Sunday, November 15, 2009

Review: Lexus RX350

Every luxury carmaker has one, and I really can’t stand the bloody things, they drive me mad. They take the drivers concentration away from the road so you can adjust the climate to a sane level, or turn the music down, or look at a map to find out just where the hell you are. I’m talking about the on-board computer. The large computer screen in the middle of the dash that has a dictatorship over all the on-board systems, which includes some annoying puck, disc knob or lever to actuate through the maze of menu options and controls.


Guess what Lexus is showing off in the new RX350? You guessed it, another electronic dash dictator. But this one is different. While other systems use some foreign knob or lever that requires a weeks training to coming to terms with, Lexus has designed something that’s already familiar to your hand and mind - a computer mouse. While its not exactly the same as the one connected to your PC, it is somewhat familiar, making it easier to get the job done. And while this system is a great step forward from the old confusing way of navigating the Lexus dash, and it is one of the simplest systems out there, I still can’t but wonder what was ever wrong with knobs and dials.

Not to get on a rant lets continue with the rest of the interior. The RX offers the typical luxury appointments that will keep five adults pleasantly happy and comfortable. An optional Pre-Collision System (PCS) with Dynamic Radar Cruise Control can be used to maintain a set distance from vehicles ahead and can detect obstacles, warning the driver whether a collision is highly possible. These are the good tech goodies that I do like.


Open the hood and all you’re going to see is two large plastic engine covers. Now this is usually a let down because I open the hood for a reason, to get a gander at the oily bits. I don’t want to look at a sheet of plastic; I want to see the heart of the vehicle. However, in Lexus’ defense, the engine covers do serve a greater purpose, as they act as noise insulation, keeping the cabin quiet. And for those in the market for an RX350, this is a good thing… I guess. In fact, Lexus has gone to great lengths to make the cabin as quiet and peaceful as possible, even finding ways to make the intake quieter. I didn’t know intake manifolds made that much noise?


One surprise I found with this luxury-classed vehicle was the amount of off-road oriented features. First thing you notice when looking down at the center consol (other than the mouse) is a button to lock the new Active Torque Control AWD. That’s much beefier than the viscous units found on most luxury crossovers. Couple this with advertised approach and departure angles, and suspension that feels more multi-purpose than sports oriented, and one would start to think Lexus had visions of the back woods when completing the design engineering. And while the RX may not be trail rated so to say, this shiny collection of metallic paint and chrome can handle itself quite fine in just about everything minus a full 4WD trail.


Although, with this terrain versatility, comes a mushy ride, with increased body roll in the corners. While just about every other vehicle in this class boasts about their sportscar like handling, the RX’s softness can’t match the same claims. One thing it can hold its head high for however, is its silky smooth ride. This is a trait that is engineered into every Lexus that comes off the line, and the RX is no different. Along with the silence inside the cabin, the ride feels absolutely divine; proving this is what Lexus excels at.


MSRP: $46,900

Price as tested: $62,200

Layout: Front Engine – All Wheel Drive

Engine: 3.5L V-6

Transmission: 6-Speed Automatic with manual shift

HP: 275

Torque: 257

Brakes: Four wheel ventilated discs

Curb Weight: 1,970 kg

Towing Capacity: 1,587 kg

0-100 km/h: 7.4 sec

Fuel Economy (city/hwy): 11.6/8.2L/100km

Feature: The Swiss Army Knife of Transportation

A Swiss army knife is an important piece of kit to own. It’s a single tool that is capable of serving its owner in so many ways. Anything from hunting, preparing and eating food, self-defense, hygiene, cracking a beer at a party and everything in between. However, for much larger task’s like road maintenance and repair, agricultural duties and getting much need supplies to a battlefront in rough terrain, the jack-of-all-trades has always been, and will be the Unimog.


Built by Daimler-Benz, the Unimog is one of the world’s most capable off-road vehicles. They are still pretty rare here in North America, as the vehicle was never sold here, however, the Unimog’s icon status in Europe has meant several private importers have been slowly trickling the specialty vehicles into the country for over a decade now. Very quickly the Unimog, both older and newer versions are becoming the darling of the off-road community, allowing four-wheelers to go deeper into the unknown.


The Unimog has an interesting beginning, as it’s creation mimics that of the Land Rover in several ways. After the fall of World War II, the British where looking for a vehicle that would serve both as rural transportation and take on many tasks of a tractor. With the successful Willies Jeep 4WD vehicle making a name for itself in their military, the British wanted a similarly useful vehicle of their own, creating a truck that could navigate through the rain soak rural fields, and had power take-offs to power saws, winches, mowers and just about anything that could be jimmied up to take rotational force to do a job.


It was around this same time that Albert Friedrich, previously the Head of Aeroengine Design at Daimler-Benz, was thinking along the same lines. He put forward a concept for a vehicle with a basic design that would be versatile for tasks of all kinds, possess superior off-road mobility with a four-wheel-drive drivetrain featuring portal gear axles and differential locks front and rear. It would also have a compact cab, outstanding robustness and power take-offs front and rear for attaching a multitude of working implements. This was the concept being thrown around as early as 1945, and was a hit at the 1948 German Agricultural Show, with 150 orders made. With that the project was streamlined for production with the Massrs. Erhard & Sons coming on as development partners.


The truck was given the name Unimog, which is an acronym for "UNIversal-MOtor-Gerät," or universally applicable motorized implement. An unusual name even for the Germans, but described its abilities well. The first versions were simplistic to

 say the least with a small open cab, flat bed and equal size wheels in order to be driven on roads at higher speeds than standard farm tractors. They were powered by Daimler-Benz’s 25-hp OM636 diesel engine became standard equipment in the first production, while the track width of 1,270 millimeters was equivalent to two potato rows. This was a truck aimed at the agricultural community and they embraced it, as its power take-offs allowed farmers to attach a myriad of useful machines to work in the fields and forests.


Production began in 1948 at the mechanical engineering factory of Boehringer in Schwäbisch Gmünd. Erhard and Sons did not have the production capacity needed, and due to wartime concessions, Daimler-Benz was not permitted to build 4WD vehicles. These laws changed with the creation of the West German Republic and the success of the Unimog prompted Daimler-Benz to take over the project completely, moving production to their Gaggenau plant in 1951.


1955 saw the first complete redesign of the Unimog, introducing the infamous 404. This truck would become a legend as its abilities and usefulness meant it wasn’t discontinued until 1980, with 64,242 units produced. However, this truck was geared more toward cross-country trucking rather than an agricultural implement. It featured a massive upgrade in power with a 2.2L 82 hp straight-six petrol engine mated to a synchromesh gearbox. This much larger 

 could climb a 70% grade, while capable of a 90% decent. It had a ground clearance of 40 cm, could ford nearly a meter of water, had a side slope angle rating of 46 degrees, with 46 degree approach and departure angles. Off-road abilities were coupled with a weight of 2,900 kg and a 1,500 kg payload. These numbers were impressive in 1955, and when the cold war started to pick up, West Germany began to re-arm the military, and the Unimog faired heavily in their plans. Over half of all 404’s built went to the German military while countries all over the world saw the potential of such a vehicle, snapping up nearly all the rest.


Over time, the simplicity, durability and down right unbeatable versatility of the Unimog continued to be a success. Exploited by both the agricultural and military industries, the commercial industry was now starting to take notice, and Daimler-Benz listened. Soon specialty vehicles could be ordered with fire fighting or ambulance kit, be configured to be a mobile workshop or weather forecasting station, or kitted for municipal and rail maintenance. The possibilities were endless, while the added go-anywhere abilities only made the choice for businesses to go mobile all the more attractive. Because of this Daimler-Benz also started to increase the production range, now building lightweight, mid-sized and heavy versions. The OM 352 diesel's now used for power introduced direct injection for the first time, raising power quickly from 70 to 80 hp to 100 hp used by a new 416 series launched at the 1969.

In 1976, the face of the Unimog changed once again with a new angular design. The new 424 was complimented by the renaming of all Unimog versions. The traditional rounded style Unimogs were designated U 600/L, U 800/L, U 900 and U 1100/L. New angular shapes were the hallmark of the Unimog U 1000, U 1300/L, U 1500 and the flagship, the U 1700/L with a 168 hp engine. The letter "L" indicated the long-wheelbase version. These new trucks feature many improvements including disc brakes for the first time.


Today, you can’t go anywhere in Europe without seeing a Unimog doing some kind of labour, whether it be hauling goods, cleaning tunnels and sign posts along the Autobahn or carrying troops and equipment. It is the workhorse of Europe. The latest design has been so popular that special editions such as the Funmog and the Unimog Black edition be created for wealthy eccentrics to play on their acreages. Travelers outfit all years and ranges with living quarters to explore the world over. They are used for absolutely everything, and have created a cult following.


Unfortunately, the Unimog is still not commercially available here in Canada, a country that would have a great use for such rugged and versatile machinery. However, it’s becoming more and more common to spot them on the roads, as importers are bringing fifteen year old vehicle into the country as they are so popular with off-roaders and small businesses that need to get equipment out into the bush or mines. Like the influx of Japanese JDM vehicles into the country, the abilities of the Unimog will be exploited.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Opinion: Who Do I Cheer For Now

As a young boy, like so many other young boys, I dreamt that one day I would own an exotic mid-engine sports car. However, while the visions of Lamborghini Countaches, Ferrari 308’s, Lotus Esprites and Porsche 959’s danced through the heads of most kids, my dream was to one day own a Toyota MR2. Yes, a little unusual maybe, but should not come as a surprise as Toyota was one of the most exciting car companies at that time. During the late 80’s, the MR2 was only one of several cars that stirred the souls of driving enthusiasts the world over. The iconic Corolla GTS, which is every bit as popular today than it, was when it showed up in show rooms for the first time. The rally bred Celica GT4 Turbo AWD that was the Subaru STi of its day. Then there was the company’s performance flagship, the Supra Turbo, Toyota’s answer to the Skyline GTR with an equally potent 3.0L Straight-six turbo. Then finally the nimble little MR2, to date still one of the most fun cars I’ve ever driven.


The excitement surrounding Toyota wasn’t just focused on the cars they sold, they were also a force to be reckoned with in the motorsports world. Toyota dominated just about every form of motorsports they touched. From the horrifically over powered Group C and IMSA Sports Cars, to Ivan “Ironman” Stewart thundering through the deserts of Baja, to the ultra competitive world of Touring Car racing, the screaming CHAMP cars, the mighty Supra warhorse battling 11 years strong in the Super GT series and finally the elegant GT-One that ripped through the air down the Mulsanne straight at Le Mans. When it comes to racing Toyota has always been feared and respected.


However, the one sport that turned the Toyota name into a legend was rallying. Here they proved to be constant contenders in three different vehicles over three decades starting with the Group 2 Corolla’s in the 70’s. Then came the lethal Group B Twin Cam Celica, giving way to one of the most iconic rally cars of all time, the Group A Celica GT4. And even when the Celica was getting old, the Corolla WRC stepped up to become one of the greatest rally cars of all time.


That’s damn right impressive for one carmaker, and thus the excitement surrounding Toyota lured me in and made me a fan. It is an excitement that made me dream of one day owning an MR2, rather than a Ferrari, Lamborghini or Porsche. And since the MR2 is not a high priced exotic, my dream became reality sooner than most, as I was the proud owner of my life long dream car at the age of 17. My love for that car was unmatched, as Sunday drives where now taken on a daily basis. A year later, Toyota’s enormous motorsports legacy led me to cage the little MR2 and go racing myself, competing in local rallies, then moving on to a Corolla GTS to compete at a higher level.


The Toyota heyday was here and strong, alas it would not last long. Toyota’s feared fleet of exciting performance driven vehicles began to fade. First the Corolla GTS, then the MR2, then the GT4 soon followed by the Supra and finally the entire Celica line itself was cut soon after the millennium. The vacuum left was filled with mass produced cars built for the masses. Cars void of any soul or character, they were designed not to stick out in a crowd, but to appeal to the mass public as a whole. Its as though the ambitious and innovative designers and engineers of the 70’s and 80’s had their leashes tightened as the bean counters took control in the corporate greed to sell sell sell, instead of supplying car loving drivers with proper equipment for a culture they love so much.


Fair enough, things change with times, but Toyota didn’t stop there. No, after stealing away our cars of pleasure, they then pulled a 180, declaring that they wanted to be looked at through the eyes of North Americans and thought of as a domestic carmaker. As a dedicated Toyota fan I had firmly planted my loyalties to the import side of the foreign vs. domestic brand wars. This would be Toyota’s first knife in the back. Then, to back up this claim, they entered NASCAR, a sport worshiped by the evil domestic lovers, known for being the domain for American Iron only. Yet Toyota stepped back thirty years in technological development to fight for the enemy in the roundy round championships. Knife number two.


In the late 90’s the Corolla and GT-One were the class of their particular fields when Toyota took certain success, and sacrificed it to jump into the horrifically expensive, nearly unwinnable series dominated by teams that have been winning for decades. It was a huge risk, but now F1 was the only form of motorsports left that I could cheer for Toyota. Despite Toyota turning their back on people like me, I still remained loyal, always watching a cheering the red and white cars for every fought after position. Despite year after year of constant disappointments I keep cheering for the company that hates me. Like a beaten dog, I keep returning to my master. And then the unthinkable happened. Late last week, word came that Toyota was leaving F1. Who do I cheer for now?


Like that beaten dog, I still have hope for Toyota. Talk of re-entering the WRC or the Le Mans Series have begun to resurface, but so far its only talk. But still I hope that Toyota will give me something to cheer for. As for my dream car today. Do I now want a Ferrari 458, a Porsche GT2, a Lamborghini Gallardo, a Lotus Evora, an Audi R8, a Koenigsegg CCX, or an Ascari KZ1? No, I want a white, 1989 Supercharged Toyota MR2 with T-Tops.