Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Test Drive: 2009 Toyota Corolla XLE

As the famed Jeremy Clarkson once said, Toyotas are as much of a white good as wallpaper paste, obviously enthusiast Supra/MR2/Land Cruiser/4Runner aside. So this means anything from the Corolla, to the retirement home-destined Avalon. They really are cars for people who care nothing about cars, but that it’s reliable, easy to drive, cheap and has a good radio. And a good radio is what you would need if you cared the slightest bit about cars in order to shield yourself from the hideousness that ensues when driving the new Corolla…or should I say Crapolla?

Because from as far as I’m concerned there’s nothing on the outside to suggest that this car is any way attractive. It’s just ugly. There’s no other way of saying it. The only one that I would live with is the XRS Sport trim, the one that comes with 5-Spoke 17-inch wheels and the subtle body kit. Any other iteration of the Corolla is as attractive as someone’s hairy scrotum.

And things don’t get much better when you step inside. The first thing you will notice about the inside is that the interior is as plain and cheap as the Corolla is ugly on the outside. I’ve seen better plastics and panel gaps on Fisher-Price toys. And it’s as mindless as the person who designed it. Everything is dull and gray and the only thing that changes the norm of grayness is the faux metallic trim bordering the center stack, which upon touch is so cheap that you can probably scrape the paint off of it with your fingernail.

Cheap interior aside, Toyota’s reputation for value must transcend to the standard options list for this Corolla XLE. Not really. Sure you get power windows/locks, a trip computer, traction and stability control, ABS, a plug for your iPod…and that’s about it…but this is 2009…not 1999 so these things are expected. Driver and passenger adjustments are manual. But the seats are awful. They do not provide any support nor comfort.

Driving the Corolla doesn’t impress either (does this surprise you?). Steering is pinky finger-light and so dead that you have to assist the steering wheel to center and you can never tell what direction it’s pointing. It’s worse than a bloody Crown Victoria. The whole driving experience is as numb as your ass would be after spending about 5 minutes in this car. The only things I can speak positively about is the 1.8-Liter four-pot which is the standard engine and the refinement. This is by no means a fast car but the engine is one of the most refined four-pots I’ve ever experienced, something Toyota is fairly known well for. It’s 25/34 city/highway EPA estimates are good and I’ve returned around 31 MPG in mixed driving.

Handling as you’d expect is nonexistent. But with the light aforementioned steering and refined engine and movements this car is more willing to be tossed around than I expected…not that you would want to push this car anywhere beyond 5/10ths driving because understeer is completely unavoidable in the Corolla with its MacPherson front struts and torsion beam rear suspension and completely uncommunicative driving experience. On the highway the Corolla is quiet and smooth but that doesn’t make up for the uncomfortable and unsupportive seats.

Altogether you have an entry level econobox that’s as exciting as wallpaper paste. If you cared the slightest bit about cars, look into a Mazda3 or Volkswagen Rabbit. It’ll be that much better, just trust me! Otherwise the Corolla best serves its purpose for those who just want the cheapest, most reliable form of transportation that money can buy. And leave it to them since they most likely won’t be reading this article.

~Chris Chin

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

NY International Auto Show

A car show for the common man may suggest merely a collection of family sedans, midlife crisis cars and the ever-ubiquitous hot hatch; however, the New York International Auto Show (NYIAS) has more in store for the average visitor. Held at the Jacob Javit's Convention Center in New York City, the show Amidst the recession car manufacturers are shelling out little cash to produce new vehicles; if the price of oil were high, but the economy was in good shape, it would be 2007. This would also mean a plethora of fuel-sipping machines, designed with the average Joe in mind, but here and now in April, 2009, few efficient concepts are offered at the show. Design studies and concepts aren't uncommon at the NYIAS, but innovative production cars are more typically more common.

This year, the innovation seemed to come from Ford in the form of the 2010 Taurus. The car shown at NYIAS is ready for production and is no different from the European equivalent in terms of fit and finish, although it's not the Mondeo. The build quality is greatly improved from Tauruses of old, but this comes at a price, this family sedan starts at $25,000; the base price for the limited-production and high performance SHO variant is $37,000. At this point, it's in the price range of the BMW 1 and 3 series. One might wonder why an American family sedan is a high point of an auto show containing over 1,000 production and concept cars. Very few companies represented at the NYIAS suggested such an overhaul of not only the brand's image, but its future selling points as well.

For the car-forum-trolling, pimply-faced, 15-year-olds, the show satisfied all needs and desires; bright colors and displays dominated the Scion exhibit, plus Lamborghini, Ferrari, Rolls-Royce, Koenigsegg, and Spyker were represented. ShamWow was not represented; however, a knock-off vendor managed to shout at those passing through the merch section of the show. In keeping with the theme of mediocrity, GM offered up a natty Cadillac plug-in design exercise, this machine while shiny, offered up little promise for those interested in “green energy.” GM satisfied those interested in greenwashing; the presenter touted the Volt, a virtually production-ready concept as having 40 miles of 'completely green range.' Needless to say, the power source defines the range's environmental sustainability: someone using nuclear, coal, natural gas or oil is hardly sustainable. The presenter went on to suggest that the gasoline or ethanol-burning engine is environmentally acceptable because it doesn't power the wheels: it runs a generator, which runs an electric motor to power the wheels. This immediately raises questions regarding energy (heat) lost in friction.

As for the crowds and the overall experience; there was little interest in the SUV and light truck exhibits; the 'cars' were much more popular. The facilities were clean and organization was clear although legitimate dining possibilities were scant inside the building. In all, the experience was not a waste of time and certainly it goes without saying that the poor selection of outstanding vehicles reflects the economy. Then again, this asks the question of 'what is outstanding for a new car?' The fact that it's new implies a warranty and technology for the sake of technology and marketing, but that's another subject.

~Sawyer Sutton

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

VW Scirocco

Being a cynic of new cars, especially those from the 'Dub/Audi group, I'm nonetheless astonished at one of their latest offerings: the new Scirocco. Sure, most auto anoraks are quick to point out that "it's only a Golf," but it's really not. It's not "only a Golf" in the same way that the 'new' Beetle isn't. A mkV Rabbit owner wouldn't be caught dead driving round in a cabby version of the Beetle with even the R32 drivetrain.

The Scirocco is a magnificent piece of design, and it has a stunning interior thanks to the Audi connection. Sure it may have horrendous visibility due to the awkward C-pillar, which is similar in proportion to that of an early-mid 90's Civic. It works in the Civic, it doesn't work in the Scirocco, but that doesn't matter.

The car gets a 197-bhp 2-liter as standard, which is reasonable, but considering the heft of new cars, it's not about to blow anyone out of the water. Still, this powerplant will whisk it from 0-60 in 7.2 seconds, manage 146 mi/hr and 37.2 mpg on the European combined cycle. The first engine is typical of most new car offerings: this is the middle of the range engine; there will be a smaller 160-bhp petrol, a 140-bhp diesel, and most likely something slightly south of the R32 powerplant. The diesel will be offered with the new 7-speed DSG gearbox.

So far there's only two trim levels: standard and GT. GT gets you all sorts of crap to break like useless foglights, a touchscreen CD autochanger (who uses CD's anymore? and who wants to get fingerprints all over a screen?), ABS, ESP, 18" rims, buttons on the steering wheel, 6 airbags, a massive moonroof and leather trim.
Having said that, even if you only plop for the diesel, that awesome metallic green color is available, you can buy real foglights if you need them, on top of that, you'll be driving one of the most beautiful cars on the road--and you'll still get 52 miles to the gallon.

~Sawyer Sutton

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Comparison Drive: 08 Mercedes-Benz C300 4MATIC Lux vs 08 BMW 328xi

Even though we get snow probably three to five days out of all 365, the most commonly sold drivetrain on nearly every car in the lower Northeast/Mid-Atlantic states is All-Wheel-Drive. Something I don’t exactly understand because you’ll save money and gas by buying their two-wheel drive siblings and just setting aside an additional small sum of money for a good set of Blizzaks (snow tires for you non-brand people). But majority of the Mercedes-Benz C-Class and BMW 3-Series buyers don’t exactly know or follow up with that. So let’s compare and contrast the two most popular compact luxury sports sedans at their entry spec level and see who comes out in top.

Starting with the Mercedes, DaimlerBenz claims that the new W204 C-Class is the most researched, developed and tested Mercedes ever. But let’s make it plain, simple and clear: this does not mean cost-no-object build quality, or the build quality that Mercedes were so well known for pre-1995. But the instant you pull on the door handle and step inside the C300 you receive the notion that Mercedes is moving back in the right direction…just.

But before we continue inside let’s observe the exterior. The one we have is a C300 4MATIC non-sport. In a world where the Bangle-Butt is now a design standard and there’s awkward curve this and unusual crease that, Mercedes remains conservative with its styling but it never really comes across as boring. In fact, I think the new C-Class is one of the best looking cars out there today. It’s handsome, refined and understated and isn’t brash like some of the competitors from Japan. It follows much of the S-Class's design roots with a high sloping shoulder line and poignant face. It’s aggressive yet elegant and not overpowering. If only BMW could learn some things from these guys.

Returning to the interior, panels and fixtures are all well assembled and the door closes with a nice solid thunk. Buttons and switches are all tactile and refined, again signifying that Mercedes is going in the right direction, but let me reemphasize…just. You can still tell that this car was designed under the hierarchy of DaimlerChrysler and that Chrysler’s parting happened just in the middle of the C-Classes development, suggesting that the Germans finally reclaimed their stake in managing the company. For example, while most the controls I could see lasting long periods of time, there are some that still don’t really seem to match up with the test of time and use such as the faux-metallic temperature dials for the HVAC. And the plasticvinylleather-whatchya-ma-call-it material that covers the dash and the upholstery on the doors doesn’t exactly seem like something from a German luxury manufacturer and is a little cheap because of how it reflects light. At the same time though, it seems durable, which means it could echo the same notions that the W201 190E gave off back in the late 1980s: people called the interior on the 190 cheap (if only they could REALLY see what cheap was two decades later) but it still stood up very well to the test of time and use. On top of that, every time you put your seatbelt on your knuckle will find some way to hit the release button on the center storage compartment. Keep working DaimerBenz.

Control layout in the Mercedes is simple and straight forward but handling the radio controls can be a little confusing if this is your first Mercedes. The C300 being tested here was optioned with the Technology package which includes satnav. Mercedes’ COMAND is far more intuitive than BMW’s iDrive and is very easy to use. Exterior visibility is more than adequate and over all the layout is very pleasing.
The Mercedes also offers more interior and trunk space than the BMW from being a slightly larger car in general. Even with my near six foot figure full size adults were able to fit in the back without much complaint, as long as the trips were short. The seats up front though do lack in lateral support and are a bit flat and hard. Rear seating pretty much is the same story but having taken long trips in the C300 as a driver and passenger, it is an adequate long distance cruiser.

Driving the C300 however is as numb as receiving Novocain when getting that cavity filled. Steering feel and feedback is basically non-existent. You almost have to assist the steering wheel to return to normal after turning it anywhere and it’s very light. The suspension is communicative and employs the traditional firm yet complain tuning, but in light of being firmer with shorter suspension travel in order to catch up with modern times and to compete with the BMW, I really don’t think the suspensions’ firmness is thoroughly justified by its cornering and handling performance. In other words, even though the ride quality is superb, it can be a little softer to complement the “Luxury” non-sport trim better. If someone wanted to get a sportier automobile then they could opt for the Sports trim.

Having a slightly higher ride height to make way for ground clearance from being AWD on top of being in “Luxury Trim,” understeer is the name of the game for any driving nearing 8/10s. Other than that, the C300 remains composed in corners should any road imperfection arise. Handling remains neutral until about the aforementioned 8/10ths. But on top of lackadaisical steering and a slightly more body lean, this car should be driven more conservatively. Highway cruising is effortless however as this car was designed for the Autobahn so she tracks straight and true and remains very planted.

Power is delivered through a 3.0-Liter V6 good for 228HP and 221 lb-ft of twist mated to Merc’s usual 7-Speed automatic. Mash on the throttle and you’ll get to 60 in a shade over seven seconds. While there’s no issue to be had with the power offered, it’s how the power’s delivered. There’s too much torque converter lag when downshifts occur and the power doesn’t seem to come in until about 4000 RPM so overtaking will seem a bit lethargic. With the lazy power delivery, a pedal that's as dead as Mr. Benz himself and the typical delay of drive-by-wire throttle, you'll feel the need to mash the pedal quite a bit.

The transmission, in light of keeping fuel economy averages up always finds the highest gear possible, even when in the “Sport” mode setting versus “Comfort,” and fuhgettaboutit when it’s in Comfort mode. Engaging the manu-matic mode doesn’t help the slightest bit as every input is delayed before it does what its told. Otherwise the power and drivetrains are well-refined and meet the expectations of what a luxury sedan should offer…key emphasis on LUXURY SEDAN. On the upside however, the stoppers are adequate though pedal motion is a bit mushy and lacking in feel.

Altogether, though, the W204 represents that Mercedes is moving in the right direction and the influx of new models such as the S-Class and CL-Class a couple years ago exemplify that. However, the company has a lot of catching up to do and with a lackluster driving experience and an interior that needs work, the C300 finishes second in this comparison.

The BMW 3-Series has been the industry leader for over two decades and still leads the market today with the E90. Its combination of practicality, style and superior driving dynamics has made it the choice in the luxury sport compact sedan segment so with proper reason, the 328xi that I tested in this comparison finishes a solid first; and here's why.

Although this may not be starting on the proper note to review the winner of this comparison, I've never been a fan of the new styling for the 3er. It's bulbous and looks just flat-out ugly. With it's sloping hood and stretched face, it looks like a dog sticking his face out of a window whilst storming down the Autobahn at triple digit speeds. The rest of the car just doesn't look proportionate with it's blobular shapes.

The interior is not much of a better place, but it holds its own against the C300. The tester came in black and its as cold and dark as a mortuary. Everything else however is well assembled with the plastics and other materials being on a level higher than that of the C300s. Switchgear and buttons are tactile and the layout is simple. The doors close with a soft yet solid thunk and the cabin, much like the C300 is void from squeaks and rattles. My only suggestion is getting a color combination that gives you a lighter color inside.

Interior space is good up front, but the rear quarters can get rather cramped. While I was fine adjusting the seat to my figure, having someone of equal proportions in the seat behind would give discomfort to both of us. Getting in and out of the backseat in the 3er also demanded that I duck to avoid bashing my head on the sloping roofline. This however is the only place that the C300 shines because it's more comfortable with its larger interior space and more comfortable seats.

Driving the 328xi is something that should meet yours and many others' expectations when driving a BMW. While the steering is far more communicative than the C300s helm with more feedback and feel, it still is a bit numb when compared to its two-wheel drive siblings. You don't have to assist the steering wheel back to center like you need to with the C300 and the 3er's helm is heavier for the better. Ride quality is a bit firm, especially with the extremely lauded run-flats that all BMWs are equipped with to save weight from putting a full-size spare. But that ride quality is thoroughly justified by very composed handling and very well controlled body motions, again a trademark for the BMW 3-Series. Drive at or past 9/10s however and understeer is the name of the game, again with the higher ride height and 50/50 split AWD system. But what separates it from the Mercedes is that it's so much easier to reach the limits of the BMW and it doesn't scare you off from doing so with unpredictability and a rolling body like the Mercedes. The car inspired confidence like no other and will give your average driver a great feeling when trolling up those mountain roads.

Power is delivered by BMW's famed tradition of straight sixes, this one being a 3.0-Liter putting out 230HP and 200lb-ft. Zero-to-Sixty comes in at a near equal 7.1 seconds, just a tenth of a second quicker than the Merc. It still however doesn't feel as enlightening or as fast as it's two-wheel drive sibling considering that this 328 was fitted with the optional automatic so there's the loss at the torque converter and transfer case, just like with any other AWD vehicle. Even though the 328xi isn't much more powerful overall than the Merc, it's higher horsepower inspires you to rev the living daylight out of this engine; and what a rev-tastic engine it is.

The optional 6-Speed automatic is very good and takes advantage of the power band. But the STEPTRONIC likes to be laid back when change inputs are sent. In addition, it doesn't exactly like to hold a gear so it will randomly change at its own discretion, even if you might want to hold a gear mid-corner. NOT COOL!

So to wrap things up, it is to no surprise that the driving experience alone is what leads the BMW 3er to first place in this comparison. While it may lack in the practicality department in terms of size when compared to the C300, it shines at just about everything else. Power's nearly identical and gas mileage is exactly the same. But the BMW drives better, is cheaper than the Mercedes, feels better built and despite looking like a troll...well aesthetics is something I'm willing to sacrifice when the BMW does everything else so extraordinarily well.

~Chris Chin

Monday, February 9, 2009

Full Drive: 1975 Mercedes-Benz 280S

They really don’t build them like they used to. Really. I have yet to come across a car that’s just as well built and solid as an old Mercedes, say pre-1998 before the finalizing of merging Chrysler and DaimlerBenz AG, even by the guys from Stuttgart themselves today. If a car was to be elected as the pinnacle and benchmark for build quality and solidity, quite obviously look no further than Mercedes-Benz, and the barn-found 1975 280S that I picked up as a restoration project.

The car to always set the standard and premiere safety and automotive technology innovation was the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. It was built to standards that absolutely no other car manufacturer could match and still is to this day. The W116 S-Class—the first Mercedes luxury sedan to be called the S-Class, or Sonderklasse or “special class” after the W108/W109—was the car that was used to develop the Anti-Lock Braking System (ABS, co-developed with Robert-Bosch GmBH), a more reinforced passenger cell with a stronger roof structure, and increased deformation for energy dissipation on the front and rear crumple zones (Mercedes was the first with both a reinforced passenger cell and crumple zones).

Driving the 280S is like driving a piece of pure automotive history. So much development, research and technology went into and came from cars like the 280S and you really learn to appreciate how special and way ahead of their time these cars were, especially one like the S-Class.

Observing the wedged-three-box, this car obviously screams old-school, but with class just following. It has a lot of presence which is very much elegant in nature as well. It even makes old Rolls-Royces and Bentley’s appear barbaric in comparison in my tastes. But of course, an old Rolls is an old Rolls, yet the 280S still screams elegance without the “rich snob” part. Heavily inspired by the R107 450SL roadster and coupe that debuted several years earlier than the W116 S-Class, it’s easy to tell the cars are siblings, following the usual Mercedes form following function and departing from the vertical headlight equipped W108/W109 of the previous generation. Wrap around turn signals, front and rear, were designed that way for better visibility and safety. The wedge shape keeps the car aerodynamic without overwhelming proportions unlike, say an Eldorado from the same era. It again all comes across as sleek, elegant and tasteful, with a broad shoulder line that complements the sheer monstrosity of the car, making it feel very masculine.

And what a monstrosity at is. The 280S, with its extended US-Spec 5-MPH bumpers (you older folks remember those from the older days) is a full 17 feet long, which bests the current Chevy Tahoe by a full two inches and the last generation Tahoe by a whopping 5 inches. And a wide sucker the 280S is as well at 73.6 inches, and height seems like the only proportion that’s properly normal at 56.3 inches. Surprisingly though, this car really is no bigger than the current W221 S-Class, though it does feel more massive due to its wedged design.

Pulling on the protruding chrome door handles yields a very strong metallic clank and the feel of pulling open a door that belongs in Fort Knox. Sitting in the therapeutic bucket seats and you immediately imagine yourself taking this car on a long road trip without any complaints. Although the interior is a little warped from sitting for about a year outside—not to mention its 34 years old—the interior held up quite well. All materials and surfaces are soft to the touch but with the solidity of a Swiss bank vault behind it. Stoic, Teutonic, and dark; typical words to describe the traditional German automobile interior, this one in particular in black. The monstrous dash stretches across the entire width of a car with not much to brag about except for a strip of wood lining the center. Just like my E320 I previously reviewed, climate and radio ergonomics are a little less than spectacular as designs are very similar. Switchgear all maintains its tactile and firm feel but are a little hard to distinguish one from another unless you either read their icons or memorize where they are.

Moving on…as some of you have probably heard other people say, there’s nothing like driving an old Mercedes-Benz. And just like the statement: they really don’t build them like they used to, it’s true. Driving this old, stately relic of an S-Class gives you the confidence that you’re driving around in Buckingham Palace. And while the giant proportions of the 280S will give you the first impression that you’ll be wallowing and wafting and understeering before you even turn the wheel more than a quarter of the way, don’t mistaken yourself. This car is a blast to drive: and while a Porsche or a BMW would be buckets of fun to drive because of their performance capabilities, the old 280S demands a different approach. It requires a certain approach that you either get or don’t get. It’s very hard to explain but I’ll try my best.

In today’s day and age, this car will not win any awards for power. The 2.8-Liter DOHC Straight-Six, dubbed the M110, is a big and thirsty engine…but not with any fair exchange for power since it is carbureted. Rated at 160HP and 167 ft lbs of torque peaking at 5,500 and 4,000 RPM respectively going through a short-ratio four-speed automatic, the 280S’s power is adequate around town but steep inclines and highway driving demand lots of wide open throttle and downshifting just to keep up with traffic. It’s very little power to motivate about 3800 lbs worth of German steel. So you could imagine that its fuel economy isn’t exactly the best with its rating of 12 MPG city and 17 MPG highway. Back in the days of the fuel crisis and the phasing out of leaded fuel though these numbers and performance figures were very tolerable. Zero to sixty clocks in at about 11 seconds and the top speed clocks in at about 120MPH. Not bad for 1975…but we’re not longer wearing bell-bottoms and it ain’t about the sex, drugs and rock-n-roll any more. Although very barbaric in comparison to the current variable this and electronic controlled that, the M110 is so refined that it rivals many modern straight sixes found today and within the last decade or so. Power delivery is smooth and progressive despite it being in low for modern standards. And boy does it like to rev.

Handling is where this car shines. Using all of the technology obtained from the famed C111 development test car, the 280S sports a double wishbone suspension with a torsion bar stabilizer up front keeping offset and camber exactly at zero. Progressive anti-dive geomtery was added to keep the body stable under hard braking. The once camber-change susceptible diagonal swing axle in the rear—the one that made the Chevrolet Corvair such a dangerous car to drive—was modified with control arms to keep the camber change at bay, just like the front with zero offset and camber. The result is Mercedes’ traditional firm yet very compliant ride quality. This car will absorb potholes, dips, dives, imperfections like a champ. Absolutely nothing can upset the chassis of this car. It has such a surefooted stance that it seems like it’s unstoppable. But this is just one of the two handling personalities that the 280S posesses.

Take the 280S on a long sweeping and curvacious road and control the transmission via the shift gate and this car will sweep a corner with the stance and grace of Pomp and Circumstance; the car will feel like it transforms into something half its size. With a near-50/50 weight distribution and well thought out suspension tuning and stiff chassis, neutral handling is the name of the game with understeer and oversteer both kept well in check. Mercedes designed the 280S’s handling limits to be very far out of reach, making this car very easy and safe to drive, with plenty of potential available. Though far from being a Porsche or BMW, the 280S is a perfect example of Mercedes-Benz’s ideology offering the best of both worlds with performance and comfort. Lateral body motions are well controlled thanks to the 280’s wide track. Its recirculating ball-type steering provides enough feel and feedback to let you know when the front wheels start to lose grip. And while this car does not hide its massive size and bulk, it’s so easy to drive that it’s not much more of a task to maneuver than say your average Honda Accord. At 2.7 turns lock-to-lock and with a large diameter steering wheel, parallel parking couldn’t be any easier in a car this big.

It’s amazing to think that this was a car that came from over three decades ago. I can’t imagine how ahead of its time this car was, let alone it’s more expensive siblings, the 450SEL and the legendary 450SEL 6.9. The only things that are keeping me from enjoying this car to its full potential are all restoration and age related. If only Mercedes were to build their cars like they did in the time that this W116 was, not only would Mercedes have maintained their reputation, but they’d continue to seriously make the best cars in the world.

~Chris Chin

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

First thoughts on W212 design

I realize the graphic to the right is a mess of circles, arrows and creases, but how about we play a game of, "spot the Mercedes?" Who are they trying to fool? The blind? My personal issue with the new e-class is that Mercedes, in an attempt to freshen a preexisting design model, have begun to imitate what the expected clientele would refer to as lesser cars. The Hyundai Genesis actually shows a lot of promise, and the coupé is even better, but that's not something mercedes customers understand. On the other hand, they don't want their cars to appear like the Lincoln MKZ, and rightly so, it's hideous, as is the 2003 Kia Optima, but somehow, the boardmembers approving of this new, odd project, which comprises Merc's best-selling model ignored this completely. Perhaps the resemblence isn't all that strong, but it's there. If we ignore the possible prestige implications of the "new" front and rear fascia, is it a good thing to look at? Right now, to this cynical author? No.
I think what is the biggest issue is that while the proportions of the lighting surfaces are very practical, the grille in the front provides much space for air to be sucked in, it stimulates the viewer just as much as the Volvo 740. Sure, it's practical and safe, but it has the sex appeal of a kitchen cabinet. I applaud Mercedes for not attempting to produce bangle-butt-like characteristics, setting a precedent for the other automakers to look moronic, but no effort has been put forth as far as I can tell.

~Sawyer Sutton

Friday, January 30, 2009

Design Assessment: 2010 Mercedes-Benz W212 E-Class

Ever since the mid-1990s, the Mercedes-Benz E-Class has been an especially handsome car. The W210 from the late 1990s employed the usual three box design, but with its broad shoulder line and clean sheetmetal, it sure is a looker, especially in AMG guise with deep-dish five-spoke AMG Monoblock IIs. Much like it was the W211 E-Class, yet with a more curvaceous body and sleeker profile. Far more elegant than the W210, the W211 is a design that will go recognized for years to come. It’s just so well put together that even—dare I say—the Italians couldn’t have done any better. Although a little more conservative when compared to the BMW 5-Series, it remained loyal to Mercedes’ design roots. The same can’t exactly be said however for the W212.

At first glance, yes, the new E-Class does seem rather elegant and there’s no denying it. Mercedes-Benz has always maintained that on their resume under quality attributes, of course without the brash and rankness, and of course the astronomical pricing of a Bentley or Rolls. On top of being elegant it also maintains the typical German Teutonic look, with its high rolling shoulder line, side panel creases, and that bulge at the rear wheel well. But this has probably got to be the ugly bastard child of in the family of redesigned Mercedes-Benzes, most specifically the W221 S-Class, W216 CL, and the W204 C-Class.

The front is where the car looks best as the inherited cues from the S-Class, such as the high rolling shoulder line, roofline, and sloping C-Pillar; and the C-Class with the hood following the shoulder line and stopping at the bottom of the A-Pillar. And of course the front is complimented with the usual large chrome grill, a hood ornament, and four-eyed headlights which are traditional to the E-Class as of the late 1990s E-Class, to be speaking in modern terms.
All looks proper from the front and through the passenger compartment, but from there it goes completely all wrong. It’s almost as if Lexus, Hyundai, and Mercedes-Benz all had a threesome and Mercedes was the one to end up with the STD of complete and utter blandness in the rear. Those taillights look like something off of a cheap wannabe luxomobile.
The idea behind the E-Class and C-Class was that they were always supposed to look like the big daddy S-Class, except in smaller proportions and while the new W204 C-Class maintains that, it just doesn’t with the E. And what’s with those foglights on the lower front fascia…It’s like the designer came up with a group of unique fixtures to the car—the foglights being the most important to him/her/them—and ran out of places to put them, so impulsively he just plopped them in the place where they should be by generic design tradition. And then the wheels just look way too small for the car, especially with the way the body is shaped.

The interior on the other hand doesn't look as bad as the exterior does. Control layout and ergonomics are once again traditional Mercedes Benz, and the center stack remains to be as vertical as the Berlin Wall. But it some how manages to come across as something from Vauxhall, control layout, and center storage bins and cupholders included. The gauge cluster keeps up with Mercedes' large speedometer with a large—but smaller in comparison to the speedo—clock to the left, and a tachometer to the right with the fuel and temperature gauges at the sides respectively; all back lit in a cool blue and embedded into what looks to be machined aluminum trim. It all looks inspiring with great visibility of the clusters. The steering wheel on the other hand is uglier than a troll, but the AMG Sport Packaged sport steering wheel looks like something from their arch rivals at BMW with a beefy rim, and shaped grips at the 10 and 2 positions.

I of course reserve complete judgment until I see the car in the flesh but just by photos, I can say this is the ugliest E-Class since well, forever. It will probably grow on me in the same way controversial styles such as the BMW 7-Series have. But until then, no props to the Three-Pointed Star.

~Chris Chin

Photos Courtesy: MBUSA

Monday, January 12, 2009

Full Drive: 1994 Mercedes-Benz E320 Coupe

Growing up, I’ve always had a love for cars of all sorts and kinds—for example my all-time favorite back in the day was a 1999 GMC Suburban, thanks to the Hollywood action flick Volcano, don’t ask. But of course, I’ve always had a special spot in my heart for those Germans, more specifically das volks from Stuttgart, Mercedes-Benz. So naturally, you can guess at which automobiles I was looking for my first car.

For just about everyone, the one of the biggest and most memorable moments in one’s life is their first car; unless you care so little about cars that you’ve managed some way to avoid suicide from being verbally and physically harassed by your classmates from riding your childhood bicycle with tassels all of your life.

After months of searching and test driving numerous old Mercedes’, mostly W126 420SEL or 560SELs—or the S-Class from the late 1980s for you nomenclature followers— and several BMWs, Infinitis, Lexuses, I stumbled upon this one-owner, very mint condition 1994, black-on-black W124 E320 Coupe’s with only 76k miles on it. So after having it inspected by a specialized Benz mechie, we (being my mother and I) pulled the trigger.

Just to give you some history, the Mercedes E-Class has been the bread and butter model ever since the wedged three-box W114 from the 1960s. As the years progressed to present day with the current W211 (2003-2009) and the 2010 W212 E-Class on the way, the story remains the same. But of course, the E320 Coupe has aged quite a bit since it rolled off its home turf in Sindelfingen, Stuttgart, Germany: fifteen years and four months to be precise. Let’s not forget though that the company to always be the leader in automobile inventions and innovation is Mercedes-Benz, holding the record amount of patents in all of automotive history; so many of which are safety patents that it makes Volvo look like a poser. The W124 in particular was a car that was way ahead of its time, something those Germans tend to do quite often. It was the first car to offer a passenger side front-airbag worldwide, as an example, and has plenty of pedigree following it. But altogether, how do those fifteen years of use stack up to the Teutonic Spartan once built to a “cost-no-object” engineering ideology of durability, build quality, reliability and longevity?

Staring at the slightly road-rashed and swirled paint from the many well-maintained miles and countless brushless car washes it’s been through and to, the body and paint have held up pretty well. Employing a typical three-box design, the E320 Coupe looks much like its sister sedan, only better. While the sedan looks fairly edgy and stodgy at several angles (Porsche-tuned 500E aside with the flared wheel arches), there’s no angle at which the Coupe looks miles better as its proportions are complemented by the sleeker profile of two-less doors. While the Coupe may look aged next to your current BMW 6er or Mercedes CLK with its two-tone under cladding, it’s still a car that’s elegant and classy in its presence as it ages gracefully in the era of the Bangle-butt. Designed to be aerodynamic—being the car to have the lowest drag coefficient of 0.28 for any vehicle at the time—there’s not one bit of the car that faults form following function. The taillights and front corner indicators are rippled to keep dirt and debris build-up from inhibiting their luminescence. Headlight wipers were standard to perform the same function. The passenger side rear-view is squared for better short-distance visibility where as the driver-side is rectangular for better long-distance visibility (coming from a country where you will be penalized for not staying right unless passing).

With a 106.9 in. wheelbase, an overall length of 183.9 in. (both about four inches shorter than the sedan), an overhall height of 54.9 in. (2 inches off of the sedan), and a curb weight of 3525 lbs, it’s size and proportions are just about bang on with the late E46 BMW 3er Coupe (1999-2006), though about 100 lbs heavier.

A quick tug and swing to the driver side door and the long, hefty coupe door glides open; step inside to a properly broken-in yet mint condition leather seat and you’re immediately surrounded by an interior that came from that aforementioned “cost-no-object” solidity with burl walnut wood trim; real I might add versus the faux wood trim that plagues many automobiles of comparable mediocrity. Big leather-wrapped four-spoke steering wheel in front, boxy center console, dash and gauge cluster behind and to the sides. Everything has the solidity and sure-footedness of a brick house, with a solid tank-like thunk following the closing of the door. Besides less-than stellar climate and radio control ergonomics, the same form-following-function design continues on the inside as the interior was designed entirely for driver orientation and for nothing other than the sole practice of driving: the lack of cup holders, driving position, and exterior visibility are several examples of that. There are even dividers between the seats and the center console which keep pocketed items from getting caught, in the most untouchable spots inside a vehicle; just evidence that the engineers in Stuttgart thought about nearly everything. The plastics and materials are all high-grade, and are as high-quality and durable as the car’s original sticker price of $66k suggests. All buttons have a tactile and firm feel so that it was all built to last and withstand daily use. Everything just screams quality, quality, quality, more so than the average infomercial announcer trying to get you to pay that $19.99 for that kitchen appliance that’ll find its way into the basement, labeled “junk.”

However, even though this was a $66k luxury car, don’t expect to find options like radar-guided cruise control, suspension adjustment, navigation, even a trip computer (though a very rare option in Europe only). Single-zone automatic climate control is standard along with an exterior temperature gauge, and optional heated front seats, all uncommon in mainstream automobiles at the time…but that’s basically it. This particular Coupe back in the day was optioned with the Bose premium sound system, which paired up with the standard Becker 1492 head unit sounds crystal clear with no distortion and proper balance of highs, mids and lows.

Passenger compartment space is plentiful for two people, but just adequate for four people as the back seat has no middle hump, which is instead replaced by a center console and storage box by Mercedes Coupe tradition. Proper move though since the car is not very space efficient in interior design. Adults would have no trouble going for some medium trips to the in-laws for the holidays, as long as the front occupants are no taller than six feet. But of course in the 1990s, you were either a freak of nature or an NBA player if you were taller than the latter. Trunk capacity is a reasonable 14.4 sq. ft., a little more than a square foot shorter than the current E-Class.

The therapeutic leather seats are very supportive with lots of lumbar support, though thigh support could be a shade better. Comfort is no issue with these seats as this car is designed for long-distance travelling on the Autobahn. Rear seats are equally as comfortable but with the better thigh support needed up front. Why didn’t they just swap the seats or just give the front an equal treatment? Regardless, although they may not offer the same sporty support as the La-Z-Boys offered in BMWs, they still are plenty adequate without sacrificing any long distance comfort.

Inserting the skeleton-like laser-cut key into the tumbler, and firing up the car only brings a slight shutter to the car as the engine warms up at a high idle just above 1k RPM. I could’ve sworn I started the darn thing…but before tumbling the key once more, a quick glance at the tachometer to see the car was running relaxed my emotions. Even at its current mileage of 117k miles, the car is still as refined as its Germanic build quality suggests (oh how I would’ve loved to have driven and owned this car brand new). The 3.2-Liter, 3,199cc, 195 cu. in. displacement dual overhead camshaft Inline-6 with four valves per cylinder, dubbed M104.992, settles down to quiet, operating temperature 600 RPM idle. Step outside and all you hear is a slight hiss from the fuel pump and the whoosh of the vacuum produced from the primary viscous fan cooling the engine.

Putting the at-the-time normal, four-speed automatic into drive, and mashing the pedal, the 3.2L six produced 217bhp at 5,500 RPM and about 229 lb-ft of torque at 3,750. From a standstill, the second iteration of the world’s first traction control system (optional on all but the 500E, where it was standard) avoids wheel spin as you ride a wave of torque all the way to the engine’s top speed of 6400 RPM. With a stopwatch in hand and a fellow mate riding shotgun, naught-to-60 was clocked in at a very respectable 8.29 seconds, just a hundredth of a second off of the official factory time of 8.3 seconds. Though with that flat torque curve, it feels far faster than its numbers suggest. A true testimony to the precision engineering that has paid off by keeping the car still very fresh in its operation.

Overtaking is nothing but a breeze with all that torque available so quickly. Gear changes are sports car-like quick, and smooth. Programmed with electronic overdrive so it could reach the highest gear possible as soon as possible for fuel economy and winter start purposes, just either give the pedal ¾ for a next-gear downshift, mash the pedal and hit the kick-down switch for the lowest possible downshift, and be ready to feel the pull and see the horizon catapult towards you. You can even manage the gears yourself by pulling down the shift gate to “3” or “2” but be sure to observe your speed as the speedometer is specifically labeled with each gears’ top speed so as to avoid over revving the engine. Make no mistake, while you won’t have a chance in winning stoplight drags with the latest and greatest AMG models, the E320 is a very powerful car. Be careful because you can easily find yourself doing speeds screaming immediate jailtime. "Wow 110 MPH? I could've sworn we were doing only 80, officer!"

The ratios are set just about perfectly as all four gears take full advantage of the engine’s power band. Although obsolete with only four gears, back in the day this setup and combination is just about as perfect as H2 and O because of how versatile it is in nearly every situation; even today its combination is very hard to flummox. Power delivery is never interrupted from a downshift or upshift, all the way to the car’s limited top speed of 134 MPH. An extra gear would have been nicer but 5-speeds were still in the development stage for the most part. And response via throttle input can be a little dimwitted, but of no major concern if you know how to position the pedal and/or use the shift gate.

Handling is just as equally as impressive. With a modified MacPherson strut up front with coils springs separate from the shock absorbers and a fully independent five-way multilink rear suspension (only employed by Ferrari and professional race cars at the time) from the earlier developed W201 190E, father to the current C-Class, the suspension was very ahead of its time as many mainstream automobiles haven’t utilized these suspension designs until the late 1990s and even still don’t utilize such designs entirely.

With a near-50/50 weight distribution, 53/47 front and rear to be exact, and the modern suspension setup handling is very balanced and neutral with understeer and oversteer both kept in check, making for very confident turn-in with the rear following nicely. Only if you purposely plow the car heavily into a corner will you result in understeer (but that’s basically the story with anything on wheels). Otherwise the car is pretty nimble for its cumbersome weight. Settle down on the highway and the car trucks down straight and true like a bat out of hell.

The recirculating ball type steering, although on the slower side with 3.0 turns lock-to-lock, is accurate and adequate for point and shoot steering. It’s very well weighted, has linear and natural progression as well as plenty of feedback. Although the steering may not offer the same amount of road feel as a BMW or Honda tiller, enthusiasts won’t be upset having this car as a daily duty.

Ride quality is superb with the Mercedes-traditional firm-yet-compliant tuning. Bumps are absorbed very well but without the wallowing of say, a barge from Cadillac. A well-tuned stiff chassis, long suspension travel and low spring rates allow for mid-corner composure perfection. Hit any bump or imperfection of any nature while corner carving and it’ll be absorbed instantaneously without upsetting the chassis. In any case of driving you can always feel and read every move the car makes, every grab and slip all four tires make. There's so much driver feedback that you'd think that BMW or Porsche got their hands on the design. The only gripe that should be mentioned here is a considerable amount of body roll at which to make you and your passengers and their contents upset if you decide to quicken the pace. Otherwise handling is poised, predictable, balanced and neutral all while making long-distance cruises a breeze. A fabulous blend of the best of both worlds.

It’s very difficult to express how nearly perfect the W124 is because it does nearly everything perfectly. It handles well, rides great, has plenty of power, is well built, reliable. Although it could use one more gear, thicker anti-roll bars, it’s hard to find a fault in a car engineered by the guys who were the best in the business. Even over fifteen years later, the car is still as fresh as its engineers intended it to be. It’s no wonder that the W124 is the benchmark and has been critically acclaimed to be the best modern mid-sized luxury sedan ever produced.

~Chris Chin

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Diesels...No More Dirty Nonsense

I have to say, one of the most annoying feelings to be had next to failing to make a move on that wonderful woman you met at the local pub, is going to the gas station, knowing that your car averages a not-so-spectacular 23 miles per gallon, sometimes less, and that you have to shell out about $50 to fill‘er up with premium, almost once a week or every two weeks. That’s when some random person comes forward to me with the solution...and they point with a nice big grin and an “I told you so” expression…and belittle my standard premium petrol consumerism by saying: Get a hybrid! Only in that person’s attempt to turn my frown upside down does nothing but completely and utterly fail. Is it because I don’t like hybrids…yes but with good reason and I’ll show you why.

This was the story of my life in the summer of 2008, when gas prices hovered well over the $4 mark. While gas is cheaper however, it does not rid of the still existent fear of higher gas prices and the struggle to find automobiles with the best fuel economy is one of the top three pursuits in the developed world next to fighting off obesity. If you thought it was worth waiting a year or so and paying a very large dealer premium for that Toyota Prius hybrid, you are very wrong.

As the future dawns on us, we are confronted by ridiculous gas prices with predictions suggesting prices will once again jump up from their year 2000-esque prices. Rather you like it or not, this is a prevailing issue that will be with us for years to come. So…what cars should interest you in the realm of saving money, time, and even the planet? I’ll tell you downright straight up, hybrids are far from being the answer. Ethanol 85? That's like putting your money on the Expos when they verse the Yankees. How about hydrogen fuel cells? Too early to tell because it’s extremely complicated and expensive and will take years to be standardized, tested and proven. That leaves us with gasoline and diesel…well, we all know we’re trying to avoid gasoline cars since they don’t produce the best fuel economy…so, that all being said let’s talk about diesels.

So why diesels? Or for starters, why haven’t we been using diesel passenger cars? Because for many many years, people in countries outside the states have been indulging in the beneficial fuel economy from diesel passenger cars. Two thirds of the world's automobile sales in fact, has the viscous, smelly stuff standardized as the fuel and engine for choice. While us Americans wallowed around in our gas-sucking SUVs, these diesel-passenger-car motorists have been consuming on average 30% less than comparable gasoline-powered automobiles. And the reason why we didn’t get the handful of diesels offered everywhere in the world was due to the poor quality of diesel that was available in this country, which was too poorly refined to run in the newly developed engines. We live on a continent where our gasoline is very high in sulfur content, and the poor quality diesel is why we have this vision and perspective of diesels and a big black plume of smoke. You rarely see this in Europe or elsewhere in the world.

Since these newly developed and technologically advanced diesels operate quietly and extremely efficiently by injecting fuel in the cylinders at a very high pressure through tiny injectors with electronic precision, the sulfur in our fuel doesn’t react very nicely with the tiny fuel injectors because it clogs them. This isn’t an issue elsewhere because this sulfur doesn’t exist at such high amounts or is filtered out.

However, after 2006, we no longer have to worry about high-sulfur content in our diesel as new regulations require that ultra-low sulfur fuel be sold to the public. So that makes it possible for the foreign diesel passenger cars to start coming. In addition, that makes the diesels cleaner.

But let's also reflect on how the Big Three (Chrysler Group, General Motors, and Ford) had all destroyed America’s perspective of diesels back in the 1970s with their attempts to make diesel vehicles. They’re the ones who gave us all the idea of diesels and big black plumes of soot and smoke because their cars were awful to begin with next to their European counterparts (Anyone who lived to see the 1980s Oldsmobile and Cadillac diesel V8s would know what I'm on about).

Quite specifically, they just took a standard 350 small block Oldsmobile V8, took many cost-cutting steps in redesigning it by using the standard gasoline 350 as a template, and called it a day. This is like shoving a .50 caliber bullet into a .38 special and thinking it would work. Since diesels produce more pressure than a standard gasoline engine due to compression combustion (further described later), the engine block, crankcase, and head all have to be reinforced to be able to withstand the greater pressure and power that diesel engines produced. As a result, many people saw premature failure to many major engine components, leading to the smokey, black exhaust, and even to complete engine failure. But getting back on track...

You may also notice that diesel is very expensive stateside. But this all comes down to the economic level as well. A very large portion of America’s economy is dependent on the Big Three’s progress so the government would never allow them to become bankrupt for that reason, so they raise the price of diesel to deter interest. And it’s common knowledge that the Americans have been by far the most inferior with car technology in general and with their ideologies since the mid-1970s, which is very widely circulated and has been proven in history, brand loyalists aside (which is an interesting perspective since the General holds the second highest amount of patents in automotive history, next to Mercedes-Benz, who's first). If we were to allow more of these superior foreign diesels into this country, that would detract customers from buying domestic automobiles thus saturating the country with foreign automobiles, and giving the foreign manufacturers majority of our business (like this isn’t already happening), resulting in no business for the Big Three. Not to mention the Big Three have been producing less-than-stellar mainstream automobiles for the last three and a half decades, but that's an argument for another time.

Now, you may be thinking, aren’t diesels slow? Well, if this was 1975, in the midst of the oil crisis and one of the only diesels you could get was a W123 Mercedes-Benz 240D, which had a 0-60 time of, well, the time it took planet Earth to form, then yes. But not in this day and age. A couple of examples are as follows: a current generation Audi A8 4.2 TDI with a 4.2-liter V8 turbodiesel will get you from 0-60 in six seconds flat, while returning up to 35 MPG on average. Sure it’s not as fast as the 4.2-liter gasoline V8 but that penalty is very well rewarded with marginally better fuel economy than the normal V8 would ever manage; another is the current BMW E60 335d with a 3.0-liter straight-six twin-turbocharged diesel (an engine with very high praise), a car that can too do 0-60 in a shade under 6 seconds and can manage up to 45 MPG! Ok so maybe most can’t afford an A8. In the UK, you can get a Ford Mondeo 2.2 TDCi with a turbocharged straight-four diesel which will return on average of 46.3 MPG while getting from 0-60 in 7.9 seconds, and in a world where anything that has a 0-60 time of less than eight seconds is considered fast, that’s not terrible. And with Honda, Toyota and Volkswagen planning to bring more diesel cars into this country, we can see a growth in affordable diesel cars.

One story was shared with amongst some automobile magazine editors. One of the editors lost a race in the new BMW E92 M3 to a BMW E61 530d station wagon with an automatic transmission, and that’s not the most powerful diesel available in the 5-Series. At the traffic light, both cars took off and the editor was dusted by the man in the 530d and was unable to catch up until 60 MPH.
I know, all of those cars cannot be had in the American market just yet. But it’s to give you an idea of what kind of diesels we’re missing out on with and with plans of companies such as Toyota, Honda, BMW and Audi as well as others bringing their diesel cars stateside, we can definitely see a larger pool of diesel options in this country.

At this point, you may be wondering what the heck makes diesels so fast. In today’s world, diesels make just as much power as their gasoline counterparts if not more and all that power comes from all the torque that diesels have to offer. Think of a big, large displacement V8 with lots of low end grunt...and that wave of torque continues all the way up to the engine's redline, just without the consumption penalty of a gas V8.

But what about the black plumb of smoke and soot? With new emission and exhaust systems that are as technologically advanced as a particle accelerator, the smoke and soot is almost entirely nonexistent. And all of this technology is far from being experimental and is tested and proven in the real world. Over 40% of BMWs sold worldwide are with diesel engines and in France, over 80% of Audis are sold with diesels and as aforementioned, the US is late to the trend.

As an example of one of these new emission systems, some of you may heard of Blutec: pioneered by Mercedes in conjunction with Volkswagen AG, and Chrysler. It sa new kind of catalytic converter (a chamber connected to the exhaust manifold that contains a bunch of expensive and precious metals that break down toxic gases produced by engines) which contains a certain amount of urea extracted by naturally animals, which basically eliminate almost all toxic gases emitted from diesel engines, resulting in these diesel engines being cleaner than standard gasoline engines. This technology is recently available stateside via Mercedes-Benz and their diesel options. Volkswagen too offers a system similar to that of Blutec, with the new Jetta TDi.

The combination of the advancement in technology with the emission systems goes hand in hand with the fuel injection system, which are designed to burn fuel as thoroughly and precisely as technologically possible. So while gasoline cars too have become cleaner and more efficient, diesel vehicles have as well though with plenty better results.

Of course, there are also more questions regarding the livability and practicality of a diesel automobile. Many of you will know that older diesel were equipped with what are called glow plugs. Glow plugs were used to preheat the cylinders and fuel injectors as so to make a cold start easier, since diesel has a higher viscosity than gasoline. But modern diesels do not have glow plugs and anything above 50F they start normally. In temperatures below that they may take longer, but miniscule miliseconds as opposed to minutes in older diesels. The issue with diesel's viscosity in cold weather is that it gets thicker and milkier as it gets colder…however this is nearing -20F so majority of you need not to worry.

Following practicality, there's also longevity. While diesels do contain far less parts than a gasoline engine, diesels do tend to have the general reputation of being far more reliable than gasoline engines. Diesel engines are compression combustion engines and don’t need spark plugs meaning that the fuel combusts through compression and does not need a spark to be ignited. In the US, we’ve mainly had Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz diesels, with engines that were built so well that they would last for all eternity. It was very common to find these diesel cars with an excess of 250,000 miles on one engine, some nearing the half-million mile mark with no major trouble.

At this point, I've probably given you enough information to make your head explode and you might want to take a coffee break...because I'm far from finished. So now, one of the ultimate questions. Why a diesel over a hybrid? This is a very simple question with just an equally simple answer. If you want to save money, don’t buy a hybrid. Economic and statistical reports and studies have shown that people, who are buying hybrids, are actually buying them not to save money. While they do save little bits in fuel consumption, they don’t save money in the long run, especially after factoring all of the dealer premiums that they command.

Hybrids will never save enough fuel to equate, cover and exceed the initial cost premium that hybrids demand, so hybrids don’t pay for themselves. Not to mention that hybrids have extremely expensive battery packs that have more precious metals than your wealthy grandparents’ jewelry collection, will need to be replaced at some point. So that trumps the longevity aspect for hybrids.

Diesel cars also have far better resale values than hybrids and gas-vehicles. One example made in an automobile magazine was with a Mk4 2004 Volkswagen GL with 50k miles, and a 2.0-liter straight-4 with 115hp: it valued in at an auction for $8,850 while the same car with the same mileage, but with the turbodiesel engine with 90-hp valued in at $13,950. A similar story was with Volkswagen’s SUV, the Touareg: V6 and V8 models were valued in at $20,100 and $25,500 respectively, but the V10 TDI was valued in at a whopping $41,600. It’s the same astronomical difference with diesel pickups versus their gasoline siblings.

On top of this, diesels get their best fuel economy with the types of conditions that majority of Americans drive, which is on the highway. An automobile magazine editor drove his Mercedes-Benz W211 E320 CDI and received up to 40MPG, giving a Volkswagen GTi a damn good run for its money in both fuel economy and stoplight drags.

Hybrids offer no benefit on highway driving and unless you’re sitting in traffic running on solely the battery, you’re not saving squat.

If not hybrids, what about Ethanol 85? That’s pretty much the biggest joke next to the Bush Administration's eight years in office. It takes about 1.7 gallons of Ethanol 85 to equal the amount of energy in a gallon of diesel and it takes more than 7% of the gallon itself to make a gallon of E85. In addition, with taxes it would make E85 at least a dollar more expensive than normal gasoline. And since Ethanol 85 burns far quicker than normal gasoline or diesel because it’s a very light hydrocarbon, fuel economy is basically shot to shrapnel. If anything, it gives benefits to the car companies and not the consumer: it gives manufactures a fuel economy CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) credit for reducing gasoline consumption even if the car is never run on E85, and most never are.

And what confuses me more is why Bob Lutz, Chairman and CEO of General Motors, said that all of GM’s work will now focus on the research and development of E85 vehicles and hybrids. And that’s not even considering what that would do to our agriculture.

Speaking of agriculture, don't plan on saving the planet by driving a hybrid. With the new emission control systems such as the aforementioned BlueTec technology being cleaner than normal gasoline cars, many of these diesels, such as Volkswagen Golf and Jetta, Ford Focus, Mercedes-Benz A-Class, Audi A2 and A3 diesels produce fewer grams per kilometer of carbon dioxide than a Toyota Prius. And did you know that acid rain created from the mining of nickel for Toyota hybrid batteries has destroyed the landscape in Sudbury, Ontario to such an extent that NASA now uses the area to test drive its latest lunar vehicles?

And even if you want to try your best at saving the planet, buy a diesel! Diesel engines are far more versatile with alternative fuels than gasoline engines. Bio-diesel and vegetable oil are just two extra fuels that diesel can burn, with no adverse side effects, and with cleaner exhaust. It may be more difficult to do so with these newer diesel engines but it has been experimented, tested and proven, as long as the bio-diesel and vegetable are clean enough for the injection system. In fact, bio-diesel and vegetable oil-powered diesels are a new trend, with people buying old Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen diesels left and right, with the sole purpose of converting them to such. And it's a very easy process. Buy an old Mercedes or VW diesel, buy the conversion kit for no more than a grand and have it retrofitted, drop by your local restaurant chains, offer to take their frying oil (since many francises and restaurants have to pay for their oil to be swept away), filter all the french fry crumbs out and just pour into the secondary tank provided by the conversion kits. Then flick a switch, save money and the planet!

So there you have it. If you want to save money in terms of fuel economy, don’t buy a hybrid. Because all you will be doing is giving into the social cliche and marketing ploy of auto manufacturers all while being tricked into thinking that you’re making a difference in the world and that you’re saving money. And it’s seen how poorly informed this country is with everyone flocking to buy Toyota’s/Lexus’s and Honda’s hybrid, companies rushing to develop competing hybrids to get a share of the good business, and now George Bush’s new law stating that all manufacturers now need to research and develop hybrid cars in their lineup. With the current unstable condition of the stock market and economy, could this be an economical ploy as well to boost the economy with the business attraction that hybrids are getting? Who knows…it’s our turn to make the smart decisions…everyone else has.

~Chris Chin

Source: Top Gear Magazine of UK, Automobile Magazine, EPA, DieselPowerMag