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.