The 2014 Fiat 500L is on sale now. Fiat unloaded the first boatload of 500Ls in Baltimore early June and by mid-June they had begun arriving at nearby Fiat Studios. Adding this larger four door vehicle to the Fiat line-up is very welcome to Fiat dealers who have been limited to the Fiat 500 albeit with two bodystyles and a multitude of models. The 500L is based on Fiat’s new “Small Wide” platform and shares nothing with the smaller 500 except for the “500″ nomenclature and its engine. Like the 500, the 500L strives to be very emotional in its styling with cab-forward proportions and a long floating roof that is usually in contrasting colors to the body. Early on, it will turn heads.
For those who have not been paying attention, the 500L competes with the Kia Soul, Nissan Cube and MINI Countryman. It is available with dark tinted rear windows meaning it is classified as a truck. It is front wheel drive and powered with Fiat’s 1.4L Multi-Air Turbocharged 4-cylinder engine found in the 500 Abarth mated to either a six-speed manual transmission or Euro Twin Clutch automatic – a full automatic will be available in the first half of 2014. The 160-horsepower 4-cylinder has 184 lb-ft of torque. But the vehicle is much bigger and heavier than the minuscule Abarth and does not have near the performance. But that’s another story we’ll address later.
Big Car Room in Micro Car Footprint The real story about the 500L is its size. Think of it as a B-Segment four-door hatchback with a large car sized interior. It has panoramic view windows for great visibility. The seating position is upright and the seat is positioned so you can just slide into it. No climbing to get up into the seat. Once you are in, there is generous headroom and adequate shoulder room even for the largest drivers and passengers. The steering wheel has a squarish inner diameter so the instrument cluster can be viewed without obstructions. The ergonomics are good with controls easy to reach and operate. Fiat claims the 500L has best-in-class headroom, legroom, interior volume and cargo space.
Four Models – Pop-Easy-Trekking-Lounge The four models range in price from $19,900 (with destination included) for the Pop to $24,995 for the top of the line Lounge. The more aggressive USA-only Trekking model – shown above with the kayak mounted on the roof – is a step down from the Lounge at $21,995. While Fiat describes the 500L as the “Anti-SUV”, the SUV-like cues on the Trekking model are certainly a nod in that direction with more aggressive cladding and even a unique front fascia. While the Trekking model is USA-only now, Fiat says other markets like the model and are asking that it be added to their line-ups as well. The interiors are differentiated by material usage – hard and soft trim – and color. But each interior attempts to be a bit playful and engaging. Attention to detail is very good.
Very Nicely Done “Front and Rear Six” The 2014 Mercedes-Benz E-Class is a dramatic mid-cycle update that takes a relatively milquetoast car and gives it a striking personality make over. The major change is a much more aggressive front end appearance including all-LED headlamps with integral running lamps. The lower front fascia includes larger scoops and is accented by a chrome strip at the leading edge of the front air dam. Given these are the sporty models of the E-Class, the coupe and cabriolet include Mercedes’ bold three pointed star in the grille opening. All-in-all, the front appearance change practically makes the E-Class coupe and cabriolet look like all-new cars.
Mercedes-Benz premiered its all new S-Class sedan in Hamburg on May 15, 2013. Held at the Airbus factory where final assembly of the Airbus A320 and A380 is occurring, Mercedes took advantage of an over-the-top venue for an over-the-top introduction to their new Flagship. While an introduction like this should showcase the car (which it did), the showmanship used by Mercedes in this occasion was second to none. A very official looking YouTube video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U94OftPwcAc) shows the event up to just before Deiter Zetsche announced Alicia Keys who was sitting in the back of the center stage S-Class. They probably were prevented from showing her performance for contract reasons, but it was pretty darn good. She even worked very well with the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra that was playing original compositions prior to her arrival.
Whizzing around tight corners, while rapidly shifting the gears of a manual transmission is exhilarating! However, reality dictates that I spend most of my driving time mindlessly crawling through rush-hour traffic, so the thought of constantly burying my leg into a clutch while shifting from 2nd to 3rd back to 2nd every five seconds has made me think twice about buying a car with a manual transmission. Driving an automatic now-a-days just seems more convenient for day-to-day driving. And apparently I am not alone here.
VehicleVoice recently surveyed its panel to find out how much of the vehicle-driving population still drives a manual transmission. Looking specifically at enthusiasts (after all, aren’t they primarily the ones driving a stick shift?), the data reveals that, despite a significant portion of our sample claiming stick-shift know-how (89%), only a fraction of them (24%) are actually driving one today.
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.
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.
The 3rd generation Mitsubishi Outlander will be introduced in mid-2013 as a 2014 model year product. The new Outlander is based on carryover architecture, but has all new sheetmetal giving it a much more mainstream look. Where its predecessor has a very distinctive front end theme – admittedly controversial because of its “shark nose” style – the new Outlander goes decidedly mainstream. This is an example of Mitsu taking a very conservative approach and attempting to sell a style that no one will find controversial.
Viewed from a lower angle, the lower grille opening reminds some of Lightning McQueen in Disney/Pixar’s Cars movies. The key distinguishing feature for the new exterior style other than the toned-down front six inches is the deep character line stretching from the front fender through the doors and ending at the rear quarter. There is a horizontal bright trim piece on the liftgate stretching between the taillamps that looks like a bit of an afterthought.
Overall, the new Outlander is not displeasing, it just doesn’t grab you with its styling. For a vehicle Mitsubishi hopes will be a strong seller, the Outlander blends in rather than stand out. One way to make a statement is through pricing and it appears that Mitsubishi will drop the base price of the Outlander while adding equipment providing a stronger value statement.
Award Winner Gets Major Changes After Only Three Years The 2012 Grand Cherokee has been arguably the best affordable “real” SUV on the market since the latest generation was launched for the 2011 model year. The Grand Cherokee was so good that its owners rated it higher enough against its competition to win AutoPacific’s Vehicle Satisfaction Award in 2011 and 2012 AND AutoPacific’s Ideal Vehicle Award in 2011 and 2012! This sweep in these tough-to-win owner awards is testament to the excellence of the Grand Cherokee.
Developed in Time of Hardship The 2011 Grand Cherokee was developed during the dark days of the reign of Cerberus Capital Management. Their ownership of Chrysler steered the firm to the bankruptcy courts and a bailout by the U.S. and Canadian government, UAW and CAW. Ultimately, Fiat took control of Chrysler and Jeep and the firm is now prospering. It is surprising that under the eyes of Cerberus, the 2011 Grand Cherokee turned out to be such a good vehicle.
Best Gets Better Like other Chrysler products (Chrysler 300, Chrysler 200, Dodge Charger, Ram 1500), Jeep’s product team has reinvigorated the vehicle but mostly under the skin. The front fascia is new. Taillamps are new. A couple of wheel designs are new. And the interiors are new and much more upscale. Grand Cherokee gets Chrysler’s latest iteration of its excellent and easy to use UConnect system. Gone is the 5-speed automatic transmission replaced by a silky smooth 8-speed unit. A 240HP 3.0L V6 diesel is available for the first time. So, the Grand Cherokee is a substantially upgraded version of the 2011 vehicle. And it works!
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.
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.