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Styling Misfires:
The BMW 5-Series Gran Turismo

August 5, 2013 by Matt

BMW 5-Series GT Gran Turismo

What on earth, BMW?

So the Mercedes CLS had already established the “4-door coupe” niche in massive fashion a few years before, and BMW’s response was…this? Either the Bavarian automaker’s market research had somehow shown car shoppers were hungry for a quasi-backpack-toting, deformed version of their handsome 5-series sedan, or the “attractive” part of the 4-door coupe equation was totally lost. It seems BMW thought the awkward grafting of a hatchback onto a typically well-proportioned shape would exploit an unexplored corner of the market, but it’s difficult to imagine who would gravitate toward such a stunted shape.

BMW 5-Series GT Gran Turismo

In a way, the 5-Series GT represents the most cynical demonstration yet of its manufacturer trying to coast on brand capital alone. Sure, it might drive well enough, and with the 400-hp, 4.4l twin-turbo V8, the 550i specification can certainly move along at a decent clip, but what about the 5-Series GT, above all else, communicates “Ultimate Driving Machine?” Precious little, and it’s that slogan and mindset that established the BMW brand in the public eye as the premier choice of driving enthusiasts, and by extension those who wanted to convey an impression (real or no) that they appreciate sharp-driving cars. Sadly, with experiments like the 5-Series GT (among others), the focus that made BMW’s reputation is slowly being chipped away. The open question is how long the brand’s luster can remain untarnished with the general buying public after the enthusiast community has moved on to greener pastures.

Image credits: netcarshow.com

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series wherein we discuss unsuccessful cars whose styling was their overlooked (or denied) Achilles heel. Read the other installments here:

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More Insight Into Mazda’s Prospects

July 30, 2013 by Matt

2014 Mazda 3 Red

In a recent feature, Car and Driver provides some analysis of an issue that provoked some pondering a little over a year ago: Why, in spite of a stellar lineup of cars, does Mazda still struggle to find lasting success compared to its rivals?

In my post, I speculated:

[A] glance at Mazda’s output—the 3, 6, RX-8, MX-5, CX-7, CX-9 and Tribute, among others—reveals vehicles that are almost always a joy to drive, but in terms of mass-market appeal, are a little out-of-step with mainstream tastes. They’re not boring transportation appliances, and as much as we enthusiasts would consider that a selling point, the hard truth is that much of the buying public is looking for the anonymous beige box to tote them around, never breaking down and getting 30 mpg and playing their MP3s via Bluetooth.

And while I’ve no doubt that’s part of the problem, C&D shines light on some additional albatrosses around Mazda’s neck, among them a temporarily favorable yen-to-dollar exchange rate putting the automaker in a precarious position from a pricing standpoint, vehicles that are well-sized for the American market but not ideal from a global perspective and a separation from corporate partner Ford that eliminates economies of scale facilitated by platform engineering.

By my count, between them, the CX-5 and 6 have three C&D comparo wins and the CX-5 notched another victory in the latest issue of Motor Trend. That kind of success in such a short span of time is absolutely unheard of for automakers other than media darlings like BMW and Audi, and contributes to the feeling of mystification among car buffs. We ask ourselves: “If the German performance marques leverage critical success into sales figures, why can’t Mazda?” But as C&D points out, the equation for a downmarket (though no less dynamically excellent) automaker is a bit more…nuanced.

Image credit: autoblog.com

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Top Fuel Dragster Engineering, Part 2

July 25, 2013 by Matt

5-Disc Clutch Top Fuel Dragster

After the awesomeness of the first installment, I can’t resist putting up a link to the second part, wherein the author geeks out on the intricacies of actually putting 10,000 hp to the ground. Fascinating details abound, like 5-disc clutches, crazy rear tire deformation at full speed and 5.5 g launches. Enjoy.

Image credit: motoiq.com

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What Might Have Been:
The 2006-2010 Dodge Charger

July 23, 2013 by Matt

Dodge Charger R/T Red

It coulda been a contender.

I wanted so badly for this car to be good. Really good. Five years ago, I pinned my hopes for a genuine American sports sedan on three vehicles: The Cadillac CTS-V, the Pontiac G8 and the car featured in this article—the 2006-2010 Dodge Charger. And while Cadillac got it and continues to refine the formula, and Pontiac got it—briefly—when they offered a 6-speed manual in conjunction with the G8′s top-of-the-line V8, the Charger never received the same treatment. It was a missed opportunity.

Dodge Charger R/T Engine Motor Hemi V8

All the ingredients of excellence were present and accounted for: A workable RWD chassis developed from that of the previous-generation Mercedes E-Class, a world-beating 5.7l, 340-hp V8 engine, a team of suspension tuners potentially lifted from the Viper program and a plethora of 6-speed manual transmissions to choose from. And yet…it never came together, whether through Chrysler’s ignorance of what to do with the bits at their disposal or willful refusal to spend capital creating a car that would make enthusiasts salivate but would hold little appeal in the larger market.

Dodge Charger R/T Red

The styling reflects the same so-close-yet-so-far aura that afflicted the drivetrain and chassis dynamics. Highlights include a rakishly swept-forward nose, clean and elegant front and rear treatments, tastefully unadorned flanks and a jaunty pair of “hips” just forward of the rear wheels. All the elements are there, and yet…viewing one in the flesh, I can’t help but be let down by the fact that the proportions are just a little bit off, the whole car looks too bathtub-ish and not lithe and athletic like it should. Again, it’s a shame, since out of the three cars I mentioned at the beginning of the article, the Charger’s details gave it the most potential to be a real head-turner.

Dodge Charger R/T Interior Inside Cockpit Console Dash Dashboard

For what it’s worth, the 2011-present redesign didn’t bring the car any closer to a state where it would hold any appeal for the true enthusiast, instead removing many of the more tasteful and appealing styling elements and introducing several, including the side scallops, that are distinctively chintzy. Furthermore, the curb weight increased a few hundred pounds and a three-pedal setup, or at least a dual-clutch transmission, is still notably absent from the option sheet. And the handling still leans (pun intended) more toward that of its cousin’s, the plush Chrysler 300, rather than targeting the taut responses of a BMW 5-Series or Audi A6.

Hopefully one day, one of the Big Three will come around and deliver something sports sedan buffs can get excited about—and for longer than the aborted tenure of the Pontiac G8. Shame the Charger wasn’t it.

Image credits: netcarshow.com

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting key decisions I wish automakers had made differently, for divers reasons. Read the other installments here:

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3 Examples of Aesthetic Corner-Cutting

July 20, 2013 by Matt

Oldsmobile Aurora

No metal between the door and rear wheel arch. On the vast majority of cars, there’s a strip of bodywork between the rear edge of the door and the wheel well. It represents the outer lip of the inner fender and makes that area of the car looked tucked-in and finished. However, on some cars like the mid-’90s Olds Aurora shown above, the automaker decided to forgo the strip and bring the rear edge of the door all the way back to the wheel arch. While the result may have fewer bodywork edges, it also looks incredibly cheap.

Buick Riviera

Chrome wheels. Regrettably, GM seemed to be the worst offender when it came to cheap-looking styling in the ’90s. Rather than invest the resources to either make the wheel design more inherently appealing or complex or simply larger, GM’s idea of a “high-end” wheel was to take a very basic design and simply slap chrome on it. They apparently reasoned that the shiny stuff would provide the required showroom “flash” in lieu of, you know, actually styling the wheels.

Chrysler 200

Artificial window area enlargement. Shameless. Either properly enlarge the window area, or figure out how to make the C-pillar and greenhouse merge harmoniously, but for heaven’s sake, don’t cake on a kind of fakey-do artificial window mascara to camouflage the fact that you couldn’t crack the oh-so difficult puzzle of a sedan’s rear window treatment. Disgusting.

Image credits: usauta.pl, zuoda.net, theautochannel.com

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Mercs I Would Consider: The W123 Coupe

July 18, 2013 by Matt

Mercedes Benz W123 Coupe Black

Class. This car has it.

Arguably more than any other Merc, possibly more than any other car, no vehicle bestows on its driver such an aura of sensible, refined taste as the 1976-1985 W123 coupe.

The W123 coupe is not a car of extremes. It’s well-built, but not so well-built as to be priced into the stratosphere. It’s graceful, but not flashy or ostentatious. It’s classic-looking, but not tinny or fragile in appearance. And neither is it very slow or very quick, but exhibits perfectly adequate performance, at least in gasoline-powered 280CE guise.

Mercedes Benz W123 Coupe Blue

The coupe version of the W123 sedan featured in the last installment of this series, it shares all the sedan’s fine attributes—the satisfying bank-vault thunk of the doors, the interior materials spec’d to outlast a nuclear war, etc—and adds just the right dose of flair with the teardrop proportions and pillar-less side windows foreshadowing the later W126 coupe‘s treatment.

Mercedes Benz W123 Coupe Green

The mental image I have of the W123 coupe driver is a discerning individual, someone who appreciates timeless objects but has an eye for design as well. They’re the kind of person who organizes every decorative element in their house just so, arranging it all (with an effortlessness, natch) so that nary a line or shape is out of place. And yet there’s an earthiness to the car that implies the owner is approachable, relatable, not some head-in-the-clouds ivory-tower elitist, inscrutable designer or aloof hipster. It’s unassumingly charismatic. If every personality type represents a discrete bubble, the W123 coupe exists at the point of convergence of the greatest number of them. And naturally, I want one.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting Mercedes models worthy of enthusiast consideration. Read the other installments here:

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Red-Hot: Caterham’s New 620R

July 16, 2013 by Matt

Caterham 620R Red

Assuming the mantle previously borne by the Superlight R500 as the fastest road-going Caterham model, the British kit-car manufacturer’s new 620R represents another volley in the escalating track-day car wars.

The only logical response to such salvos as the Ariel Atom 500 and the KTM X-Bow, the 620R’s formula is simple: Retain the lightness and simplicity of the old car, but inject even more horsepower to maintain its competitive edge. Left Lane reports:

[T]he 620R is powered by a 2.0-liter Ford-sourced Duratec engine that sends 311 horsepower and 219 lb-ft. of torque to the rear wheels via a ZF-built six-speed sequential gearbox and a limited-slip differential. The sprint from zero to 62 mph takes 2.8 seconds, and top speed is electronically limited to 155 mph.

Caterham 620R Red Interior Inside Cockpit Console Dash Dashboard

In addition to the aforementioned power increase and a few new bits and bobs, it’s nice to know that in the midst of all the escalating lunacy, “Caterham ensures that it has performed all of the necessary brake, chassis and suspension modifications to keep the power in check.” In other words, they seem to have an understanding somewhat lost on or ignored by other manufacturers (e.g. Mercedes) that if you turn your car’s engine “up to 11,” that power must remain accessible and manageable for there to be any point to the exercise. That explicit commitment is what keeps the automaker’s offerings at the top of my must-drive bucket list.

Image credits: autoblog.com, autoevolution.com

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