in coupe configuration.


Finally the third problem is body rigidity. So often, convertibles fail miserably here, however the Z4 was an impressive surprise. With the roof up, the body felt as rigid as any coupe, but the big surprise was with the roof down. Without the support of the roof reinforcements, the increase in body flex was nominal, and barely noticeable. And body rigidity is an important part of the performance of this car. It is BMW’s only real sportscar after all. So how does it go down the road, you ask? Well, like a bat out of hell, I say!


I had the great fortune to be able to test the Z4 in just about the greatest place possible, the Alps. Pulling away from Munich on the A8 Autobahn, it seemed a good time to find out the cars top speed. With the 300 hp 3.0L inline 6 of the sDrive35i at full howl with both turbos glowing red, 256 km/h is what the dash told me as we gobbled up tremendous amounts of terrain per second, the car always giving a planted and confident feeling.  All well and good, but a sportscar is all about the curves. While I was already impressed by the cars curves, I am now talking about the ones in the road.

Entering into the Alps, I headed off to sample several famous passes, riddled with dangerous corners and life ending drops. Childs play for the Z4. The cars balanced chassis and brakes are magnificently tuned to absorb any kind of abuse the Stelvio or Furka could throw at it. Interaction and communication between car and driver needs no translation, as the Z4 quickly becomes an extension of your own extremities. However, the biomechanical feeling seemed to short circuit when it came to the electrical side of the equation. Now I am one who likes to have full mechanical control over a car, but the Dual-Clutch 7-Speed automatic and electronically controlled Limited slip did tend to dull driver control when approaching the vehicles limits, despite their inherent increase to the vehicles performance. That being said, the Z4 sDrive35i still represents one of the most complete sportscar available today.




MSRP: $61,900

Price as tested: $

Layout: Front Engine – Rear Wheel Drive

Engine: 3.0L Twin turbo Inline-6

Transmission: 7-Speed Automatic Dual Clutch with manual shift

HP: 300

Torque: 300

Brakes: Four-wheel Disc

Curb Weight: 1,585 kg

Towing Capacity: NA

0-100 km/h: 5.2 sec

Fuel Economy (city/hwy): 12.2/8.2L/100km

Event: Rumble on the Rock

Here is a few select images from the Rock Crawling event that took place in the Kettle Valley this past June. Enjoy.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Review: Mini Cooper S Cabriolet

With the hardtop version of the Mini Cooper S being on the scene for quite a while now, we’ve all been waiting for the updated convertible version. While the new turbo powered 1.6L in the new car is much more efficient, I find I do miss the whine of the supercharged version that was still the used in the as of yet, original Mini Cooper S convertible. So with the added wait over its hard top brother, I hope to see good things with the new car.


Well here it is, the next generation Cooper s Convertible with a freshly updated chassis and a turbo bolted to the exhaust system, the new car mirrors the fresh good looks of the hardtop. Not that there was anything wrong with the old one in the first place. So lets start with the interior. You’ll find the same straight-up driving position as in the last model, and same great pedal arrangement to aid in crisp heal-toe downshifts. That big Speedo/radio gauge is back and bigger than ever, as it seems to be in a territorial war with the steering wheel. Another odd gauge was the timer next to the tach that would let you know how long the tops been down. Cheesy at first, I came to realize its usefulness with a red forehead.


As mentioned, the Convertible gets the same mill as the hardtop, a now more efficient 1.6L turbocharged marvel that keeps up to just about any thing that wants to have a go. Sporting direct injection and an impressive 172 hp, the Mini can leave the line with a 7.4 sec spring to 98 km/h, while producing a scant 5.7L/100km on the highway, once your nerves have cooled down.


However, controlling your nerves may be a monumental task, as this new drop top has the same playful and exuberant character about it as the hardtop. Hell, it’s a Mini, and Mini’s are meant to be driven by a driver who loves to have fun behind the wheel. That’s just what this car is, as every moment behind the wheel inspires the driver to find some twisties, and open‘er up. However, as a driving enthusiast, there is a problem when doing this, the evil chassis rigidity of a convertible car rears its ugly head.


And lets face it, the only real way to make a soft top handle like a hardtop is to weld the doors shut, but Mini have done the best they can to counter act the roofless body movement. With a reinforced floorpan, A-pillars and side-sills, the body has a torsional stiffness increase of 10%. The suspension is also sprung extremely tight, with very stiff dampening to aid in a solid feel. While it all works well to disguise the fact that a convertible just doesn’t have the torsional stiffness of a hardtop, the chassis movement and vibrations do get a bit annoying. That’s for me as a driving enthusiast, however the sun worshipers who love the look and playfulness of the Mini, will likely not even notice.


However, this brings us to another slightly annoying trait, and that’s the price. A base convertible S will set you back a $36,350, a hefty jump from the $29,900 asking price for the hardtop. Sir Alec would be rolling in his grave. While I do like the Cooper S convertible’s playful spirit and I really do miss a roofless night drive with only the stars to look at, I have to say I personally am much more at home in the hardtop.



MSRP: $36,350

Price as tested: $40,017

Layout: Front Engine – Front Wheel Drive

Engine: 1.6L Turbo I-4

Transmission: 6-Speed Manual

HP: 172

Torque: 177

Brakes: Four wheel ventilated discs

Curb Weight: 1,295 kg

Towing Capacity: NA

0-100 km/h: 7.4 sec

Fuel Economy (city/hwy): 7.8/5.7L/100km

Comparison: Luxury SUV's Offroad

Sport Utility Vehicles. They are supposed to be all things to all people. Original examples evolved from 4WD vehicles that were capable of creating their own trail through rough terrain. Today, this segment has branched out into several different genres. The standard soccer mom SUV, the proper 4x4-geared SUV, the crossover and mini-SUV and finally, the luxury sport SUV.


This latter species is an odd one. Manufacturers who build these vehicles know that their wealthy owners will be much too scared of a little leftover winter sand on the road, let alone take them off-road. So the builders design these SUVs to handle like cars, and carve up tarmac corners instead of washed-out back roads. But they still build these luxury liners with AWD systems and even the most sports-oriented versions give the owner approach and departure angles in their spec sheets.


The whole train of thought behind an SUV is that these vehicles offer safety in adverse conditions. Many manufacturers also market these vehicles as passports to outdoor adventure, but will they actually survive in the wild? We got four different examples of these luxury SUVs and took them out into the great outdoors to see how they stand up against mother nature. Our trusty steeds in this experiment would be the Volvo XC90 R, BMW’s new diesel-powered X5, Infiniti’s FX50 and finally, the Land Rover LR3 HSE. All high-performance rides with the looks to match.


Infiniti FX50

Lets start with the highest performance version of these vehicles, the FX50. This is a truck that in reality is a high-performance sports car in SUV clothing. Its on-road abilities are truly amazing, and it could very likely make a couple of performance coupes look foolish on a track. However, the designs that make it a beast on the road should hinder the vehicle once the safety of tarmac is lost. The biggest weakness is the 21-inch wheels that are wrapped with 45-series all-season tires. When it comes to rough roads, this setup is a definite risk. Despite this, Infiniti lists the FX50’s approach and departure angles in the specs for the vehicle, and for a something so low to the ground (another hindrance in the back country) the angles are respectable.


The driving test proved the FX50 quite confident on gravel roads,  looking out for rocks and large potholes, and Nissan's great “RWD first” AWD system makes it a blast on clean winding gravel roads. It is clear that the suspension is tarmac oriented, so the FX50 does not feel like it is firmly planted on loose surfaces. If you decide to leave the beaten path, caution needs to be maintained, and only light off-road driving can be accomplished due to the vehicle's low ride height. Another problem we ran into was the strength of the centre differential. Under heavy load or when wheelspin began to be a factor, the centre viscous diff would overheat, leaving you with only RWD. Also, the absence of any underbody armour proves again that any off-roading in the FX50 should be kept to light terrain.


Volvo XC90 R

The XC90 is marketed much more to the adventurist than, say, the Infiniti or even the BMW. The name itself stands for Cross Country, so the ride height is higher, approach and departure angles are increased and there is even some skid plating mounted underneath, even if some is more for show. In terms of visibility and seating, the XC90 ranked top of our list. However, as Volvo prides itself on the on-road sportiness of the XC90, the 20-inch wheels mounted on our “R” version are risky, although our tester was set up with snow tires, giving us much more traction.


On the driving test, it had excellent driving characteristics on gravel roads, and the fear of damage from debris was not as high as the other vehicles, making for a more stress-free drive. It did tend to understeer when it got slippy. Off the beaten track, the XC90 proved remarkably confident despite its low height. The increased grip from tires and manoeuvrability of the XC itself had us heading into terrain we didn’t think was accessible. However, much like the FX50, the centre viscous diff proved to be a weak point as it, too, required cooling, leaving us with only FWD while in the field. All in all, we were quite impressed with the Swede, as it is capable of handling light-to-medium terrain, while being a sporty on-roader. Using the smaller 17-inch wheels available would make the XC an even more competent soft roader.


BMW X5 35d

BMW says that the X5 is just as good as handling a corner as the 3-series sedan. Having had an X5 on a racetrack, I can attest to this fact, as it is a force to be reckoned with. BMW has now released the turbo diesel version of the X5 in Canada, something I am ecstatic about as it now adds great fuel efficiency to the X5’s equation. But what about its off-road abilities? At 18 inches, the wheels are the smallest of the group and offer decent protection in a 55-series tire, which also turned out to be a snow tire on our tester. Like the Volvo, the X5 has some underbody protection, although its low plastic overhangs similar to the FX50 will have drivers keeping the approach and departure angles to a civilized level.


On our test drive, the Bimmer soaked up the gravel road with absolutely no problems, and remained neutral handling. It did have some of the stiff suspension float like the Infiniti produced. While the vehicle height had us on edge through the rough stuff, the Bimmer's low-range capability, and the strength of the diffs, meant that the drivetrain never experienced any problems no matter how sticky things got. While it was ideal to keep travel to mostly flat terrain, its capabilities were truly impressive, while the diesel always meant we had a good range of torque on demand.


Land Rover LR3 HSE

Now here is a special case. Land Rover has been the epitome of off-roading since the sixties, and the icon of any adventure expedition on any continent. With the Series Landies not in production, and very few Defenders making it to our shores, Land Rover has gone from farmyard worker to Military Recce vehicle, now ending up as a luxury vehicle driven by soccer moms and hockey players. So the question has to be, has Land Rover lost its off-road abilities that made the brand the most famous of any adventurer? NO!


While the LR3 looks more at home at the end of a red carpet, it still possesses the ability to get muddy. What makes it different from the others is its drivetrain. While the Volvo, BMW and Infiniti all use a standard clutch pack centre differential, the LR3 features a two-speed transfer case utilizing both high and low gearing, with locking centre, and optional locking rear, differentials. Land Rover has also added airbag suspension to raise the ride height for better ground clearance. Match this with a plethora of off-road-based electronics, and it is instantly apparent that Land Rover has not forgotten where it came from.


As you would expect, light and medium terrain come at ease with all these options. When it comes to hard terrain, the LR3 still remains competent, even if its limits are now being challenged. At this point, the same trouble of body overhangs and ground clearance begin to hang up the LR3. So, impressive off-road skill for such a luxury SUV to be sure. However, for these abilities, the Land Rover falls far behind the on-road abilities of the other three. 



After looking at four different luxury SUVs representing four different manufacturers built in four different countries, our conclusion may come as a bit of a surprise. The single biggest disadvantage to traveling off-road with these vehicles is the bodywork and tires. Taking these SUVs into the wild is like asking a painter to go to work in a tuxedo. You have to be willing to sacrifice scrapes down the doors and gouges in the bumpers, and if the size of the brakes permit, a smaller set of wheels and larger tires that will protect against punctures.


The truth of the matter is that for those who want to get out and explore the great outdoors, the terrain traveled is usually considered light if not just a gravel road. While the off-road capabilities of these vehicles are mostly medium-to-light, they are more than adequate for getting to 90 percent of the destinations that most outdoor enthusiasts desire. Obviously, if you are a dedicated wheeler, a more single-purpose, modified vehicle that won’t have you in tears when it rubs up against a tree, will be ideal. But for those who need to get back to work on Monday, and enjoy a luxury environment and sports car-like performance, then we found that a luxury SUV is well capable of doing it all.



The Specs

Infiniti FX50

Engine:  5.0L V8

Wheelbase/Track:  2,885/1,680 mm

Ground Clearance:  187 mm

Approach Angle:  28.8 degrees

Departure Angle: 20.9 degrees

Final Drive:  3.538

AWD System: Viscous Centre Differential-based full-time AWD

Curb Weight: 2,075 kg

Tires:  265/45R21

Electronic Aids: Only on-road safety aids

Price Base/As Tested:  $51,800 (FX35)/$59,900




Volvo XC90

Engine:  4.4L V8

Wheelbase/Track:  2,857/1,634 mm

Ground Clearance:  218 mm

Approach Angle:  28.0 degrees

Departure Angle: 25.0 degrees

Final Drive:  3.33

AWD System: Electronically-controlled multi-plate wet clutch-based full-time AWD

Curb Weight: 2,053 kg

Tires: 255/40R20

Electronic Aids: Only on-road safety

Price Base/As Tested: $48,595/$68,295




BMW X5 35d

Engine:  3.0L I6 Diesel

Wheelbase/Track:  2,933/1,650 mm

Ground Clearance:  210 mm

Approach Angle: 25.0 degrees

Departure Angle: 23.0 degrees

Final Drive:  4.44

AWD System: Electronically-controlled multi-plate wet clutch-based full-time AWD

Curb Weight: 2,370 kg

Tires:  255/55R18

Electronic Aids: Hill Descent Control

Price Base/As Tested:  $58,200/$62,200




Land Rover LR3 HSE

Engine:  4.4L V8

Wheelbase/Track:  2,885/1,613 mm

Ground Clearance:  240 mm

Approach Angle:  37.2 degrees

Departure Angle: 29.6 degrees

Final Drive:  3.73 – Transfer case Low/High: 2.93/1.00

AWD System: Two-speed electronic transfer gearbox, shift-on-the-fly capability with electronically-controlled variable-locking centre and rear differentials

Curb Weight: 2,629 kg

Tires: 255/55R19

Electronic Aids: Terrain Response System, Traction Control, Hill Descent Control, All-terrain dynamic stability control.

Price Base/As Tested:  $53,900/$64,200

Review: Lexus IS-F

The BMW M3. Back in the late 80’s it was the pioneer of the high-performance luxury sedan. It was the Hulk of the automotive world. A regular E30 3-Series was a sporty, good looking, fun to drive vehicle. However, someone ticked off the 3-Series and muscles tore out of its body, wings sprouted out, and a screaming 2.3L struck fear into anyone within earshot. Building such a beast could not go without retaliation however. Soon after, Mercedes introduced the 190E Evolution, also a muscle bound animal. The two locked horns in battle on streets, circuts and stages around the world.


Fast forward 20 years. BMW and Mercedes are still at each others throats, although they now have some competition. Audi’s manic RS4 can also be added to the list of horrifically fast saloons. As of late, Lexus has been competing with BMW’s several different levels although have never really stepped up to the plate with a truly high performace machine to rival the M3. Well those days are long gone. Let me introduce the IS-F, the bad boy of the IS series.


Like the original M3, Lexus has designed the IS-F to demand authority. Clear identifications that this is not just a IS-250, or 350 are clearly announced with an aggressive low and wide stance, massive wheels, and a pair of badass flare vents on the front fenders to offer extra cooling for the massive V8 shoehorned into the engine bay. There is no doubt about it, this car looks the business. But is its bit as bad as its bark.


Yes! With BMW, Mercedes and Audi all having large high revving V8’s, this can be a hard act to follow. No problem for Lexus, they stepped forward with a 5.0L high revver of their own, which slots in nicely between the Audi and Merc. Squeezed into the IS body, this mill propels the car forward with extreme violence. With TC off, be prepare to fight to keep everything straight, as gearshifts from 1st to 2nd and 2nd to 3rd will have the rear end waving to those you just left far behind. Even with the massive 20-inch rims wraped with 375/30 super sticky Michelin Pilot Sports.

In the handling department, this is a super tight car. The chassis, steering, shifting, suspension, brakes, everything about this car feels tight and firm like an athletes body conditioned for competition. Couple this with excellent seat positioning, the IS-F is extremely good at talking to the driver. The driver can feel every bit of what the car is doing through touch alone.


Coming into a corner at speed, (something hard not to do with this car) the IS-F turns in with an incredible amount of frontal grip. This car just will not understeer, however if you get too aggressive with it, be ready to catch the oversteer that will come barreling at you once the rear grip becomes too much.


Unfortunetly the flappy paddle gearbox takes away from the drivers envolvement in this car. Lexus see’s this gearbox as a crowning achievement of the IS-F, although I see things a little different. Now before all you statisticians out there email in with your hate mail, yes, a dual clutch automatic gearbox is faster than a manual. Specing out a dream car on paper will have this car looking quite attractive. However, for a true driving enthusiast who is actually going to get behind the wheel, it can be a bit of a handicap. Truth is, it does take control away from the driver, as well as the joy of a perfectly produced downshift. Eight speeds help fuel efficiency and allow you to always be in a good cornering gear, but its easy to get lost in the maze. More than a couple times I’ve come flying into corners and had to look down at the dash to see what gear I was currently at in the sequence of six downshifts. I’ve never really liked paddle shifters, and as this is the only option available for the IS-F, its left the first bad taste in my mouth.


The interior is quite civilized when compared to its muscle bound competition. The seats are not as aggressive, but still hold the driver in place nicely. The dash is pleasing to both the eye and the fingers as many functions are not as complicated as the Germans. Even the rear seats prvide a comfortable environment for terror striken passengers.


So at the end of the day, does the IS-F match up to its highly competitive rivals? This group of car are so evenly matched, that choosing a favourite is hard enough as it is, and now Lexus throws in a wild card. Well let me tell you that Lexus got it right, in a big way. It slots nicely in with the entire crowd and holds position like it has been there the whole time.




Engine: 5.0L V8

Power: 414 hp, 375 lb.ft.

Weight: 1,750 kg

Transmission: 8-Speed Dual Clutch Automatic with manual shift

Price: $66,450

Competition: BMW M3, Mercedes C63 AMG, Audi RS4, Infiniti G37 Sedan, Cadillac CTS V

Review: Jeep Grand Cherokee Diesel

With the introduction of the updated 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee signaling in a new era for the Cherokee, I thought I’d take one last look Jeeps flagship for its last year of production. And while the new vehicle offers a fresh new look, it’s easy to say that the current Cherokee has withstood the test of time gracefully. It’s still a good, modern looking vehicle that will certainly appease the eye of customers well into its final stretch.


The vehicle I had in my possession was the CRD diesel powered Cherokee. And while the North American public comes to grips with the new influx of alternatively powered SUV’s currently flooding the market, the Cherokee CRD has been proving itself for some time now. A product of the short-lived Daimler-Chrysler project, the 3.0L Mercedes built diesel V-6 was one of the best outcomes of the doomed merger. Built in Berlin and benefiting from Mercedes’ Bluetec development, this common rail turbo diesel that is shared with Mercedes and Dodge Sprinter vans, represents the jewel of the Cherokee. Like most modern diesel powered SUV’s, you are treated to V-8 power and performance with the added bonus of V-6 Sedan fuel efficiency. Meantime, as part of the Bluetec R&D project, this engine purrs along quietly, emits no smoke under load and no sulfurous smell.


While Hybrids are making an impressive mark on the industry, these are the days of the diesel. The diesel advantage of power, handling, fuel efficiency and versatility so far out weigh the ever-advancing Hybrids. But who wants to take a hybrid off-road? Thus we have the Cherokee CRD, a vehicles who’s sole marketing is based around being a great kid and grocery hauler, while also being Trail Rated, and ready for anything the environment can throw at it.


While its on-road manners are a little on the soft and squishy side for me they are decent nonetheless. However it’s off-road where the Cherokee seems most at home, trudging up a mountainous trail. With a solid rear-end, Quadra-drive II 4WD system with electronic two-speed transfer gearbox and optional Limited Slip Diff in the rear, the Cherokee really does love to play in the dirt.


While the drivetrain, looks and abilities of the Cherokee CRD motivate to get out and have fun, the interior still leaves something to be desired. The over use of cheap plastics as well as the material used in the seats will have the driver constantly trying to not to slip out of place give the interior a low quality feel. As my vehicle came with a $53,000 price tag, I would have a hard time party with such expense. However, don’t let the price get you down. With Chrysler going into bankruptcy, and with only a year left until the new design starts showing up in showrooms, there are huge savings being passed on to the customers during these hard times. Pricing out this same vehicle can yield a $10,000 savings already. So that cheap looking interior isn’t looking so bad anymore is it?



MSRP: $32,140

Price as tested: $52,195

Layout: Front Engine – 4WD

Engine: 3.0L V-6 Common Rail Turbo Diesel

Transmission: 5-Speed Automatic with 2-Speed Transfer case

HP: 215

Torque: 376

Brakes: 328 mm-front Disc – 320 mm rear Disc

Curb Weight: 4,724 kg

Towing Capacity: 3,500 kg

0-100 km/h: 7.5 sec

Fuel Economy (city/hwy): 12.0l/9.0L

Review: Infiniti FX50 - Intelligence Operative

Take one look at the all-new Infiniti FX50 and one thing becomes quickly apparent. It is a crossover that looks as though something ticked it off in a serious way. It’s a mean looking piece of machinery that’s for sure. Get in side and have a go at this 5.0L V8 packing beast and you’ll quickly find out that the FX’s bit is just as vicious as its bark. It is a high end, high tech machine that means business. 


Anyone who had the pleasure of driving the last generation FX will know that it was a vehicle designed for drivers. It changed the way everyone thought about a performance S- or in this case CUV. So Infiniti would have to dig deep to come up with a suitable replacement. Todays world has changed quite a bit since the introduction of the original FX, so some may wonder why Infiniti would be releasing a larger vehicle fitted with a larger more powerful engine? Well, this new engine manages to produce 70 more horsepower over the 4.5L while increasing fuel efficiency by 12%. This comes from the body going on a considerable diet consisting of Carbon Fibre, Aluminum and Composite panels, while aerodynamics have also been tweaked.


Much like a “drivers car,” this is a “drivers Crossover.” Yes, it sounds like an oxymoron, however the FX’s low and wide stance, makes for a good center of gravity, allowing the FX to corner fast and flat. Massive 21-inch tires available on the FX50 make this large crossover feel more like a Grand Tourer. Even sitting behind the wheel, the driver can easily forget they are driving a Crossover. New for this vehicle is a 7-speed automatic gearbox, with the same high quality paddle shifters found in the G37 S which give the same great throttle matching downshifts.


While the looks and driving esthetics scream sportscar, the FX is also a top player when it comes to features. This new FX is overflowing with electronic driving aids, all to improve performance and keep the occupants safe. The list reads like that of a quartermasters inventory with enough acronyms to please a General. Intelligent AWD, Intelligent Cruise Control, Intelligent Brake assist, Lane Departure…… The list is endless. To the point where you could think that the vehicle was designed for you specifically by “Q” for use in secret agent activities. 


So what does it all do? Well other than a constant barrage of beeps and pinging every time you do something the FX doesn’t like, it warns the driver of impending doom, and if the driver is not alert enough, the vehicle will take appropriate action such as putting negative force on the throttle pedal, applying the brakes or even using brake distribution to encourage the vehicle back into its lane if wandering occurs. The FX will not drive itself, however it does aid the driver in making the correct course of actions.


The FX did to me what every other Infiniti has done. It pleasantly surprised me. Ideally I prefer a vehicle more mechanical then electronic, however the FX made up for this with an excellent seating position, sporty steering wheel, impressive performance and great new look. Well great except for those headlights that is.

Review: Ford Fusion Hybrid

While last year seemed to be the year of big horsepower, 2009 is turning out to be the year of efficiency. Last year saw the C63 AMG, the BMW M3, the Lexus IS-F, and Dodges return muscle car, the Challenger SRT/8 all jump onto the scene. All packing big power pumping V8’s that suck fuel with little regard for the record high prices that flashed across the station pumps when we frequented last summer. It’s now 2009 and the automotive marketing machine has reefed up on the hand brake and all of a sudden we are rapidly traveling in a new direction. New on the scene this year is the Honda Insight, Cadillac Escalade Hybrid, as well as diesels for the 335 and X5 models over at BMW. Toyota will also soon be introducing a new Prius and as well as a new Lexus hybrid. The theme this year is definitely the efficient use of fuels. And now Ford has introduced the all-new Fusion hybrid to the eco family.


Now to be perfectly honest, I’ve never really been a lover of the new Ford look, however over the last little while, they have really put an effort on organizing a brand design that is distinctive to the blue oval, all starting with the original Fusion. And while the big bling chrome gates mounted to Ford grilles still raise one of my eyebrows, I must admit I’ve really fallen for the Fusions new look. And it wasn’t something I needed to get used too, I liked it right off the bat, from the first photographic glimpse.


The unknown was the interior design, another Ford trait I don’t always agree with. Long and behold, as soon as my but sank into the black leather seats, I was sold yet again. The entire interior has a great modern design; that like the exterior, exudes some European influences. But the piece de resistance has to be the gauge cluster. While many concept cars use interactive computer graphics in the design of their gauges, they never make it to production, usually due to cost. Well Ford made it work, as the hybrids fully interactive and entertaining gauge system entices the driver to drive as efficiently as possible, while the read-outs shine back in the best resolution graphics I’ve ever seen in an automobile.


Like the Insight Mr. Frechette was talking about earlier, the Fusion try’s to make driving sensibly, fun. One such function built into the gauge cluster is the overall efficiency rating. The cleaner one drives the Fusion, the more leaves appear on a growing vine next to the fuel level. Drive efficiently, and you are rewarded with up to 23 leaves on the dash-based foliage. Drive poorly, and the leaves begin to disappear. Although, if you are a technically driven person, the gauge can be changed to a traditional bar graph with exact numbers. But what fun is a bar graph?


During the press launch in Quebec City, we were sent out in the hybrid versions on a challenge. To follow a determined route, and get the best possible fuel economy we could. The route wound us through the narrow, steep and stop sign riddled streets of Quebec’s old city, and other than a about 15km on the free flowing highways, the 48 km route was mostly urban. Now I love a good challenge, but after all the honking, slow driving and fuel saving tactics, I was about ready to shoot myself in the face. However, the 5.6L/100 km rating we received literally had me astonished, let alone the 4.5L rating one of my colleges received, to win the competition.

Tech wise, besides the ultra cool gauge display, the Fusion comes equipped with side and rear sensing radar to detect obstacles in the vehicles blind spots. Unlike the mirror mounted sensors used by Volvo and Mazda, the Fusion’s radar is hidden behind the rear fenders, thus not giving the phantom signals you get with the other two units when driving in rain or snow.


So how is it to drive? Common feeling today is that hybrids just aren’t any fun to drive, and lets face it, there is a reason why. They’re single minded purpose to just offering the best possible fuel efficiency leaves the power and handling of the vehicle much to be desired, even with a fun game to make it less painful. Well the Fusion seems to be breaking those stereotypes, with a combined 191 hp the Fusion gets up a going respectably. The damping in the car is also impressive as it handles like mid-sized sedan should. The hybrid version of the Fusion is 124 kg heavier then the regular 2.5L SE, but unlike smaller hybrids that feel like light cars carrying an overweight elephant in the back, the Fusion is naturally a heavier car so the extra weight and unbalance goes unnoticed.


What really sets the Fusion apart is the operation of the electric assist. Tucked into the transaxle is a 106 hp electric unit that is linked to both the eCVT transmission and Atkinson Cycle 2.5L 4-cylinder. The computer that runs the whole deal, will shut the engine down at stops, and will allow the driver to drive within the electric threshold all the way to 75 km/h, with help from the dash display. This allows the driver to make the most of the electric drive train, using as little fuel as possible. It really is a great system, and coupled to an impressive car, the new Fusion should help keep Ford ahead of its rivals.




MSRP: $27,270

Price as tested: $30,235

Layout: Front engine – Front wheel drive

Engine: 2.5L Atkinson cycle with electric Hybrid assist

Transmission: Electronically controlled CVT

HP: 191 combined

Torque: 136

Brakes: Regenerative braking plus four-wheel disc

Curb Weight: 1,687 kg

Towing Capacity: NA

0-100 km/h: 8.7 sec

Fuel Economy (city/hwy): 4.6/5.4L/100km

Review: BMW X5 - Same X5 without the Spark Plugs

Late November 2007, I found myself lapping BMW’s performance driving Centre in the driving rain behind the wheel of the all-new BMW X5. With one of the head engineers guiding me around the track, he claimed to me that this new “SAV” or Sports Activity Vehicle as BMW insist on calling it, could handle a corner as well as its 3-Series sibling. After about ten laps I believed him, with the aid of the direct injected 4.8L V8 heaving the 2,380 kg SAV out of the corner with the utmost of ferocity. As a performance car enthusiast, I’ve never really been a big fan of this segment of vehicle, but the new X5 gave a good smack in the face that told me a versatile vehicle can also be fun to drive.


It was at this global launch that BMW teased us with the diesel version as the European media were also in attendance. While the gasoline powered X5’s impressed, the diesel powered version had me quite intrigued, although at the time, there were no plans to bring the diesel to North America. Truth of the mater is that North American’s (mostly American’s) just don’t like diesel vehicles, unless it’s a work truck. Well a lot has changed in the last couple years. Fuel prices along with environmental and economic concerns means that people are now looking to spend their money in a much smarter way. And thus the market is beginning to look at diesel in a whole new way.


And so we have it, the X5 diesel is here, now named the BMW X5 xDrive35d. Yup it’s a mouth full. This new line in the X5 breed features BMW’s award winning 3.0L Turbocharged straight six with the new BluePerformance Advance Diesel technology. So, what is BluePerformance, and what does it mean to you? Well this technology will likely make you think diesel rather than buying a smaller gasoline powered car.


BluePerformance is BMW’s result from the Bluetec development project. This was the research into making diesel technology cleaner and more socially acceptable. In other words, you get a diesel-powered vehicle with excellent mileage, huge power, with out the noise, smoke or smell of a conventional diesel powered vehicle. This done by utilizing direct injection from its common rail-type fuel system that contains fuel pressurized to 1,600 bar or 26,000 psi. Two turbochargers, mounted sequentially, keep turbo lag at a minimum while providing effortless power throughout the rev range, and giving the mid-size vehicle 265 horsepower and a massive 425 foot pounds of torque to complete the performance side of the equation.


On the environmental side, the diesels exhaust uses urea injection to lower NOX emissions. After being injected into the exhaust gasses, the urea solution creates ammonia that then converts the nitric oxides (NOX) in the exhaust into environmentally friendly nitrogen and water vapor. Like similar systems, the urea supply must be refilled occasionally, however, by equipping the X5d with 23 litres of urea capacity in a pair of tanks, one of which is heated to ensure a fluid urea solution in temperatures below -11 degree’s Celsius, BMW has managed to fit the urea refilling periods within the standard scheduled maintenance stops, and will cover the cost of the refills and solution for the first four years or 80,000 kilometers.


 So all this technical talk is all well and good, but does it make diesel a more seductive fuel alternative. In a word, yes! The result is that you have a vehicle with all the versatility of an SUV, the class and handling of a performance luxury sedan, the power of a large V8 matched with the economy of a small V6 sedan. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a winning combination to me. And that’s exactly how it feels on the road.


The sheer amount of low-end torque means both nipping around town and passing on the highway are near effortless and more civilized acts. While a gasoline powered vehicle requires down-shifts to put the vehicle in the needed power band and the engine revs hard to pull you past slower traffic. With the diesel, you only have to press the throttle, and allow the momentum of torque thrust you forward. When matched to the xDrive AWD drivetrain, the usefulness of all this low down torque made the X5 surprisingly competent off the beaten path. The xDrive system includes a centre diff with a collection of clutch packs to provide torque to either front or rear axles, with a static distribution of 60% rear, 40% front, and the capacity to send full power to either end. With the DSC on, traction was maximized, and the lack of wheel spin got the BMW up a steep and slippery grade with ease. Conversely, with the DSC off, the diesel’s low-range torque and excellent six-speed automatic transmission kept the wheels spinning to power out of sticky situations. For a full report of how the X5 compared to its luxury SUV competition in off-road conditions, be sure to check out the Spring issue of Trucks Plus Magazine.


The only downside that I personally found with the diesel, was that it wasn’t gasoline. I love a great sounding engine, and the BMW straight-six does play a magical tune. Also, I love shifting gears and playing in the rev band, and you really just don’t need to with this vehicle. So, the diesel is almost too efficient for me, as high revving and gearshifts are simply not needed. For the average consumer looking at getting into an X5, this will likely not be a problem, and to be honest something I can easily live with.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Road Trip: Scandinavia by Volvo

”Why would you fly half way around the world to Europe, just to see Canada?” These were the words my girlfriend’s cousin asked while we were over-nighting at his house in Germany. Simple fact was I wanted to explore new countries, and the fact that Scandinavia has every geographical region of Canada squeezed into a smaller package did not matter. I wanted to discover what Scandinavia has to offer. And what better way to do that, than in a car that’s built there - a Volvo.


Having Swedish blood, Volvo’s are naturally quite common in my family. My mother was raised with Volvo 544’s, while I grew up with 240 and 740turbo’s. Over the last couple years, the introduction of a new generation of small Volvo’s like the C30, S40 and V50 have recaptured my passion for the Swedish brand. So, wanting to explore my ancestor’s homeland, a V50 would provide a great amount of versatility needed.



The Factory – Start line 0 km

After a long day in a bullet train and a ferry from Denmark, we arrived at Volvo’s Torslanda factory, situated just outside Göteborg, Sweden for a tour. The size of a small city, Torslanda plant gives birth to over 165,000 Volvo’s each year with an addition 181,000 coming out of the Ghent plant in Belgian. Once the tour was finished we could grab our V50. My car of choice would be the 2.0D. Funds were tight, and the V50 Diesel proved to be invaluable in circumnavigating Scandinavia. As a diesel, it provided excellent fuel efficiency, important since diesel was14 Kronor/Litre, or $2.20/Litre in Canadian dollars. It would also serve as shelter as we would sleep in the back if weather did not permit camping. Finally it would also serve as a secure place to leave or belongings when out and about.

With some time to spare before heading to Oslo, we decided to make the short trip south to the waterfront in Arendal. Here was the Volvo Museum displaying Volvo’s entire history. From the first car, to the latest technology in aerospace and championing racing cars, it’s all there. It’s a museum any car guy should visit, however we were beginning to get Volvo’d out and it was time to get out and explore Scandinavia.



No Oslo For You – 434km

As I worked my way towards the E6, a highway that leads past Oslo and on into the far north of Norway, Steph my navigator went about translating the Swedish navigation system. Hint, “Sproken” means speech, leading to languages. As my navigator fiddled, I rocketed the V50 away from Göteborg, hoping to make Oslo before nightfall. Nice thing about Sweden is that the highway speed limit is 120kph, although I noticed that despite the high speed limit, I was blowing by most vehicles. Something just didn’t feel right. Then the scary thought of speed camera’s entered my mind. Yes, Sweden and Norway employ speed cameras along their highway’s, however luckily enough, I had not passed one in my ignorance. From here on, I would be ever vigilant of the roadside pods that housed the camera’s. However, camera’s in both countries are well marked with signage.


As we shot north towards the Norwegian border, the landscape was that of fertile farm flats with rocky-forested hills, much like Ontario funny enough. Plotting along, we soon passed by a “Norge,” or Norway boarder sign. Used to trying to get past the American Gestapo at the US boarder, naturally we were in a state of shock blowing into Norway somewhere north of 120 kph. However, our progress would soon be delayed. It seems that the Norwegians highway system is not as straight cut as the Swede’s. Only meters after the boarder the six-lane freeway funneled into a two-lane road that wound its way north through the increasingly more rugged and rocky terrain. What’s worse, the speed limit plummeted to 80 kph.


It was about 8:30 when we began to reach the Oslo city limits, when our winding road finally became a four-lane highway again. There is a massive collection of underground highways and bypasses. The Scandinavians love to tunnel. After several kilometers underground we took a city center exit. Subterranean loneliness was replaced with a bustling metropolis, as Oslo prepared to enter its nightlife. The city felt remarkably similar to Vancouver funny enough, situated on the sea surrounded by tall mountains. Unfortunately, we were unaware the Oslo require prior reservations as there were no rooms to be had. Still in a driving mood, we jumped back on the E6 all the way to Hamar. A much smaller, easygoing city with ample accommodations.



Olympic Views – 604km

Back on the E6, we pushed on towards Lillehammer. Traveling along the lake, the sight of the 

 ski jumps carved into the mountains above the town were visible from twenty kilometers away. Crossing the bridge into the Lillehammer, we wound are way up through the town into the mountains above, enjoying the winding village on our way to the ski jumps. Hiking to the top of the jump towers offered a remarkable view of both the complex and the region. After spending a couple hours doing the tourist thing, it was time to jump back onto the road. We had the difficult decision whether to head west towards the sea, and Norway’s famous fjords, or do we push hard for the Arctic Circle. After much thought and discussion with locals, it was decided the coastal route to the Arctic Circle would kill two birds with one stone. We jumped back on the E6 and pushed north to Otta, where hwy 136 that would take us northwest and up the rugged coast.


Pass The Trolls – 1025km

It didn’t take long before 136 would wind into a spectacular glacial valley with massive shear rock faces starring down from both sides. The road was now becoming quite spirited. It had narrowed down to just one and a half lanes and was winding its way through the thin valley. The whole scene was remarkable similar to passing through the Rockies funny enough.


From the valley we came out into the famous fjords of Norway. The waters were glass smooth and the highway wound us out towards the ocean. Out of rocky cliffs and vista’s we arrived at the first ferry of the trip, a small trip across the fjord. After a fifteen-minute ride across the fjord we were tearing up the coast when I figured we are doing too much driving and not enough seeing. “Steph? Take a look in the tourist book and see if there is something around here we should look out for?”

Steph put down her map and opened up the book to our general area. I noticed that she was keeping fairly silent, and had a perplexed look on her face. What’s up, find anything. She paused, then, “I don’t know if I should tell you or not.” “What!” “I think you should pull over.” What she had read was a special paragraph on the Trollestigen or The Trolls Ladder. This was an extremely tall valley that featured a 180-meter tall waterfall and a spaghetti string road that zigzagged its way down from the summit, passing over the waterfall in three different places. My dream road and her dream waterfall. The decision whether to double back 50 km and a ferry proved a difficult one. After 15 minutes of debate, three pullovers and unclear minds we would push on for the circle. It was a decision that weighted heavily on my mind the following days.


Midnight Sun – 1686 km

A beautiful sunny day greeted us the next morning, as we set off north. We were now entering the northern territory, and the land was beginning to become quite rugged. Curling around one of many fjords, we jumped back onto the coastal highway. And what a treat as every mountain range and fjord became more spectacular. We both were taking in the great views, however it was the road that would keep my adrenaline pumping all day. An increasingly narrowing highway 17 picked its way north through the challenging terrain, and my familiarization of the Volvo’s dimensions would becom

e extremely important. Carving the V50 through the never ending twists and crests, hanging a tire off the tarmac became a second by second occurrence as I maneuvered to keep the car safe from 160 kph closing rates with locals. At a rest stop, the passengers side mirror was green with the residue of bush leaves and bark.

The farther north we drove, the night sky became brighter. We were now so far north that we could see the light emitting from the opposite side of the planet. We arrived at the pullout for the Arctic Circle, two minutes before midnight. Exhausted from another long day of travel we set up camp in the back of the V50, for some much earned sleep. The next morning we woke to sun and a magnificent mountain vista. The arctic tundra reminded me of the Yukon funny enough. After some photo’s and a hike into the mountains, we pushed north and crossed back into Sweden, crossing over the circle in another country only an hour later. We wound our way through yet another magnificent mountain pass that looked as though it belonged in the Alps. It was a great start to a long journey south towards Stockholm.

Getaway from Stockholm– 2770 km

Many know these popular video’s of skilled Stockholmians toying with police cars in the streets of Scandinavia’s largest city. So this was a city I was looking forward to. Unfortunately we arrived right at the height of rush hour, and needed to cross the entire city to a much-needed hotel. This would be an experience I will never forget. With the nav pointing the way through endless round-a-bouts and tunnels, my concentration on the road and other cars had me sweating. Meanwhile my navigator Stephanie was barking pace notes like a rally co-driver, as my concentration did not allow me to glance away. For well over an hour we fought our way through the quagmire of traffic filled streets, with several detours requiring recalculations. We finally arrived at our destination, completely exhausted despite having the shortest day of travel. For the first time, I did not want to drive anymore. Walking was now my transportation of choice.

Fighter Jets and Supercars – Finish line 3540 km

From Stockholm we pushed towards the southern most point of Sweden. The land was very flat, full of agriculture, much like the prairies funny enough. This proved to be the most boring of all the driving I would do, but we were heading towards a destination that would prove just the opposite. It was the Air Force base in Angelholm we were headed for. The large hangar with the Koenigsegg family crest painted on it to be more specific.


Housed in the old hangar of 1 Squadron are the manufacturing facilities of the supercar maker Koenigsegg. The hangar was home to the top secret squadron who tested experimental fighter aircraft. Their operations would only take place under the cover of darkness, so the emblem of a ghost adorned both the fighters and the hangar. An emblem that now adorns the back window of all CCX’s that leave the factory. Witnessing one of the worlds fastest, most prestigious cars get pieced together proved an incredible experience. However, time was of the essence, and our trusty steed needed to be back home in Göteborg by nightfall.


Reluctantly handing over the keys, this trip proved to be a fantastic experience. Our Volvo V50 proved to be an invaluable resource to explore a great expanse of land by pointing a blind finger to the map, and “lets see what’s there.”