Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Review: 2011 Toyota Highlander

Toyota are calling the 2011 Highlander changes a mid-cycle refresh, something every manufacturer does to vehicles that have been on the market for a while, to spark some life and interest into them to once again. However, the sheer amount of work that has gone into the 2011 Highlander could easily qualify as an all-new model redesign, with heavy cosmetic and aerodynamic changes to the body, increased capacity and winter heating has been built into the hybrid system while an entirely new engine now powers the V-6 powered Highlanders. While most mid-cycle changes usually consist of new trim levels, or minor fascia work, Toyota’s all out assault on the Highlander has changed the entire character of this mid-sized crossover.

Lets start with the most obvious changes, the new look. is refreshing, and has now confirmed the Highlander is the younger brother of the 4Runner gaining a similar family appearance. The new menacingly styled headlights and grille is refreshing bit of spice to Toyota’s usual mass appeal design recipe. Matched with slightly massaged front and rear bumpers, the new Highlander barely resembles the timid creature that we’ve become used to. Along with these changes, the rocker panels and front sheet metal have also been redesigned to channel air more efficiently around the vehicle in a never ending battle to lower the aerodynamic co-efficient.

There are also big changes under the skin. Gone is the 3.3L V-6 that was normally found in the Highlander, replaced by a quite useful 270-horsepower 3.5L V-6. The Hybrid features upgraded Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive technology built around a Atkinson cycle version of the 3.5L V-6 and an enhanced electrical motor/generator system, both of which deliver 10% better fuel efficiency. With this addition of three electric motors (one for charging, one powering front wheels, one powering rear wheels) the Highlander Hybrid now boasts a combined horsepower rating of 280, with push button electric-only drive capability, providing the batteries are well charged.

New this year, Toyota has added an Exhaust Gas Re-circulation and Exhaust Heat Recovery systems to the hybrid. The first re-circulates spent exhaust gasses to lower exhaust gas temperatures, which in turn minimizes the need for fuel enrichment. The benefit is a significant reduction of fuel consumption, especially during high-load driving and improved fuel efficiency. The Heat Recovery System recovers exhaust heat to quickly raise coolant temperature during warm-up. This allows the engine to warm up faster thereby, allowing it to shut off for EV driving a full 15-minutes sooner; a handy feature for short winter commutes.

Inside, the dash and door panels are still a sea of hard plastic and don’t possess the most inspiring of designs, however a strip of felt on the door panel did add a small touch of luxury. While the materials may seem cheap, the controls are very simple and easy to use as well as the dash layout. Knobs and buttons have a good solid feel and are extra large just incase you forget where they are. Both the steering and seats have a good range of adjustability to find the optimal position for just about any size.

Toyota have done a masterful packaging job with the back of this SUV, as personal space should be taken up by fold flat seating, fuel tanks, full size spare, and those extra batteries that need to go somewhere. This year every Highlander comes standard with 7-passenger seating thanks to a 50/50 split pop-up third row, so space should be hard to find. Now with many mid-sized utes, these seats are all but useless to anyone north of a toddlers size anyways, and while at first I thought the same of the Highlanders third row, I quickly changed my tune after crawling back there. There is ample headspace for average sized adults and with the second row pushed forwards slightly, legroom is also kind for short trips. However, if there is only five coming along, the rear passengers are treated to a massive amount of space with the 3rd row folded flat.

On the road, the Hybrid drove straight and true, however steering is very light and void of any real feel for the road. Like most Toyota’s, the Highlander is engineered for a soft smooth ride, however, despite the AWD system, it’s not likely many of these will ever see off-road duty, so I’d personally like to see the suspension firmed up a bit to give a better feel of the road and help the noticeable body roll. What did get me excited was the vehicles fuel efficiency. The Hybrid Synergy Drive worked wonders on the highway, scoring an incredible 7.1L/100km fuel efficiency rating on a 165-km drive, a number besting several compact cars, not to mention Toyota’s own numbers as its rated at 7.3L/100km. However I was not able to get much urban driving in, but Toyota rates the Hybrid at 6.6/100km, an easy figure to match with the help of the EV mode. For the non-hybrid Highlander, expect to see a highway rating of 7.3L/100km, and 10.4L/100km in the city.

All in all, the 2011 Highlander was a pleasant surprise as both the use of interior space and incredible fuel efficiency topped any expectations I previously held for the vehicle. While I’m not a supporter of SUV or CUV vehicles, the new Highlander will surely make prospective station wagon buyers think twice. As of time of writing, Toyota has not yet revealed pricing on the Highlanders, so check out to get the latest.

Base Price (MSRP): TBA
Price as Tested: TBA
Type: 7-passenger Crossover
Layout: Front engine, AWD, Hybrid assist
Engine: 3.5L V-6 with Electric assist
Horsepower: 280 combined
Torque: 215 combined
Transmission: Electronically Controlled Continuously Variable Transmission (ECVT)
Brakes: Four-wheel discs with regenerative braking
Cargo Capacity: 2,660L seats folded, 290L all seats up
Fuel Economy (L/100km): 6.6L city, 7.3L highway 

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Great Drives: Milford Sound

About The Route
Best time to Go: Weekdays from April to October
Places To Stop: Great scenic viewpoints found at Mirror Lakes, Homer Tunnel, Hollyford and The Chasm.
Total Distance:  117 km
Route: Starting point is the town of Te Anau, 45°25′S 167°43′E, where highway 94 winds drivers north-west, through thick lush rain forests into the rocky peaks of the Alps, finishing in the village of Milford Sound, 44°40′30″S 167°55′46″E.
Road Type: Smooth narrow tarmac road.
Warnings: Highly traveled road in January and February with an onslaught of oncoming tour buses. Watch for suicidal Possums, biting birds and epic rainfall.

You may have noticed that all the roads we have featured in the Great Drives Series have been situated in the European Alps. While this is a magnificent hotspot for great driving, it is not the only spot to get your hard driving jollies. And so we move to a different part of the world, from the European Alps to the Southern Alps, located in the land of the Kiwi bird – New Zealand.

Milford Sound is a town on the map of New Zealand, however, once you've arrived after this spectacular bit of roadway, you'll soon find that it's not so much a town, rather a gathering point for tourists intent on exploring the Fiordlands scenery by plane or whale watching by boat. However, the road to get from Te Anau, located on the eastern highlands of the Alps, to the sound is well worth the trip. Known as one of the greatest drives New Zealand has to offer, the Milford road lived up to its billing providing a wonderfully challenging road set through scenery that seems out of this world. There's a reason Sir Peter Jackson chose this area to make up a good amount of the Lord of the Rings trilogies back-drops.

Usually we run these roads with some sort of high horsepower, highly over priced exotic sports car. However, the sights of NZ are best taken in at a civilized speed behind the wheel of a campervan, which ideally doubles as your living accommodations once you've made you destination. Research tools such as are invaluable to ensure finding the campervan that works best to your needs and budget, while insuring you deal with a credible hiring service. At the top of the rankers list is the Auckland based Wilderness Motorhomes ( The highly positive comments left by previous customers turned out to be quite real as we had a great experience with Wilderness staff, and our BaseJumper 2 had performance which tackled the Milford with ease, while providing a luxurious environment to relax and sleep.  

Heading out of the town of Te Anau, found far down the south island, on the 94 there are several signs warning of the implications of driving to Milford. There is only one road in, so you need to come back the way you came. The road can be closed if there is a heavy snow, as it is a high mountain pass. Finally, there is no gas station in Milford, so be sure your tanks are full when leaving Te Anau.

The first 30 km from Te Anau took us along lake Te Anau, which proved to be an easy drive with decent scenery. However, turning inland after Te Anau Downs, the narrow two lane road dives deep into the heavily forested highlands that lay before the towering Alps just beyond. While the road remains fairly straight for the most part, the foliage becomes a staring attraction, thick with prehistoric fern tress and bright green Mountain Beech tree's with black trunks. The vegetation is so dense that it feels like you're driving through a long winding tunnel, every inch of this land is bursting with colour and life. It's an amazing sight, only not so camera friendly as the road is mostly obscured with the thick wall of green. Sorry, no overhanging vista pictures of the winding road below to be had here to compare with the Southern Alps northern cousins.

The road to this point was driven with ease, although the performance of the BaseJumper 2 would soon be made apparent, soon after a stop at the Mirror Lakes for a walk through the rain forest. After the break we began to climb high into the Alps. The road now became even more narrow and started to twist, turn and undulate with the ever increasing ruggedness of the landscape. The lush rain forest started to get broken up with jagged rock cliffs, and it was long before we found our selves the center of a rock sandwich. Towering sheer rock walls of the 2000-meter tall Southern Alps looked down on us from both sides as we moved into a rocky valley, a spectacle just as impressive as any Euro Alp scene. And the road was quickly living up to its billing as well.

The BaseJumper 2 charged headlong into the narrowing chasm, our winding path lead steep up the side of the mountain, void of any zigzagging hairpin complexes, just a joyous winding charge into what seemed a dead end. Popping out above the tree line, we entered a rocky wasteland that stopped us dead in our tracks, surrounded on all three sides by massive sheer rock cliffs. Ahead was the infamous Homer tunnel and a red light, warning of oncoming traffic.

Construction of the tunnel began in 1935 as a work program to stimulate the economy of the region back during the depression. However, with workers only using picks and wheel barrows, it didn't open until 1954. Up until its paving just a couple years ago it held the worlds record for the longest unpaved tunnel at 1.2 km.

Sure enough, a train of tourist busses came rushing out of the tunnel just before the green light invited us to enter. After a dark decline through the mountain, we pop out into yet another rock incased valley, this one with the more typical views we were accustomed to, that of a strip of tarmac spaghetti strung down the mountain side. Steep downhills proved the weakness of the BaseJumper, its heavy weight overheating the brakes. Regardless, of the slow decent, our campervans size proving exceptional at dodging the never ending parade of oncoming buses. Soon, we left the rocky confines and dove headlong into the thick Mountain Beeches, and our vision was obstructed once again.

It was only 16 km later that we popped out of the thick bush, and out onto the fiord that is the Milford Sound. Along with an airstrip and harbour, there is only a few lodges and a couple cafes that make up the town. While a couple of nature walks and a spectacular view of several peaks plummeting down into the ocean make for a great place to visit, it was knowing that we had to drive that great road back through the mountains that made Milford Sound a highlight in New Zealand.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Review: Return of the Chief

There are big movements afoot at Chrysler these days. The company that filed for bankruptcy protection just last year, held a sense of uncertainty and gloom over the pentastar brands. However, they are about to break that trend with a plethora of exciting new vehicles.

The first vehicle to receive the increased attention is the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee. Billed as a luxury off-roader, the Cherokee is another SUV that tries to mix top levels of luxury into a vehicle capable of getting itself dirty where ever the driver may care to take it. Many have failed in this attempt, and indeed, the last generation Grand Cherokee lacked a quality interior, while the drive was still very much soft-road oriented to to do battle with other high-end SUV's.

That changes for the 2011 model year, however. The new Grand Cherokee gets a bold new look, vastly improved interior design, and with help from an old elegance with Daimler, it now has a body stiff enough to take on even the most expensive in the business.

While exterior received a fair amount of attention, it was not the weak point of the outgoing model. The interior of the 2010 lacked any real luxury appointments and was of a design that seamed to age in front of your eye's. Jeep put a full court press into updating the interior to a higher standard. A sharp new design is complemented by premium soft-touch materials. However, it's the little details that make the Cherokee's interior truly great. Door storage bins are tapered, chrome vent handles have a soft rubber grip, while aluminum scuff slats line the rear cargo area add an extra touch of class. Drivers are also offered several feature upgrades including real wood and leather, heated steering wheel, heated and ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, four-way power lumbar controls, rain-sensitive wipers, Keyless Enter-N-Go, ParkView rear back-up camera and power tilt/telescoping steering column with memory. It's a coming together of hundreds of little insignificant details that make the interior of the Grand Cherokee a such a great place to spend your time.

Many will fondly remember the diesel version of the Cherokee that proved to be quite popular that offered increased off-road, towing and fuel efficiency abilities over the gasoline counterparts. As of yet there is no diesel version coming to Canada, however,  Jeep are quick to point out that the all-new flexible-fuel, 3.6L Pentastar V-6  gets better fuel efficiency than the outgoing diesel. The Pentastar engine features an 11 percent improvement in fuel economy, delivering up to 10.2 L/100km, Variable-valve Timing, 290 hp and 260 lb.-ft. Of course those that want a little more rumble under the right foot can opt for the 5.7L HEMI V-8 in the top three trim levels.

Moving our way down the driveline, Jeep has offered up three different 4x4 options to choose from. The Quadra-Trac I, Quadra-Trac II and the Quadra-Drive II. Quadra-Trac I is a full-time AWD single speed transfer case with a 50/50 torque split offered on the base V-6. Quadra-Trac II is an electronically controlled two-speed unit that is available with a 2.72 low range ratio and Selec-Terrain, which allows the driver to choose from five different surface conditions. Auto is designated for everyday driving. Snow, is tuned to minimize oversteer and maximizes traction. Sport reduces traction control and gives a RWD feel. Sand/Mud maximizes traction and allows for additional wheel slip. Finally Rock is available in 4-Low and activates hill descent.

Along with the drivetrain layouts, Jeep is now offering Quadra-Lift, which implements air springs in place of the regular coil springs found on the base V-6. Controlled with the Selec-Terrain or manually, Quadra-Lift allows the Cherokee to be lowered nearly 4 cm for entry and exit, will lower 1.3 cm for performance driving or can raise the Cherokee 3.3 cm in off-road I, or 6.6 cm in off-road II. In off-road II, the Cherokee reaches a top ground clearance of 21.8 cm, for off-road duties.

So now that we have the technicals out of the way, lets get into the drive. I chose the base Laredo as my first vehicle as this comes standard with the all-new Pentastar V-6. Smooth is the optimum word here, as both the engine and the ride were revelation of quality. The V-6 pulled strong throughout the power-band and really was as efficient as Jeep promised. Having to settle for the base engine never seemed so good, in fact I actually preferred it over the rather brutish and guzzling HEMI counterpart. My only complaint was with the aging 5-speed automatic transmission, which lost a lot of rpm on upshifts and struggled to find the right gear going up hills. This should be rectified with Chrysler just signing a deal to build the ZF 8-speed automatic, that will likely make its way into the Cherokee in a few years time.

However, one of the most enduring factors that was left with me in driving the Cherokee was the increase in quality handling. The base Cherokee drove as smooth as a Lexus, and could likely give a BMW a run in the handling department. The strength of the new chassis is blatant, and really takes this vehicle into another level. The base V-6 was a joy to drive in the twisties, however, I found that the big V-8 with the Quadra-Lift suspension was much softer and moved around more than I would have liked. Were the base Cherokee made huge new strides in on-road abilities, the Quadra-Lift equipped V-8 reminded me of the older, softer Cherokee, one more suitable for those who intend to use it off-road

It is a Jeep after all, and Jeeps go anywhere. Don't let the flashy new disguise fool you, as this is one of the most capable luxury off-roaders going and is Trail Rated. Set loose in the Hollister Hills Recreational Area, we dragged the Cherokee up some impressive washouts and down steep sandy drops. Despite being equipped with all-season tires, the Cherokee upheld the brands recognitions for off-road excellence. For the four-wheeling gear-heads out there frothing at the mouth to know what type of numbers equate to in the off-road department, ground clearance is listed at 218 mm, with at 26.3-degree approach 26.5 departure angles and and a break-over of 18.8-degree with standard suspension. Opt for the air springs and those numbers change to 270 mm, 34.3-degrees, 29.3-degrees and 23.1-degrees.

The 2011 Grand Cherokee is currently being shipped to dealerships and will be available in four different trim levels. The base Laredo E which only comes with the Pentastar V-6 and starts at $37,995. The Laredo X upgrades interior features and offers the HEMI and Off-Road Group II as an option with Selec-Terrain and Quadra-Lift. The Limited comes standard with Quadra-Trac II, Selec-Terrain and HID headlamps and starts at $46,998 while the Overland tops the line with standard GPS, Quadra-Lift and 20-inch wheels. For a vehicle who's next closest rival is represented by the Land Rover Range Rover, the Cherokee represents a massive bang for buck in the luxury 4x4 segment.

MSRP: $37,995 - $49,995
Type: 5-door, 5-seat SUV
Layout: Front engine/4x4
Engine: 3.8L V-6/5.7L V-8
Power: 290/360
Torque: 260/390
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Brakes: Ventilated discs (front and rear)
Fuel economy: 13.0 L/100km City; 8.9 L/100km Hwy/15.7 L/100km City; 10.6 L/100km Hwy

Review: BMW X6 ActiveHybrid

BMW have dived into yet another segment of the automotive field, that of the hybrid. They are not new to green motoring, as massive amounts of capital and R&D have been invested into the companies successful diesel vehicle lines, while all-electric versions of both BMW's and MINI's are currently undergoing consumer testing for future production. However, the power that a hybrid vehicle has in todays eco-fanatical market is a strong one, one they have now joined.

In typical BMW style, the first hybrid to adorn the spinning blue and white prop badge has a heavy dose of performance injected into the recipe. Hybrids are most often known to be overweight and underpowered vehicles, however the ActiveHybrid X6 is packing 480 hp and an earth moving 575 lb-ft of torque. The ActiveHybrid version of the X6 has made no sacrifices in the name of a eco-friendly monicker. It is exactly the same as the regular 4.4L V-8 powered X6, with the addition of a NiMH (nickel-metal hydride) battery pack located under the cargo area floor, some minor tuning and a hybrid electric propulsion system.

Like many hybrids, the X6 has to deal with the added weight of the extra hardware mounted on board. With all the standard luxuries that you expect with any BMW, the X6 balloons to 2,580 kg in weight, something that does present a handicap in several area's. One area is this has effected is the low speed electric only drive. With a good charge on the battery, the X6 can be driven lightly under purely electric power, up to 60 kmh. However, the added weight makes the technique of keeping as much load off the throttle a tough affair, and only the most patient drivers will be able to get the most out of the batteries charge.

The ActiveHybrid is considered a performance hybrid, however, a hybrids purpose is fuel efficiency. As BMW already have an industry leader in the form of the X5d, the X6 weight strikes once again, as I averaged 12.1L/100km in the X6, and 9.2L/100km in the X5d. As the X5 is by no means a slouch in the performance department as well and has the advantage of more cargo space, better visibility and by my accord, better looks than the X6.We may have ourselves an inter-brand rivalry building here.

While driving in the city may be a tricky affair, in terms of getting the most out of the electric drive, driving on the highway is an absolute pleasure. The steering is as direct and communicative as any BMW, and those seats are the best in the business. The acceleration potential of the X6 is something to behold despite the weight. The big raspy V-8 barks, the electrics spark to life and the big X6 effortlessly powers forward down the road to the surprise of unsuspecting  motorists. But there is a draw back with the X6's abilities. Like most luxury vehicles, the drivers sensation of speed is quite dulled, this matched with massive power, and with three different variables to distribute power, I found that the X6 would often gain up to 40 kmh of speed on the freeway without my knowing. The highly recommended heads-up display showing my speed in the windshield tipped me off to the situation just in time to rectify it before coming across a radar wielding officer.

Likewise, I was unhappy with the brake pedal. A brake pedal in hybrid vehicles is only used to tell an onboard computer how hard you want to brake, it then directs that information to both the regenerative braking system on the electric motors and the actual brakes themselves. As such, the brake pedal has zero feel and pourly connects the driver to the vehicle. It felt like there was a balloon stuck underneath the pedal. Also, I'm never a fan of the active brake force adjustments which changes the force of braking used.

There is no doubt about it, the ActiveHybrid X6 is an impressive bit of kit, and a great vehicle that proves hybrids can be exciting vehicles. However, with the quality of the X5d available for over $30,000 less then the ActiveHybrids $99,900 starting price, it may not be the right choice for those looking for the best fuel efficiency. The  ActiveHybrid will be attractive to those with an insatiable appetite for a high performance crossover, with the unique coupe look couple with the stigma of driving a hybrid. 

Mopar Nukizer

Back in April, I was sent on assignment to Moab, Utah, the site of the Easter Jeep Safari. Every year during the Safari, Mopar show up and put taste of their latest creations on display for the media. With such concepts, it usually a case of “you can look, but don't touch.” However, the good folks at Jeep and Mopar gave us a slightly more exciting order of, ”sure you can jump them, just don't roll it.”

With unprecedented amount of freedom to explore what the minds at Jeep and Mopar could create, we were able to put the impressive Nukizer 715 through its paces in the dunes of Moab.

Based on the diesel powered chassis of the J8 Military reconnaissance vehicle,  the Nukizer 715 is an all-purpose truck that pays homage to the the beloved military-only Kaiser M-715 truck. The initial design was put together by the Jeep design department while it was the Mopar team that got their hands dirty converting the vehicle into what you see before you. The front end of the Nukizer could easily be mistaken for replacement panels, however the entire front clip is a custom built carbon fibre work of art, built to perfectly cover the internal structure while keeping true to the original. They did such a good job that the headlights retain their standard mounting bezels. The J8 bumpers were kept along with the Helicopter lift rated tow hooks mounted either side of the Warn 9.5XP low-profile winch.

To keep a unique look, the windshield received a small chop, and Bestop provided a unique soft top which artfully captures the traditional downward slope of the original. Behind the cab the team added the familiar AEV Brute pickup box with the addition of a centrally sunken spare tire mount. The J8’s 116-inch wheelbase had to be stretched eight inches to 124-inches to make the bed fit.

Drivetrain upgrades include beefy Dynatrac Pro-Rock Dana 44 front and Dana 60 rear axles filled with 5:38 gears and ARB Airlocker differentials. Power is distributed by an Atlas II transfer case spinning custom driveshafts from Tom Woods. To put the power to the ground, tires are 38-inch BF Goodrich Mud Terrains mounted on Hutchinson beadlock wheels. The powerplant remains a J8-specific 2.8-liter turbo diesel I-4 that has been treated to a re-programmed computer for more boost. Fuel is supplied from a custom Gen-Right tank made specifically for this vehicle and mounts to the rear cross member.

To finish it off Mopar added rock rails and off-road bumpers, Warn air compressor, Terraflex dual-rate front sway bar and a Garmin GPS Map 640 navigation unit. Then there was the popular grey colour that was matched from the colour of a garbage can. Simple, yet cool.

Driving this beast was an impressive experience to say the least. I have been dreamed of a diesel powered Wrangler for some time, and the J8 performed just as I expected. The 4-cylinder turbo diesel works magnificently to power the Nukizer through the deep sand, and was even grabbing some air along side its counterpart, the Ram Runner. The trucks extra wheelbase also provided a sure stance in the sand, even when sliding around dunes at speed. The Nukizer was a masterful concept design built on the best Jeep chassis I've had the please to drive in anger. Despite the huge fan fare the truck has garnered since it's unveiling, it still remains only a concept, although, I'm not giving up on the possibility of diesel powered Wrangler making in to our shores.

Engine: 2.8-liter turbo diesel I-4
Transmission:  four-speed automatic
Overall height:  75.2 inches
Overall width:  78.6 inches
Wheelbase:  124 inches
Weight:  4,500 pounds
Tires:  38 x 14.50-R17 BF Goodrich KM2

Mercury End Game

We here in Canada have not seen a new Mercury sold here in three years. The brand itself packed up and left us back in 1999, leaving only a few models to be sold at Ford dealerships. However, down in Dearborn, parent company Ford have extinguished the long flickering flame that is Mercury for good. It comes as no surprise that Ford chose to end the 70-year old company, as Mercury was only a shell of its former self.

In a day in age when corporate profits are king, Mercury was one of several victims of modern cost cutting tactics – badge engineering. This is the laziest of cost-saving tactics used to build a larger range of vehicles. The act of taking a cheaply built car, adding nice headlights, grille, and a bit of fake brushed aluminum trim, then charging a premium for it, has been Mercury's business model since 2002. Back then, the little FWD Cougar was the only model unique to Mercury. Since that time, every Mercury has been a glitzed up Ford, with very little in the way of distinction. As of late, Ford have been upping their game, offering vehicles with trim levels on par with Mercury, for a more competitive price.

This was not what Edsel Ford, son of Henry Ford, had in mind when he started Mercury back in 1939.

Back in the 30's, Edsel and the old man didn't see eye to eye on several aspects of the car building industry. Henry cared little about the aesthetics of his automobiles, only that they were built in great numbers. Edsel, however, saw the worth of a beautifully designed car, and developed a styling studio to create cars that were pleasing to the eye. In 1939, he founded the Mercury Division that would emphasize European design elements and luxury comforts.

The first car offered was the 8, a car that stood apart from its Ford brothers. With a 95 hp V-8 (10 hp more then the standard Ford V-8) and a sleek new look, Mercury sold nearly 66,000 units in that first year, selling for $916. After the war, the 8 returned with a fresh new look that distanced itself even further from the parent company. 1949 was a particularly good year as Mercury broke all-time sales records with the 8. It was also this year that a young Sam Barris built the first chopped and stretched lead sled. From this point on, the 49 Merc, as it was affectionately called, would go on to become one of the most popular vehicles for hot rodding.

But its was in 1945 that Edsel succumbed to cancer. Mercury's founder was no longer at the helm, and the company’s direction started to stray. It wasn't long before badge engineering found its way to Mercury. The M-100 was a pickup truck produced just for the Canadian market, which started production in 1946. Like Mercury's of today, the M-100 was little more than an F-100, identical in every way except for the use of a Mercury-specific grille, trim and nameplates.

However, there were many great cars that came from the brand in the years to come, even if they all suffered from an identity crisis. The Comet started it's life as a compact in 1960, turning into a mid-size sedan in the early 70's before going back to a compact when the car was discontinued in 1977. Likewise the Cougar had a similar misdirection, as it started it's life as a plush pony car in 1967, based on the Mustang, then later became a large tourer in 74 based on the Ford Elite and Torino. In 1980, the Cougar became much more sedated, in the body of the Ford Zephyr before taking on it's popular form of the 1983 Thunderbird. Then in 2000, Mercury saw the Cougar as a sports compact, where it was the last of the Mercury branded cars to have it's own platform, and finally it's own identity, if somewhat misinterpreted along the way.

The first generation Capri, a European Ford Capri built in Germany, would become the second highest sold import in North America, bested only by the Beetle. It's European design made the little sports coupe stand out from the domestic crowd during its reign from 1970 to 1977. However, in '79, the Capri also fell to badge engineering, as it used a thinly disguised Ford Mustang platform until it was finally killed off in 1986.

The Marauder nameplate began to surface in Mercury vehicles in 1963, being V-8 powered, fastback versions of the Monterey, Montclair and Park Lanes. The Marauder name would come back in '69, as it's own designated model, a large cruiser that was the epitome of that age. The base Marauder had a 390 cu-in engine, while the Marauder X-100 normally came with a larger 360 hp 429 cu-in engine. Then in 2003, the Marauder surfaced once again, providing power hungry enthusiasts with a mean example of the Grand Marquis. With a 4.6L 302 hp V8 making use of several parts from the Mach 1 Mustang. It also made use of several Police Interceptor parts, in particular the 3.55 limited slip rear end.

The last twelve months have been particularly hard on the American automakers, with four different brands getting the axe. And while the execution of Mercury was a foregone conclusion, it is a brand that will leave us with a several endurable models that will hold a special place in automotive history.

A Sunny Sunday Drive in the Sunny

I was told to expect deep fall weather in late April on the north island of the Kiwi bird. However, all week its been near 30-degrees during the day, and I haven't seen a cloud since landing at Auckland International. I should have known since my new temporary home, Havelock North in Hawks Bay, is New Zealand's wine country. “Everything under the sun,” is the local visitors guide title. To a self-confessed hot weather grouch, I was here to prolong the dismally warm Canadian winter.

For three weeks, the Tauroa Farm would be my home, working as a farm hand few hours a each day in return for a bed to sleep and three meals to keep me going. Sunday was my day off, and as per the early waking hours on the workday, I was up at the break of dawn. A cold fog filled the valleys of North Havelock that morning, a perfect time to get out do some exploring, while the weather was cold. Jumping in my ten year-old rental car, a Nissan Sunny with wonky steering, bald tires, a broken front sway-bar and other curious noises of concern, I decided to explore the local Pacific beaches.

While the beaches were my destination, it would be the roads that turned out to be my entertainment for the day. The beautiful thing about New Zealand is the lack of freeways. Instead you have country lanes that been designated highways and are given a 100 kmh speed limit, everywhere. So no mater how winding or narrow the road gets, its still 100 kmh, with a couple lower speed recommendations for the tighter corners. This allows one to explore the limits of their car on a scenic country road.

Leaving Havelock North, I turn onto Waimarama road, heading south to my first destination, Ocean Beach. The tree-lined road gently winds through beautiful vineyard lands. With the steep grass and rock cliffs of the Craggy Mountain range towering over my right hand side, and fields of grape vines on my left, its a serene start to my day as the landscape slowly exposes itself to me through the light fog. Crossing over the Tuki Tuki River, I know have another mountain range standing between me and the sands of Ocean Beach.

The serenity of the vineyards fell as I began to climb out of the valleys fog and into the mountain pass. The road begins to undulate, and hug the increasingly rugged terrain, throwing the car from one blind corner, to another. Whatever mornings sleep that sill lingered in my eyes was quickly washed away with the red mist setting in. The road entices you to attack it, and attack it I did. Only a few short kilometers long, the drive to the cliffs above Ocean Beach, and the Pacific Ocean was short but sweet. My reward was a tranquil, breezy cliff over looking the long sand beach of the Ocean Beach village, followed by the expanse of a turquoise shaded Pacific. It was a view I could have taken in all day, however the draw on unexplored territory, and great roads to travel, pulled me away.

Making my way back, my excitement grew, as I now know the road, and began to lean the sagging and worn Sunny. By now the sun was intense in the sky, but with the window rolled down allowing in a cool ocean breeze, it was turning out to be a perfect sunny Sunday drive in my little Sunny.

Back to the base of the mountain range, this time a turn left, and head further south; destination, Waimarama beach. The Ocean beech road while a delight to drive, was still restrained with the constant metal-on-metal complaining coming from the front end of the Sunny. The road to Waimarama however, would see no such mercy on my part.

Long country straights handled easily at the posted 100 kmh limit, launch into a deadly series of hairpins climbing up and over the range once again, massive drop-offs lurking at the edge of the tarmac. The more aggressive nature of this pass had me pushing the poor tired little Sunny to its limits in the name of staying near the posted speed. Soon the front tires began to scream in pain as they struggled to grip the road surface, the car wallowing around madly with no sense of control underneath it. The wondrously entertaining road crested the hills, and the great expanse of blue could be seen once again. Tumbling down a series of tight hairpins towards the sea, tires lifted in the air as the chassis struggles to survive the onslaught of cambered corners, the chaos finally comes to an end in the sleepy town of Waimarama. The poor Sunny’s coolant, brakes and tires can now cool themselves in the ocean breeze as I drive the car out onto the sandy beech. As the car ticks and cracks away, I too can cool down on this breezy sunny beech, next to tractors laying in wait for incoming boaters, content that I have made the most of my day off with the little Sunny.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Comparison: Seriously Fast Utes

Two years ago when the all-new M3 was unleashed into the press fleet, I naturally planned a road trip into the mountains to enjoy it's near racecar-like abilities. The M3 marries seriously stiff handling and a 418 horsepower, high revving V-8, sending power to very wide tires designed for the warmth of summer. Being May, the threat of snow while rocketing over two high altitude summits should have been minimal. You can imagine my horror to see snow falling ahead, even beginning to accumulate on the road surface. Driving in snow is nothing new to me, but in a car with such a volatile mixture of inadequate rubber and overly aggressive horsepower in a very expensive package that I did not own, definitely got the adrenaline pumping.

With BMW's latest M-badged vehicle hitting the streets, many journalists have seemed a bit confused by the Bavarian carmakers thinking. The X6 is a strange enough vehicle on it's own, but to produce an M version has baffled many as to the target market for such a vehicle. However, surviving my snowy encounter at the wheel of an M-powered machine, the X6 M makes perfect sense to me. Its an AWD SUV that portrays the most extreme of BMW's performance intentions, so you can still enjoy the performance of an M-badged BMW while heading to the ski resort in the dead of winter.

It was this same line of thinking that saw the creation of another similarly controversial vehicle – the Porsche Cayenne. Porsche were tired of seeing 911 owners jumping into Land Rovers as soon as weather went south, and so created a vehicle to fill a growing void. While the Cayenne Turbo S is the flagship of a large line of SUV's leading the way in terms of out right power and price, the GTS is the Cayenne built for the driver. If a 911 Turbo owner bought a Cayenne, it would be the Turbo S. Then the GT3 owner will buy a GTS. The GTS is here because a true driver cares little about quoting horsepower and 0-60 numbers to fellow poser's, a true driver drives for the pleasure of doing so. A true driver enjoys a vehicle that communicates well with the driver, and is engineered to give that “at one” feeling with them.

Both these vehicles are high performance special editions of standard vehicles, but the characteristics that they provide to the driving enthusiast means this comparison would be disgraceful without the inclusion of another vehicle that also portrays the same dedication to performance driving. The Infiniti FX50's abilities propels it into contention with its more prestigious and expensive rivals.

Its the performance and feel that set these vehicles apart. So lets start with acceleration.When your goals is to make a 2,400 kg vehicle perform like an exotic sports car, building big power is a must. The X6 M leads this category with a 555 hp twin turbo 4.4L pumping out 150 more hp then the rest. With cross-bank flow situating the turbos between the two head, boost is built quickly and the BMW emits an odd yet harmonic two-toned scream from the four rear pipes. Despite the increased bulk of the X6 M, the power to weight ratio does not lie, soundly beating both the Porsche and Infiniti. The GTS's mill has been messaged with and extra 20 hp over the S, which like 5.0L unit of the FX, has a more linear and predictable power curve than the BMW. However, while the driveability of the normally aspirated engines are preferred, the massive output from the BMW wins this round.

With all that power producing breakneck speeds, a proper drivers vehicle needs to be brought under control quickly with a great amount of stability. All three of our test vehicles came equipped with race inspired braking systems larger than the wheels on many cars. Featuring multi-piston aluminum calipers biting into discs as large as 15 inches on the BMW, these vehicles are no slouch when it comes to stopping power. We did not get solid numbers in term of stopping distance, however we found that the weight of both the BMW and Porsche proved to put these vehicles at a disadvantage to the Infiniti. The X6 M and GTS started to loose feeling under heavy and extended use. For street use all three cars brake magnificently, but the FX seemed just that little bit better.

Acceleration and braking are all important performance factors in sports cars, but its the handling and feel that will determine if a crossover can compete with a sportscar. The Cayenne is supposed to be every bit as dominant on a track as the 911, likewise, the X6 M should live up to the standards held by all M vehicles. Both companies have done a wonderful job making the handling part a reality. The X6 M has extremely firm suspension that goes into racecar mode at the touch of the “M” button. The Porsche is equally potent, but with less flamboyancy, as a softer ride coupled with adjustable ride-height makes carving up a corner a little less demanding. Also, it is the only vehicle that comes with an available manual gearbox, something I require in a true drivers car.

That being said, the FX50 had the best feel of the three, even if you're stuck with an auto. While the BMW and Porsche have exceeding abilities, they still feel like SUV's in the end. The FX50 may look big, but when you get inside, it wraps around you and tells you what the car is doing by feel. When you throw the FX50 into a corner it's light weight, low center of gravity and and car like feel inspires confidence. It just feels at home on a winding mountain pass, as much as any sportscar.

Despite how good all the vehicles are at tearing up the tarmac, a winner still needs to be chosen. If money wasn't an option, I would pick the Cayenne GTS as I think it is the most beautiful of the bunch and offers me a manual gearbox. If I was going to be spending all my time at the track, I'd have the X6 M. It's technology and it's tenacity speed inspires aggressive driving; it truly is the racecar of the bunch. However for me, I'll be enjoying rough surfaced roads winding up and over mountains. The FX50 finds that sweet spot between road vehicle and high-performance handler, without sacrificing to much to make up for the size of the vehicle, and all at the best price. While the FX50 looks like its taken a few smacks from the ugly stick, its “car-like” feel, predictable “toss around” nature and good communication with the driver makes it my favourite.  

Road Trip: Grimsel Pass

About The Route:

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

Places to Stop: Any number of impressively tall dams, several pullouts along the route offer amazing vista's. The crest of Grimsel offers hotels, restaurants, souvenir kiosks, the usual mountain top lakes as well as a truly magnificent view.

Total Distance: 32 km

Altitude: 2,165 meters

Starting Point: Coordinates 46°42′19″N – 8°13′36″E. We began in the town of Innertkirchen, Switzerland. Heading south on Highway-6, the road steadily climbs to the crest, than falls into the Rhone Glacier Valley and the village of Gletsch, Coordinates 46°33′43″N – 8°21′41″E.

Road Type: The Grimsel has good smooth tarmac and is relatively wide for a European pass. .

Warnings: Road is full of cyclists, bikers, and several travelers, but more importantly, tons of tour busses, be ready to back out of the way.


The Grimsel Pass was not scheduled on my list of great roads to travel upon arriving in Europe. Before my trip I had chatted with Jochen Frey, the Communications Director at BMW Canada about his suggestions for ideal routes through the Alps. As a native German with much experience traveling the Alps, his suggestion was to tackle the Furka pass in Switzerland, a majestic ladder of roadway that literally climbs a rock cliff, which I will go into more detail in the next issue.

However, to get to the Furka pass, we stumbled upon a pass with even more magnificent features than we would soon experience on the Furka. After a relaxing night with friends near the village of Gsteig, Switzerland, sampling Swiss cuisine, and getting a good nights rest high in the quiet Alps, we would make our push for Grimsel. Making our way to Innertkirchen, we began our trek up Highway-6 heading south into the Alps in our BMW Z4 sDrive35i. Like so many Alpine passes before, the start of the climb is a scenic tour through the wooded low lands, an almost relaxing prelude to the challenges to come.

Even with our early morning start into the Grimsel, it was clear to see we would not have this road all to ourselves, like the freedom we experienced on the Grand-Saint-Bernard. With a train of motorcyclists screaming by us while we took in views from a pullout, there was a scense we would meet many others on the pass with the same ambitions as we – to experience the thrill of driving a great Alpine pass. While many great passes here in Europe have motorway tunnels bored through the mountains for travelers that need an A to B short route, making the old overland routes idealistic for those who want to challenge their driving skill. The Grimsel however, does not have a tunnel-bypass and so traffic would play a major part.

After meandering through the woods we popped out of the tree line to the sight of a stone and cement wall that seemed to reach high into the heavens. We had arrived at the end of the valley which was walled on all three sides, stone cliffs on either side, and the immense Rätrichsboden-Dam, a 100 m high concrete structure that is one of several hydro-electric dams in the area. It was here that the twists and turns of the high alpine came into play, and the Z4's engine began to shout it's fury.

After a series of hairpins climbing up the left side of the valley wall the road settles down following along the manmade lake side. The scene was truly impressive, and I had to make use of a pull out just after the first dam, climbing the hillside to get photos of the milky green waters. But it was here, high up on the hill side where mechanical music stole my

 attention from natural beauty. The ever so unique sounds of high-revving V-8's, V-10's and Flat-6's began to interrupt the silence of the alpine valley. As these sounds became louder and louder, the source of all the noise revealed itself as a Ferrari F-430 Scuderia came charging from behind the hill, with a Lamborghini Gallardo in quick pursuit. The exotics rocketed down the road beneath me, followed by a succession of yet another F-430, a 911 GT3 RS, a 911 Turbo, a Maserati Coupe and finally another F-430 Scuderia. All cars flew past with their exotic engines screaming; I could not scramble down the hill fast enough to get to the Z4, the thrill of driving now firmly engrained in my mind.

With both turbo's lit, we charged into the mountains from which the exotics had just came. A quick rip along the lake side, and we had come upon yet another dam, and a hairpin riddled cliff to climb. With my adrenaline flowing and the red mist setting in, the intensity of more natural

 scenery calmed me down to the point where I had to stop again. A good thing, because while the road is a magnificent stretch of road to drive, the scenery is just as seductive, and to rifle through the whole thing without stopping would almost be a crime. Rocky Alpine peaks top majestic manmade lakes being held back by marvels of engineering. Here there is no such thing as a bad picture and hiking trails around the region must be taken advantage of.

Soon after the second set of dams we come to the peak, 27 km into the 32 km route. Here you will find the usual hospices, inns, tourist kiosks, high alpine lake and some great hiking. Its a great place to stop and have some lunch and explore the area, but what stops you in your tracks is the view only a few short meters past the peak.

At an altitude of 2,160 meters, the view south is one that will be burned into my mind for many years to come. At the top of the col, you can gaze down at a 45-degree angle at the routes end point, the village of Gletsch, Switzerland. Between the lookout and the village, the route zigzags itself down the steep incline, seemingly folding over itself in several locations. Following the route by eye, I could follow it down into Gletsch, then back up an equally steep south valley wall and on to the Furka pass, well in view from the peak of the Grimsel. The wall of rock the Furka climbs looks almost mythic from this vantage point, a road that almost looked frightening to tackle. From the col of the Grimsel, my driving ambitions faded and all I could do was take in the view. The Grimsel proved to be a great surprise, and unexpectedly rewarding drive to get to yet another challenging route.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Feature - Beauty Through Technology

The art of designing cars has changed significantly in the last fifty years. Designing a car used to be a relatively simple process. Have a designer sketch some sexy lines, then have an engineer take those drawings and turn them into reality. Somewhere along the line the engineers got tired of pleasing the designers, and the tables have now turned.

Today, cars have to be aerodynamic. The buying customer demands that the vehicle they buy must be as fuel efficient as possible, and one of the greatest attributing factors to a cars efficiency is its aerodynamics. So, when a car maker wants to build a new car, they call on the designer to lay down some beautiful lines, then send those lines off to the engineer to build a prototype. That prototype then goes into a wind-tunnel and the engineer effectively redesigns the car to be as aero-efficient while trying to retain the designers ideals.

This is a major factor why cars look they way they do today, and why many would argue that this modern form of automotive design yields less focus on a cars soul and character in the name of efficiency. Cars today just don't seem as alive as those built only a few short decades earlier. It wasn't so long ago that Ferrari were boasting of their new F-60 Enzo, being almost completely designed in the wind-tunnel.

So, when did this change in vehicular design take place, and can cars still be built with class, character and beauty using these methods? The answer may surprise you.

The Jaguar E-Type is widely proclaimed as “The most beautiful car in the world.” It was so beautiful that Enzo Ferrari himself mumbled the words “It's the most beautiful car ever made,” when looking the car over during it's release to the public. It's lines were so seductive that In 1996, the Museum of Modern Art in New York focused an entire show on the car called “Refining the Sports Car: Jaguar’s E-Type.” Safe to say, anyone who could pen a car so beautiful to be honored in such a way must be a gifted designer, just don't tell Malcolm Sayer that.

The late Mr. Sayer was the man responsible for the E-Types hansom good looks. However, he hated being called a designer, and thought of himself as an aerodynamicist. Fitting enough, Sayer was the son of an Art and Math teacher, and would go on to work for the Bristol Aeroplane Company during the Second World War. In 1951, Sayer went to work for Jaguar. Sayer had learned a great deal about aerodynamics while in service at Bristol, a science he believed would be of utmost importance to the automotive industry, and implemented this science with great success.

Sayers first project was the C-Type racing car. Jaguar founder, Sir William Lyons, believed heavily in the benefits of racing in front of an international audience. Like so many on his theories, he was correct, with Jaguar selling much more vehicles during successful years in motorsport. These were the glory years for GT racing, and Jaguar were one of the top contenders at the Le Mans 24h race. Sayer immediately implemented the knowledge he had learned working for Bristol into designing the C-Type racer. Sayer created the C-Type by basing his designs on mathematical principles rather than sleek good looks. The result was a Le Mans win that year and another in 1953.

Sayer then started work on the iconic D-Type racer, an dominantly iconic Le Mans winner that was not only ahead of its time in terms of technology, but decades ahead. For the incredible speeds the car had to endure in the race, Sayer made use of both a wind-tunnel and smoke testing to sculpt the D-Types magnificent lines. However, Jaguars glory racing years would come to an end after the tragic crash of the 1955 Le Mans race coupled with Lyons own son being killed in a car crash on his way to that race.

Jaguar were now distancing themselves from racing, however, the brand still had a performance quality to uphold. The XK-150 needed replacing, and Lyons wanted to use the same techniques that made the company a racing force, to build the most beautiful and capable performance cars of that time. He wanted a car capable of 150 mph, in a time where most cars were only capable of 70 mph. Sayers proven designs would be required once again, to build a sleek, low slung body that could cut through the air.

He would once again use his form following function techniques to create a D-Type for the common man. Sayer reached deep into his bag of aerodynamic tricks when conceiving the E-Type. He plotted ten points on the front section of the car to create a vertical and horizontal matrix to which he could manipulate mathematically to shape the body for optimal wind resistance. It was a free hand technique for what Autocad software does for engineers today. After all the mathematical equations were finalized and a working prototype built, and Sayer would tape hundreds of little strands of wool all over the body. He then had one of the engineers drive at speed on a runway while he took thousands of photographs of the reaction the wools actions had within the airflow from the back of a van. Hours of tedious analysis of the airflow characteristics, as interpreted by the flapping wool, showed aerodynamic deficiencies that Sayer would then correct.

His attention to aerodynamics was insatiable, and the resulting vehicle inspired Lyons to proclaim, “This car is the closest we come to making something that feels alive.” For two-thousand pounds sterling, or just over five thousand dollars, a common man could drive away from a Jaguar dealership with a car capable of nearly 150 mph, carries its lineage from the most advanced racers of that time yet posses a jaw dropping beauty that is loved by millions. In 1961, art and science collided to procreate the turning point in automotive design. Sayers was the man who proved that cars designed through science rather than just art can still be wonderful contributions to fashion and beauty, and the car that proved it was his Jaguar E-Type.

Feature - Sainz Conquers Dakar

It may be called Dakar, but the event is back in Chile and Argentina, with Buenos Aires providing both the start and finish lines. 2009 was not kind to car manufacturers as the global recession saw many factory racing teams fold to financial pressures. The biggest casualty was the dominating Mitsubishi team that had won the prestigious event twelve times it's 31-year history. There was also talk that the Volkswagen team might not made it back as well, but the lure of the desert was too great and Sainz is back in his diesel powered Race Touareg looking for revenge. Sainz is backed up with last years winner, de Villiers, along with American Mark Miller, and Nasser Al-Attiyah of Qatar rounding out the team.

With Mitsubishi out of the picture, VW has turned from up-and-comer to title contender, however they have not left a void in the challengers department. Germany's X-Raid team, composing of ex-Mitsubishi refugees Nani Roma and Stephane Peterhansel piloting the BMW X3's look competitive as well as the American Hummer team. Robby Gordon had a very impressive 3rd place finish in 2009 at the helm of the unconventional (by Dakar standards) Hummer. Of course we cannot forget the other classes doing battle, the bikes, quads and of course the giants of motorsport – the rally trucks.

The 2010 edition started New Years day, to the cheers of 300,000 spectators lining the streets of Buenos Aires to see the 362 competitors leave the starting ramp to start a 16-day, 9,000 km journey through some of the most rugged terrain South America has to offer. Cruising to the first special stage, Argentina's usually hot January weather gave way to some severe storms that made conditions slippery and swelled rivers making fording a challenge. But it was Nani Roma that would tear up the roads in the BMW X3, taking the lead on the first stage. However, Roma would be caught out on the second, sliding the X3 off a muddy corner and rolling into a ravine, loosing 15-min. VW's Al-Attiyah took advantage, winning the stage and taking the overall lead in the rally. In the trucks, Russian Valdamir Chagin was romping through the stages in his Kamaz, while David Casteu was the early bike leader.

The third day traded rain and mud for sun and the familiar arid terrain. That didn't help Nani Roma as he rolled his BMW off a very large cliff for the second time in as many days, this time ending his rally for good. However, his teammate, Stephane Peterhansel took up the slack winning the day and taking the overall lead. Robbie Gordons 2WD Hummer struggled through both the second and third days to loose touch with the leaders by an hour.

The fourth day would see competitors experience the sand dunes for the first time, as the rally exited Argentina and moved into Chile. Peterhansel strengthened his lead in the BMW, while KTM's Cyril Despres to command of the bike class while Argentine Marcos Patronelli took command of the quads on his Yamaha Raptor.

As the rally moved north along the Chilean coast, Volkswagen began to show their dominance. With Peterhansel destroying a driveshaft, Sainz took over the lead with teammates Al-Attiyah and Miller backing him up in second and third. On the return trip south, both the BMW and Hummer crews began to claw back some time in the high altitude dunes, as navigational errors and steep terrain played havoc with the Volkswagens. But the top three Race Touaregs were able to keep their 1-2-3 order going into the rest day.

After a day off, Al-Attiyah decided it was time to put on a charge, throwing caution to the wind, flinging his Race Touareg through the rocky terrain to take a massive chunk of time out of race leader, Sainz. While the leaders battled it out, the rest of the field fell off the road, as stage 10's rocky terrain put several competitors on their roofs. As the race moved back into Argentina, the VW's continue to dominate with BMW nipping their heels, while Despres, Chagin and Patronelli continue to dominate their classes.

As the race pushed its way back through Argentina, on its way to Buenos Aires, the leader boards in all divisions changed little since the rest day, but that doesn't mean there aren't any fights going on. The battle between Sainz and Al-Attiyah for the overall win continued to rage while the BMW's of Peterhansel and Chicherit continue to haul in the Volkswagens. Patronelli held the lead the quad class, despite having to hold off his brother also riding a Yamaha. KTM rider, Cyril Despres continues to hold off a charging field of riders, holding over an hour lead, while Chagin dominates the trucks.

The final stages leading into Buenos Aires proved tense as the ultra-competitive natures of both Sainz and Al-Attiyah made for a gripping battle to the finish line. With over 8,000 km covered, only a few precious minutes separated the two on the final stage. Hard charging, tire punctures, off-course excursions and even the odd smack between the two culminated in a final charge for Buenos Aires. However, the narrow roads of the stage suited Sainz's rally driving style better as he threw the big Touareg around like a little rallycar to win his first ever Dakar and Volkswagens second in a row. Al-Attiyah and Miller round out a VW sweep of the podium, with the BMW's of Peterhansel and Chicherit rounding out the top five. If not for braking that driveshaft earlier in the race, Peterhansel would have topped the podium, proving that the next edition of the Dakar will likely be even more exciting.

In the other classes, Patronelli, Despres and Chagin proved the class of each field, winning top honors for Yamaha, KTM and Kamaz respectfully.  

Review - Chevy Volt

As I scramble around the boat launch in Vanier Park, photographing what is likely the most important vehicle to ever come from the General, a crowd of onlookers gathers around Michael Lelli intent on learning more about the Volt I am photographing. Lelli is the Volt's Project Manager at GM, and is relishing the positive attention he and the technology his team worked so hard to create, are garnering so soon to the cars mid-2011 Canadian release.

It's been a long three years for GM as they have endured through the criticism for canceling the EV1 project, that was popularized by the documentary, “Who Killed the Electric Car?,” then surviving bankruptcy late last year. GM then took quite a bit of criticism when they unveiled the Volt concept car soon after the documentary came out, as they were accused of “greenwashing,” that the Volt was purely a PR exercise, and GM had no real interest in jumping back into the EV game.

Well, it is now 2010, Chevrolet is still alive, and have chosen the Olympics in which to display they're commitment to battery powered motoring. GM calls the Volt an “extended-range electric vehicle” (or E-REV.) This distinguishes the Volts difference from other hybrids, as it operates entirely as an electric car for the first 64 km after a full charge. After the batteries are depleted to 30% the Volts 1.4L European sourced gasoline powered engine then ignites and works as a generator to keep the batteries charged, extending the range to over 500 km.

With Nissan and Mitsubishi jumping out of the gates in the coming EV revolution, skipping the plug-in hybrid phase and opting to launch full electric vehicles, one may ask why GM are choosing not to release their grasp of the internal combustion engine? Lelli says they are not jumping to electric only drive because the Volt is marketed for use in North America, where the average commute is much higher than other markets around the world. The short range of the Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV) means your destinations may also be limited. BEV's work great in an urban environment, but when it comes to long distance travel, a E-REV driver will not have the anxiety of long drives, as the Volt has the capability of any gasoline powered car.

This has been a major focus point with GM in the design of the Volt. They want the transition from ICE to E-REV to be seamless, and this is something that shined through when I tested a preproduction version of the Volt just prior to the Olympic opening ceremonies. Other than the way its powered, the Volt drives just like any other car, if not better due to its electric motors, that produce an extremely quiet and smooth ride.

Like most modern cars, the key fob tells the car when the driver is in, and with the push of the start button, the two display screens, one for HVAC and the other for instrumentation, spark to life. The interior has a very iPodish feel to it with white and black contrasts and will sit four very comfortably with the cargo room, functionality and amenities of a typical compact sedan. The digital screen behind the steering wheel gives the driver the usual vehicular vitals but is also interactive, displaying a eco-driving gauge that shows power use as well as active hints that will pop up and help the driver become a much more efficient energy saver.

Another piece of cool-tech is the new OnStar mobile app which Volt owners can use a smartphone to access their vehicle’s current electric range and fuel efficiency. You will also be able to look up the battery’s charge level, check on what time your Volt will be finished charging, or even change charging priorities remotely with just a couple of taps. This app can also turn your phone into a key by unlocking doors or activating the remote start, once a password is punched in of course.

The cars energy is stored in a 16-kWh, “T”-shaped lithium-ion battery pack situated in what would be the transmission tunnel and under the rear seats. The Volt can be charged via its SAE approved outlet in the drivers front fender, and takes up to 8 hours to fully charge with a standard 120V outlet, or three hours with a 240V outlet and charger. With the cost of electricity in B.C. being ten cents per kWh, the Volt can be fully charged at a cost of about .50-.80 cents a day.

A major concern with building any hybrid vehicle is the sacrifice of performance for fuel efficiency. Dedicated hybrids like the Prius and Insight suffer from poor handling and acceleration due to the added weight of batteries, addition of low-resistant tires and relatively low power outputs. The shape of the Volt has a major factor in the efficiency of the vehicle. Every inch of the bodywork, underbody included has been shaped to optimally direct wind around the car in the most efficient manner, making it the most aerodynamic GM product behind the EV1. And its not to hard on the eye's either. Driving the Volt, there is a sense that this car has a fair amount of weight to it, however, the power of the electric motors more than makes up for the added weight of the batteries. Couple this with good suspension tuning and tires that sacrifice less grip, the Volt really does drive like a regular car.

With a chance for a short drive in one of the developmental test mules I was impressed with the Volts abilities. Having driven other hybrids and even BEV's, the Volt is a little more spirited. With the help of a performance mode, torque is instantaneous and fluid. GM don't have a price figure for us yet, have a goal between $30,000 and $40,000 in the US, meaning a Canadian version could start reaching north of that. Lelli also says that the Volt will not be the only E-REV to come from the company. GM are putting a lot of their cards into this technology as they have invested heavily in terms of cost and resources into the R&D. This means to recoup the costs, several other vehicles will become available in the near future with the same technology.