Auto Review

2006 Suzuki Grand Vitara review

Monday, May 14th, 2007


Last year, I traded in my 2000 Dodge Stratus on a 2006 Suzuki Grand Vitara. Since I’ve found myself the writer of an automotive blog, I thought I’d give a long term review of the only newer car I own.

We outgrew our Stratus soon after our baby girl was born. Since it was paid for, we kept it and dealt with the growing inconvenience of having to bend over double to put the kid in the middle (wife and I are both pretty tall - she’s 5′10″ and I’m 6′5″) to be able to go anywhere as a family. Since we we swore off getting a minivan a decade before having the kid, we didn’t look at any of those. The wife parks in a tight parking garage at work, a large SUV was out the window as well. We settled on small car-based SUVs.

The roundup of what to look at were as follows:

Here’s what we wanted: leather interior, a V6 (or extremely gutsy 4 cylinder), small size

What we didn’t want: Off road prowress (this car might br driven over a curb or into the field maybe once or twice as long as we owned it), relatively cheap prices, and the promise of reliability.

Unknown to us, the Toyota RAV-4 had undergone a change to allow for 7 person seating and had moved a bit upscale for our taste. A street price range (at the time) of over $28K turned me away in a hurry when I visited the dealership. The Honda CR-V didn’t come with a V6, and their 4 cylinders have always needed to rev high to get anywhere, and I still have a problem fitting into them. So much for the brands that boasted reliability.

We went for warranty next, which put us into Kia, Hyundai, and Suzuki territory. All boast 100,000 mile warranties, but the Suzuki is 7 years versus the Kia/Hyundai’s 10 years. Unfortunately, the higher quality reputation the Korean brands had been getting seems to have boosted their price as well. Also fairly important (at least to us), the Santa Fe and Sportage are ugly. I don’t know how else to say it. They’re not Pontiac Aztek ugly, but their styling is at best completely unremarkable. The Suzuki Grand Vitara was redesigned for 2006, and by virtue of being the last on my list, it gave me a chance to go try out a company whose cars I had been unfamiliar with since the Samurai and Sidekick.

As you may have guessed by this post’s title (brilliant though you are, I’m sure), I liked it so much that I bought a 2WD Luxury Edition that same day.

We’ve had it for a year and right at 8,000 miles now. We still like it.

The only problems we’ve had were:

1.) A weird burning smell we noticed whenever we stopped the car. Before you ask, yes it scared the crap outta me enough to make me crawl around the car to try and find what was on fire. As it turns out, Suzuki ships its cars with a silicate coating on the exposed exhaust system that is there to prevent rust from forming on the boat ride from Japan to here.

2.) The 6 disc in-dash CD/MP3 player immediately ate the first CD we put into it. This took a couple months to get ordered and replaced (back order), but it was replaced under warranty.

Here’s the final verdict:


  • Just like a car, except higher
  • The only available engine is a nicely powerful V6
  • Quite loaded (every option except 4×4) for a reasonable price (just over 22K)
  • With the redesign for 2006, it’s a very well styled car (SUV - whatever)


  • Gas mileage isn’t as good as you might expect from a small car (SUV - whatever)
  • Radio reception pretty much sucks if you’re farther than 20 miles outside a major city
  • Initial uneasiness of thinking the car was going to burst into flames every time we got out (lasted about a month)

–Will Thompson

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Top of the Line Lex

Friday, April 13th, 2007


Some times life is pretty weird. Two days ago I was driving around in a beat up VW Microbus with a guy from Germany. The very next day I was cruising with four of my friends in a top of the line Lexus LS460L sipping on Dom Perignon and eating only the finest cheese. Well we didn’t have any Champaign or cheese, but the long wheel base LS460L certainly had me thinking that I should borrow some Grey Poupon.

When I first saw the black Lexus press car parked outside of messy roommate packed house, the contrast was startling. I had spent most of the day doing interior house painting, for lunch I ate a cheap burrito from a local roach coach, and when I got home there was something in the refrigerator that was growing hair. Yet somehow when I stepped inside the LS460 all the days events vanished into thin air. The car’s supple leather seats were soft and welcoming, the wood accented interior was stylish yet sedate, and overall appearance of the big black sedan makes all its occupants feel like they are VIPs, even if they aren’t.

The back seat

After filling the Lexus with five people, an easy task that left all occupants extremely comfortable, we headed out to the local bar to show off the new ride. Out on the road the Lexus was effortless to drive. With decent power from the 4.6 liter V8, a super coosh suspension which we appropriately left on the softest setting, “comf” and feather light electronically controlled steering it almost felt as if the car could drive itself. Speaking of driving itself, the LS 460 is famous for being able to parallel park itself, a feature which was not included on the press car despite numerous chants of “Ghost Park the Whip” from the folks in the back seat.

When I first wrote about the LS 460 I describe it as a tech nerd’s dream. And while it does have a ton of gadgets, including a backup camera, all the features proved simple to use even without an owners manual. But for me the most impressive feat was adjusting the driver’s seat to my normal driving position, then climbing into the back seat and stretching out my 6′3″ frame directly behind the driver’s seat. As one of my friends said, “it’s like they designed this thing for NBA players”.


A truly wonderful car I give the LS460L high marks. I doubt I’ll ever be able to afford one, but I was happy enough to spend the night pretending to be rich and famous.

Champaign wishes and caviar dreams!

-Bill Mertz

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Thursday, April 12th, 2007


The creator of the 24 Hours of Lemons recently purchased a VW Microbus for $800 dollars. The bus, a ‘73 I believe, is part of an ingenious penalty devised by the creator to make life miserable on the track for drivers who aren’t obeying the track rules. I could say more but I don’t want to ruin the surprise. However, the race is still months away and in the mean time the bus is just sitting out in front of a seedy looking warehouse.

Having never driven a VW Microbus I had to jump at the chance to take this thing for a spin. After all, despite its horrible-bordering-on-dangerous tires, the bus was registered and reportedly ran fine. To make things even more interesting I had just participated in a photo shoot for my editor’s neighbor who is a professional photographer. At the shoot I met young guy from Germany who was interning over here in the States. He also had a strong interest in type 2 Microbuses. Some times things fall into place in an astonishing way. After the photo Sebastian, my new German friend, and I grabbed the keys to the Microbus, fired it up and headed onto the dangerous public streets.


I think it is safe to say the VW bus is the slowest licensed vehicle I have ever driven. Combine that with vague shift linkage and I quickly figured out that I needed to let any car behind me pass. Shifting this thing was like rolling dice, about 25% of the time you hit the gear you wanted, the rest of the time it wouldn’t engage, you got the wrong gear or you heard a terrible grinding noise. Even if you did manage to steadily up shift through the first 3 gears, 30 mph hour was about all it wanted to do, unable to push to 35 MPH as if it were the speed of sound.

Performance aside, and it should be well aside because this is a VW Microbus, the bus is a total hoot. The steering wheel is nearly horizontal to the ground giving it a genuine bus like feel, and the driver sits so far forward that the when you turn it gives you the impression that you are hanging off the bow a ship. This particular bus was well used, with no upholstery and a giant rust hole on the driver’s side floor, but the Spartan German interior still had a bit of charm left.

The actual $800 Microbus

The best part of the whole trip was when I turned the controls over to Sebastian and let him drive. The 21 year old German was so ecstatic to drive this piece of junk that he didn’t stop smiling even when we sat for an entire traffic light cycle trying to get the bus into first gear. He told me that busses were fetching a high price in Germany and how he was thinking about trying to bring one back from the US. We must have made quite a site driving around the streets of the east bay, two tall, skinny, blonde guys in a Microbus. The fact that I have a lot of German ancestry, and the fact that I got to share my first Microbus drive with a genuine German Microbus enthusiast made the whole event a really cool affair. I have to admit, as terrible and slow as the Microbus performs, it really is a cool little bus.

-Bill Mertz

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Pontiac Solstice GXP: Can Turbo Boost Make the Solstice a Winner?

Tuesday, March 20th, 2007


This weekend I had the opportunity to drive Pontiac’s beefed up Solstice, the GXP. To give a little background, I’ve previously drove the regular Solstice when it first came out as well as the Saturn Sky, which shares a platform and drive train with the Solstice. The normal Solstice was a pretty terrible car for numerous reasons. The Sky, while a drastic improvement over the Solstice, still didn’t ignite a fire inside me. So when I buckled into the new turbo charged Solstice GXP I had pretty low expectations, which turned out to be a good thing.

As the old saying goes, I’ve got some good news and some bad news, so let me start out with the good. One of the major flaws with the naturally aspirated Solstice is under the hood. While the jumbo 2.4 liter Ecotec four cylinder puts out over 170 horsepower, it is buzzy, unpleasant to rev and at times feels like a truck motor. The GXP is a vast improvement in this area. The 2.0 liter turbocharged four banger puts out an impressive 260 horsepower and delivers in a smooth, flexible and most importantly fun manner. It has a broad power band with turbo boost kicking in pretty high in the rev range for some good old pin you to your seat acceleration. But the GXP also packs plenty of low end torque to pull the car briskly out of up hill corners. My biggest complaint with the engine would have to be the noisy blow off valve that seems to operate even when the digital boost gauge reads 0 psi.


Possibly the best part of the GXP is the turbocharged power plant.

The cars handling characteristics are also a leap ahead of the regular Solstice that I drove awhile back. Taking a page from the Saturn Sky’s revalved shocks, the Solstice GXP absorbs bumps in a much less jarring manner but still manages to feel sporty and keep the tires planted on the ground. Although the car feels a bit chunky on the suspension at times, it can be driven quickly down a back road without difficulty. The rubbery/numb steering feel and the dialed in under-steer are the car’s biggest handling draw backs.

The last plus I will give to the Solstice is its external styling with the top down. The Solstice, Sky and Solstice GXP are all good looking cars. They have some great lines that are unique in the current car market, and I think the average Joe would have to call the car attractive. With the top down the rear head rest fairings actually look sporty, not cheesy, and the smooth, rounded front end of the Solstice has a distinct vintage car flavour. With the top up the car looses a lot of its aesthetic appeal, but since it is a rag top designed to be driven with the roof folded away and hidden underneath the rear skin, I’ll chalk it up to “no one looks great first thing in the morning”.


Now for the bad. When the Solstice first came out its ergonomics and interior design were horrible. The cockpit was cramped, despite the cars bulbous size, with little room (even by little car standards) for storage. Things like rolling up windows and using the parking brake became awkward Yoga exercises using motions that you never knew you could do before. Cup holders interfered with elbows, windows couldn’t be rolled down unless you reached across your body with the inside hand, and storage compartments were scarce and uncomfortable to use. I’m sorry to say that the GXP is more of the same. A tacky interior with cheap materials in a poorly designed layout makes the Solstice GXP downright unpleasant to drive daily. The trunk holds next to nothing, which actually doesn’t bother me so much in a two seat roadster, but the fact that the trunk is sharing room with the top is annoying at times. With the top up, you have to disconnect and reconnect the top when opening and closing the trunk. With the top down you have to lift the top a bit if you plan on stowing anything larger than a juice box back there.

What really disappoints on the Pontiac are all the little things that don’t work right. The fuel gauge sometimes comes up tot he quarter tank mark, then goes up a bit more a few minutes later, but some times it will hover in the same place. When you pop the trunk to fold out the top (which is a several step process) the rear struts don’t hold the deck lid up like they are supposed to, meaning you have to hold it yourself and unfurl the top, and this is a new car. And speaking of the top, right out of the box it doesn’t fit or lineup well and when it is up the wind noise is pretty intense. One of the best and most poignant moments was when a fellow writer went to story his hooded sweatshirt in the trunk of the car. With the top down he popped the trunk with the remote key fob and the trunk lid strained to open due to its lack luster gas struts. After stuffing his sweatshirt under the top in the back he tried to close the trunk, but it was interfering with the top, so he slammed it a bit, which succeeded in closing the trunk, but set off the car alarm. It is these small details that really kill the GXP. It really makes you wonder why you would choose this car over the other two seat competitors who seemed to have worked these little bugs out.


While I would never buy one of these cars, I did have a decent time driving GXP on the local back roads. With the sun out and the top down the powerful roadster was definitely fun. But when compared to other cars in its class it simply comes up short. Too little too late.

-Bill Mertz

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Hangin’ With Mini Cooper

Monday, March 5th, 2007


This weekend was the best weather we’ve seen in the Bay Area for quite some time. Fortunately for me the unseasonable shorts and t-shirt temperatures coincided with a stint behind the wheel of an ‘07 Mini Cooper S. As a lover of old cars I had a really hard time loving the “new” Mini’s when BMW first released them. The original British made Austin Mini’s were so cool and functional, and it seemed to me that the new BMW incarnation of had sucked the lovable English soul out of the car. But I couldn’t ignore the hard facts: the car handles well, has a powerful engine and although it is quite a bit larger than the original Mini, the BMW designed Mini is small when compared with other modern cars. These are all qualities which I hold in high-esteem so I figured it was only fair that I give the new Mini the benefit of the doubt.


While the 2007 Mini is actually physically larger than the previous model year it is nearly impossible to tell at first glance. As I walked around the 2007 Cooper S I was impressed by how much more aggressive the S model is when compared with a base Mini Cooper. A bolder front fascia combined with larger wheels and a tougher stance gives the Cooper S a purposeful look. Even though I’ve never been crazy about the new Mini’s aesthetics, especially the back, I have to admit that the ‘07 Cooper S is good looking vehicle, especially the dark grey version that I had the privilege to test. Inside, the car is comfortable and roomy enough for a tall guy like me to take on a long road trip without complaint. Certain appointments, such as the central gauge cluster, suit the retro-themed car quite some of the buttons and switches looked like they belonged on a Disneyland ride instead of inside of a road going vehicle. The controls were also a bit counterintuitive at first, but to be fair most new cars are like this now, and a few minutes is all it takes to figure things out.


For the 2007 S BMW stuck a turbocharger on top of its new 1.6 liter Valvetronic engine. This gives the Cooper S pretty good kick with roughly 175 horsepower and slightly more torque. The turbocharged motor replaces the old supercharged Cooper S of the previous generation and provides slightly more kick with improved fuel economy and reduced CO2 emissions. The car is available in both 6 speed manual and 6 speed automatic trim. While I’m not one to complain about test driving any new car, I would have preferred the manual gearbox to the slush-box that came with the car. Like many of the sportier automatic transmissions these days this one featured a manual mode allowing you to select gears via steering wheel mounted paddles. But even in sport mode the up-shifts had the same slow and slippery engagement that a normal automatic transmission provides. Aside from that the gear box was great, down shifting quickly and never missing a beat.

On the road the Mini is a blast. As long as you are comfortable with your man hood you can rip around in this car all day and maintain a fat grin on your face. The turbocharger is almost unnoticeable delivering smooth power without the normal quirks that turbochargers often bring to the table. The suspension is taught but not at all rough. The steering is a bit elastic, but has more than enough precision to point the Mini wherever you want to go. With 175 horsepower there is a bit of torque-steer when you are hard on the throttle in a turn, but I never found it unnerving or unpredictable.


As I piloted the Mini Cooper S in the East Bay hills I had a good dice with a late model GTI VR6. To his credit the driver, who had a kid on board, put up a pretty good pace allowing me to really see where the Cooper S shined and where it came up a bit short. In all honestly I found very few short comings. More than enough power, predictable and grippy handling, a comfortable ride, and with the sunroof open and the warm air coming into the cockpit I could think of only a handful of vehicles that I would rather be driving.

All in all the 2007 Mini Cooper S really impressed me. Its combination of performance, practicality and fun make it the type of car that I might buy new off the lot if I could afford it (in the $30,000 dollar range to get behind the wheel). And while the original English Mini will always remain a proper Mini in my mind, the new Cooper S has certainly earned my respect and admiration.

-Bill Mertz

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Shelby GT500: Horses and Ponies and Snakes, Oh My!

Monday, January 15th, 2007


I don’t get a ton of press vehicles passing my way, and the ones that do come always take awhile my poor (look at my paycheck some time) desperate hands. The bright side of this is that when I do get a press vehicle it is usually more impressive and capable than I deserve. Such was the case when I was tossed the keys to a 2007 Shelby GT 500 Mustang.

A lot of the car magazine guys I know snickered at the regular old Mustang GT when the most recent version came out. “It’s cheesy”, “handles like a pig”, “awful interior” the comments went on and on. But a few of us were impressed by the car, after all it is a Mustang, not an exotic sports car, and I thought it was fast, comfortable, the interior was good by Ford standards and most importantly it was fun. What more could you want from a Mustang?


5.4 liters, 32 valves, and overhead cams topped off with a supercharger

Well I found the answer to that question: 500 horsepower. Driving the Shelby GT 500 is not unlike driving the GT, the main difference is power and speed. For a car with 500 horsepower the Shelby is remarkably easy to drive. The clutch pedal was on the heavier side which I actually prefer in a car with this type of performance. The six speed transmission shifted flawlessly through the gears and the limited slip rear end really proved its worth putting the power to the ground. Although the big Mustang really liked to get sideways it never felt twitchy or harsh like the Z06 Corvette I drove earlier this year. The GT 500 did show a bit of axle hop when dropping the hammer in first gear, but otherwise it handled great for a live axle.


High booty!

The best part of this car is its power plant. The 5.4 liter 32 valve supercharged V8 performs like a champion. Delivering smooth and steady power that builds gradually as revs go up this motor will definitely pin you to your seat. With the help of 8.5 pounds of boost from a roots type blower, not to mention the cool supercharger whine, the Shelby Mustang puts out a healthy 500 horsepower and 480 lb-ft of torque. Despite the Moby Dick curb weight of 3,920 pounds the Shelby can dash from naught to 60 in only 4.5 seconds. Not too bad for a car that only cost $43K.

There are some down sides to the car however and one of them is the brakes, they just aren’t as spectacular as you would hope. They stop the car ok, but you get the feeling that a few laps around a race track, or 20 minutes of hard driving on a twisty road would cook them pretty good. My other complaints are pretty minor and subjective. The dashboard has a really ugly cap on it that looks like a total after thought that was glued in place at the last minute to add more leather to the cabin. The ride height also looks a bit on the tall side in the back, giving the car that already looks like a hooligan should be driving it and even more Stockton high school kid look.


Those complaints aside the Shelby GT 500 is good package. No it doesn’t perform like a Corvette and it isn’t as nice as an M6, but it cost a lot less and it offers a remarkable amount of fun for the dollar. If I had $43,000 I would still probably just by a GT and take a nice vacation, the Shelby is a little too flashy for me, but that’s taking nothing away from the car. It was a blast to drive and doesn’t pretend to be anything it is not. It is just one fast Mustang, nothing more.

PS. I had to share the best quote I heard when someone was checking out the interior of the Shelby Mustang.

Guy1: “These seats are like MGB seats.”
Guy2: “What do you mean?”
Guy1: “I mean they’re sh***y.”

-Bill Mertz

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2006 Honda S2000: Raising the Bar, Lowering the Redline.

Wednesday, December 6th, 2006


I’ve been waiting a really long time to drive an S2000. So long in fact that I missed the first version of Honda’s two seat sport scar completely. Gone are the days of the rev-happy 9000 rpm redline 2.0 liter banger that I longed to drive; apparently people wanted more low-end torque and a less peaky power band. While high-revving peaky power plants are nearly my definition of fun (I clearly don’t agree with the masses on this one) the latest version of the S2000 did an excellent job of putting a smile on my face.

Like a first date with a beautiful girl who has rough around-the-edges table manners, my first drive in the S2000 started off a bit awkward. I probably should have seen it coming because I had just hopped out of the silky smooth and deafeningly silent Porsche Caymen minutes before pushing the start button on the Honda sports car. When the 2.2 liter engine fired up it sounded rough, buzzy and much less refined than I expected. The first few miles left me looking like I had just swallowed a gulp of sour milk. All the anticipation and hype had left me a bit under whelmed. The power didn’t seem to unleash when the rpms got high, as I expected it too and the interior was small, Spartan and very Honda, while I was looking for something more exotic.

RAV4: Star of the San Francisco International Auto Show

Wednesday, November 29th, 2006

This past weekend I made my annual visit to the San Francisco International auto show. For some reason the show was lacking in excitement this year. Sure there were cool cars like the Tesla, the light-weight electric sports car. But nothing was getting me revved up. So I decided to take a different approach to the show and look for a car for my mother.

Previously my mom had been driving a Subaru Legacy Outback, but the car was totaled in an accident which left her behind the wheel of my parents’ second car, a ‘99 Honda Civic. So she has been tentatively looking for a vehicle to replace the Civic which, although still running strong, has a faulty heater and vague steering issues that are probably the result of several thefts. She wants something with a high seating position meaning a small SUV is a real consideration. She is also considering things like four wheel drive for trips to the snow, and leather seats and other luxury items because she’s put up with hauling kids around for years and she deserves it.

So I walked around to all the manufacturers’ displays and check out various cars that might suit her needs. The Subaru Forester was top contender and so was the Honda Pilot, but then I walked into Toyota’s showcase. At first I checked out the Highlander, a car my mom has mentioned to me, but frankly I think it is a bit too big for her to use as a commute vehicle which is represents a good portion of her driving.

Just passed the Highlander I spotted a nice silver-blue ‘07 RAV4. The interior was stylish (it can be ordered with leather seats) and spacious enough to haul around grandchildren and strollers or seat tall adults like myself in the back seat comfortably. Even with the optional V6 gas mileage wasn’t atrocious at all, I believe it was around 30mpg highway, and the RAV4 could also be ordered with four wheel drive. I also really like the size of the vehicle. While it has the added ground clearance and driving position of an SUV it is still very car like in its size and stance. It is also short enough and narrow enough to park without difficulty. Add in the Toyota dependability factor (from personal experience) and I really feel that I found the perfect car for Mom.
Unfortunately my mother still remembers the early days of the RAV4 when it looked like a cheap plastic vehicle and she doesn’t really like the cache that this Toyota carries with it. So I’m facing an uphill battle in trying to convince her that the RAV4 has all the luxury she needs but with the practicality too. Hopefully she will bite. If any RAV4 owners out there want to chime in on their experiences I’m all ears.

-Bill Mertz

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Porsche Cayman: a remarkably unremarkable way to travel.

Tuesday, November 28th, 2006

Today I drove my MGB up to Marine County to pick up a Honda S2000 press car for the night. While I was waiting for my co-pilot to finish some business I was given the opportunity to drive a beautiful Yellow Porsche Cayman. In my opinion the Cayman is the best looking vehicle in Porsche’s lineup. With sexy rear fenders, an elegant greenhouse and a flowing roofline the car turns heads without seeming arrogant.

Stepping into the Cayman it is instantly clear that this car is 100% Porsche. The well-appointed interior is stylish but not overdone, with a simple three-pod gauge cluster, a handsome three-spoke steering wheel and some very comfortable and sporty leather seats. The shifter is the only item inside that seems a bit cheap, but after running through the gears it is clear that this is only an aesthetic observation and doesn’t effect driving at all. The cockpit is plenty roomy even for tall drivers and rearward visibility isn’t as bad as you would expect for a mid-engine car.
On the road this Porsche is good; almost too good. The steering is razor sharp and the power steering is weighted well giving it an excellent feel. The suspension does an amazing job of blending performance and comfort. High speeds, twisting corners and rough roads all produce the same results, a confident, comfortable and sporty ride.

Step on the fly by wire gas pedal, and the Caymans 2.7 liter flat six begins to make some pleasant noises. Although a bit quiet from the outside, the inside sound effects make the will make you long for the Targa Florio. While out and out power is below super-car levels the 245 horse motor has more than enough spunk to get you into trouble with the local law enforcement. It also has a very flexible power band with plenty of low down torque making the Cayman fun to drive even at 2000 rpm.

In my short 20 minute drive I found very few flaws with the Porsche, yet it didn’t really live up to my expectations either. I guess I was hoping for more 911 and less Boxster, but the Cayman lies right in the middle. Like the middle child who gets straight A’s, plays sports, is an artist and never complains, the Cayman does it all without as much as a grumble. For me this epitomizes what I both loved and hated the car. Compared to my MGB it lacked soul and quirkiness. But two people could throw their luggage in the back and travel just about anywhere in any whether and the Cayman would be right at home. It won’t thrill you like a Corvette, or make you smile like an Elise; rather it will lull you into its confidence with its utilitarian ability.

-Bill Mertz

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Fast, Cool, Scion

Saturday, November 25th, 2006

The Scion tC is a far cry from the boxy xB that put Scion on the map. The third offering from Toyota’s Scion brand was designed to be a performance oriented sports coupe with all the qualities of a high-end model at a fraction of the price, and the tC definitely delivers the goods.
Under the watchful eye of Chief Engineer Dr. Shigeyuki Hori performance was a priority. Following the simple boy racer guideline of taking engines from big cars and putting them into small ones, the standard engine for the tC is the same robust 2.4 liter 4 cylinder used in the
Camry. Specifically tuned to suit the smaller coupe, this all aluminum twin-cam power plant is good for 160 horsepower and a hefty 163 lb-ft of torque. While this is ample power to give the Scion coupe a genuinely sporty feel, a quick trip to the Toyota dealership will give even the hottest shoed enthusiast all the oomph they could ask for. Toyota Racing Development has developed a bolt-on supercharger as well as a host of other aftermarket goodies that can bump the power up and over the magic 200 horsepower mark. Even more impressive than the power output, is the fact that Toyota will still honor the cars warranty in supercharged trim.

Lexus that Parks Itself

Saturday, November 4th, 2006

Just when you thought the gadget-packed super luxury cars coming out of Germany couldn’t be topped, the Japanese pulled another rabbit out their hat. Not to be outdone by the likes of BMW and Mercedes, Lexus has put into production a vehicle which can parallel park with minimal driver assistance.
The LS 460 is truly a technological wonder in the luxury car segment. With a stat sheet the size of a short novel the LS is a tech nerds dream. Under the hood is a 380 horsepower direct injection 4.6 liter V8 with dual variable valve timing that gives optimum power at any speed. The Lexus also features the world’s first eight speed (yes 8!) automatic transmission to provide a good mix of performance and economy to the big rear drive sedan. Power steering is no longer handled by an engine driven pump, but is now electronic, and features a variable gear ratio that changes the steering feel based on the cars speed. The suspension is also of the adjustable type. By using a variable air suspension the LS can be toggled into different settings for maximum comfort, normal or sport driving modes. Let’s not forget about the smart cruise control that relies on radar to maintain a safe driving distance from vehicles in front of you.

Hands down, the most impressive gadget on the LS is the Intuitive Parking Assist. The $500 option is pretty simple to operate. Drive slowly past a parking spot and 10 sonar sensors detect the space and the cars in front and in back of the space. Shift the car into reverse and a backup camera is activated. Push a screen mounted parking button and the Intuitive Parking Assist will come on line. If the spot is 6.5 feet larger than your car the Advanced Parking Guidance System will slowly navigate your car into the space. The driver must keep their foot lightly on the brake to keep the car under 2.5 mph. If the driver touches the gas pedal or steering wheel the guidance system will turn off. Once in the space a computer will notify the driver that parking is complete.

With handsome styling, excellent fit and finish and competitive pricing (base MSRP of $61,000) the LS 460 isn’t just a gizmo car, it’s also an attractive package. It is clear that the Toyota subsidiary has stepped it up a notch in the last couple of years. This could spell trouble for German manufacturers who have had a strong hold on the luxury car market.

I’m a bit of a control freak and don’t generally like the concept of having a computer drive my car but I must admit this is really cool. After seeing this BMW, Mercedes and Audi should be justifiably nervous. Lexus is a major contender in the market and they are now leading the technological battle that is being waged in luxury cars today. Before long there will be driverless vehicles on the road making automotive traditionalists like myself who actually like to steer and shift, obsolete. Then what will I do?

-Bill Mertz

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Best Sports Car on the Market?

Tuesday, October 24th, 2006

The Lotus Elise isn’t exactly brand new. In fact the sports car that was first released in Europe in 1995 is getting pretty dated. But for those of us that live in the US the car is still a new face. Because of strict safety standards it took until the 2005 model year before the little Lotus made its way across the pond; but now that its here many Americans are in love.

The Elise is everything a sports car is supposed to be, and nothing that it isn’t. Spartan, minimalist, lacking in creature comforts; these are just some of the terms I’ve heard used to describe the Elise. Call it what you will the car is just plane simple. The cockpit has seats, seat belts a steering wheel, gauges, pedals and hardly anything else. This may seem crude, but the driving controls are really all that you will need to enjoy yourself in this Lotus.

The motor in the Americanized Elise is a Toyota 1.8 liter 4 cylinder that puts out a hefty 190 horsepower at a revvy 7,800 rpm. This may not seem like a lot of power for an exotic car, but the extruded-aluminum chassis and composite fiberglass body keep the weight down to a scant 1984 lbs. With this power to weight ratio the car can make the dash to 60mph in less than 5 seconds.

Driving the Elise in the twisties is simply heavenly. The car really feels like a go-kart. Steering input (non-power steering) is light and more responsive than anything else I’ve driven. The track-package suspension that came on my test car provided amazing grip, and although a little bumpy on rough freeways due to the short wheel-base, was overall quite comfy for around town driving.
Driving the Elise was by far the most fun I’ve had in a new car, including cars with much more horsepower. Congratulations should be given to the Elise designers for sticking to Lotus founder Colin Chapman’s “low-weight” philosophy that made Lotus successful in the past.

-Bill Mertz

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The Odd Couple: M6 vs. Z06

Monday, October 23rd, 2006

When you see the BMW M6 and the Corvette Z06 parked side by side the cars look like night and day. The Z06 in its brilliant yellow paint with super-aggressive styling and gargantuan tires isn’t exactly modest. In contrast the BMW looks dignified and elegant with smooth flowing curves and a less audacious deep-blue exterior. So why even bother comparing the two cars if they are so different.
Well it just so happens that the one thing they do share is roughly 500 horsepower–the Z06 with 505 and the M6 with 500 even. But how they achieve these power figures, and what they do with the ponies could not be more different.
The Z06 Corvette still uses a pushrod engine. While this archaic technology seems dated, GM has developed the motor exceptionally well. The hand-built 427 cubic inch all aluminum V8 pulls hard from 2000 rpm all the way up to its redline at 7200 rpm, and it will pretty much do this in the first 5 gears (it has a 6 speed manual transmission). The speedometer goes to 200mph and it isn’t lying. Driving the Corvette is down right scary. In 3rd gear with the traction control turned on, a stab of the throttle will still make the back of the car step out. I didn’t have the nerve to try this trick with the traction control turned off. With such a wide power band you can leave the Corvette in 3rd or 4th gear on almost any road and still have a blast driving it.

To get all the power to the ground the Corvette has massive tires; 275/35 ZR18 fronts and 325/30 ZR19 rears. Although the ride is a little bumpy by normal car standards, I felt it was remarkably smooth considering the stiff suspension setup, the low ground clearance and the 30 series super-low-profile tires. Grip was good even on undulating surfaces, and the Corvette steering felt light and easy to use. If I had to grade the interior I would give it a B+. Aside from some cheesy fonts on the gauges, the Z06 cockpit was very minimalist and affective. With nice seats, easy to use controls and a comfortable driving position, I felt right at home behind the wheel.
After about 45 minutes in the Corvette I switched over to the BMW M6. It’s sort of like going from a raging frat party to a German techno club. The M6 has noticeably better fit and finish overall. No gaps in any of the interior panels, and once inside you feel like your sitting in a 5 star hotel. This is partially due to the rich leather upholstery and the said headliner. The controls on the BMW are a bit trickier. With the complicated iDrive computer running the show, I was at a loss to control the stereo or navigation systems. And the turn signal switch is down-right terrible (see my 330xi write-up).

Shifting is done via paddle-controls on the steering wheel or a console mounted shifter. Both control a 7 speed sequential gearbox. The power plant for the M6 is a 5.0 liter V10 that loves to rev but is a little down on torque. The car has numerous adjustments for both engine, transmission, suspension and traction control, but simply pushing a button marked “M” on the steering wheel puts the car in a pretty aggressive mode for hard driving, and saves you the trouble of reading through the manual.

When I first got behind the wheel of the BMW I thought using the paddle-shifters would way more fun than driving a stick, but I was wrong. While easy to use I felt that the sequential transmission was slow to shift and didn’t give a solid feel of engagement, even in M mode.
The V10 sounded great and was really fun to drive. With power coming on strong at around 4000rpm the BMW felt more like a small displacement 4 cylinder in how you drove it. Flicking the paddle-shifters up and down, I felt really comfortable driving the M6 fast on back roads. Although you could feel the weight of the big BMW, it had really predictable handling and stuck in corners well. The ride in M mode was a bit harsh for a passenger, but as the driver you hardly notice. And while the car seemed to transmit every little bump right to the seats, it didn’t move around much on the road, which I attribute to superb suspension design.

In direct comparison to the Corvette, the M6 felt a little slow and heavy. With about 800lbs more weight and a lot less torque than the Z06 it makes sense that there would be some speed differential. But the M6 was a more civil car to drive, especially around town in standard driving mode. If the goal is out right speed, than the Z06 is the way to go, especially when you consider that it costs about $40,000 less than the BMW. If you want to be wrapped in gaudy luxury, and still be able to do 180mph than the BMW might be a better choice.
Although the M6 grew on me by the end of the test, I personally would choose the Corvette for its simplicity, good looks, and brutally fun power.
-Bill Mertz

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‘07 Jeep Wrangler, Just Another Jeep?

Friday, October 20th, 2006

Ever since DaimlerChrysler announced its plans to release the 2007 Wrangler JK (replacing the TJ) I’ve read a whole lot of criticism about the new Jeep. Honestly I can’t blame the critics. This Jeep, like most, is really easy to criticize: It isn’t particularly attractive, it has a new unproven V6 engine that is replacing the reliable inline six which has been available in Jeeps in some guise for over 30 years, did I mention it’s not very good looking. Well for the all the straight-six lovers out there all I can say is that change is inevitable. But for those who think the new Wrangler is lacking in the style department I have news for you; THERE ARE NO PRETTY JEEPS. We Jeep owners may like the styling of our Jeeps, but that’s because they belong to us. You don’t here new mothers calling their infants ugly either.

The point of a Jeep, especially the Wrangler, isn’t to be beautiful. The Wrangler was built to be functional, and quite frankly it looks like it will get the job done when the roads get rough. The new motor puts out respectable power figures, the JK still has a solid front axle with coil sprung suspension, and Jeep is still making the Rubicon edition which caters to those who want a rig with more off road prowess right out of the box. It seems to me like the new Wrangler JK will do an excellent job of keeping the Jeep name alive and well with Jeep’s core supporters—off road enthusiasts.
I’m curious to see what other folks think about the new Wrangler.

Wrangler JK
Click to read a full review from JP Magazine.
-Bill Mertz

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BMW 330xi

Wednesday, October 18th, 2006

It’s been a long time since I’ve driven a newish luxury sedan. But how much different could a new BMW be from a 5 year old version. Yesterday I stole some seat time in a 2006 BMW 330xi and it seems that Bob Dylan was right; “The times, they are a changing”.

When you get into the 330 you feel like your strapping yourself into the HAL supercomputer. There is no key in the traditional sense; instead the mini-remote used to unlock the car is also the key. Stick the remote into the key port and press the start/stop button and the vehicle comes to life with an array of flashing lights, digital screens and an eerie quiet that you used to find in libraries. Expecting to hear “you’ve got mail” next, it took awhile for my senses to take in all the information that the car was broadcasting to me, and I hadn’t even taken the car out of park yet. For techno-morons like myself, trying to mess with BMW’s iDrive navigation system is a headache waiting to happen. Ditto the stereo system, which I decided would be best to leave alone.

Although a little busy, the interior of the 330xi is well put together and handsome in a very German sort-of way. My biggest complaint in the cockpit was that the side-bolsters on the driver’s seat, which protruded aggressively, grasping my spare-tire mid-section and giving a constant reminder that I had chocolate cake for breakfast. Figuring that the bolsters were probably adjustable–heck everything else was–I spent about 20 minutes trying to figure out how to loosen them up. I was able to make the seat recline, raise, lower, it even gave me a Swedish massage, but for the life of me I couldn’t find the bolster adjustment. I’m sure if you actually bought the car you would receive a set of 2 inch thick owners manuals complete with CD and a 1 month training course that would teach you how to use the car correctly and avoid these problems.

Once on the road the BMW made up for most of its parking lot short comings. Driving the car is pretty straight forward. The 3 liter inline six is silky smooth and pulls hard when asked to. With 255 horsepower the car can definitely get out of its own way, and it can do it with a style that most other sedans only dream of. Turn-in on the car is sharp and the handling is dialed in perfectly. Even on pothole strewn city streets the BMW rode and handled like a true luxury car. I didn’t have a chance to give the 330xi’s all wheel drive any sort of test. But after ringing the car around for awhile traction was the furthest of my concerns.

What really did get my attention was the frustrating turn signal switch. I think BMW tried to get too clever here and develop smart turn signals. At first glance it looks like a normal turn signal stalk, but when you try to signal for a turn the stock becomes the Cheshire Cat; confusing and eluding your every command. Instead of staying in the up or down position when the signal is on, the BMW stalk returns to center. However the signal will come on with even the lightest touch making lane changes especially frustrating.

Overall the car was pretty good in an unremarkable sort of way. It did the whole “driving” thing really well without being obtrusive to the driver. Ultimate driving machine? Probably not. But a good four-door sedan? Yeah, I’ll give it that.

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-Bill Mertz

About Automotive Blogger

Some people use their automobiles only to get from Point A to Point B. You know there's more than that. You get mad when someone makes a remark about your car that's less than flattering. You get riled when a cool car is destroyed in a straight-to-video movie. You realize when a new car doesn't deserve it's name of a great car of the past. When you see someone driving a boring vehicle, you feel sorry for them. You know it's not the destination that counts - it's the journey. Welcome home gearheads. Welcome home, car freaks. Welcome to the site that fuels your automotive obsession -

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