Cruising down the scenic roads along the Columbia River near Portland, Oregon can be a real treat, especially while driving a Dodge Challenger Hellcat with its mean-sounding engine roaring through the twists and turns of this pristine wilderness road.
A few months back, Chrysler invited a few journalist to test drive the 2015 Dodge Challenger Hellcat, along with its entire Challenger lineup. The Challenger Hellcat was a blast to drive, and delivers so much power that it is almost scary to drive. And after our not-so-mellow morning cruise along the river, we were invited to test the Hellcat’s limits by driving laps around Portland International Raceway, trying hard to keep the car in a straight line. But the real fun was just driving the Hellcat around town and watching on-lookers gaze at the car with its loud rumble and gentle supercharger whine emitting from the beast of a car that is the Hellcat. And the specs are quite impressive.
Kia introduced the K900 premium luxury car for the 2014 model year. Based on Hyundai/Kia’s rear wheel drive platform shared with the Hyundai Equus and loosely the Hyundai Genesis sedan, Kia’s entry into the luxury market is controversial. Internally and externally there were concerns that the brand was not ready to take the leap into the $60,000 price range. But as is often the case in the life of an import distributor, the parent company demands that you take the “gift” of a vehicle you might not think fits the lineup at the time.
KMA – AutoPacific Neighbors Full disclosure, Kia Motors America headquarters in Irvine are less than a mile from AutoPacific’s headquarters in Tustin, California. Every day our roads are filled with Kia Optima mid-size cars (to our eye, the best looking mid-size car presently on the market), Kia Soul hamster cars and Kia Forte compact cars. Given the population of cars within a mile radius, Kia is the best selling brand on the market. K900s are rarer, but does K900 hurt KMA’s position in the American market? We don’t think so.
Conservative Design Will Not Offend The exterior of the car is conservative and tasteful. There is little flamboyance with the exception of Kia’s outstanding white pearlescent paint (I don’t like white cars, but the white available on the Optima and K900 is a very rich looking color). The K900 is a large car with generous greenhouse that provides excellent visibility except rearward where the headrests get in the way.
Kia K900 Interior Outstanding The K900 interior is a work of art. The seats are nicely styled, supportive and infinitely adjustable with Mercedes-like seat controls on the door trim panels. The instrument panel is electronic wizardry with a very well designed programmable 12.3-inch instrument cluster and 9.2-inch center stack screen with Kia’s UVO eServices telematics system. Radio controls are actually easy to use with KNOBS (!) and source buttons. The rear seat is very spacious and comfortable. In the uplevel VIP executive package (a $6,000 option) designed for Korean CEOs to ride in the rear there are redundant controls in the center arm rest. In the particular example we have been driving for a week, the interior trim is a very light grey or off white which makes it seem open, airy and spacious. The contrasting grey environmental color gives a very upscale ambiance.
Lexus-Like Dynamics Dynamically, the K900 harkens back two generations to the Lexus LS430, before Lexus decided to try a more sporty route. The ride is very isolated, soft and cushion-like. The 5.0L gasoline direct injection V8 is powerful and smooth. Mated to an 8-speed automatic transmission we saw an average fuel economy of about 15mpg. While the fuel economy is not sterling, it is about what you’d expect in a car like this.
So, the Kia K900 is not a German luxury car and is not what the Lexus LS460 has evolved into. The Kia K900 is a very competitive, traditional luxury car that will be comfortable for the long haul and easy to live with.
The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van was the first European-style full size van sold in the United States. Ford has added the European-style Transit van to its huge plant in Kansas City, Missouri. Ram is importing ProMaster vans from Europe. Nissan manufactures its NV vans in Canton, Mississippi and it is somewhere between a traditional American van and a European van. Only General Motors is left with a traditional American van with the Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana. In the overall scheme of things, Ford is the top dog by a wide margin and Mercedes is in fourth or fifth place depending on the month.
Mercedes Sprinter Update for 2015 For 2015, the Mercedes Sprinter is getting a minor update including new front end appearance with more distinctive headlamps and grille. Optional safety features now commonly found in cars are available: blind spot assist, lane keeping assist, collision prevention assist and highbeam assist. On the Sprinter 2500 model, Crosswind Assist is standard. Because big vans present a large flat surface to the wind, they are susceptible to being knocked around in crosswinds. The Crosswind Assist system alleviates Crosswind threats at speeds over 50mph.
Of significance, the Mercedes Sprinter receives a 4×4 model for 2015. The base 4×4 system is prices at $6,500 with an additional $300 for low range capability. The 4×4 will likely be popular in the Snow Belt and Mercedes predicts between 6% and 9% of its mix will be 4×4. Sounds a bit low.
Diesel Engines The base engine in about 50% of Sprinters is a 161HP 2.1L 4-cylinder diesel with 266 lb-ft of torque. The 4-cylinder diesel is mated to a 7-speed automatic transmission. The optional 188HP 3.0L V6 diesel has 325 lb-ft of torque.
Re-Assembly Strategy for US Cargo Vans Mercedes Sprinter cargo vans are “re”-assembled at a small plant in the suburbs of Charleston, South Carolina. The former Western Star/American LaFrance plant is now the sole source for Sprinter cargo vans in the USA. Only about one third of the plant is used at present with plenty of room for expansion.
Now with 3 Roof Heights
Chicken Tax Avoidance Strategy Because of the 25% “chicken tax” (tariff) in place since 1967, truck manufacturers have used various schemes to avoid the crushing price penalty. At one point, Toyota added pickup boxes to its small pickup at the port in Long Beach, California. Ultimately, the major Japanese truck manufacturers added assembly capacity for their trucks in the USA. Toyota manufactured Tacoma pickups at NUMMI (a joint venture with General Motors) in Fremont, California and now manufactures Tundra and Tacoma pickups at a plant in San Antonio, Texas. Nissan has a huge truck plant in Smyrna, Tennessee and another in Canton, Mississippi. Even Honda has truck capacity for its Ridgeline in Ohio.
Mercedes avoids the chicken tax by re-assembling Sprinter vans in the USA. They are first completely manufactured in a plant in Dusseldorf, Germany. They are disassembled so that the powertrain is separate from the body. The bodies are loaded into containers (one or two per container depending on configuration) and shipped to Charleston. The powertrain components are shipped separately in lots of eighteen. Unloaded at the plant in Charleston, the body moves through thirteen six-minute stations. The Charleston plant can re-assemble between 60 and 75 Sprinter cargo vans per day. In 2013, the plant produced over 14,000 units. The top customers for these vehicles are FedEx (who insisted Mercedes add the vehicles for the American market) and Winnebago.
Saving the 25% chicken tax results in a 12% to 13% increase in the cost of the Sprinter in the USA, but the savings are still 12% to 13% lower than if the tariff had been paid.
Future Mercedes Vans in the USA Mercedes is adding more vans to its lineup in the future. The European mid-size Vito van (with the “Metris” name in the USA and Canada) will be added in Fall, 2015 in passenger and cargo versions. Another passenger van – the V-Class – was introduced in Munich in January 2014 and on sale in Europe from Spring 2014. Think of the V-Class as a van equivalent to the Mercedes S-Class sedan. Also in the offing for the USA is the smaller Mercedes Citan van introduced in Europe in 2012. Given the capacity available at the Mercedes van plant outside Charleston, it would not be surprising to see the Metris cargo vans assembled there similar to the Sprinter cargo vans.
One of the benefits of writing about cars is that you get to drive some insane stuff occasionally. The most recent insanity is the 2015 Dodge Charger Hellcat an insanely fast 4-door sedan that Dodge actually displayed with two child seats in the back showing that it can be a responsible family hauler as well as a berserker. And berserker it is.
Powered by a 707-horsepower 6.2L Supercharged HEMI V8, the Hellcat is a range-topping $64,000 handful. Dodge staged the review of the new 2015 Dodge Charger out of Washington DC and offered on-track driving at Summit Point Motorsports Park in West Virginia. On a chilly, drizzly day, taking the Hellcat out on the rural roads around Summit Point allowed only about 20% of what the car is capable of. Punching it on a clear straightaway spooled up torque that pushed the car sideways. Careful, careful, it felt almost as if you were idling and the car wanted to surge ahead. You always knew that there is more there that can be used.707-horsepower
Multiple Keys Can Tone Down Hellcat for Valets Dodge knows that in the wrong hands 707-horsepower can be abused so they have two keys and three horsepower modes. Red key gets you unlimited use of its 707-horsepower. Black key gets you about 500-horsepower – still a lot for your teenage son or the valet. The answer for that is a valet mode accessed through the vehicle system that reduces the power to around 200-horsepower so they can’t get in too much trouble.
Something for Everyone in the Charger Lineup With the 707-horsepower Hellcat out of the way, a serious, serious car, the happiest Charger is the 292-horsepower Pentastar V6 with all wheel drive. This lower level sedan is a delight to drive. Nimble and forgiving in all the ways the Dodge Charger Hellcat is not. Simply, the new Charger lineup seems to have something for everyone from happy and pleasant starting around $28,000 for the SE or SXT models with the Pentastar V6, to a $32,000 370-horsepower 5.7L HEMI V8 in the R/T, to a $40,000 R/T Scat Pack with a 485-horsepower 6.4L HEMI V8, to the monster Hellcat with the 707-horsepower HEMI V8 at a fully loaded price over $60,000.
Monticello Raceway, Monticello, New York
Lexus is pushing forward with the F. This time with the all-new 2015 RC F sports coupe. Outfitted with a 467 horsepower 5.0 liter V8 with a close-ratio eight speed automatic transmission, this coupe delivers on Lexus’ promise to continue the fight in the luxury performance arena.
Showing it’s relationship to the LF-NX Concept shown at the 2013 Frankfurt Auto Show, the RC’s exterior design is aggressive. The rising beltline and stretched head and tail lamps give the vehicle an athletic look. The spindle grille contains the “F” motif repeated in the mesh with cooling ducts moving air to the vehicle’s oil coolers. Of course, the front hood is raised to accommodate the V8 and send the right message to other drivers.
In the past Lexus’ were promoted with the promise of a silent powertrain. Not true today. The RC F has a larger-diameter exhaust system designed to reduce
backpressure and sound powerful, especially under acceleration. But Lexus has taken it beyond the exterior sound. Active Sound Control (ASC), lets the driver control enhanced exhaust, intake and mechanical sounds within the cabin. An electronic control unit mounted beneath the instrument panel (yes, in the cabin) takes input from engine sounds, including varying engine speed, vehicle speed and throttle position and generates powertrain sound within the vehicle. Cheating? You decide. But it’s pretty easy to get used to.
Tuned at both the Fuji Speedway (which is the reason for the F moniker) and the Nürburgring, the RC F is clearly intended to be more than a daily driver. While Lexus may not be the first brand name that comes to mind when thinking of track days, this vehicle is more evidence that the Lexus image is continuing to change. AutoPacific joined media from around the world to test the RC F at Monticello. Aside from one trip mowing the lawn, we can attest to the true performance nature of the RC F.
With the demise of the Ford Crown Vic, Dodge has been winning the police patrol car fleet battle. Sure Ford has its Interceptors and Chevrolet is pushing its Caprice from Australia, but apparently Dodge makes a financially attractive pitch for its Charger Pursuit. We’ve been seeing more and more of them rolling around Southern California as Crown Vics are retired, uh, sent to taxi fleets.
With the update of the 2015 Dodge Charger, the Pursuit has been updated as well. You can tell the 2015 Charger is different because the front end styling is clearly different. Other changes to the exterior styling are more subtle and it is a surprise when Dodge execs contend that every exterior panel is new with the exception of the roof and rear doors. Dodge continues with its distinctive LED racetrack taillamp graphic and adds LED daytime running lights to the front.
The interior has been upgraded with soft-touch materials including a 1-piece instrument panel pad with aggressive graining. Like the civilian Charger, the Pursuit instrument cluster has an added 7-inch driver information display. In the center stack there is a 5-inch screen for Chrysler’s UConnect infotainment system. Unique to the Pursuit is a column mounted shifter, “police-duty” front seats designed to accommodate the belt gear police normally wear and a modified center console.
Police Advisory Board Input Dodge has a 22-member Police Advisory Board and their input was valuable in determining what upgrades the 2015 Dodge Charger Pursuit has over the civilian Charger. With “modern” interfaces, Dodge has enabled re-mapping of the steering wheel buttons to handle aftermarket police equipment. The instrument cluster can be customized 100 ways to optimize its display for police use. The heavy duty anti-lock vented disc brakes have been upgraded and brake cooling ducts added to the lower front fascia. The performance tuned suspension has been upgraded with more durable bushings up front.
Factory upfit plans are offered for law enforcement to customize packages for their organizations. Chrysler’s Mopar accessories group has developed and tested equipment that meets and exceeds the durability cycle and test requirements of the 2015 Dodge Charger Pursuit. There is a Base Police Prep Package and a Wiring Police Prep Package. Both are designed to handle the broad power requirements of communications gear, lighting, sirens, cameras and computers. There is a slide-out trunk tray available and also a trunk fan to keep all the electrical and electronics gear in the trunk cool.
V6 Pentastar A Safe Alternative for Most Pursuit Work There are two engines available: 370HP 5.7L HEMI V8 and 292HP 3.6L Pentastar V6. The Pursuit is standard with rear wheel drive and optional with all wheel drive. While patrol officers probably want the HEMI, the Pentastar V6 is probably sufficient for 90% of police applications. Word on the street is that younger officers don’t know how to handle the more powerful V8 and the V6 provides plenty of power for most applications. Safety first with the V6. Macho cop pursuits with the HEMI.
2015 Ford F-150: The Ford half-ton pickup, the F-150, is the top selling vehicle in the USA – car or truck. For the 2015 model year, Ford launches an all new F-150. And it is literally ALL NEW. In most model changes, there are numerous parts carried over from previous generations. The 2015 Ford F-150 is so completely re-done that there are probably no common part numbers with the 2014 model. The body is all aluminum with the exception of a “quiet steel” dash panel (between the engine compartment and the passenger compartment). You can lift the military grade front fender with one finger. The aluminum panels are not welded as in steel bodied vehicles they are riveted and glued. The result is a stiffer vehicle that feels even more robust than its predecessor. Ford says the use of aluminum has yielded a reduction in weight by up to 700 pounds.
The interior width in the cab is two inches wider than before. The aluminum structure allows the pillars to be smaller while meeting or exceeding all relevant safety standards. With thinner pillars, driver’s visibility is improved. The belt line has been dropped by an inch increasing downward visibility as well.
The 2015 Ford F-150 is available with a Regular Cab (2-door), SuperCab (extended cab with rear access doors) and SuperCrew (4-doors) cab style. There are three box lengths: 5 1/2, 6 1/2 and 8 feet.
Feature Laden: All those gee whiz things we have been seeing on luxury cars recently, you know, lane keeping assist, adaptive cruise control, blind spot information system, active park assist, rear view camera, reverse sensing system, 360-degree cameras, LED accent lights, LED everything lights, information screen in the instrument cluster and MyFord Touch in the center display, are available on the 2015 Ford F-150. The lighting strategy for the truck is probably the best in the industry. When all the boxes are checked, there are LED accents for the headlamps and taillamps that communicate the F-150’s DNA. There are LED headlamps available. There are LED lamps in the bed to improve nighttime visibility. Of course, there are puddle lamps below the outside rear view mirrors, but there are also LED spot lamps on the top corners of the mirrors to allow the area beside the vehicle to be illuminated (now, if these could be used to blast the car beside you, the good ol’ boys in Texas driving with their open bottles could have a hoot).
The Interior: In the lower models of the 2015 Ford F-150 you get what you expect from a base truck. Lots of plastic, cloth seats (comfortable), minimal equipment. There are five basic trim levels: XL, XLT, Lariat, King Ranch, and Platinum. By the time you get up to King Ranch or Platinum you could be riding in a Lincoln.
Wide Powertrain Lineup: While the 2015 Ford F-150 does not offer a diesel, it does have four gasoline engines. The base engine is a 3.5L naturally aspirated V6 with 283-horsepower and 255 lb. ft. of torque. The first step up and expected to be the highest volume powerplant is a 325HP 2.7L EcoBoost V6 with 375 lb. ft. of torque. This is about the power of a small displacement V8 in half the size. There are two top-of-the line engines based on what you want to do with the truck. The 365HP 3.5L EcoBoost V6 has 420 lb. ft of torque. The sole V8 in the line-up is the 385HP 5.0L V8 with 387 lb. ft of torque. The 3.5L EcoBoost has the highest trailer towing rating of 12,200 lbs.
It goes like this… Honda invites you to an event that is held locally to review a vehicle that is not scheduled for a meaningful change for a couple of years. What’s up? Well, enough that Honda can make a pretty big deal out of it. The top selling sport utility vehicle is Honda’s CR-V crossover SUV. The 2015 Honda CR-V looks pretty much like the 2014. Same profile. Same doors. Same window openings. What’s the big deal? The front end looks more butch, more SUV-like. It has really cool running lights below the headlamps. Likewise, the rear end looks stronger. The effect is that the CR-V looks a little bigger even though it isn’t. Ah, the story is pretty much beneath the skin. Honda calls it a MAJOR minor model change. Clever.
Engineering Story – Earth Dreams Powertrain This is an engineering story. The 2015 Honda CR-V gets a new engine – an Earth Dreams direct injection 2.4L 4-cylinder engine with 185-horsepower (same output as 2014). Torque is up by 18 lb-ft or 11% to improve driving feel especially at lower speeds. New transmission – now a CVT to achieve better fuel economy. The new engine and transmission combination substantially improves fuel economy for both 2WD and 4WD versions – highway fuel economy up about 10% better for both leading Honda to claim class leading fuel economy for the 2015 Honda CR-V.
Finesse and Value In addition to better performance, Honda has finessed the vehicle giving it a quieter cabin making it more pleasant to drive. The instrument panel has been upgraded as has the center console. For buyers coming down from larger, more heavily equipped SUVs the 2015 Honda CR-V will not disappoint. Honda has added a slew of standard and available features that will make tech savvy customers feel warm and fuzzy. There are a couple of new features standard like rear air conditioning vents on the rear of the console and a sliding driver’s side sun visor. The big news is in the high volume EX model where $1,400 worth of equipment has been added for only a $200 price increase including: heated front seats, Honda Lane Watch, display audio, smart key start, 10-way power driver’s seat.
New Touring Model Has Available Honda Sensing System At the top of the trim lines is a new Touring model that checks most of the features boxes. This is where the Honda Sensing system comes into play. Honda Sensing is a safety system developed by Honda R&D that combines several technologies to help drivers avoid crashes. This collision avoidance system includes: adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, lane keeping assist, forward collision warning, collision mitigation braking and Honda Lane Watch. John Turley, Honda R&D Americas principal engineer says, “Honda Sensing is a stepping stone to a fully autonomous car. With a couple more big overlays of technology, Honda can have a self driving car by 2020. One of those technologies is longer range radar and inter-car communications that can provide warnings up to 1500 meters around the car up from about 250 today.” The government and car makers are working to develop regulations and standards that will help cars of the future connect with each other seamlessly.
With the mid-term elections coming in November, AutoPacific thought it would be interesting to see which auto brands leaned to the left or right. An internet survey was conducted in July, 2014 to identify the political persuasion of drivers who would consider brands sold in the United States. Each respondent identified whether they were aligned with the following political categories: Communist, Socialist, Democrat, Green, Independent, Libertarian, Republican, Constitution, and Tea Party. These were sorted into Liberal, Independent and Conservative. The Liberal grouping includes Communist, Socialist, Democrat and Green. Independent is Independent. The Conservative grouping includes Libertarian, Republican, Constitution and Tea Party.
Pre-Conceived Notions About Brands and Politics Years ago, AutoPacific asked the political persuasion question in a survey. The responses from many were rude, to say the least. Now with the Internet it seems folks are more willing to share their leanings.
You might expect that there were some notions about the brands in our heads when we started this exercise. Are Volvo and Subaru the ultimate Liberal brands? Are Lincoln and Cadillac the most Conservative? Which brands appeal to people who consider themselves Independent? Are Tesla considerers Green? Go below the fold to find out.
General Motors is turning out some darn good cars these days and the 2014 Chevrolet Impala is a good example. The 2014 Chevrolet Impala is the highest scoring Large Car in AutoPacific’s 2014 Ideal Vehicle Award research. The Impala designers, planners and engineers understood who the target buyer is and developed a vehicle that meets their requirements. The 2014 Impala beat out some very impressive competitors in the Large Car category, such as the Hyundai Azera, Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger, Ford Taurus, Buick LaCrosse, and the Toyota Avalon. George Peterson, President of AutoPacific, says, “When we first saw the new Impala we were impressed with the car’s presence and top-notch execution. Clearly, Impala owners agree and give it AutoPacific’s Ideal Vehicle Award for 2014.”
Of the fifteen categories in the Ideal Vehicle questionnaire, the Chevrolet Impala led in five satisfaction categories and was within three percentage points of another three.
The top five highest ratings by 2014 Impala owners are: same exterior styling, same cargo space, same interior lighting, same passenger room, and the same wheels as now.
No vehicle is perfect. Impala owners would like to see better driver seat visibility, more power and acceleration, and simpler technology that is easier to use.