Category Archives: Review

First Look: 2015 Mercedes S-Class Coupe

When we first wrote about the 2015 S-Class Coupe back in February of 2014 it was making its debut at the 2014 Geneva Motor Show, and at the time we raved about its distinct styling and its suite of technologies that aimed to establish it as the de-facto king of the luxury coupe market. Recently we had to the opportunity to visit our local Mercedes Benz dealer in Bloomfield Hills Michigan to take a closer look at this state of the art two door up close and in the flesh. Have our opinions remained intact? and have our expectations been met? Read on to find out

The exterior styling of the 2015 Mercedes S-Class Coupe looks just as good in person as it does in pictures, and while the recently unveiled Mercedes-AMG GT sportscar maybe the formal successor to the iconic SLS supercar, this two door S-Class does emerge as an alternate candidate to that title thanks to its evocative lines that flow rearward from the IMG_8931sculpted front fascia (which features Swarovski crystal tinged headlamps) to the equally sensuous plunging rear end that manages to look modern and refined while also showcasing select albeit more subtle cues from pre-war era Benz offerings. This stylish suit of clothes will certainly serve as a tempting conversation starter and an attention grabber while sitting in traffic. The overall effect is enhanced further by opting for an Edition 1 model like the example featured here which stands out by offering model exclusive wheels as well as interior and exterior styling tweaks.

The interior of the S-Class Coupe also carries on the S-Class sedan’s theme of Designo look style mixed with an overabundance of luxury and technology. Many controls and buttons in the well crafted cabin are well marked and easy to use, though some controls do feature tiny buttons which can be hard to find on the first try. The three spoke steering wheel is also festooned with buttons and switches, and is a welcome improvement styling IMG_8936wise over the helm found in its sedan sibling which looked fancy but also a bit awkward at the same time. The front seats were very comfortable with fair amounts of side support and bolstering though look for AMG versions to bring more back support to the festivities when they eventually arrive on dealer lots. Head and leg room are also quite generous, and it was easy to stretch out and find a comfortable driving position.

In typical coupe fashion however, the rear seats do remind occupants that they are in a car that prefers to function as a two seater versus a conventional 2+2. While the lack of headroom back there is about what you would typically expect from many other coupes, entering and exiting this tight space is reminiscent of getting in and out of Alcatraz with the front seats not folding forward enough which results in a narrow opening that forces occupants to do an awkward motion when entering and exiting. Follow our advice and save this space for cargo, small children, and those times where you want to embarrass your mother-in law. Dual LCD screens dominate the majority of the instrument panel and serve as state of the art windows for the gauge cluster as well as the infotainment system. While I personally prefer to have mechanical gauges versus digital units in a vehicle, Benz engineers did an excellent job making them easy to read as well as looking good at the same time.

Performance for the S550 version (the only model available at launch) comes from the company’s familiar 4.7 liter biturbo V8 which is borrowed from the S-Class sedan and is IMG_8930good for a solid 449 horsepower, and an impressive 516 lb-ft of torque. All of this power is routed to a seven speed automatic transmission that aims to improve the car’s performance and fuel efficiency. But unlike the S-Class sedan which initially arrived in rear wheel drive form only, the coupe flips the script for its launch and comes with all-wheel drive standard (look for RWD versions to arrive sometime in the near future).

Pricing for the 2015 S-Class coupe begins at $119,000 with our Edition 1 photo car boasting a $138,000 sticker price though optional goodies and packages can increase the cost of entrypast the 150,000 barrier in a hurry. The company claims that the Coupe competes with equally high priced rivals such as the BMW 6-Series, Rolls Royce Wraith, Bentley Continental GT, Maserati MC Gran Turismo MC, as well as the Aston Martin DB9 and Vanquish coupes. In our opinion, the Rolls Royce does beat the Benz (albeit barely) in IMG_8947interior pizazz, however, the S-Class Coupe makes up for it by being decidedly more modern and up to date than the DB9’s dated cabin, as well as the Maserati’s equally dated accommodations with exterior styling being a notch higher than the 6 Series. Also while the company’s claim that the S-Class Coupe is “the pinnacle of automotive engineering” may not necessarily guarantee that it is exactly the best car for sale in the world regardless of price, it does mean that like its sedan counterpart the Coupe exists as a benchmark vehicle in its elite segment, and will be a formidable target for others to surpass in the years to come.

First Look: 2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA250

When BMW launched the BMW X1 SAV (BMW speak for Sport Activity Vehicle) a few years back, it not only offered buyers a cheaper alternative to the mainstream X3 and X5 but also a smaller package that was capable of doing battle with rivals such as the Audi Q3, Lexus NX, MINI Countryman, as well as the hot selling Buick Encore in the quest for a bigger slice of the compact luxury CUV segment. Notably absent from the party were the folks at Mercedes Benz which did not have an entry prior to the GLA classes arrival. With the compact GLA250 now hitting dealer lots, does the compact Benz have what it takes to deliver a knockout blow to the BMW X1 while still offering buyers an excellent value? Read on to find out.

 

The exterior styling of the GLA is a solid effort for the most part, looking purely Benz while also adding a modern touch at the same time thanks to features such as sweptback headlights, a blunt upright prow, as well as the prominent Mercedes badge in the center of the two bar grille. The side profile is also aggressive though it can look awkward from some angles in certain lighting conditions. The rear styling in contrast obviously did not get the same memo about embracing modern fluidity as the front, and while the shape is typical hatchback, the over-sized tail lamps look like giant blotches, and the chrome bar tying IMG_8926them together (borrowed from the B-Class) looks like a tacked on afterthought which is a shame considering the cohesive yet beautiful styling found in recent offerings such as the redesigned C-Class, E-Class, and the GL SUV. Thankfully the GLA45 AMG and its performance inspired styling tweaks eliminate some of our complaints though that particular model will not arrive until sometime next year. The GLA  (regardless of trim) also looks much smaller than in photographs thanks to its 60 inch height which makes it 1.5 inches shorter than the MINI Countryman, while its smaller length allows the tiny Benz to be 4.4 inches shorter than a Range Rover Evoque.

 

The interior of the GLA is also a mixed bag (thanks in part to its CLA based roots) but unlike the reviled and imbalanced exterior styling, the cabin does offer some welcome design elements and is a warm and comfortable place to spend time in. The seats are very comfortable with decent amounts of leg and headroom though more side bolstering is IMG_8920needed to match the level of support offered by the X1’s thrones. Rear seat room is also quite generous for a vehicle of its size, though it can be tight for tall adults and is best suited for children and anyone under 6’0 ft tall on long journeys.

Our lone complaint for the interior is that some of the cheapness that has come to define the CLA’s cabin has also trickled its way into the GLA with plastics and some trim elements feeling low budget and cheap (an interior upgrade package is available and is highly recommended). The infotainment screen is also borrowed from the CLA and just like in that model, we wish it would be integrated into the dashboard since it looks slightly awkward in its current position above the slick looking air vents. That said, the interior is certainly more appealing than the button happy Buick Encore, and it even trumps the X1 in overall refinement and feel with many controls ergonomically placed for ease of use.

Performance for the GLA comes from a 2.0 liter four cylinder engine that is borrowed from the CLA sedan. Good for a healthy 208 horsepower and a stout 258 lb-ft of torque, the engine makes more muscle than the 138 horsepower offered by the Buick Encore’s 1.4 liter four cylinder turbo, and also allows the GLA to make the sprint to 60 mph in a commendable 6.4 seconds. While we look forward to a more detailed drive of the GLA in the near future to see whether it can match the stellar handling behavior offered by it’s key rival the BMW X1, the seven speed dual clutch automatic transmission should allow the GLA to achieve a balanced mixture of performance and fuel economy which should please efficiency minded buyers and is a cog higher than the units offered in the Buick Encore, Lexus NX and the Audi Q3.

Pricing for the GLA begins at $34,225 which is on par with others in the segment but optional equipment and other packages quickly increase the price of admission with the GLA pictured IMG_8949ringing in at a hefty $45,490. While the GLA does need some tweaking before it is truly ready to deliver a decisive blow to segment mainstay’s, it does show how serious Mercedes is in taking a slice of the compact luxury CUV segment. In addition, with the bigger GLK moving upmarket, the GLA has a golden opportunity to establish its own legacy among young buyers, and we look forward to seeing what the future holds for Stuttgart’s newest and smallest CUV entry in the years to come.

 

A special thank you to the folks at Mercedes Benz of Bloomfield Hills for allowing me the opportunity to see the GLA up close at their annual Open Haus event, and stay tuned for our first look at another new Benz the 2015 Mercedes Benz S Class Coupe.

 

 

Review: 2013 Morgan 3 Wheeler

When I first laid my eyes on the Morgan 3 Wheeler back in 2011, there was something in me that felt drawn to the car. Maybe it was the fact that it was so simplistic and pure? or maybe it was because of its eccentric three wheeled design? While many may scoff and point out how crazy the very thought of owning a minimalist car like this is, it’s no secret that Morgan’s little trike has been a hot seller since its debut with over 1000 of them produced. With my search of a second “summer car” underway (among other things), I decided to visit my local Morgan dealer in Birmingham Michigan to find out if it did indeed earn a place in my garage, as well as whether it could follow in the footsteps of its three wheeled ancestors which helped establish the company into the bespoke auto manufacturer it is today. Has it succeeded in both of those objectives? Read on to find out.

The exterior styling of my dark green 2013 tester (2014 models receive minimal updates) certainly succeeded in being a tempting piece of eye candy with many passersby either rolling down their windows or walking up to the car to get a closer look. While it lacked the over the top graphic packages found on other 3 wheelers, it still managed to look slick and IMG_8911handsome in its own discreet way. The torpedo/beetle back aluminum paneled shape of the 3 Wheeler hides a steel tubular chassis which makes up the sturdy backbone of the car. this backbone is in turn encompassed by an Ash wood frame (a trademark Morgan cue) which is not only lightweight, but also offers excellent durability and rigidity. The front fascia is a minimalist exercise in function with the exposed air cooled V-Twin engine serving as the visual center piece of the car. The engine’s center mounted position also aides in keeping the engine cool during spirited driving. Retro inspired front headlights and rudimentary turn signals round out the look and help the tiny Morgan have a unique visual presence at night.

The rear fascia is also an exercise in function and in addition to hiding the third wheel from view, it also features a small trunk which has enough room for the Tonneau cover as well as a few small bags. Bigger items (such as my camera bag or a picnic basket) are either best left at home or on your passengers lap, though the passenger floor well does serve as a handy extra cargo area when it is not being used for hauling people. the car’s low profile helps it hug IMG_8912the road like a spirited terrier, but  it can also be a major disadvantage in city driving especially when stopped at a stop light where bigger cars and trucks serve as formidable obstacles to frontal view. That said it is pretty cool to be able to see the exposed suspension and steering components doing their respective jobs while out on the road which adds to the overall appeal.

The interior also follows the simplistic approach of its ancestors and unlike many modern cars which have become laden with various electronic gadgetry and amenities, the 3 Wheeler is a welcome trip back to the past with its function over form styling. While it does lack things such as a navigation system, radio, windshield, heated steering wheel, airbags, and other electronic toys. It makes up for it by presenting the driver with a minimalistic but performance oriented layout which is largely easy to use and manipulate thanks in part to its vintage style toggle switches that operate the lights and the horn. The lone exceptions are the turn signal stalk and the “bomb release” style start button which require dextrous fingers to operate, and their small size also makes them hard to spot the first few times.

The low slung sides of the 3 Wheeler (as well as its lack of a roof) do offer easy entry and ingress though occupants with longer legs will still have to do a gymnastics act to formally enter the car, though the removable steering wheel does help ease entry for the driver somewhat. Once fully nestled into the cabin, the 3 Wheeler is a surprisingly comfortable place to be (albeit a tad cramped). While the seats are non adjustable, Morgan has added power adjustable pedals foIMG_8914r 2014 to help fit drivers of various heights though the cramped foot well and the relatively close spacing of the pedals still require small shoes to avoid hitting two pedals at once. The gauges are simple analog units and are easy to read with the speedometer on the left and the tachometer on the right. The meaty steering wheel is also fun to manipulate (a wood steering wheel can be fitted as an option) but with the speedometer partially blocked by the fore-mentioned wheel, the traditional 10 and 2 position is out of the question and it is actually easier to use the old school 20 past 8 position. The standard pleated red leather seats in my tester were comfortable and offered a good amount of support though it did lack some of the bolstering that is more commonplace in other track day cars such as the Caterham 7. Buyers looking for more comfort can order quilted leather seats as well as built in seat heaters to help keep warm during chilly autumn drives.

Performance for the 3 Wheeler comes from a spirited 2.0 liter V-Twin engine from S&S which makes 116 horsepower, and produces a lovely soundtrack when at full song. This may not seem like a large amount of horsepower when compared with more conventional offerings, but considering that the Morgan weighs in at a feather weight 1200 lbs, it is more than enough to get the job done. However while the engine is a spirited partner, newcomers to the 3 Wheeler that are not familiar with motorcycle type engines will face a IMG_8915brief learning curve getting their feet acclimated to the rev happy nature of this engine. The clutch and throttle delivery require a delicate foot balance, and it takes a few minutes of practice (as well as a few occasional over revs of the engine) to get things just right. Once you do perfect this mechanical ballet, the Morgan delivers spirited acceleration especially while its Mazda MX-5 sourced six speed manual delivers smooth and accurate shifts and the shifter is ergonomically placed close to the driver which is perfect for quick down and up shifts. Fuel economy is also quite good at 33mpg which should allow the 3 Wheeler to lap up plenty of miles on the open road before it needs a drink of premium fuel. The engine is at its happiest in the 3,000 to 5,400 RPM range where the power comes at you like a well time hammer shot.

Handling is also very accurate and secure with a good amount of grip from the skinny front tires though the car’s tendency to understeer when cornering hard (due to the weight of the engine) does require an attentive hand on the wheel to prevent the 3 Wheeler from going off course. Speaking of the steering wheel, it does deliver an excellent amount of feedback and information to the driver and the lack of power assist is only noticeable at low speeds. Parking the 3 Wheeler is also a breeze though the wide turning circle (due to the tight clearance of the front wheels in regards to the engine) can make some maneuvers a bit challenging. The ride is surprisingly smooth for such a small car with the front wheels doing a good job smoothing out most road imperfections, the rear suspension around the third wheel however is firmer and large potholes will be more than happy to remind you of that fact if you hit one. When it comes time to bring the 3 Wheeler to a stop, the brake pedal offers good feel and bite. However, the lack of ESP and ABS forces you to plan ahead and balance out how much foot action you use in applying the brakes (discs up front, drum in the rear). In my case, I discovered that braking in a slight pulse pattern (learned in a non ABS equipped pickup truck in my youth) was the most effective way to reign the Morgan in from speed.

While the Morgan does deliver a good noise and decent handling its easy to forget the main point of a 3 Wheeler which is not about raw muscle or setting speed records (there are other cars that are more than happy to fill that role), rather, its to experience the full unbridled joy of driving. On that front the Morgan is truly in its comfort zone exposing the driver and their lucky passenger to an all encompassing soundtrack, as well as the elements (make sure to watch the weather report before going for a drive) which all combine to create a unqiue grin producing experience. The raw air hitting your face at 30 mph will make it feel like your going 60 mph, while its lack of driver aides forces you to be more deliberate in your motions while also allowing you to tune into the car’s limits more effectively at the same time. The Morgan is an engaging spirited car that requires you to work hard to access its full potential as well as learning its handling limits. But once you do get it all mastered, it makes you feel more confident as well as more accomplished behind the wheel which is always a good thing.

Pricing for the 2014 Morgan 3 Wheeler starts out at $52,263 for a lightly optioned example like my tester (which rang in at a slightly cheaper $51,900) but optional extras such as an upgraded interior, graphics pack, and other goodies can make the price climb past $70,000. This high pricing ladder does put the little 3 Wheeler against more conventional cars that offer more power, practicality, and features. That said, they cannot match the exclusivity as well as the unqiue appearance of the 3 Wheeler while its one of a kind driving experience will make you want to come back for more. That’s certainly the case with me, and I look forward to the day when I can amass the funds needed to own one of my very own (a task that is currently ongoing thanks to side projects and my extreme frugality).

 

A special thank you to the kind folks at Auto Europe in Birmingham Michigan for allowing me to check out the Morgan 3 Wheeler as well as the opportunity to drive and interact with the one featured in this review.

 

Review: 2014 Buick Regal GS (FWD)

When the current generation Buick Regal was first announced back in 2009, it (along with the first generation Enclave CUV) served as visual proof that Buick (once reserved for those that were in their bi-focal years) was serious about recapturing the youth market once again, with the Regal GS further cementing that point in 2012. That particular model rewarded buyers with many new things once considered foreign to Buick such as supportive seats, a spirited 270 horsepower engine, and race inspired handling tweaks. However with the 2014 Regal receiving a host of exterior and interior upgrades, does the 2014 Regal GS still have what it takes to stand out from the rest of the luxury sport sedan market? or has its updates caused it to lose some of its uniqueness? Read on to find out.

The exterior styling of the Regal was based on the Europe only Opel Insignia which allowed the Regal to bring some much needed sportiness and crisp lines to the Buick stable. For 2014 Buick designers elected to do a refresh that was more of an evolution versus an outright revolution which should please fans and loyalists that loved the original formula. The front fascia retains the brand’s trademark waterfall grille but it is slightly taller than IMG_8322before, and features headlights which are sharper and more expressive than the frosty indifferent  units that adorned the 2013 model. The GS’s exclusive front air intakes are still present and accounted for, and their saber-tooth tiger inspired appearance will still be a matter of personal taste, some will like them while others won’t (we personally like them). The rear of the 2014 Regal is thankfully not as in your face as the front fascia, and retains a dash of elegance with new LED tail lamps that now incorporate the rear mounted metal trim in their design which contributes to a slightly wider look than its 2013 predecessor. A subtle rear mounted spoiler and more prominent exhaust tips (both carried over from the old model) round out the festivities and help the GS standout from its base Regal siblings.

 

The interior of the 2014 Regal GS also gets a whole host of improvements that add more technology and upscale charm to the interior than before but also expose a few quirks that may aggravate buyers at the same time. However before we get into that, lets focus on some of the positives that the interior has to offer starting with the drastically rIMG_8302educed button count on the climate control cluster and infotainment system. The 2013 model had a huge assortment of buttons, so many buttons in fact that it felt like you were operating a spaceship or playing an overly elaborate computer game. Thankfully Buick engineers have shelved this daunting and intimidating layout in favor of a simpler setup which now features touch sensitive controls for the climate and heated seats (similar to what debuted on the current generation Enclave). The Intellilink system has also been revamped and is now sharper and quicker than before with the system doing an excellent job of responding quickly to touchscreen inputs with little lag.

The GS exclusive 8-inch instrument mounted info screen is another welcome addition and looks crisp and modern with the screen allowing the driver to access various settings including audio, navigation, as well as performance data which features a special “friction bubble” for showing lateral and longitudinal G-Force. The restyled flat bottomed steering wheel is just as meaty and comfortable to wield as it was in the 2013 model, but the loss of its odd looking metal trim accents makes it look much more attractive, while a reworked setup for its satellite buttons makes it easier to use than before. The fully adjustable front seats offer excellent side support and are also comfortable on long journeys with copious amounts of leg and arm room present. The rear seats do boast a decent amount of knee and leg room, though headroom back there is what you’d expect from a sport sedan tight and best left for people under 6ft tall. Sound quality from my testers 9 speaker Bose Audio system was crisp with a good amount of bass and mid-range sound though treble was a bit on the low side but is only noticeable when playing certain kinds of music.

As stated earlier, the interior also boasts a few flaws which help make the overall presentation a mixed bag affair. The shifter for example is still surrounded by metallic hued trim which looks somewhat out of place considering that GS models only come in black with no other color choices available. However a more annoying complaint I have is IMG_8309in regards to the touch sensitive climate controls. While they do look slick and reduce button count, the touch sensitive pads are also not that accurate registering inputs, with a firm well placed touch needed for the system to respond (this quirk may infuriate owners used to smartphones that require just a light tap to operate). While we are complaining, some of the buttons (especially ones for the hazard lights parking assist and sport mode) are a bit of a reach, but thankfully, the traction control and GS mode buttons (the two most important buttons in this car) are within easy reach of the driver.

Speaking of that GS button it also plays a role in my final complaint, where’s the unique visual presentation when the button is pushed? In the 2013 model, the GS button caused the gauges in the instrument cluster to go from blue to white lighting. While it could be seen as a bit of excessive visual gimmickry, it did let you know that you were in a mode separate from Sport, and that you were about to experience something special. However in the 2014 GS push that button and you do not get that visual distinction, instead you just get a brief ripple effect from the speedometer and that’s it with no other visual changes setting it apart from Sport Mode. A minor complaint perhaps which is partially remedied by linking the digital gauges to each drive mode, but for someone like me who likes to have a bit of differentiation in their purchase, a red hued instrument cluster for GS mode would’ve been a neat and cool way to set the two modes apart.

 

Performance for the 2014 Buick Regal comes from the same 2.0 liter 259 horsepower turbocharged four cylinder that also see’s duty in the base Regal. While it does make 11 fewer ponies than the 2013 GS and its 270 horsepower (which may disappoint power junkies), Buick claimed that the decrease was necessary to accommodate the AWD components that can be equipped to the GS (my tester was FWD). Torque is also unchanged at 295 lb-ft though Buick does say that the GS reaches its maximum torque value at 2500 RPM, which is 500 less than the old model, and should help the car be slightly faster than its predecessor. These figures work together to allow the Regal GS to make the sprint to 60 mph in 6.2 seconds which is a tick faster than the old model, though it is still behind some rivals.

The engine like many other iterations of GM’s now familiar 2.0 liter four banger is at its happiest in the lower RPM range where it offers brisk and smooth acceleration before gradually running out of steam higher in the rev band though a brief period of turbo lag is present before it fully spools up. My testers six speed automatic produced consistent shifts, though putting it into manual mode allows the driver to make beIMG_8313tter use of the engines strong low end behavior. A six speed manual is also available as a no cost option for those that prefer to have full involvement in their driving experience though AWD fans will be forced to equip their rides with the six speed automatic (due to the needs of the Haldex derived unit). While the fore-mentioned six speed auto is a solid piece of technology, many competitors such as Lexus and BMW are now embracing seven and even eight speed transmissions which do have a one or two cog advantage on the Regal (regardless of configuration), and offer slicker shifts than the six speed as well as higher fuel economy though its rating of 21 city 30 highway is still good for its segment .

However straight line acceleration runs are neither this engines strong suit, nor what the GS is truly all about. Instead, its also about handling and braking which serve as the other two key components in the GS formula and allow the car to excel on the track as well as your favorite driving road. A beefed up suspension featuring GM’s Hi-Per strut system plays a crucial part in this mission reducing body roll and offering solid handling while still maintaining the smooth ride expected from a Buick product. This is despite the fact that the GS carries the majority of its weight on the front end ( a trait that tends to adversely affect handling behavior). The steering also offers plenty of accurate feedback with solid amounts of feel (a nice change from the majority of electrically assisted units). As before drivers can alter the cars behavior by pushing either the Sport or GS mode buttons which firms up the suspension, tightens up steering response, and produces crisper shifts from the six speed automatic. The GS also features bigger Brembo brakes to help stop the festivities with the meaty units providing consistent stable stops from a wide range of vehicle speeds.

Pricing for the 2014 Regal GS begins at 36,905 with my tester rounding out to $42,550 thanks to two optional drivers confidence packages, as well as assorted fees including the IMG_8318$925 destination charge. GS models equipped with the optional AWD system add an additional $2365 to the cost of entry, though the system does finally allow the Buick to be a legitimate alternative to AWD rivals such as the Audi A4, Infiniti Q50, and the Lexus IS250. Unlike many competitors, the Regal offers a six speed manual gearbox as a no cost option (versus rivals where the stick raises the overall MSRP) but only on FWD equipped variants like my tester (AWD versions can only be equipped with the six speed automatic). While the Buick packs alot of standard equipment into the GS to make up for the high price, it also inadvertently opens up the GS to a number of compelling cross shops including the BMW 328i as well as internal competition from the Cadillac ATS 2.0T which uses a variant of the GS’s engine but can be had with more performance oriented rear wheel drive versus my testers front wheel drive.

Despite its flaws, the 2014 Buick Regal GS is still a solid entry into the luxury sport sedan segment, with pricing that undercuts many rivals as well as performance that pleases enthusiasts and loyalists. A bit more refinement as well as more horsepower to make it stand out from its base Regal sibling will go a long way to solidifying its status as Buick’s fun to drive car.

( A special thank you to the kind folks at Suburban Buick of Ferndale in Ferndale Michigan for allowing me to check out the 2014 Buick Regal GS as well as the opportunity to drive the one featured in this review.)

 

Review: 2015 Volkswagen GTI SE

When I was in the market for a new car late last year, many times I found myself adding and discarding multiple choices in the hunt for a solid replacement to my 2001 Chevrolet Malibu sedan. A choice that stood out to the bitter end was the 2015 Volkswagen GTI. The latest installment in the legendary GTI model family, it brings new-found refinement, performance, and technology to the iconic hot hatch. But has the year long wait for it’s return to the U.S market been worth it? and will it’s new MQB platform help it stand out over it’s predecessor the Mk6? Read on to find out (as well as the unveiling of a special announcement at the end of this review).

Volkswagen’s iconic hot hatch has always put an emphasis on balancing performance, practicality, and value and i am pleased to report that this time honored tradition continues in the newest GTI. It begins with thIMG_8276e exterior styling which is more of an evolution versus an outright redesign that should please fans that loved the Mk6’s basic styling theme and profile. The front fascia features a reworked front bumper which works nicely with the equally slick honeycomb grille and the fascias more aggressive lines.  An item that keen observers may notice on the SE model pictured here is the absence of the red graphic which extends into the headlight housings (as seen in model’s featured in Volkswagen’s advertising). That particular styling feature is only available on higher grade GTIs, but my Deep Black Pearl tester still looked handsome, and it’s absence was hardly noticed. The rear fascia is a bit bland when viewed at certain angles, but it makes up for it by featuring slick tail lamps as well as a roof mounted spoiler to give it some much needed visual punch. Rounding out the changes are a pair of dual exhaust tips, and model exclusive wheel designs ( 18-inch alloy “Austin” wheels on my tester) which was also the case with the Mk6 GTI.

The interior of my tester (though a bit understated) is a classic example of the type of refinement and subtle restraint that has come to define many German car designs with the dashboard featuring upscale materials that feel and look great. All important controls are ergonomically located and easy to use with many of them in easy IMG_8285view of the driver. A meaty flat bottomed steering wheel does a good job of broadcasting the car’s performance intentions, while aluminum pedal covers, supportive sport seats, and a model exclusive instrument panel do their part to help the GTI stand out from it’s standard issue Golf sibling. As a bonus, my manual equipped SE also carried over the Mk6 models golf ball style shifter knob which looked cool, and serves to bring a welcome retro touch to the cabin. Sound quality from the Panasonic sound system (which features Fender branding) was excellent with good amounts of bass and treble present.

However the overall presentation is not without its flaws, the 5.8 inch touchscreen for example did an excellent job registering inputs, but looked a tad chintzy thanks mostly in part to the glossy black surround trim which made it appear as if it could hold a larger screen. There was also a very teutonic feel to the dark color scheme which could have benefited from more contrast elements to balance things out, and while the side bolstering for the leather sport seats was very good, the rest of the seat offered average levels of support with upper back support virtually non existent. This was disappointing especially since the Focus ST offers better thrones when equipped with it’s optional Recaro seats.

However when it all comes down to it, the GTI is all about spirited driving pleasure versus creature comforts and on that front Volkswagen engineers have hit a home run with this latest GTI. Handling behavior was very crisp with the electric assist steering offering excellent response though like in many recent BMW models, a noticeable amount of feedback went away with the IMG_8288transition from hydraulic to electron power. The car’s MQB platform produced very little body-roll in sharp turns and also trims 82 lbs in flab from the car’s curb weight which reduces unsprung weight. Power comes from the company’s turbocharged and direct injected “EA888” 2.0 liter four cylinder which is good for a healthy 210 horsepower (a gain of 10) and a stout 258 lb-ft of torque. While the horsepower figure is less than rivals such as the Focus ST and the Subaru Impreza WRX, the extra 51 lbs of twist is higher than the Honda Civic SI, and makes a substantial difference in the car’s acceleration behavior with more power available in the lower part of the rev band.

All of this power is routed to the front wheels through either a six speed manual transmission or an optional six speed dual clutch automatic gearbox. While the dual clutch will most likely represent the majority of GTI sales, the stick does make a compelling case for itself as an alternate choice for those looking for full driver involvement. Shifts were smooth and accurate with excellent short throw action, though the tight setup and the transmissions gear mapping does make shifting into 3rd a bit awkward but that little IMG_8286quibble goes away after a few minutes of practice. The 2015 GTI comes with a model exclusive Drive Mode Selection system with three available modes Normal, Sport, and Individual. During my time with the GTI, I preferred to keep things in Sport mode which sharpens up the car’s handling and throttle mapping for a more enjoyable experience. Individual mode is like a build a burger option at your local restaurant, with the driver being able to tune the various settings to his or her tastes (for example leaving the steering and throttle in sport mode but the suspension in normal mode). Unfortunately my tester did not come equipped with the optional performance package, but I look forward to perhaps sampling a GTI with this feature in the near future to find out how much it contributes to the overall driving experience.

Pricing begins at $25,215 for a base 2 door S model which is only a slight $195 increase over the old Mk6 model. My SE grade 4 door tester had a base price of $27,995 with fees and other charges raising it to a total of $28,215 which is a high price in this segment, but it is slightly cheaper than the WRX (in Limited trim) and the MINI Cooper S. It is also a grand lower than my 2013 Buick Verano Turbo which had a final out the door price of just under $30,000 thanks to GM incentives.

Speaking of the Verano, it is more of a direct competitor to the GTI’s sedan sibling the Jetta based GLI. However, it does wield a 2.0 liter turbocharged four cylinder of its own (borrowed from the Regal GS) which makes 250 horsepower (40 more than the GTI) and outguns the hot hatches torque figure by 2 lb-ft. However while it may have more muscle 1082363_10151531265125773_2069444556_othan the Volkswagen, it’s Cruze based architecture does leave it with an inferior suspension setup, and it’s focus on luxury endows it with seats that are very comfortable but not that supportive when it comes time to take the tiny Buick through twisty roads. Plus it’s more conservative suit of clothes may irk some buyers that want more distinction from lesser grade Veranos, while the more noticeable turbo lag, and slightly rough around the edges six speed automatic may turn off more performance oriented buyers.

Overall while the 2015 GTI might have taken much longer to arrive on our shores than many had anticipated. It is certainly worth the wait, and it continues to excel as a car that can fit into a multitude of roles whether being a family car/grocery hauler during the week or a fun capable partner for a Sunday afternoon drive down the back roads when you want some time away from it all.

(A special thank you to the folks at Fox Volkswagen in Rochester Hills Michigan for allowing me to check out the 2015 Volkswagen GTI as well as the opportunity to drive the one featured in this review.)

Lastly, I did promise a special announcement at the end of this review, and i’m pleased to report that I am in the process of saving up money for a GTI of my own which will eventually join the Verano in my driveway. Also stay tuned to Autoinfoquest because I aim to make a bit of history with this eventual purchase by being the first buyer to achieve part of the savings through turning in recyclable goods such as bottles and cans as well as other items.

 

 

Review: 2014 MINI Cooper S

During its time in production, the MINI Cooper hatchback has always had a knack for providing buyers a healthy dose of the unexpected during its long run in production. While originally designed 50 years ago as a minimalist interpretation of basic transportation, the Cooper slowly evolved from this meager role into a symbol of automotive rebelliousness thanks to its cheeky styling, go kart-esque handling, and its quirky interior design which helped it earn many fans and supporters. That said, does the 2014 MINI Cooper S have what it takes to walk in the lofty shoes of its R56 platformed predecessor, or has its new-found maturity robbed it of its unique identity? Read on to find out.

The exterior styling conIMG_7848tinues the basic mellow bad boy motif that prior MINI’s have been known for. Howeve,r unlike the previous generation which was brash but a bit rough around the edges in certain aspects. The 2014 MINI Cooper has been redesigned from the ground up, and that has brought a new-found sense of refinement and freshness to the overall design. The front fascia is much more composed and assertive than before and while I was not personally a big fan of the black bar in the lower part of the front grille, I did like the new LED daytime running lamp ring in the redesigned headlamps which not only adds a dash of elegance to the Cooper’s face, but also doubles as a turn signal for passing maneuvers which is a nice feature.

The slightly tweaked rear fascia is a bit bland in comparison, but new tail lights do an admirable job of sprucing up things and look great doing it. Thankfully some elements from older models (such as the trademark white roof and blacked out B-Pillars) have been retained amid the flurry of changes which should please MINI enthusiasts seeking familiarity with past models, while the pushed to the corners placement of the wheels gives it a purposeful yet compact profile.

The interior of the 2014 MINI Cooper S has also been reworked, but unlike the exterior and its rather modest redesign, MINI designers went all out in their efforts at redesigning the cabin and have transformed it into a luxurious yet inviting place to spend time in. This is a nice change from the interior of the previous generation which had chintzy material quality, frustrating ergonomic issues with buttons and switches scattered randomly throughout the cabin, as well as a stereo interface that only a mother could love but IMG_7851required a tech savvy teenager to operate it correctly. Thankfully I’m pleased to report that much of the ergonomic chaos has been eliminated with switches such as the window controls moved to their traditional places on the doors, while the overall quality of plastics and materials has gotten much better. The 1.1 inch longer wheel base and wider front and rear track leave their mark on the cabin with overall room increasing by a lofty 8 cubic feet. This allows the car to have commendable head and leg room though the backseats are still a realm left for small children or friends of short stature. The cloth/leatherette seats in my tester had good lower and upper back support and also did a good job of keeping me planted in place during spirited driving (leather clad seats are available as an option). As a neat bonus, cargo room also goes up by an extra cubic feet which aides in overall practicality.

A key change that MINI enthusiasts may notice is that the giant dash-mounted gauge no longer houses the speedometer and fuel gauge in its immense space with MINI designers kindly moving those items to their traditional location behind the steering wheel. This allows the driver to read information from these gauges at a glance which reduces driver distraction, as well as remove excess clutter from the center stack. The gauges are pleasing to look at, but the rim of the steering wheel does obscure the upper half of the speedometer and tachometer for taller drivers which requires a seat adjustment to remedy the problem. As for the fore-mentioned Big Ben sized gauge, it is still present but now serves as a key component of the new stereo system which utilizes a 8.8 inch screen to display features such as navigation, climate, and infotainment options. The screens image quality was very good and crisp though the controls do take a moment of acclimation to use efficiently especially the oddly placed controller for MINI’s version of I-Drive which is located in an awkward spot below the center armrest. The stereo also houses a ring of LED lights which change color for a wide variety of functions. While I personally think its an unnecessary piece of visual gimmickry, it is a neat idea and should do a good job entertaining buyers with its swath of colors and uses.

Performance for the 2014 MINI Cooper S comes from a new 2.0 liter turbocharged four cylinder engine which is good for a healthy 192 horsepower and a solid 206 lb-ft of torque (221 lb-ft via overboost). This engine is smoother than the old 1.6 liter four cylinder that it replaces with less of the gritty coarse soundtrack that defined the old S model. IMG_7849Furthermore while there is still some turbo lag, it is less prevalent than before and acceleration is brisk and snappy with the turbo fully spooled. All of this power is routed to the front wheels through a standard six speed manual or my testers optional automatic gearbox. Shifts were smooth though the fuel efficiency minded shift program (which tended to race towards sixth gear) did rob the car of some off the line punch. Thankfully this minor quibble is defeated by putting the car in sport mode and using the strategically placed steering wheel mounted paddles.

Handling is also crisp with plenty of feedback from the steering as well as minimal bodyroll though the suspensions jittery behavior over sharp divots is still present and is a reminder of similar behavior with the old model. That said ride quality is otherwise quite smooth and absorbs many road imperfections quite well which should please buyers that still want a bit of comfort in their purchase.

Pricing for the 2014 MINI Cooper S starts at $23,600 though options and extras do continue with MINI tradition and quickly inflate the overall price with my “Thunder Gray” metallic tester ringing in at a lofty $32,695. For this price, the MINI is undercut in price by many competitors such as the Volkswagen GTI, Mazda 3 hatchback, as well as indirect competitors such as the Ford Mustang, and the Buick Verano Turbo which brings more power and luxury for a few thousand less, and even throws in the automatic as a no cost alternative to the six speed manual (mine rang in at just under $30,000 thanks to GM incentives). As is the case with other MINI models, strategic selection of options does trim the financial impact to a degree and helps reduce the cost of entry by up to $4,000. Overall the 2014 MINI Cooper S is a vastly improved car, and while its ability to deliver sticker shock is still intact. Its refined styling, more powerful engine, and host of interior improvements should please MINI loyalists while also opening the brand to a broader range of customers at the same time and that’s a win in our book.

( A special thank you to the folks at Motor City MINI in Southfield Michigan for allowing me to check out the 2014 MINI Cooper S as well as the opportunity to drive the one featured in this review).