Fiat 500C

Sunday, June 20, 2010
* On the road price: £13,665 - £16,065
* For : Style, practicality, desirable image
* Against : Rear visibility, price premium
Glance at the new 500C and you’d be forgiven for thinking it looks identical to the funky fixed-head variant. However, look a little closer and you’ll spot the addition of fabric roof section. Like the Fifties original the newcomer isn’t a full convertible, but instead uses a full-length canvas sunroof that stretches from the top of windscreen to the tailgate. Only two trim levels are available – entry-level Pop and luxurious Lounge. Alloy wheels are standard on the range topper, while both versions can be specified with a wide-range of eye grabbing body graphics.
Fiat 500C
Fiat 500C
Fiat 500C
Fiat 500C
With so few modifications to the exterior, the 500C’s characterful cabin is almost identical to the standard car. That means you get a decent amount space, although taller adults will find conditions in the back a little cramped. Noise insulation is excellent with the hood up, while the roof can be lowered at speeds of up to 37mph. On the other hand, rear visibility is poor whether the soft top is up or down. At least luggage capacity is reasonable at 182-litres, which is just three litres down on the hatchback.
Buyers get the choice of two petrol engines – a 69bhp1.2-litre and 100bhp 1.4-litre. The smallest unit is smooth and peppy, but struggles to keep up with fast moving traffic. Keen drivers will find the larger 1.4-litre powerplant a lot more responsive, although it lacks refinement. For diesel fans there’s the excellent 75bhp 1.3-litre, which blends decent punch with strong economy. A five-speed manual gearbox is standard, while the 1.4-litre gets a six-ratio unit. There’s also the option of the firm’s clunky Duologic automated manual transmission for the petrol-engined models.
Driving Experience
With the roof in place the 500C driving experience is identical to that of the hatchback. With so much of the original bodywork left in place, the Italian barely suffers from scuttle shake, even over rough surfaces. The steering is direct and the car’s small dimensions result in great agility, particularly around town.While it’s not as fun to drive as the MINI convertible, the Fiat will still bring a smile to your face, particularly when the roof is stowed and the sun is shining.
Ownership costs
Compared to the MINI convertible, the 500C represents cut-price wind-in-the-hair motoring. However, the Fiat is around £3,000 more than the equivalent hatchback model, despite only offering a £1,000 worth of extra standard kit. At least the diesel model will help claw back the extra outlay with its excellent fuel returns of 67.3mpg. All models benefit from lengthy 18,000 mile/three year service intervals, which help to keep maintenance bills down.
The hatchback scored a maximum five stars in EuroNCAP testing – and with so few changes to the body it’s likely the cabrio will be equally as strong. All versions get seven airbags, while electronic stability control is standard on Lounge versions and a £300 option on the Pop. The diesel is the eco-friendly choice because it emits only 110g/km, which results in a low annual tax bill of £35 VED.
Our Choice: 500C Lounge 1.4

Vauxhall Astra

* On the road price: £16,275 - £22,875
* For : Cabin quality, refinement, ride comfort
* Against : High prices, light steering, uninspiring handling
Designers at Vauxhall have played safe with the styling of the latest Astra. Taking its inspiration from the firm’s large Insignia, the newcomer is handsome rather than eye-catching. At present the Astra is only available as a five-door hatchback, with buyers able to choose from S, Exclusiv, SE, Elite and SRi trim levels. Entry-level models make do with steel wheels, while SE versions and above get alloy rims and extra chrome embellishment for the bodywork.
Vauxhall Astra
Vauxhall Astra
Vauxhall Astra
Vauxhall Astra
The cabin of the Astra has a much more upmarket feel than its predecessor, although it can’t quite match the VW Golf for classy appeal. Highlights include a logically laid out dashboard and excellent driving position. Watch out for models with a manual handbrake, as when it is released the lever can pinch stray fingers on the centre console. On the plus side, the interior will comfortably accommodate five adults and the load area delivers a class competitive 370-litres of carrying capacity. All models benefit from air-con, electric windows and an aux-in socket.
As you’d expect, the Vauxhall is available with wide range of powerplants, from a gutless 85bhp 1.4-litre petrol up to a torquey 158bhp 2.0-litre diesel. Pick of the line-up are the punchy turbocharged petrol units that deliver 138bhp and 158bhp in 1.4-litre and 1.6-litre forms respectively. Keen drivers should avoid the breathless 1.7-litre oil-burner – although its claimed fuel return of 60.1mpg is impressive. Five and six-speed manual gearboxes are standard, while a six-ratio automatic is optional.
Driving experience
On the move, the Astra impresses with its refinement. Noise levels are low and the supple ride soaks up poor road surfaces. However, it can’t match the agility and poise of the Ford Focus or VW Golf. The steering is direct, but delivers very little feedback. Vauxhall’s optional Flexride kit tweaks the dampers, steering and throttle at the touch of a button, helping to sharpen the driving experience.
Ownership Costs
There’s no getting away from the fact that buying an Astra is an expensive exercise. Take a look at the price lists and you’ll discover the more talented and equally well-equipped VW Golf undercuts the Vauxhall. Matters are made worse by the Luton machine’s poor residuals, with no model retaining more than 40 percent of its new value after three years. On the plus side, the dealer network is huge and the diesel versions serve-up strong fuel economy.
An excellent performance in the EuroNCAP tests earned the Astra a five-star safety rating. All models benefit from six airbags, electronic stability control and active head restraints. Excellent adaptive xenon headlamps and a tyre pressure monitoring system are optional. Pick the 1.3-litre diesel and you’re rewarded with CO2 emissions of only 109g/km, while the 1.4-litre turbo emits a respectable 139g/km.
Our Choice: Astra SRi 1.4 Turbo

Audi A1 driven

As small as a MINI, as well built as an A4 - meet the new small Audi that's got a huge job to do convincing premium car drivers that good things really can come in the smallest packages.
And there's no doubt that when it comes to quality and kerbside appeal the A1 has got off to the best possible start. 

Audi A1 driven
Audi A1 driven
Audi A1 driven
Audi A1 driven
Order books for the eagerly anticipated supermini opened last month - and announced that the car would cost from £13,145 – around £400 more than the similarly-powered MINI One.

Three engines are on offer, two petrol and one diesel, including 86bhp 1.2 and 122bhp 1.4-litre TFSI petrol engines, plus a 105bhp 1.6-litre TDI diesel.
A seven-speed twin-clutch S-tronic transmission is available solely on the 1.4 at an additional cost of £1,420 and doubles as a rich man’s automatic.
Three trim levels will be available from the outset with the basic SE trim costing £13,145 in 1.2 petrol form and £14,180 in 1.6 diesel form.
Start/stop and regenerative braking technology will be standard on all models in the range.

We are testing the 1.4-litre TSI engined car, a flagship model which is tipped to be a big seller.

In terms of design, the car doesn’t aim up at the sheer cheek of the MINI, but works hard to convince you that it’s a fully fledged member of the Audi family, rather than a stand-alone baby car.
There is the typically Audi grille, a steeply sloping c-pillar and a hatch that looks like a 60 percent copy of the one on the Q5.
It gets daytime running lights similar to the ones in the new A8, too, and they even have a front-facing camera that detects oncoming cars at night and automatically switches between high and low beam.
Oh, and there is also Competition Aerodynamics pack (for a car that will never see competition) and there is the ubiquitous S-Line package at the top of the range.

If there has been widespread customer criticism of the quality of the plastic material on the current MINI, look no further than the A1 if you want to know how well it can be done...
There’s a long, curved instrument panel that gives the impression of being impossibly wide for a car this size, four round vents that can be coloured as you wish and a pop-up 6.5-inch MMI screen for everything from navigation to the audio system.
There is a pair of cupholders, coin holders and a general cubby hole, plus healthy door pockets and an unusually useful glovebox, too. The seats look a bit flashier than they do on any other Audi, and rear legroom is useful for children and, on short trips, adults.
They’ve given the luggage space more thought than MINI, too, because there are fold-down curry hooks on both sidewalls, an elastic holding strap on one side, a perfectly flat floor and four tie-down hooks. And it’s much bigger when you fold down the rear seats.

Where Audi has filled the A1 with the signature interior quality you’d expect, they haven’t quite given it the chirpy character of the MINI and, in terms of its performance, this car is clearly after the One, not the Cooper S.
Even with the direct-injection, turbo-charged 1.4-litre petrol engine sitting across the front axle, the A1 isn’t going to scream off into the distance in a haze of tyre smoke.
Instead, it’s going to be strong and flexible in any gear, at any time. The 1.4-litre engine has 120bhp, so it’s no weakling at high revs, but its real strength is between 1500rpm and 4000, where all of its 200Nm of torque is available for heavy lifting all of the time.
That it gets from 0 to 62mph in 8.9 seconds is really only half of the story, because the rest is about its flexibility, which is very helpful around town.
It’s a smooth engine, too, and has a cranky little rort to it on full throttle blasts, with the exhaust note getting deeper as it pulls past 4000rpm and then yelling in enthusiasm right up high. But it’s never intrusive and, when it’s mated to the optional seven-speed DSG (or whatever Audi’s calling it these days), it’s pretty slick, too.
There’s good fuel economy as well, with Audi claiming 5.2 litres/100km, or 52.3mpg, and that number is helped by the stop-start system that isn’t as smooth on takeoff as it probably should be, but that’s about it for driveline grizzles.
There is a smaller, 1.2-litre turbo petrol motor if you want to spend less up front, and a pair of 1.6-litre turbo-diesels, with economy under 70mpg, if you want to spend less over the car’s lifetime.
Ride quality is a big issue around the cities and the A1 is surprisingly supple – at least in its standard form. Its handling is clean and neat, rather than the edgy sharpness of the MINI family, but its ride quality easily surpasses the British car.
But the big question remains... Should you buy one over a MINI? Don't miss our forthcoming test, which will offer the question once and for all.
For now though, while we love the A1's grown up feel, it's comparative lack focus on sportyness is the single question mark.
While we love the looks, the practicality, the refinement and the grown up feel, a decent injection of driver appeal would transform the car.

2010 Lincoln MKS

Sunday, June 13, 2010
When the MKS came out last year, it signified a new start for Lincoln, new models with modern technology and luxury. The 2009 MKS featured an excellent THX-designed audio system along with the best cell phone and MP3 player integration in the business. But Lincoln planned to do more than just offer really good cabin tech, as the 2010 Lincoln MKS, just one year later, features an all new power train and a raft of new driving technologies.
2010 Lincoln MKS
2010 Lincoln MKS
2010 Lincoln MKS
2010 Lincoln MKS
To test the new MKS, we took it on a road trip down to the Los Angeles Auto Show, piling two editors and a photographer into this luxury sedan. Complaints arose in some quarters that we wouldn't be taking an SUV or crossover on this 1,000-mile round-trip trek, but when the 2010 MKS showed up in our garage, its size silenced all negative mutterings. And the size of the very spacious trunk made our luggage look meager, even with laptop and camera bags added to suitcases. We could have fit a couple more people in the cabin of the car, and squeezed one or two more into the trunk, if we wanted to pick up hitchhikers.

We barely tapped the trunk space with our luggage

Ecoboost powerhouse
Being automotive journalists, the first driver in our rotation got the MKS onto a straight road, then floored the gas. The Ecoboost engine, a twin-turbocharged direct-injection 3.5-liter V-6, used its 350 pound-feet of torque to twist all four wheels (the Ecoboost version of the MKS comes standard with all-wheel-drive), in an attempt to defeat the efforts of countless engineers to design tires that grip asphalt securely.And the engineers won, as the tires maintained grip and the big sedan bolted forward, giving everyone in the car the delightful feeling of strong acceleration. Subsequent acceleration tests during this journey got up to high speeds, tapping the 355 horsepower from this engine, and revealing that, as the car shoots past 70 mph, things start to feel a little unstable. The car doesn't hunker down and the suspension doesn't stiffen up, which would contribute to better handling when the speedometer starts threatening triple digits.

Ford's new Ecoboost engine generates 355 horsepower, with V-6 fuel economy.

We also made a timed run based on opportunity, under very nonideal conditions. Three people still in the car, luggage in the back, and on a bend, we punched the gas, the engine roared, and the car hit 60 mph in 5.8 seconds. The same engine got the Ford Taurus SHO to 60 mph in 5 seconds, a realistic figure for the MKS as well, if you want to start leaving passengers on the side of the road.
And being automotive journalists, we made use of the paddle shifters while driving down the freeway. A six-speed automatic is the only transmission choice, but it does have a manual mode. Put the stick into M, and the steering wheel-mounted paddles become active. We amused ourselves looking at which gear produced which engine speed while traveling at freeway speeds, and lamented the fact that the paddles don't do anything in normal drive mode. In some situations, you want to be able to quickly shift down to get some power, without first having to move the stick.
Adaptive cruise does the driving
Having messed around with manual shifting, we turned our attention to the adaptive cruise control system. In moderate traffic heading south from San Francisco on the freeway, we set the cruise control to 75 mph, with the gap to the next car set at the default maximum. The MKS quickly caught up with slower traffic doing a law-abiding 60 to 65 mph, and the cruise control system matched the speed of the car ahead.

The amber cruise control light means the MKS detected a car ahead.

We changed the gap to the minimum, as the default put us too far behind the car ahead, and we followed at a comfortable pace, not touching gas or brake pedals. Whenever we felt the car ahead was going too slowly, we moved the MKS over a lane. After a brief moment it realized there were no cars ahead, and leaped to comply with our previously set speed. For much of this long freeway cruise, we let the adaptive cruise control handle braking and gas, enjoying some driving luxury.
One of the treats of sitting in the MKS for hundreds of miles was the THX II audio system, comprised of 14 speakers and 5.1 surround-sound processing. The sound quality from this system is very refined, and competes well with Lexus' Mark Levinson and Audi's Bang & Olufsen systems, while blowing away the Bose systems found in many other cars.
To feed this sound system, the MKS has a single CD/DVD player, satellite and terrestrial radio, storage for music on the navigation system's hard drive, the capability to play music from Bluetooth streaming sources, and a USB port that can accept an iPod or Zune cable. We tried the USB port, as it would make our MP3 player's music library available on the car's LCD and through voice command--features of the car's Sync system we've tested many times before in other cars. But the USB port was completely hosed, not responding to anything we plugged into it. It was a bad glitch in this automotive tech wonderland, forcing us to rely on Bluetooth streaming, which doesn't offer nearly as nice of an interface.

The stereo connects to iPods and other MP3 players through a USB port.

This Bluetooth system also works for mobile phones, letting you make hands-free calls. Once a phone is paired to the car, it asks to import the phone book. When this process is complete, you can make calls through voice command, merely saying the name of a person in your phone book you want to call. We've tested this system extensively in the past with great success.
Our car lacked the available blind-spot-detection technology, which lights up an alert in the side view mirror when another car is in the next lane. Without that option, Lincoln fits the upper corners of the mirrors with special inset mirrors, a low-tech way of checking out the blind spot. We prefer the optional system.
As another safety technology, the MKS had collision warning, which relies on the same radar used by the adaptive cruise control. We got to see it in action when, driving manually, we let the MKS roll a little too quickly towards stopped traffic ahead. A red light flashed on the windshield and a tone sounded, giving adequate warning to hit the brakes.
Easy parallel parking
There was one technology in the MKS we couldn't wait to try out, so halfway down to Los Angeles we pulled into a freeway-side town and parked. Actually, the car did most of the work with its automatic parking system. We found a line of cars parked at the curb, pushed the P button next to the shifter, and watched the display on the speedometer that would tell us when the car sensed a space large enough in which it could fit. Having found one, it told us to put the car into reverse, after which it turned the steering wheel sharply, guiding the back of the car into the space. After this initial maneuver, it turned the wheel quickly back, getting the car close to the curb and nicely lined up with the cars in front and back. Given how well this technology worked, we found many other opportunities to try it out, and each time it made the correct maneuvers to get into the space.

The MKS uses this speedometer display to tell you when it is looking for parking.

At the start of this trip, we had put our destination into the MKS's navigation system, using the points-of-interest database to find our hotel. It gave us a choice of routes, and we picked the more scenic. During our various excursions off the freeway to test out various aspects of the car, the navigation system quickly recalculated our route without any bother, urging us back on course with voice prompts that said the names of the streets on which we needed to turn.
But route guidance was unnecessary for most of the trip, only becoming crucial as we approached Los Angeles and found that, with 58 miles left to go, the trip computer said we could go only 32 more miles with what was left in the tank. We were impressed to make it that far on one tank of gas, even with the large 19 gallon tank in the MKS. The average fuel economy had been hovering around 23.5 mpg for the trip down, coming in a little below the 25 mpg highway figure from the EPA, but far above the city rating of 17 mpg.
Turning to the car's Sirius Travel Link feature, we not only found all the near by gas stations, but scanned their per gallon prices and picked the cheapest one. A touch on the LCD added that gas station as a waypoint to our destination, and we were quickly refilled and back on the road.

Finding a list of fuel prices from nearby gas stations is invaluable on a road trip.

Sirius Travel Link also shows traffic, crucial information when driving into Los Angeles. We had an easy cruise on the various freeways into the city, but then hit some seriously slow traffic close to our downtown destination. And sure enough, the traffic flow information on the navigation map showed red. We've seen these Lincoln systems offer detours when there are traffic jams ahead, but this one failed to do so in this circumstance. It could have been that the jam was too short to bother with a detour, or possibly the avoidance feature was turned off in the navigation settings.
While the navigation system's graphic route guidance was generally good, we got a little lost in the downtown Los Angeles streets. It is a complex area, but a little better map resolution and a better lane guidance feature in the navigation system would have helped.
In sum
The 2010 Lincoln MKS made this trip very comfortable for the three of us, providing high-tech driving aids and information features. There were a few glitches, the most annoying of which was the dead USB port. Our overall mileage in the car, biased towards the freeway but with a fair bit of heavy urban traffic thrown in, came in at 22.8 mpg, not bad for a car with 355 horsepower.
The MKS' cabin tech previously earned it very high marks in our reviews, but other carmakers have been catching up, although none have quite reached its level. The new driver aid technologies--adaptive cruise control, automatic parking, and blind spot detection--keep the MKS well ahead of other automakers in cabin tech. As for performance tech, the Ecoboost engine is impressive, although merely competitive with the likes of BMW. Still, both companies are producing top engine technology. Lincoln could put a little more work into suspension and transmission technology. Finally, in the area of design, Lincoln has managed to put clear styling language in the sedan body. It's not as dramatic as a Cadillac, but the MKS still marks out a unique Lincoln identity.
Spec box

Model 2010 Lincoln MKS
Trim AWD Ecoboost
Power train Twin turbo direct injection 3.5-liter V-6
EPA fuel economy 17 mpg city/25 mpg highway
Observed fuel economy 22.8 mpg
Navigation Optional hard drive-based with traffic, weather, and other data
Bluetooth phone support Standard
Disc player Single CD/DVD, MP3 compatible
MP3 player support iPod, Zune, many others
Other digital audio USB drive, internal hard drive, Bluetooth streaming, auxiliary input, satellite radio
Audio systemTHX II 14 speaker 600-watt 5.1 surround sound
Driver aids Rear view camera, blind spot warning, adaptive cruise control, collision warning, automatic high beams, automatic parallel parking
Base price $47,760
Price as tested $53,930

2010 Nissan GT-R

The 2010 Nissan GT-R thrives on speed; at anything less than 60 mph, it feels like a Soviet-era Russian tractor. Reviewers, including Car and Driver and, tested the 2009 version of the GT-R at 3.3 seconds to 60 mph. For 2010, Nissan squeezed an extra 5 horsepower out of the engine.Exemplifying the use of tech to enhance road performance, the GT-R tops its 3.8-liter engine with twin turbochargers. A dynamic suspension actively counteracts body roll, and power is selectively fed forward and rear by an all-wheel-drive system. A six-speed dual-clutch transmission makes lightning-fast gear changes at the flick of a paddle. Greased lightning
Bombing the GT-R over miles and miles of deserted, winding roads, we were thrilled by the cornering abilities and sheer power of this unique car. The dual-clutch transmission has two modes, automatic and manual. There is no sport automatic setting, so manual is the way to go when faced with an open road.
2010 Nissan GT-R
2010 Nissan GT-R
2010 Nissan GT-R

Switches let you adjust the GT-R's suspension, traction control, and all-wheel-drive system.
In broad, sweeping turns on good asphalt, the GT-R held 90 mph without even squealing the tires, its entire bulk seeming to lean into the turns. The car hums along in third gear at these speeds, the tachometer hanging around 6,000rpm. Approaching tighter turns, the GT-R's big, standard brakes proved excellent for burning off some speed. They offer the driver plenty of modulation for either a smooth flow into a corner or a hard deceleration to maximize straightaway time. A flick of the left paddle (column-mounted, in true racing style) drops the gearbox down to third, or second for the really tight turns. We didn't have to struggle with the steering wheel, even in hairpins. The road feel is very good, but the wheel feels just a little overpowered.We occasionally felt good rotation from the car in the corners, but, frankly, the speeds required to get that rotation were often beyond our comfort level. The handling technology is so good that, at speeds that turned our knuckles white, the car shrugged off the corners, using far less than its potential. The GT-R would be happiest on a race track.Whoosh, no burble
Muscle car fans will note something lacking in the GT-R: the engine doesn't make a deep, bass burbling sound. With its four big exhaust tips, the engine note is more turbo whoosh and light clatter, yet this twin-turbo 3.8-liter V-6 still produces 485 horsepower and 434 pound-feet of torque. That power comes on fast and hard, justifying the GT-R's excellent performance stats.

Column-mounted paddle shifters let you change gears sequentially with the dual-clutch transmission.
Don't be fooled by the lack of a clutch pedal; this transmission is racing technology. Its two computer-controlled clutches stand ready to shift up or down at the driver's whim, controlled by the aforementioned paddles. We never once noticed a missed shift. With no torque converters, each shift is manual gearbox-hard.For non-sport driving, you can leave the transmission in fully automatic mode, where it will shift up or down depending on engine speed. The automatic mode short-shifts, programmed for optimal fuel economy. It will shift up to sixth gear by 40 mph.
Creeping along in city traffic, we noted the very mechanical sounds of this rear-mounted transmission, as clunking noise emanated from somewhere behind us. Situations like this--as in, driving for transportation--are the GT-R's Achilles' heel. Every automaker has engineers that try to reduce noise, vibration, and harshness (NVH) in its cars. When Nissan developed the GT-R, the NVH engineers must have been on vacation, as there seems no attempt to make the ride nice. Not quite comfort
Actually, there is one comfort feature: a setting for the suspension. But what the GT-R considers comfort, most people would merely consider bone-jarring. Coupled with the amount of noise that comes through when driving over anything but the smoothest asphalt, the GT-R will have you reaching for the aspirin. Even as we were racing through our winding road course, we were treated to the constant pinging of gravel being flung up into the wheel wells.
Most cars that come in at over 80 grand, even ones intended for fast driving, incorporate a luxury element. The car companies figure that if you can afford such an expensive ride, you are used to the nicer things in life and expect them from your car. But the GT-R dumps any luxury expectations, even down to its cabin materials, which mostly consist of leather and plastic.

The GT-R may not be a luxury car, but it offers a decent navigation system, complete with traffic avoidance.
However, Nissan serves up a solid cabin tech suite with the GT-R; GPS navigation and Bluetooth phone support are in keeping with the car's overall high-tech nature. The navigation system--a hard-drive-based unit--doesn't have the prettiest maps around, but it is very functional, offering live traffic and dynamic routing around problems.As usual when there is a hard drive present for the navigation system, space is reserved for an onboard music library. The stereo rips CDs with its single-disc player, tagging the resulting tracks appropriately from a Gracenote database. Strangely, the system didn't recognize our test CD, Gorillaz's Demon Days, suggesting the database was out of date.Nissan also includes a compact flash reader, a legacy music source that we imagine will eventually be dropped. What hasn't appeared in the GT-R since its launch is iPod integration, something Nissan will add for the 2011 model year, along with Bluetooth streaming audio.The 11-speaker Bose audio system is almost up to the task of drowning out road and engine noise. This system produces good response across frequencies, with bass helped by two subwoofers set between the rear seats. We found highs a little shrill, even though the A-pillar tweeters look tiny. A centerfill speaker helps round out the sound and contributes to good staging in the cabin.

Custom gauge screens push the GT-R far into the video game realm.
A real treat with the cabin electronics are the plethora of digital gauges available on the center screen, showing everything from turbo pressure to accelerator pedal angle to fuel economy. The driver can save four customized screens, showing whichever collection of gauges she deems most useful, although we found little opportunity to look at this screen while driving hard.And speaking of fuel economy, it is not a strong point for the GT-R. Unlike the Audi S4 we tested recently, which balanced performance with decent mileage, the GT-R burns gas in bucket loads. EPA ratings are 16 mpg city and 21 mpg highway. In our testing, which favored fast cornering, we came in at 16.2 mpg. Expect to spend a lot of time at the gas station with the GT-R. At least gas stops will be a chance to gather admirers. Those in the know will recognize the GT-R's beefy front end and cap-like roof instantly. Others will at least know there's something special about the GT-R, its mix of muscle car and coupe styling unlike anything else on the road. In sum
Although we found some serious problems for the everyday driver with the 2010 Nissan GT-R, it is one of the best track cars for the money. Nissan has already announced an update for the 2011 model year, addressing ride comfort and cabin tech, and notably adding iPod support. Because of these upcoming changes, most potential buyers should wait.As for this model year, the GT-R earns a top score for performance, as all of its high-tech gear leads to amazing capability in the corners and rocket ship acceleration. We dock it only a point for its miserable fuel economy. As for cabin tech, Nissan covers the basics, and gets a boost from the traffic integration with navigation, the Bose audio system, and the unique and customizable performance computer. We also give it an excellent score for design, as the body is unmistakable while retaining some subtlety, and the cabin electronics interface is intuitive.
Spec box

Model 2010 Nissan GT-R
Trim Premium
Power train Twin turbocharged 3.8-liter V-6
EPA fuel economy 16 mpg city/21 mpg highway
Observed fuel economy 16.2 mpg
Navigation Standard hard drive-based with traffic
Bluetooth phone support Standard
Disc player MP3 compatible single disc
MP3 player support none
Other digital audio Compact flash, satellite radio
Audio system Bose 11 speaker system
Driver aids Racing diagnostics computer
Base price $84,060
Price as tested $88,340

2010 Porsche Panamera 4S

Thursday, June 10, 2010
2010 Porsche Panamera 4S
Like most things Porsche, the 2010 Porsche Panamera 4S isn't easy to classify. At first, we were tempted to call it a squashed Cayenne, but the driving characteristics took that comparison out of the running. And although we were reminded of the 911 4S while behind the wheel, we just couldn't bring ourselves to call it a stretched 911. No, Porsche came up with a unique new car that stands on its own in the model lineup. In broad strokes it takes its place among German flagship sedans such as the BMW 750i, the Mercedes-Benz S550, and the Audi A8, but the Panamera 4S's sport handling makes those other cars look like stately luxo-barges.
Of course, the fastback design of the Panamera also puts it in its own class. Yes, that is a full hatchback at the rear providing a tall luggage area--a strange hint of practicality in such a pricey vehicle. The first spy shots of the Panamera produced quite a bit of negative reaction towards its styling and, though that was mostly underserved, the long cabin does give it an odd proportion. After spending some time with it, we've come to like the rear quarter and the nose section quite a bit. Luxury interior, sports car ride
Sitting in the cabin, the fine leather, woodwork, and metal components led us to expect a luxury ride. But the seats were surprisingly hard, and the suspension didn't exactly smooth out the timeworn asphalt of city streets. Instead, the car let us feel the road as a sports car would, communicating changes in the pavement so we could react accordingly.

The button marked with a shock absorber cycles through the three suspension settings.

The Panamera 4S comes standard with Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM), adjustable with one of the many buttons running down the console. By default, PASM is set to Comfort, although that is not really the adjective we would use. Its two other modes, Sport and Sport Plus, are designed for more enthusiastic driving, but we found that only Sport Plus kept the car screwed down tight enough for satisfying cornering.PASM works by continually adjusting the shock absorber response based on driving sensor data. Porsche also offers an air suspension with the Panamera, which can change the ride height by an inch, but we didn't have that option on our car. The car let us cycle through the various suspension modes with a single button, or we could choose to push the Sport or Sport Plus buttons, which not only activate the appropriate suspension mode, but also sharpen throttle response and adjust the transmission programming.Porsche powers the Panamera with a 4.8-liter V-8 using direct injection and variable-valve timing to achieve 400 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque. Power was immediate and the engine made a delightful roar as it brought us to 60 mph in a Porsche-claimed 4.8 seconds. Actually, our car shaved .2 seconds off that time due to the optional Sports Chrono Package Plus. More than a nice-looking timepiece set into the dash, this package gives the car an extra power boost for fast starts.We were also impressed by fuel economy from such a big and powerful engine. EPA numbers put it at 16 mpg city and 24 mpg highway, whereas our mixed city, mountain, and freeway driving produced 18.2 mpg.

This spoiler deploys automatically to generate downforce at speed.

Part of that decent fuel economy number is due to the standard Porsche Doppelkupplungsgetriebe (PDK), Porsche's relatively new dual-clutch, automated, manual transmission. With seven gears, it lets the engine maintain around 2,000rpm at freeway speeds. A low curb weight of only 4,101 pounds contributes to fuel economy and performance.But what we liked best about the PDK was its readiness to downshift. A slight push of the gas pedal while on the freeway, and the gear immediately drops from seven to six. Further pressure on the gas pedal encourages lower gear shifts, resulting in exhilarating power. The combination of engine and transmission makes passing other cars an enjoyable pastime.
Putting the Panamera 4S into the corners, it showed that a five-door hatchback could perform like a two-seater. In Sport mode, the PDK showed a willingness to get the engine speed up for power, but we felt a little too much suspension travel. For maximum fun, Sport Plus was just the thing. While cornering, it kept the engine speed up to ridiculous levels, with the tachometer needle continually brushing up against the 7,000rpm mark. Meanwhile, the car stayed flat on the pavement, resisting bounciness, and swinging quickly through the turns.
The PDK does have a manual mode, and Porsche mounts shift buttons on the steering wheel, but the design is terrible. With both hands on the wheel, just above the spokes, it was impossible to push the shift buttons. Instead, we had to let go and move a hand lower on the spoke, which pretty much defeats the purpose of steering wheel-mounted shifters. LCD, meet instrument panel
Porsche puts the tachometer front and center in the instrument cluster, the speedometer off to the left in good sports car style. We relied on the digital speed readout at the bottom of the tachometer. But immediately to the right of the tachometer sits a gauge ring housing a round LCD. This auxiliary display is very cool, giving access to route guidance, navigation map, music selections, phone, and trip information.

The instrument cluster display shows route guidance, maps, audio, phone, and trip information.
While this auxiliary interface is nice, the main interface is a typical touch screen in the center of the dashboard. Porsche completely modernized its cabin tech for the Panamera; the centerpiece of this redesign is the hard drive-stored maps with 3D rendered buildings in specific cities. These maps also feature nicely textured topographical elements to rival anything we've seen from BMW or Audi.
Porsche doesn't fiddle around with indirect controllers, relying on the touch screen for address entry. We found route calculation to be quick and route guidance graphics very readable. Voice prompts also do text-to-speech, reading out street names. The system includes traffic data, and though an advisory screen told us it wouldn't dynamically route around traffic jams, we were pleased to see a traffic warning screen pop up while out driving one day, complete with a detour button.
Our car came with an optional Bluetooth phone system, something that should probably be standard at the Panamera's price. This system proved to be full-featured, downloading our phone's contact list and making it available on the touch screen. Missing in the Panamera is a voice command system.

The iPod interface shows the number of items in each music library category.

The touch screen also serves as the interface for the stereo's iPod integration. We like that the buttons for album, artist, and genre show how many items are under each category. We found this interface straightforward to use. For USB drives and MP3 CDs, the interface is pared down to show folders and files. Although the car has an onboard hard drive, Porsche does not include music storage on it.
Audio comes through a 585-watt Bose system with 14 speakers. Most automotive Bose systems we listen to are good, but not stellar. For Porsche, Bose seems to have put in extra effort, because this system sounds almost as good as Mark Levinson and THX audio. It is well-balanced, with a powerful undercurrent. There is no rattle as it reproduces bass with a satisfying depth, and highs and mids come through clearly. One area where Porsche drops behind its luxury competitors is in driver aid technology, although to some extent that might have to do with philosophy. There is no adaptive cruise control to take over braking on the highway, and no lane departure warning, probably because the Panamera is too thrilling to put anyone to sleep. But we would like to see blind spot detection, a technology that could prevent many thousands of dollars worth of damage and Panamera owner tears.
In sum
More sports car than luxury barge, the 2010 Porsche Panamera combines an excellently tuned engine, dynamic suspension, and smart dual clutch transmission to deliver a thoroughly satisfying driving experience. More surprising is that all of this comes in a longish fastback sedan.
Although the cabin tech is very good, this suite is also the Panamera's weak point. Navigation and stereo keep up with luxury competitors, but don't push any boundaries. The lack of a voice command system also rules out dial-by-name for the Bluetooth phone system.
The car's exterior design will leave a lot of people cold, but it is certainly unique. We particularly like the hatchback look and practicality. Inside the cabin, the touch screen proves usable, and we give the Panamera extra credit for the secondary LCD in the instrument cluster. But the shift buttons on the steering wheel were a surprisingly poor choice on Porsche's part.
Spec box
Model 2010 Porsche Panamera
Trim 4S
Powertrain Direct injection 4.8-liter V-8
EPA fuel economy 16 mpg city/24 mpg higway
Observed fuel economy 18.2 mpg
Navigation Hard drive-based with traffic
Bluetooth phone support Optional
Disc player MP3 compatible single CD
MP3 player support iPod integration
Other digital audio USB drive, Bluetooth streaming audio, Satellite radio
Audio system Bose 585 watt 14 speaker system
Driver aids Park distance sensors, rear view camera
Base price $93,800
Price as tested $107,040

2010 Infiniti EX35 Journey

Friday, June 4, 2010
The 2010 Infiniti EX35 pushes the boundaries of car technology, introducing cutting-edge new features. A few years ago, the company began to show its tech chops with an excellent hard-drive-based navigation system. Then Infiniti offered a lane departure prevention system that would nudge the car back into its lane. The EX35 goes further, actually pushing back on the gas pedal if it is about to hit an object. This is a car with a sense of survival.

2010 Infiniti EX35 Journey
2010 Infiniti EX35 Journey
2010 Infiniti EX35 Journey
2010 Infiniti EX35 Journey
The car itself sits firmly in the crossover segment. In style and shape, it resembles its big brother, the Infiniti FX. But the EX is shorter in length by almost a foot and in height by 3.5 inches. That may not sound like much, but the EX reads as a much smaller vehicle in person, and could almost be called a hatchback. Whereas the FX works well in suburbia, the EX is an excellent city car. Practically self-aware
One tech feature that particularly helps in the city is the around-view camera. Along with a rear-view, which includes trajectory and distance lines, our EX35 had side and front cameras that gave us a top-down look at the car.

This around-view camera is great for squeezing into tight parking spaces.

Squeezing into a tight parallel parking spot, the camera view proved invaluable, letting us see the curb and the cars to the front and back, resulting in almost perfect parking. The front camera even showed trajectory lines as we eased the EX35 forward, edging up to the car in front. We could also switch the top-down view to a curb-side view, with a yellow line overlaid to help judge distance to the curb. Infiniti calls the more radical technology in the EX35 Distance Control Assist (DCA). Using the forward-facing radar already in the car for the adaptive cruise control, DCA looks at traffic ahead, and applies the brakes and even pushes back on the gas pedal when cars ahead are stopped or slowing. For some, DCA will seem too intrusive. We used it extensively and found ourselves fighting the gas pedal pushback continually, as its idea of a safe stopping distance and ours differed in city traffic. Still, we could see its usefulness. At times, as we looked to see if the next lane over was clear for a lane change, DCA slowed the EX35 in response to traffic ahead slowing. We also found it amusing to let it bring the EX35 to a stop as we approached traffic at a red light.

We could turn DCA on and off with a button on the steering wheel.

We could not, however, rely on the system to stop the car all the time. In city driving, the forward-facing radar seemed to get a fix on traffic ahead only about 50 percent of the time. We quickly learned to check the instrument cluster display for the little car icon that indicated whether it had a lock on the car ahead or not. DCA does not turn on by default; the driver must choose to turn it on by pushing a button on the steering wheel.
However, Forward Collision Warning, which also uses the car's radar, comes on automatically. This feature turns on an audible warning if it feels the EX35 is approaching stopped traffic too quickly. Less intrusive, the audible warning can be turned off. More conventional is the adaptive cruise control, which, like systems from other automakers, matches the EX35's speed with slower traffic when the cruise control is set. We've grown to appreciate this type of cruise control, and made use of it while driving the EX35 on the freeway. Rather than fiddle with the cruise control or plan a lane change whenever we approached slower traffic in our lane, we just let the cruise control adjust our speed. If the car ahead was keeping up a reasonable pace, we settled in the lane. Rounding out the driver aid technology is lane departure warning and prevention. Although we didn't encounter a situation in which these features would have proven useful, they can be invaluable on long road trips. When crossing a lane line without signaling, the car sounded an audible warning. If we let it continue to drift across the lane line, the EX35 nudged itself back into its lane by lightly braking the off-side wheels. When trying out this feature, it felt perfectly safe. IT never felt as though the car was about to make any violent moves. Surprisingly, the one driver aid feature missing is one we've really liked in other cars: blind spot detection. A time-tested engine
The 35 in the EX35 name signifies the 3.5-liter V-6 under the hood--a power plant that makes 297 horsepower and 253 pound-feet of torque. This engine will be familiar to those who follow the Infiniti and Nissan brands, as it has seen use in a wide variety of models, and appeared on Ward's 10 Best Engines list for many years running.
This engine proves more than adequate for motivating the EX35. It always felt ready to get the car off the line quickly. During a run up to freeway speeds, the engine showed no signs of lagging, continuing to give the car push up to and beyond the legal limit. During one passing run on the freeway, we looked down at the speedometer and noticed that the car was already up to 90 mph, showing how effortlessly it takes off.

Infiniti equipped the EX35 with a five-speed automatic, which is a strange choice that does not optimize fuel economy.
Infiniti mates this engine to a five-speed automatic, which seems like an aberration in this car. The FX35, which gets the same engine and is built on the same platform, gets a seven-speed transmission. Infiniti might have chosen the five speed to save weight or to fit in a smaller space, but the result is higher engine speeds on the freeway.
Those higher engine speeds also mean worse fuel economy. The EPA rates the Infiniti EX35 with all-wheel-drive at 16 mpg city and 23 mpg highway. We've always found that Nissan and Infiniti cars with the 3.5-liter V-6 struggle to maintain fuel economy over 20 mpg, and the lack of a sixth gear does not help the EX35. In our testing we averaged 19.1 mpg. The transmission has sport and manual modes, which both suited the car's performance-oriented handling. We raced the car over mountain roads to get a sense of how the transmission responded in its different modes, and found sport the most satisfying. Manual gear changes suffer from torque converter lag, but the sport mode did a good job of keeping the engine speed high for power in the turns. It is not as aggressive as some we've tested, but was well-suited to the car's ability to corner. Like most Infiniti vehicles, the EX35 uses stabilizer bars to keep it settled in the turns. It doesn't go through the corners perfectly flat, but doesn't exhibit much roll, either. Our car's all-wheel-drive gave it an edge, as we could feel it digging in and aiding grip--especially useful to us since we were testing on wet roads. Solid cabin tech
The power train proved to be the least high-tech aspect of the EX35, as our car came equipped with an impressive raft of cabin gadgets. Infiniti's hard-drive-based navigation system uses good-looking maps and shows some landmark buildings in 3D, although it doesn't go to quite the extreme of Audi's 3D rendering in the Q5.

This control knob, with directional buttons on top, makes using the onscreen interface particularly easy.
This navigation system includes traffic and weather, and dynamically routes around traffic jams. We found it worked quickly, and showed very useful route guidance graphics, along with voice prompts that pronounced street names.
A combination of a touch-screen and a hardware controller made destination inputs easy. Infiniti uses one of our favorite interfaces, its knob studded with directional buttons that allows quick maneuvering around the various screens.
Infiniti reserves 9.3GB of space on the navigation hard drive for the car's Jukebox feature. We were able to rip CDs to the hard drive using the CD/DVD slot, and the car's internal Gracenote database correctly tagged the resulting MP3 files. There is also satellite radio and good iPod integration in the form of a USB port to which we plugged in an iPhone. This system also allows Bluetooth streaming.
The Bose audio system in the car uses 11 speakers, including two subwoofers and a center fill. The sound quality is very good, although not up to the level of some premium systems by THX and Mark Levinson. It produces a strong sound with solid bass, but the highs are not quite as distinct as we would like.
In sum
We were suitably blown away by the 2010 Infiniti EX35's cabin tech. The traditional features--navigation, stereo, and Bluetooth phone system--were all high quality, but the addition of the driver aid features pushes this car over the top. We love the around-view camera system, and the Distance Control Assistance was at least intriguing.
Although the power train and suspension did not push the tech envelope, they are well-engineered to make the EX35 a very enjoyable car to drive. We appreciated the compact dimensions and could see it as a comfortable multi-use vehicle. As for design, the cabin tech interface is attractive and one of the most usable we've seen. As for the exterior, the car cuts a pleasing profile, and is unmistakably an Infiniti.
Spec box

Model 2010 Infiniti EX35
Trim Journey
Powertrain 3.5-liter V-6 engine
EPA fuel economy 16 mpg city/23 mpg highway
Observed fuel economy 19.1 mpg
Navigation Hard drive-based with traffic
Bluetooth phone support Standard
Disc player MP3 compatible single CD/DVD player
MP3 player support iPod integration
Other digital audio Onboard hard drive, USB thumb drive, Bluetooth streaming audio, satellite radio
Audio system Bose 11 speaker system
Driver aids Rear view camera, around-view camera, side-camera, front camera, lane departure warning, lane departure prevention, adaptive cruise control, distance control
Base price $37,400
Price as tested $44,695

2010 Audi S4

Wednesday, June 2, 2010
Audi's newest S4 proves that power and fuel economy are not mutually exclusive. Pushed by upcoming European and U.S. regulations covering CO2 emissions and fuel economy, the company created a 2010 Audi S4 that delivers exciting performance, everything you would expect from an Audi S, and very reasonable fuel economy.
The new S4 gets rid of the previous version's 4.2-liter V-8 in favor of a supercharged 3-liter direct-injection V-6, giving it much better fuel economy with no real loss of power. The new S4 also benefits from Audi's improvements to its Quattro all-wheel-drive system, its Nvidia-powered 3D navigation system, and Bang & Olufsen audio quality, along with other features making it a créme de la créme tech car.
2010 Audi S4
2010 Audi S4
2010 Audi S4
2010 Audi S4
Talking to a car
Heading toward our favorite Northern California driving roads (think a lonely road winding through rolling hills covered in green fields), we pushed the voice command button and said, "I need gas." Immediately, the navigation system went to work, responding with a list of nearby gas stations. Glancing down at the list, we merely had to say the line number for our preference, and the navigation system guided us off the freeway toward a full tank of gas in preparation for an afternoon of hot driving.
Beyond finding gas stations, Audi has incorporated other natural speech voice commands into the S4's cabin electronics. Most usefully, you can tell it to call Joe, and if you have a Joe in your phone's contact list, the car will dial the associated phone number. Other new voice commands include, "I'm hungry" and "I need cash," each activating different point-of-interest searches (rather than popping a pastrami sandwich or a bundle of cash in your lap).
The navigation system itself showed us an incredibly detailed 3D map of downtown San Francisco, rendering all buildings and even texturing a few. Audi launched this new navigation system, which uses an Nvidia graphics chip to draw the buildings, in the Q5. Out of the city, the map shows the topographical features of those rolling hills toward which we were heading. This is a car a geographer would love.
Live traffic is also a feature of this navigation system, along with the capability to dynamically route around bad traffic. In fact, the only thing we don't particularly like about it is the destination-entry screen, which lacks an aesthetic touch.
When purchasing an S4, you are faced with four choices: Premium Plus or Prestige, with each trim giving the option of six-speed manual or seven-speed automated manual transmissions. Our car was a Prestige model, which not only brings in the navigation and voice control systems, but also adds a 14-speaker 505-watt Bang & Olufsen audio system.
Believe us, Prestige is the way to go, as the audio system delivers a very clean and balanced sound. We found that the bass was sharp without being thumpy, and the highs showed nice separation. The system seemed to favor midranges, making vocal tracks shine.
As for the transmission, the high-tech choice would have been the seven-speed automated manual, Audi's newest dual -clutch gearbox, but we had the six-speed manual. We didn't have any regrets about this gearbox, though, as it shifts with silky precision, proving a perfect partner for the supercharged V-6.
This is one responsive, yet subtle, engine. Making 333 horsepower and 325 pound-feet or torque, it should make a throaty growl as it pushes the small S4 to 60 mph in less than 5 seconds, but instead it purrs with the sound of precisely engineered German parts interacting. All you hear is a slight whoosh from the supercharger squeezing power from the relatively small-displacement direct-injection engine.
We didn't miss the basso profundo of a bigger engine; we were too busy being thrilled by the speed or looking for the right lines through the curves. Of course, the S4 comes standard with Audi's Quattro all-wheel-drive system, along with a sport-tuned suspension that kept it composed during hard cornering.
Suspension optional
But this car wasn't all it could be. Audi keeps some of the performance gear on the options list. Our car didn't have the available rear sport differential, which vectors torque to the outside rear wheel in a turn, nor did it have Audi's Drive Select feature, which includes an active suspension and sport settings for the engine and steering.
As it was, our S4's suspension provided a nice ride in normal driving and mostly counteracted body roll in the corners. It didn't stay as flat as it would have with an active suspension, but still allowed us to carry a lot of speed through the corners. In this way, our S4's handling felt slightly retro, with a little looseness when it got stressed by inertial forces in the turns.
We were impressed that, after a good bit of city, freeway, and performance driving, the average fuel economy was 21.3 mpg. Most sports cars of this caliber would be down around 16 or 17 mpg. The EPA rates the S4 at 17 mpg city and 28 mpg highway.
The center display on the instrument cluster tries to help you economize by indicating the appropriate gear for the current speed, but we got tired of trying to follow its guidance when it said the car should be in sixth gear at 40 mph. We like a little more ready power than what's available with that ratio.
That center display, a color LCD between speedometer and tachometer, offered a lot of control in conjunction with the steering-wheel-mounted controls. At the push of a button it switches between trip, navigation, phone, and audio displays. We had full control over an iPod plugged into the car with the center display and steering-wheel buttons. Likewise, we could thumb through a paired phone's contact list, all without having to touch the console-mounted controls for what Audi calls the Multimedia Interface.
We did need to look to the center LCD for the back-up camera, which has long been a high-point in Audis. It not only shows distance lines, but trajectory lines also curve around as you turn the wheel, showing where the car will go when backing up. The next step, which a few other automakers have already incorporated, would be an around-view monitor, but that technology is of debatable usefulness in a small sedan.
When we first got onto the freeway in the S4, we lamented the lack of a blind-spot warning system, but checking the option sheet later, we saw it is available, as is adaptive cruise control, two high-tech driving aids that would make a nice addition to the S4's equipment roster--the latter especially if you take long road-trips.
In sum
Though Audi's sport brand falls short of the BMW's M or Mercedes-Benz's AMG, there is little that will disappoint in the 2010 Audi S4. It is a thoroughly civilized car that happens to offer exciting performance. We give it a top score for performance, as the supercharged engine gives you speed when you want it, yet doesn't drain the tank after 100 miles of driving. Audi offers the high-tech seven-speed dual-clutch transmission for quick shifts, and the Drive Select package gives it modern handling technology.
It earns almost as high of a score for cabin tech, a rating propelled upward by the rich maps in the navigation system. The Bang & Olufsen audio system helps that rating, as well as the next-generation voice command system. We like that adaptive cruise control and blind spot detection are available, but Audi stops short of more esoteric cabin tech such as drowsiness warnings or night vision.
The only real flaw we found with the S4 was in the design of some of the input screens for navigation and phones. The usability of the instrument cluster display gave it a design boost, and the overall look of the car is distinctly Audi.
Spec box
Model 2010 Audi S4
Trim Prestige
Power train Supercharged direct injection 3-liter V-6
EPA fuel economy 18 mpg city/27 mpg higway
Observed fuel economy 21.3 mpg
Navigation Standard hard drive-based with traffic
Bluetooth phone support Standard
Disc player MP3 compatible single CD
MP3 player support iPod integration
Other digital audio Onboard hard drive, SD Card, USB drive, auxiliary input, satellite radio
Audio system Bang & Olufsen 505 watt 14 speaker
Driver aids Adaptive cruise control, blind spot warning, back-up camera
Base price $45,900
Price as tested $51,575

Honda CR-Z hybrid (2010) CAR review

This isn’t what I’d been led to expect. The new 2010 Honda CR-Z hybrid coupe is billed as ‘the world’s first sporty hybrid’, so I’d anticipated something a bit more electric and 21st century; something weird, whooshy, torquey and maybe a bit aloof. But instead of being fast-forwarded a decade, it’s all gone a bit Life on Mars. The new CR-Z hybrid feels a bit retro.
I’m driving something that – cockpit visuals aside – shows absolutely no evidence of being a hybrid, but instead feels every bit the ’80s hot hatch; a great exhaust note that promises more than the engine delivers in raw grunt, but the steering, body control and brakes to make the most of it. The Honda CR-Z feels like the sort of car we thought the car makers didn’t – or couldn’t – make any more.
Honda CR-Z hybrid (2010) CAR review
Honda CR-Z hybrid (2010) CAR review
Honda CR-Z hybrid (2010) CAR review
Honda CR-Z hybrid (2010) CAR review
Honda CR-Z hybrid (2010) CAR review

So is the new CR-Z the future, or a throwback to the past?
What it is – in engineering terms – is a two-door, 2+2 small coupe built on a very heavily made-over Insight platform with 115mm chopped out of the wheelbase to get the length down to just over 4m, and 25mm added to the track. The new layout ought to improve handling, but it definitely helps the stance; the mad origami styling is original and entirely modern but references Honda’s sharp, ’80s CR-X baby coupe and the original 1999 Insight; also a hybrid coupe, but far from sporty.
The engine is a 1497cc, 16-valve VTEC petrol pinched from the US-market Jazz, offered for the first time in Europe and fitted with Honda’s IMA integrated motor assist hybrid system, in which an electric motor sits between the engine and gearbox and helps out when there’s enough charge in the nickel metal-hydride batteries housed under the boot. The petrol engine alone makes 113bhp at 6100rpm and 107lb ft at 4800rpm, but total system output from both motors is 124bhp and 128lb ft between just 1000-1500rpm.
Not, frankly, figures you’d associate with a modern hot hatch, now that Clios come with 200bhp. Nor will Honda’s IMA system power itself electrically with the engine entirely stopped, as a Prius will. And its environmental credentials – a claimed 56.5mpg and 117g/km – are comprehensively outstripped by some conventionally powered, eco-tweaked hatches, like a Golf Bluemotion or a BMW 116d, and well behind the 64.2mpg and 101g/km of the Insight.
Yes, read the numbers alone and you’re left thinking that the Honda CR-Z will have to do a lot on the road to justify its sporty hybrid claims, and left wondering if it possibly can when the related Insight and Civic IMA are such blanks dynamically.
How does the Honda CR-Z (2010) drive?
Only one way to find out. Open the CR-Z and it’s quickly apparent Honda hasn’t worked any packaging miracles under that truncated rear end; the boot is shallow and small at 225 litres and Honda’s blurb tellingly describes how the ‘2+2 layout gives the option of carrying children in the rear’: it’s only an option, adults aren’t welcome, and you suspect that most CR-Zs will have the back seats permanently flipped forward.
The front half of the cockpit is much better. While other car makers endlessly search out ever-more luscious plastics, Honda somehow manages to build great cabins from some pretty average materials; the appeal is in precision with which they’re assembled, the intelligence with which they’re laid out and the palpable engineering quality behind them.
The CR-Z is no exception. You sit low in big, winged sports chairs; more under-thigh support would be good. For a small, sporty car there’s masses of storage with three cupholders and big bins and boxes. There’s no conventional central console; instead the air-con and driving-mode controls - of which more later - are grouped in two pods to either side of the main instrument binnacle and just behind your hands as they rest on the wheel. The whole layout is focussed, fresh, and intuitive to use.
Honda CR-Z: pick your driving mode
The CR-Z offers three driving modes, selected with switches on the pods behind the wheel. Eco neuters the engine in the interests of economy but leaves it with more than enough urge for city driving. Normal is, well, normal, and Sport sharpens the throttle response, primes the hybrid system to assist more and adds weight to the steering. Around town and on motorways the CR-Z feels fine in any of the three modes. The ride is surprisingly good for a sporty car with Insight underpinnings; the bespoke springs and dampers produce some surface-sensitivity and a stiff-ish response to bigger intrusions, but nothing too harsh given the car’s sporting intent.
Is the CR-Z a back-road thriller?
The real surprise comes when you select Sport and head for a B-road. As you run the engine out to the redline the noise – like a Civic Type-R at two-thirds volume – is great, but not matched by much forward progress; Honda claims an uninspiring 10.2sec to 62mph. There also isn’t the low-end torque-thump you’d hope for from an electrically-assisted drivetrain; the engine builds power in a linear manner but does its best work once the VTEC system changes cam profile around 4000rpm, the electric motor just helping to fill in the low-end torque hole of the small capacity, naturally aspirated petrol engine.
So rather than being the expected party-piece, the drivetrain is a little underwhelming. The revelation is in the handling. The Sport button sharpens the steering response noticeably, and the gearing is already quick at just 2.5 turns between locks. This, combined with terrific primary body control through bends and over vertical undulations, seemingly unbreakable traction, brakes that are almost over-sharp and utterly unlike the vague stoppers fitted to most hybrids, and diminutive dimensions right-sized for British roads together mean the CR-Z goads you to maintain all the momentum the engine can summon, and probably more than is good for the planet or your licence. I don’t know what fuel figures I got as I drove repeated laps of my benchmark B-road route, but I’m pretty certain it wasn’t 56.5mpg.
Honda CR-Z: the CAR verdict
The CR-Z is exactly the kind of oddball, flawed, contradictory car that Japan occasionally, inadvertently produces; an impractical hybrid that is out-eco’d by plenty of ‘normal’ cars, yet out-handles most of them too. Most of you just won’t see the point, but a handful will buy it for the looks, or the handling, or even just the hybrid badge, and love it. And long may Honda continue to boldly build cars for that one per cent.


How much?£16,999
On sale in the UK:2010
Engine:1497cc 16v hybrid four, 124bhp @ 6100rpm, 128lb ft @ 1000-1500rpm
Transmission:Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Performance:10.1sec 0-62mph, 124mph, 56.5mpg, 117g/km
How heavy / made of?1198kg/steel
How big (length/width/height in mm)?4080/1740/1395