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Mercedes Goes After Millennials with CLA

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2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA:  Mercedes-Benz has been in a slow launch mode for the new front wheel drive 2014 CLA sedan since the beginning of 2013.  The car has just gone on sale and advertising is blanketing the airwaves.  So, what’s the story?

Target – Millennials – Does it Have Enough Rear Seat Room?  The CLA is Mercedes’ price leader in the USA.  Mercedes proudly touts its $29,990 base price and admits its attempt to intercept drivers under 35 before they buy their first premium brand car from BMW or Audi.  Most CLAs will be priced in the $35,000 range when you get the $2,300 premium package (garage door opener, premium sound w/iPod interface, heated front seats, dual zone climate control) and the $2,370 multimedia package (rear view camera and navigation system).  For that mid-thirties price you get a fully featured front wheel drive 4-cylinder four door sedan and the Mercedes three-pointed star.

2014 Mercedes CLA250 F34


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Lincoln Black Label – Top Level Trim Does Not Make a Flagship

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I have to admit that I’m rooting for Lincoln.  I used to work there and the Lincolns were “my” cars – Lincoln Continental Town Car, Lincoln Continental Town Coupe (yep, there was a Town Coupe in 1981), (eh hem, the Granada/Monarch-based Lincoln Versailles dubbed the “Mini Mark”), the Fox-based Lincoln Continental, and the Lincoln Continental Mark VI Coupe and Mark VI 4-door.


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AutoPacific’s 2013 Ideal Vehicle Award Results Are In – Cars

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Background of AutoPacific’s IVAs:  AutoPacific’s Ideal Vehicle Awards for 2o13 are given to brands and vehicles that best meet the expectations of their buyers.  The person driving the car does not want it to be bigger or more powerful or have better info/entertainment systems.  Based on the results of over 52,000 respondents, the IVAs are owner-based awards that can serve to give car and truck buyers an idea of how well manufacturers have designed vehicles with their customers in mind.

As you read through the brief descriptions of the winners’ results you will notice some similarities where owners of most vehicles want change. Visibility  Among all cars about 29% of owners want better driver’s seat visibility.  Too often visibility is sacrificed for swoopy styling.  Roominess  About 24% of car owners want more passenger roominess than now.  Of course, some people bought a vehicle that may be smaller than they like so they want something bigger, but many are also reacting because passenger roominess has been sacrificed for style. Power vs Fuel Economy  Even when talking about today’s high gas prices, owners want good power and acceleration.  About 26% want more power and acceleration and only 7% of the respondents would sacrifice power and acceleration for better fuel economy.  Ingress/Egress  Going with the basic package challenges like roof height vs styling and rear seat room vs styling there is also ease of getting in and out.  About 26% of all car owners want their vehicles to be easier to get in and out of.  Info/Entertainment Technology  Design of the info/entertainment technology is one of the most hotly contested areas of vehicle design today.  Some manufacturers have a good handle on this, but 25% of car owners want more info/entertainment technology than they have now.  These folks are offset by 13% who want their info/entertainment technology to be simpler and easier to use.

With that preamble in mind, here are the Ideal Vehicle Award winners for cars  for 2013…


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New York Auto Show – A3 and Cherokee Most Important

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The 2013 New York International Auto Show was full of important reveals this year… renewed crossovers –  Toyota Highlander, Acura MDX, an all new Range Rover Sport, the new BMW 335GT, freshened Dodge Durango, the all new Cadillac CTS and many more.  The most important, however, were the Audi A3 and the Jeep Cherokee.  Why?  Both vehicles are very important to their brands and have the potential to generate substantial sales.

Audi Takes the Safe Route with A3: The 2015 Audi A3 really was not at the New York Auto Show.  The A3 will be officially introduced at the Shanghai Auto Show in late April 2013, but there was a reveal for about 120 journalists the evening before the first press day.  It will be launched in the USA in early 2014.

The smaller Audi A3 has anchored the Audi lineup with a five-door hatchback (“Sportback”) that never had much sales potential in the USA.  American buyers continue to perceive liftback cars as cheaper, flimsier and less desirable.  In Europe, the five-door is the preferred bodystyle primarily because European car-owners do not have the American-style family fleets where there is a vehicle for every purpose. For a one vehicle family,  the hatchback can carry out a multitude of duties.

Recognizing that to really succeed in the USA market, the 2014 Audi A3 becomes a much more traditional three-box four-door sedan.   This gives Audi an opportunity to really step up sales in the face of the upcoming front wheel drive Mercedes-Benz CLA and the already-on-the-market BMW 1-Series.  Audi did not stray from its own winning formula.  Audi DNA is present in the exterior styling and the interior with an A8-like sweep at the front of the instrument panel.  Very nicely done, but not one obvious risk.

The A3 comes with four 4-cylinder engine choices – 170HP 1.8L turbo, 2.0L turbo (we’re guessing at about 230HP), 150HP 2.0L turbo diesel and high output 2.0L turbo (we’re guessing at about 275HP).  The high output goes in the S3 model.  The Sportback will return in the 2014 calendar year with e-tron plug-in hybrid technology.

The A3 will not be a Spartan A-Segment car.  Audi is positioning it as a fully-featured Audi – just smaller.  It will offer Audi’s MMI system, 4G LTE connectivity and even Audi’s Bang & Olufsen audio system.

One key takeaway from the A3 reveal is that the car is the same size as 1994 model year A4.  A very successful car with solid sales results, the A4 was key in establishing Audi as a very desirable premium brand in the USA.

Something tells us that the A3 will not be an inexpensive car with its impressive standard equipment load (leather seating, bluetooth, rain sensing wipers and panoramic moon roof standard).  With the slightly larger Mercedes CLA announced at a sub-$30,000 price we are wondering where the new A3 will be positioned?

Jeep Cherokee Returns While the Audi A3 is a low risk opportunity for volume growth, Jeep’s new Cherokee is at the polar opposite on the risk scale.  Jeep describes the Cherokee’s styling as “polarizing” and it certainly is.  Mike Manley, President of Jeep cautioned journalists in a December briefing before the Detroit Auto Show that “you might not understand” the vehicle.  This was somewhat reminiscent of Wayne Cherry’s (head of GM styling in the late ’90s) statement that “you are too old to understand the (Pontiac) Aztek.  In Manley’s defense, he describes the styling direction for the Cherokee as “something that will be fresh in 2019”.  So Jeep has not taken this path lightly.  It is a calculated step.

What is so polarizing about the Cherokee?  First, it takes the name of one of the most successful SUVs ever produced.  The 1980s Cherokee was the first high volume SUV to add a 4-door bodystyle to the lineup and soon proved that 4-doors, not 2-doors, were the way to go.  The Cherokee had the seven vertical slot grill that is part of Jeep’s DNA, but it had rectangular headlamps that, while modern for the time, broke away from the traditional round headlamps Jeep used.

While the new Cherokee is relatively conventional from the A-Pillar rearward, its front end design is the most surprising and, yes, controversial.  Instead of round headlamps, the Cherokee has horizontal units styled into the front fascia and fenders.  Cherokee still has the seven vertical slots in the front fascia – part of Jeep DNA since the beginning – but they now are bent in the center giving the vehicle a more aerodynamic appearance.  The story of the capability of the vehicle is being lost in the commentary about its front end styling.

Under the skin, the Cherokee uses the same Alfa/Fiat platform used by the new Dodge Dart.  It has a 9-speed automatic transmission and three advanced 4×4 systems.  The Trailhawk model is fully “Trail Rated”. Think of Trailhawk as the Cherokee Rubicon.  Powered by a 184HP 2.4L Multi-Air TigerShark 4-cylinder engine, Jeep claims a cruising range of up to 490 miles and highway fuel economy of 31mpg.  The optional 3.2L Pentastar V6 gets 271HP.

Cherokee has a full array of Chrysler’s latest features available from its UConnect information system with an 8.4-inch center screen and programmable instrument cluster, new steering wheel controls, parking assist systems, blind spot monitoring, cross path detection and adaptive cruise control with stop and go capability. These features are becoming the price of entry in mid-size vehicles and even some smaller entries.

When Bob Lutz was a Chrysler he once said (of the early 2000’s Peterbilt style Ram pickup), “I don’t care if people love it or hate it as long as 15% of them love it enough to buy it”.  That may be the case with the new Cherokee.  A Polarizing design will certainly get people talking and writers writing.  So far, it seems that the negatives are outweighing the positives on the Cherokee.  It won’t take long to tell if the vehicle is a sales success.  It begins production in April 2013.


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2014 Lexus IS Ready to Take on the Germans?

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Almost There – IS350 F-Sport Nears 335i Performance Feel The all new 3rd Generation Lexus IS is a near luxury sport sedan to be launched during June 2013 as a 2014 model year entry (the 2013 IS C hardtop convertible based on the 2nd Gen IS continues for another year selling along side the 4-door sedan) .  The major question is whether it is ready to take on the Germans in its class.  To answer that question, Lexus served up three IS350 F-Sports, a BMW 335i and Mercedes C350 and a nice little track outside Austin, Texas – Driveway Austin Motorsports.  You could drive each car for two laps per outing as many times as you wanted or time allowed.  The conclusion is that the BMW retains the Ultimate Driving Machine crown, the IS350 F-Sport is very, very civilized and competitive, and the C350 approaches land barge category.  The 335i is very sporty, very precise and tuned for performance.  The IS achieves its competitive position only when you opt for the IS350 with the F-Sport package giving the car upgraded suspension and steering.  The more mundane IS models – IS250 and IS350 – are softer and more tuned to the casual driver.  But, the F-Sport is a gas to drive. Unfortunately, an Audi A4 was not available for the track exercise.  It would have provided an interesting comparison.

So, with the excitement of the track experience out of the way, we were able to drive the IS on the great Texas Hill Country roads around the area.


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Audi Plans More Conventional Headlights!?

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In the January, 2013 issue of Automobile Magazine, Wolfgang Egger, Design Chief of Audi is quoted when discussing the Crosslane concept shown at the Paris Auto Show in September, “The new headlights are certainly more subdued than the very bright dot-style LEDs we had to work with in the past.  But the era when daytime running lights were shaped like waves, loops of swooshes is definitely over.  Instead, we have developed inoffensive and geometric light graphics consisting of distinct vertical and horizontal elements.  This trademark light pattern will be unique to Audi and we will eventually see it on all models”

Audi A8 Headlight Graphics - Dramatic

Audi A8 Running Lights - Instantly Identifiable

Well… this qualifies for a “What Are They Thinking” category!

New Audi Headlamp Cues Shown on Crosslane Concept

The Crosslane running light graphics are shown in the image above.  As can be seen, this is a much more linear interpretation than the swoopy design Audi is using today.  Is this as distinctive?  Is this as head-turning?  Is this a design that can immediately identified when you glance at the car behind you in the rear view mirror?

I guess time will tell, but it appears that Audi is taking a more conservative and possibly less expensive direction with their signature headlamp theme.


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Audi S8 – $126,000 Hot Rod

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A large sedan with a 4.0L 520-horsepower twin turbocharged V8, the Audi S8 provides a compelling package for a quick blast from Orange County to Laughlin, Nevada swapping Interstates for surface roads and Route 66 – the “Main Street of America”.  Think of this as a familiarization trip to get fully acquainted with the interactive technologies of the S8.  Most of it has to do with the multi-media interface (MMI) with navigation, audio, phone and even seat adjustments shown on the center screen.  Audi’s NAV system includes a Google Earth view that lost its terrain view data over the desert, but that was not Audi’s fault, just that the Google folks have not gotten around to mapping uninhabited terrain much.  BTW, the S8 is rated at 15-mpg in the City and 26-mpg on the highway.  Returning from Laughlin resulted in 24-mpg.  Not bad at 75-mph cruising speeds.

Adaptive Cruise Control with Stop and Go Really Works Spending more time on Interstates on the return, the S8’s adaptive cruise control system really came into its own.  Even in very heavy traffic descending the Cajon Pass in San Bernardino County the cruise maintained speed and distance.  The spacing was a bit long and a few times someone would slip into the space causing the Audi to brake to adjust the distance again.  When traffic slowed to a stop, so did the S8.  This trip made me a believer in these advanced cruise control systems.

Two-Laners a Snap Admittedly, Route 66 is pretty deserted these days, even on a Saturday, but there are usually double yellow lines preventing passing.  When passing is allowed, inevitably there is a car approaching too soon.  Or is it?  A car with 520-horsepower gives you the confidence to punch it and go.  In the auto industry, there is a measurement called TED – Time Exposed to Danger.  This is usually the time to accelerate from 50-mph to 70-mph.  Well in the Audi, TED is very short almost feeling instantaneous from 50-mph to 80-mph.  Going to full throttle in the S8 generates an outstanding grumble from the exhaust.  I bet the cars passed by the S8 at full throttle were impressed when it flashed by.  Yeehaw!

Comfort Seats are the Ticket If you read the VehicleVoice reviews of the S7 written last week, you’ll remember that we were not particularly impressed with the sport seats in the car and noted that comfort seats were available as a $1,950 option.  Well, they are standard in the S8 and come with 22-way adjustment.  With these seats you can back off the bolsters to provide more spacious seating and get a massage at the same time.  When you are adjusting either front seat from the side-of-the-seat controls, a graphic appears on the center display showing you what adjustments you are making.  Nice.

Ride Quality Suffers With Aggressive Tires The S8, being the performance package for the S8, is set up for spirited driving with very aggressive 21-inch 35 aspect ratio Continental summer tires.  Even selecting the “Comfort” (rather than “Auto” or “Dynamic”) setting on the vehicle dynamics system resulted in a busy choppy ride at low speeds.  At higher speeds – lets admit to ten or fifteen mph over the speed limit at times – the car felt much more at home absorbing irregularities with ease.


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Audi S7 Beautiful, but Difficult to Drive Smoothly

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We began this year with a string of new high performance Audi sedans – S6, S7 and S8.  We have not gotten to the S8 yet, but the S6 and S7 are pretty similar cars so lets concentrate on the S7 fastback.  Think of the A7/S7 as Audi’s answer to the Mercedes CLS and the BMW 6-Series Grand Coupe.  The S7 is a four-door coupe with a very fast backlite and large rear hatch.  Opening the rear hatch reveals a huge rear cargo area.  While the S7 has a very sporty profile, its design has sacrificed ingress/egress in the front and especially rear seats.  The style limits rear seat headroom and the legroom in the rear is also down a bit from the three box S6 sedan.

Interior Par for the course, the S7’s sport interior is special with great attention to detail, great fit and finish and a very upscale ambiance.

No Fingerprints, Please Audi ‘s multi media interface (MMI) continues with controls on the center console not a touchscreen.  The Audi MMI is easy to use and somewhat intuitive once you have used it a few times, but it would fail the rental car test (unfamiliar car in a rental car lot at midnight in the driving rain).  Unlike its brethren Volkswagen and Porsche that now use touchscreens, Audi has stayed away from them because fingerprints on the screen are unsightly.

Get the Comfort Seat Package In the S7, the black and lunar silver interior is tasteful, but the seat bolsters are too aggressive for casual driving.  At this price, the seats in the S7 should have power adjustable cushion and back bolsters so you can have either a very supportive seat that you fit snugly in or a wide open seat that lets you move around however you want to.  Sure the “S cars” are sport performance models, but at $94,570 for the S7, there should be loads of comfort as well.  Recognizing this, Audi offers a comfort seat option for $1,950 that provide heating, cooling, massage and memory functions.  Unfortunately, the comfort seats are available only in black Valcona leather not the silver/white leather in the evaluation S7.

Featherlight Toe on the Accelerator But the sport seats weren’t the only thing that presented a problem.  The S-Cars are powered by a 420-horsepower 4.0L V8 with twin turbochargers and cylinder on demand.  Mated to a 7-speed automatic transmission and Audi’s great Quattro all wheel drive system, this car should be a real pleasure to drive.  Lots of horsepower and torque.  Effortless V8 with turbos!  Wow.  But it isn’t a pleasure to drive.  Tip-in the accelerator and there is a hesitation that makes you shy about merging into traffic from a stop unless you stomp on it.  Maybe it’s the performance setting in the MMI?  Comfort?  The same.  Auto?  The same.  Dynamic?  The same… even worse.  Once you get the S7 rolling, it is delightful.  The throaty rumble of the engine is joyous.  But getting up to speed takes a featherlight touch of the toe to do smoothly.

So, the S7 is really for a person who wants upscale coupe styling and a lot of power.  It’s not for a person who needs to provide rear seat space or comfort.  The S7 is a car that turns heads and likes to be driven at speed, but it is a touchy low speed cruiser.


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2013 Lexus LS460 – Welcome Facelift and F SPORT

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The Lexus Flagship – the LS460 4-door sedan – is freshened for the 2013 model year.  This comes after an all new Audi A8 in 2011, a tweaked 2012 BMW 7-Series, and the new Cadillac XTS (which may not be in this class).  A major change for the Mercedes-Benz S-Class is due in early 2013 as a 2014 model year.  The Jaguar XJ that was all new in 2009 as a 2010 model gets a much needed all wheel drive system for 2013.

2013 Lexus LS460 F SPORT


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Audi Freshens 2012 A4 Ideal Vehicle Award Winners and Adds 2013 Allroad

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Audi has launched five models from its 2013 B8 platform – the A4, S4, A5, S5 and Allroad.  The B8 is a mild mid-cycle freshening of Audi’s line of compact sport sedans.  But first to the awards…

Audi A4 Wins AutoPacific 2012 Ideal Vehicle Award: Over one-third of new car and light truck buyers are influenced by awards their vehicle has won.  Owner-based awards are more valuable than most.  For the 2012 model year – the B7 platform – Audi swept AutoPacific’s Ideal Vehicle Awards for the Aspirational Luxury Car Category.  Not only was the A4 the most ideal Aspirational Luxury Car as rated by its owners, the A5 was in second place and the next-step-up A6 was in third place in the category.  These are significant achievements.

In AutoPacific’s IVA research, 25% of A4 owners want more power and acceleration.  About 23% want more passenger room, 21% want easier ingress/ingress and 19% want more daring styling.

A4/S4/A5/S5 Evolve Very Nicely, Thank You: So, the question is whether or not the new 2013 cars have hit their target market as well as their recent predecessors, and do they offset the shortfalls mentioned above?  After a drive of the cars in Colorado during fire season, we can safely say the 2013 versions are equal to or better than the class-winners they replace.

The basic dimensions of the 2013 cars are identical to the 2012 cars.  The styling of the sedans and coupe is very evolutionary with minor styling changes.  Think of the exterior styling change as a moderate “front six inches” with new grille shape, headlamps and front fascia.  The grille has evolved with a more trapezoidal look.   Audi took advantage of this freshening to re-design its LED-accented headlamps and taillamps.  These cues have become a distinguishing Audi design feature. So, Audi did not push the styling envelope with this facelift but remained safe.  (About 80% of A4 owners find the styling of the 2012 model ideal).

The interior of the cars remains an outstanding reason to buy.  Great fit and finish combined with excellent materials selection.   There is a new three-spoke steering wheel, revised instrument cluster and Audi connect with Audi’s controller-based MMI Navigation system is ordered.

Just a Brief Note on Touchscreens and Controllers: The auto industry is all over the place relative to touchscreen navigation systems or controller-based nav-systems.  Audi (MMI), BMW (iDrive), and Mercedes (COMAND) have continued with controller-based systems as have others.  Many mainstream brands continue with touchscreens or have moved to them after wrestling with controller logic.  Oddly, Volkswagen and Porsche – VWAG family members – both use touchscreen systems now.  Volkswagen used a touchscreen and Porsche has moved from a controller-based system to a touchscreen.  Audi engineers say “you will never see a touchscreen in an Audi”.  They don’t like the fingerprints.  So, inside VWAG, the engineers have agreed to disagree.

New Allroad is the Big News: The big news for the B8 launch is the re-launch of the Audi Allroad.  The previous Allroad (1999-2005) was based on the larger Audi A6 and looked more aggressively off-road capable than the 2013 version based on the smaller B8-platform A4.  The Allroad replaces the slow selling Avant wagon in the American lineup with the body of the Avant tweaked to appear off-road capable.  Its ride-height is increased by 1.5-inches.   The expected wheel arch trim is there as are the front- and rear-skid plates.  A roof rack completes the appearance package.

Powertrains Essentially Carryover and Still Outstanding: The B8s are powered by a 211HP 2.0L turbocharged direct-injection 4-cylinder engine.  With Audi’s Quattro all wheel drive system, the 4-cylinder turbo is mated to either a 6-speed manual transmission or 8-speed automatic transmission.  If you select a front wheel drive S4, you get a CVT.  This 4-cylinder turbo engine has always been a delight to drive and is one of the world’s best-regarded engines.

If you want more oomph in the A4 and A5, move up to the V6-powered S4 and S5.  With the S4 and S5 you get a 3.0L supercharged direct-injection V6 engine with 333-horsepower.  Quattro is standard in the S4 and S5.  While the A4 is no slouch on the road or in the mountains, The S-Cars provide effortless performance in any situation.  This engine choice lets you think about a place in traffic you want to be and then without knowing it, you are miraculously there.

So, all in all, the Audi B8 experience is about what you would expect.  Great cars with evolutionary styling, super finesse and outstanding powertrains.


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