Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Review: Return of the Chief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: BMW X6 ActiveHybrid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mopar Nukizer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mercury End Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Sunny Sunday Drive in the Sunny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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