Based upon an aging Alfa Romeo platform with a Fiat engine and the front fascia of an updated Dodge Neon, I figured the Dart was simply snake oil; a car composed of leftover bits, haphazardly thrown together to get the Dodge name back into the compact sedan segment.
I was wrong.
While the Dart's virtues quickly became apparent to me, I am afraid they don't present themselves quickly enough for the average American buyer on, say, a test drive. Let me explain.
At first glance, the Dart's interior is a winner. It's huge. And even at the $23,560 mark, my test car had the 8.4" Uconnect system complete with satnav, rearview camera, and Bluetooth streaming audio. At six-foot-five, it's hard for me to comfortably fit in smaller cars. The Dart, however, had so much legroom that with the drivers seat all the way back, I couldn't completely depress the clutch--that's how much room it afforded me. Adding to the versatility of the Dart interior further, Dodge has cleverly included a storage cubby underneath the passenger bottom seat cushion.
The Dart interior isn't just big and well designed; it has some great design touches, too. Surrounding the instrument cluster and Uconnect screen is a red accent light that illuminates at night. While not functional in anyway, it's gives passengers the sense that the Dart is something special.
But for car buyers in the Millennial Generation like myself, the interior alone doesn't sell the car. Driving dynamics are important, too. Luckily the Dart hits the mark.
The Dart Rallye I tested had been fitted with a Fiat designed 1.4-liter inline four-cylinder, turbocharged Fiat engine with "MultiAir" technology producing 160 horsepower and 184 poundfeet of torque. It should be mentioned the 1.4-liter is a $1,300 upgrade from the standard engine: a 2-liter, normally aspirated four-cylinder called "Tigershark." Interestingly, the 2-liter produces the exact same amount of horsepower as the 1.4--and without a turbocharger.
For the first few days behind the wheel of the Dart Rallye, I was convinced the 1.4-liter MultiAir turbocharged engine was a miss.
Even with the six-speed manual, power was hard to wring out of the little Italian hunk of aluminum. Until the engine exceeds 3,5000 RPM, the 1.4-liter is slower than molasses on a cold day. Over 3,500, though, the engine comes alive in a buzz of Italian fury. After 5,500 RPM, however, power dwindles quickly up to the 6,500 RPM redline.
I had to learn to drive the Dart. But once I did, I became quickly enamored with it. The Dart definitely isn't a turnkey operation. There's a learning curve before the driver and the Dart harmonize. Once I made that connection, however, and driving the Dart became second nature, I loved it.
Delightfully, both handling and steering are quick and responsive. The six-speed manual is easy to shift and the gears are spread wide enough apart that I never found myself hitting the wrong gear.
Although the Dart really does resemble the discontinued Neon, I still really fancy its looks. Designers walked the fine line between accentuating the Dodge family resemblance but also modernizing and improving a signature look. Tops, too, is the "Blue Streak Pearl" paint that my test car sported.
On the window sticker, Dodge proudly touts the Dart's combined fuel economy score of 32 MPG. With an EPA estimated 27-MPG city and 39 highway, the Dart--on paper--is a fuel economy dream.
My experience with the Dart's efficiency was drastically different than advertised. By my approximation, I spent equal time on the city and the highway. According to the Dart's onboard computer, I only averaged 23 MPG during my week behind the wheel. Certainly, 23 MPG isn't bad. But it's not good when you're expecting those numbers to be flopped.
I'm afraid turbo spool spoils the Dart's fuel economy, like it does for most turbocharged engines.
If drivers can manage to keep their foot out of the accelerator and the engine below 3,500, never taking advantage by the turbo power boost, they very may well achieve the estimated fuel economy numbers. Drivers in the real world, however, who find 90 horsepower (my unofficial pre-turbocharger power estimate) to be inadequate in a 3,200-pound car will most likely want to stick with the base engine.
While both engines are European designed, the 2-liter is decidedly less European in its power band. Drivers accustomed to a more American and linear power output will find the 1.4-liter perplexing.
Don't worry; the Dart isn't a wash in my book because its real-world fuel economy numbers--for me--were low.
I still really like it. It looks great. It handles fabulously. It goes pretty well. It's tech-savvy. It's affordable. And it is backed by a five-year, hundred-thousand-mile warranty. What's not to love?
If it were my money, though, I'd wait for the R/T version. The R/T, which is slated to go on sale in mid-2013, will have a 2.4-liter MultiAir engine also called Tigershark...for some reason. The R/T will produce 184 horsepower and 171 poundfeet of torque and should be a real kick, that one.
2013 Infiniti M Hybrid
Nearly every automaker has its own take on the hybrid. Whether they shape it like the Prius or not, they all want to capitalize on the popularity of hybrids. While I've derided some (the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid) and loved others (Prius C) each surprisingly has its own distinctive characteristics. None more distinctive, however, than my most recent hybrid encounter: the 2013 Infiniti M Hybrid.
First, let's get to the basics: the 2013 M Hybrid carries a base price of $54,200 but my test vehicle weighed in at $66,245. Under the hood Infiniti has placed a 3.5-liter V6 mated to an electric motor that together produce a net 360 horsepower that is sent to the rear wheels through a seven-speed automatic transmission. The EPA has rated the M Hybrid at 27 MPG city and 32 highway with a combined score of 29.
Now we've gotten the nitty-gritty out of the way; let's talk design.
Say what you will about the looks of the new Infinitis. I think they appear to have been stung by a bee and suffered unsightly swelling. Plainly put: new Infiniti body designs take rounded, aerodynamic-inspired bodylines to an all-new level. The grille is rounded, the fenders are entirely rounded, and the bumper is rounded. I don't believe the exterior has one truly flat surface. Everything is curved and rounded.
Infiniti continues the rounded line design aesthetic onto the interior. Infiniti has given the dash and center stack many wandering, rounded lines that don't seem to serve any purpose other than to say "look, it's round-y in here, too!"
While many automakers are opting for wood trim with a flat finish, Infiniti has buffed their Japanese Ash wood trim to a nearly faux plastic finish. While it looks good, it's just not that modern. Then in the back, where there's normally a spacious trunk, Infiniti has chosen to stow the lithium-ion battery pack. Mind you, the trunk is still usable; it's just not as big as it once was without the batteries. The batteries also impinge on the ability to fold the rear seats down, cutting even further into potential cargo capacity.
My complaints with the interior end there, however. With a staggering 16-speaker Bose sound system; satnav; intelligent cruise control; blind spot monitoring; Bluetooth; rain sensing wipers; and much more; Infiniti leaves little to be desired in the way of technology and luxury.
Admittedly all those things sound great. But let's be honest: most automakers' features lists read nearly exactly the same. It's the M Hybrid's driving characteristics that truly set it apart.
If you've ever driven a Hybrid, you've probably noticed the driving characteristics that haunt virtually every hybrid: lumpy, uneven power delivery. Every hybrid (save the Prius C) suffers from it. The Infiniti is no different. But while the M Hybrid, too, is lumpy, it makes up for it with boatloads of power on the backend.
There's no mistaking: the M Hybrid is fast. Shift the drive mode selector into "Sport," and the M Hybrid becomes the heavy-hitting, fuel thirsty car it was designed to be before Infiniti over complicated it with an electric motor and some batteries.
The M Hybrid pulls and pulls, no matter the speed (or RPM) because the two motors (gasoline and electric) pick up where the other leaves off. Then at stoplights the engine shuts off, which saves fuel. When the gas engine shuts off, the AC system doesn't have to shut down because there's enough power to still run your accessories thanks to the extra batteries on board.
In Sport mode, the M Hybrid is the best hybrid over $30,000 that money can buy. But when the driver pops it over into "Eco" mode, the story changes. Drastically.
Typically in hybrids (when in Eco mode) the throttle response is simply ratcheted back by the on-board computer. Not so, in the M Hybrid. From a stoplight, the accelerator feels normal for the first quarter throttle. Push your foot any harder into the throttle, however, and the M Hybrid pushes back. I kid you not, the throttle pedal pushes back against you, resisting throttle. It is the most bizarre sensation I've ever felt. It's hugely unnatural feeling and I never once got used to it. It made me feel like my leg and foot were failing me. It felt like a mental block. It never felt like the vehicle was pushing back, resisting my desired throttle application; no, it must be my muscles are simply incapable of performing the task at hand. It was infuriating.
Why Infiniti decided to design a throttle that fought back against the driver rather than just electronically withholding throttle response is beyond me. For a neurotic fellow like me, the bully of a throttle pedal made the M Hybrid virtually undrivable in any setting other than Sport.
And that's really too bad. Since it left my driveway, I've spent a lot of time thinking back fondly on our time together. I never thought I'd say this about a hybrid; but I kind of miss it.
If you're in the market for one of the out-and-out strangest hybrid on the market, I urge you to rush into your local Infiniti dealer as quickly as you can. If, however, you're simply interested in an M37 and are alternately considering the step to the Hybrid model I advise you save your self the $18,000 and stick to the "plane Jane" M37 version instead.
First Drive: 2013 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class
2013 GL-Class has a lot of Bang(&Olufsen)--but not for your buck.
When engineering wizards at Mercedes first conceived of the full-size GL-Class SUV, they momentarily imagined it as a G-Wagon replacement. Thankfully, that never came to fruition. Instead, the G-Wagon would live another day--at least through 2019--and the GL was designed to be a more minivan-ish, soft-roading family hauler.
After its initial launch in 2007, the GL quickly became one of Mercedes-Benz best-selling models in the US with sales numbers (around 26,000 units annually) actually growing as the GL got on in years. For 2013, Mercedes has re-envisioned the GL with subtly updated bodylines, and updated interior, and a few new drivetrain options.
With a base price around $60,000, the Mercedes GL-Class competes with the likes of the Cadillac Escalade and the Infiniti QX56. Though God only knows who in their right mind would cross-shop the Escalade with the GL. That'd be like a horse and buggy with the SpaceX Dragon.
Though it doesn't look it, the new generation GL is longer, wider, and taller than the previous incarnation. In spite of these enlargements, the 2013 GL only weighs 50 pounds more than the 2012, which improves fuel economy.
The 2013 GL's looks are more masculine and striking than the previous generation but do still retain some of the minivan-ish lines. The front fascia has been masterfully reshaped for better aerodynamics without sacrificing its bold, iconic, and somewhat menacing look. Around the rest of the body, other tweaks have been made; the D-pillar, for instance, now has a slight up-kick to it and flared wheel arches have been added to the GL550.
Mercedes offers four models of the GL for 2013: a clean diesel-powered GL350 BlueTEC, GL450, GL550, and the soon-to-be unveiled GL63 AMG. The majority of sales will fall to the GL450 in the US with the rest split between the GL305 BlueTEC and the GL550. Sales figures of the GL63 AMG are still to be seen.
Interestingly, under the hood, the GL450 and the GL550 are nearly identical. They both share the same 4.6-liter direct-injected (amusingly called "Multi-Squirt"), biturbo gasoline V8. In the GL450, the engine has been detuned and produces 362 horsepower and 406 poundfeet of torque. The more powerful GL550, however, produces 429 horsepower and 516 poundfeet of torque.
Mercedes boasts fuel efficiency in the newest generation GL-Class is up 20-percent over the previous generation. But don't let those stats fool you; no GL drivetrain will achieve fuel economy numbers much higher than around 17MPG. In fact, the GL450 and GL550 will average around the 15MPG mark. And if you have to ask what the GL63 AMG fuel economy numbers will be like, you should just keep on car shopping; because if you have to ask, you can't afford it. If I had to guess (and I do) I'd wager an average around 10MPG.
Importantly, it's on the interior where the GL really hits its stride. Not surprisingly, all interior materials are of the highest quality both in terms of visual aesthetic and tactile stimulation. Available with an optional Designo (pronounced dee-zeen-yo) leather interior and three rows of seating, the GL is both elegant and versatile. Option it with the Bang & Olufsen sound system and the GL interior is transformed into a literal symphony to the senses.
Despite the GL's hefty base price, the standard COMAND system--which includes a seven-inch touch screen, Bluetooth, and a six-disc DVD/CD changer--does not include satellite navigation. As buyers add optional packages to the GL, however, and the GL will include some pretty nifty tech treats. Most impressive is the 360-degree Surround View camera. When the vehicle is in reverse, a series of cameras mounted around the vehicle are digitally stitched together to show a virtual bird's-eye view of the vehicle--clearly displaying everything within several feet of the GL.
The 2012 GL-Class has been loaded (or can be loaded) with tons of safety features. In the spirit of brevity, I'll outline the most noteworthy: ACTIVE CURVE SYSTEM, which limits body roll during cornering; ATTENTION ASSIST, which will alert the driver to take a rest from driving at the first signs of drowsiness; Active Lane Keeping Assist, which alerts the driver of unwanted lane departure by vibrating the steering wheel ever so slightly; COLLISION PREVENTION ASSIST, which will flash warnings at the driver if it senses the risk for a collision and also prepare the parking brake for emergency braking as soon as the driver applies the brake; and lastly PRE-SAFE, which will pre-tension seatbelts and even move the front passenger seat to a safer position if an impending collision is detected.
For buyers who want the off-road capability of the G-Wagon with the family-oriented versatility of the GL, Mercedes offers an On/Off-Road package. Featuring a two-speed, electronically controlled transfer case that provides 1:1 on-road gearing and 2.93:1 ratio for off-road capability, the GL can quickly become a weekend warrior workhorse at the push of a button.
As impressive as the 2013 GL is on paper, delightfully, it is even better in the road. While the diesel-powered GL350 BlueTEC has some trouble pulling up hills at highway speed, the GL450 and GL550 are veritable rocket ships.
The Production Chief, Axel Heix, admitted to me the feature of the new GL of which he is most proud is its car-like handling. And he's right to be proud. The GL handles better than virtually any other full-size SUV on the market, save the Range Rover.
As brilliant as the GL is to behold and to drive, I am still left scratching my head when looking at the sticker price. None of the GLs we drove on the press launch was priced under $92,000. Mercedes divulged the average GL buyer is a bit of an odd bird. The average GL buyer is a 48-year-old man whose yearly income is around $292,000. It is by far the youngest Mercedes customer with one of the highest average incomes (next closest is the income of the average SL buyer).
I reckon, though, you'd have to be a young, rich family man to justify the cost of the 2013 GL as it isn't really capable of doing double what, say, a Chevy Traverse, Dodge Durango, or Ford Explorer can do for half the money.
Despite my penny-pinching ways, I can see how--for the right buyer--the GL is a fabulous investment. For better or worse, it has no real side-by-side competition in terms of build quality, amenities, and aesthetics. So if you're in the market for a full-sized luxury SUV that will seat seven, look no further than the GL.
2012 Scion tC Review
The layman's FR-S.
Last year I proclaimed the 2011 Scion TC the only new car I would actually buy. I loved its looks, its driving dynamics, but most importantly, I loved its low, low price. At just below $24,000, I thought it a Japanese econobox in sports coupe clothes.
A lot of things can, however, change in a year. The mere thought of the car that was once the apple of my penny-pinching, sport-inspired eye now--instead--conjures a cheeky grimace.
The 2012 Scion TC is no different than the 2011--not one bit. In fact, the information Scion sent to me about the TC read "2011 Scion TC." Clearly, it isn't the TC that has changed but rather the world around it.
In the last year, I bought a Range Rover, bought a FIAT, I took up running, and Scion debuted the 2013 FR-S.
The FR-S is a stripped-down rear-wheel drive sports coupe created as a joint venture between Subaru and its parent company, Toyota. The Scion FR-S is the Toyota USA version (known as the Toyota GT-86 in most other world markers) of the 2+2, sold in competition with its twin, the Subaru BRZ.
Priced around $26,000, the FR-S isn't much more expensive than the TC. Producing 200 horsepower , the FR-S's 2-liter boxer engine is more powerful than the TC's 2.5-liter inline four. The FR-S has a sleeker, sportier body and has a much stylish interior than the TC. And while the TC is based upon the old Camry platform, the FR-S is a purpose-built sports car.
This time around, I found the TC just as fun to drive. As I lead-footed my way around town, its blaring exhaust notes embarrassed me. There are loud, unrestrictive exhausts that improve power output and there are loud exhausts that have been tuned to showoff what's under the hood, shouting at the world, "Look at me! I am man!" The exhaust on the TC fits neither of these categories. It was closer to the not-so-subtle tones of paperboy's coffee-can muffler'd Civic than a factory-installed sport exhaust.
For the longest time, I couldn't figure out why Scion would continue the TC alongside the FR-S. That was, until I drove the 2012 TC with the optional six-speed automatic transmission.
It is a fine transmission. It is peppy in first gear but quickly finds its way up to forth and stays there as long as it can; neutering what sporting nature the TC had been blessed with. I greatly prefer the standard five-speed manual but the more I thought about it, I realized the automatic is actually the TC's saving grace.
While true gear heads and racing junkies will eagerly line up to get their hands in the FR-S, the less performance-obsessed motorist will likely prefer the TC.
The TC is cheaper, it's less flashy looking, it's more useful (with its huge rear hatch versus the FR-S's small trunk), and it will certainly carry a smaller car insurance premium. Plus, when optioned with the automatic, it's the best of both worlds. For 99-percent of a TC owner's driving time, it's a hassle-free, two-pedal setup. But for that one day a year they'll actually wish to shift the car themselves, reigniting their connection to the rolling hunk of steel beneath them, they can pop the shifter into manual shift mode and have at it.
The 2012 Scion TC, then, is perfect for someone who isn't ready to give in and buy a Yaris but also doesn't have enough testosterone (for better or worse) coursing through their system to step up to the FR-S. The TC is edgy without getting anywhere near the edge, instead remaining safely buckled into the tour bus.