Archive | March, 2014

2015 Chevrolet Suburban

17 Mar

Still the Boss Hauler.

When you run your mental list of American automotive icons, does it include this big boy? If it doesn’t, I score it as incomplete.

Sure, a Suburban doesn’t pack the kind of cachet that goes with, say, a Boss 302 Mustang, or a split window Corvette, or a ’57 Cadillac Seville Eldorado. But it predates all those post-War II glamour rides, and it’s been America’s pre-eminent pack mule for a long time.

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The saga began with the Suburban Carryall, in 1935. And this is chapter 12, in a continuing story that adds to the Suburban’s status as the oldest continuously sustained nameplate in the industry.

So just how new is the new Suburban? Let’s say selectively new. As with Chevy’s full-size Silverado pickup, the foundation is an updated version of the GM 900 chassis, a big wagon body on a truck-style sturdy ladder frame. It was solid goods going in, and didn’t need a major makeover, just some judicious stiffening.

Thus the chassis and body dimensions are unchanged from the 11th generation Suburban. But there is much that is new—skin, interior, and motivation, plus a small reduction in mass, about 100 pounds, depending on equipment.

Let’s start under the hood. Propulsion is supplied by a 5.3-liter V8, sending thrust to the rear wheels (or, optionally, all four) via a six-speed automatic transmission. At a glance, this engine looks very much like the previous 5.3-liter eight—same displacement, same bore centers (mandated as engineering gospel at GM ever since the small block Chevy V8 of 1955). But almost everything else—oil pan, cylinder block, crankshaft, pistons, rods, intake, exhaust—is new.

Including direct fuel injection. All that, and increased compression, add up to increased output—355 horsepower versus 320. Even better, improved engine efficiency plus a function that automatically shuts off half the cylinders at steady cruising speeds—adds up to improved EPA fuel economy ratings: 15 mpg city, 22 highway with 4-wheel drive. Towing capability: 8000 pounds

Muscle is always a plus in an 8-passenger family hauler, but so is refinement, and the latest Suburban raises the ante in this respect. Improved materials, sexier instrumentation, more sound insulation and of course the all-important connectivity, with a platoon of USB ports and the optional Chevy MyLink system. From a more practical point of view, the second- and third-row seatbacks fold flat for swallowing cargo (just over 121 cubic feet at max)—in previous Suburbans, you had to remove the rearmost seat. The seatbacks have an optional power folding feature. And there’s a power rear liftgate option. All very handy.

And safety features, as you’d expect, are contemporary and comprehensive, although Chevy would get higher marks in this scoring category if more of these features were standard—the blind spot, lane departure, and rear cross traffic warnings, for example.

Maneuverable Mass

Nimble is a word that’s never popped into my mind in connection with any Suburban, an experience log that dates to generation eight. But for a vehicle in this size/mass category, the latest Suburban comports itself with surprising agility. It’s not like anyone’s going to put this big hauler through its paces on a twisty back road or at an autocross, but what you want from any vehicle, especially one that’s likely to be packing a load of kids, is prompt and predictable responses in emergency maneuvers.

Within the constraints of its size, the latest Suburban delivers on that score. Body roll is minimal, and transient responses—the quick directional changes you’d make avoiding a hazardous situation—are brisk. Rapid maneuvers could be a bit more precise if the new electric power steering provided a little more tactile information, but that’s a trait an owner learns to live with.

Power will likely score as more than satisfactory for most, and the operation of the cylinder deactivation features is absolutely seamless. The only clue that it’s working is a little indicator light at the bottom of the instrument binnacle.

The Suburban’s comfort quotient measures up well with its enhanced dynamics. Ride quality is excellent—smooth without being squishy—and the investment GM made in controlling NVH (noise vibration harshness) pays dividends in terms of quiet operation. Chevy says “whisper quiet,” which may be overstating the case. But I can attest to a conversation in living room voice levels at a steady 75 mph. Which should be quiet enough for just about anyone.

Demerits? A few. In an era of 8-, 9-, and even 10-speed transmissions, GM’s 6-speed, though smooth, seems a little behind the times. One of the newer units would probably contribute to fuel efficiency.

And while the 5.3-liter V8 does a good job, GM has an equally new (and considerably more potent) 6.2-liter V8 in its inventory that’s not available to Suburban buyers. If you want that one, you have to shops at a GMC store, where it’s available in the more expensive Yukon XL Denali. GM doesn’t impose this distinction on its full-size pickup trucks, Silverado and GMC Sierra. Similarly, the fancy High Country trim package newly available in the Silverado doesn’t extend to the Suburban. You can get leather and other goodies, but if you want the really posh interior GM wants you to sign up for a Yukon Denali.

As you’d expect, the Denali treatment is expensive, but the Suburban is far from inexpensive, and not the sort of purchase that falls into impulse buy territory. The base price for my 4-wheel drive test truck was $65,695, including the $995 destination/delivery charge. There were also $6190 in options, including a $3305 package with sunroof, navigation, and Chevy MyLink and $1695 for adaptive cruise control.

Cruise controls from some carmakers now include a defeat feature for the adaptive element, which makes them infinitely more desirable in my view. This one, however, does not, and I’d stick with the basic cruise control, which is standard equipment.In any case, $71,385 is a sobering sum. Nevertheless, if the desire is ownership of a refined 9-passenger family wagon capable of pretty heavy duty towing, the new Suburban is better than ever—and still the gold standard in this class.

Geneva 2014

10 Mar

The 84th Salon de l’Auto Geneve is in progress through mid-March, and as always, it brings back memories, as well as a striking contrast with my first visit to this terrific annual show (see “Geneva Then”).

Though two days are devoted to press preview before the show opens its doors to the public, pretty much all of the formal presentations are crammed into the first of those days, basically 8 hours.

It’s basically a sort of organized madhouse, with at least two press presentations in progress at any given point during the day, each of them kicked off by musical fanfare at decibel levels that would shame a heavy metal rock concert. This is standard practice at auto shows everywhere, apparently rooted in an unshakeable conviction that a musical crescendo heightens the anticipation.

Yeah, right. Anticipation of hearing loss. I really should bring noise cancelling headphones.

Another peculiarity of many of these conferences—press conferences, that is, presented so the world will be informed about each dazzling new vehicle—is that the carmaker commonly reserves the front row of seats for assorted executives. Sometimes the first two rows. Very few if any of these execs have anything to do with the presentation. And meanwhile, journalists are standing around on tiptoe at the periphery.

German carmakers do this regularly. So do many of the Japanese. And the Koreans. I have to say I don’t get it. Don’t your execs know about the product already? Are we preaching to the choir?

Anyway, a press conference pace like Geneva makes it impossible for a journalist operating alone to cover the show. It even strains the manpower resources of media operations that are able to dispatch several staffers to attend the various press conferences. There are literally dozens of them—53 this year, according to my count, which does not include presentations by aftermarket companies. And there were at least two in progress at any time during the day, 15 minutes each, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Accordingly, I’ve culled out a few cars that caught my eye. To see all the new hardware unveiled at Geneva, visit Car and Driver. You’ll find reports on every Geneva debut, including a few by your humble narrator. My observations follow.

Bugatti Veyron Legend Rembrandt

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Geneva is always awash with high-end exotica, but this Bugatti creation topped the 2014 charts. It’s one in a six-part series of Veyron 16.4 Grand Sport Vitesse special editions, three cars per edition, each named for a prominent figure from Bugatti history. The Rembrandt edition is number four in the series, named for Rembrandt Bugatti, brother of Bugatti founder Ettore. Rembrandt was a prominent sculptor, known for his bronze animal creations, which included the dancing elephant figure that adorned the hoods of the six Type 41 Royales created by Bugatti between 1929 and 1933. Essentially an ultra elegant and exclusive trim package, the Legend treatment adds nothing to the Veyron roadster’s performance, though with 1184 horsepower from its 8.0-liter W-16 engine, how much does it need. But it does add to the bottom line. The pricetag is a non-negotiable 2.18 million euros—roughly $3 million, and about a half-million more than the regular production version. Exclusivity does not come cheap at Bugatti. But that makes it all the more desirable, and as of this writing two of the three Rembrandts have been sold, as have all nine of the previous Legend editions.

Audi TT

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Styling home runs are both a blessing and a curse for designers. When you hit one over the fence, as Audi did with the original TT in 1995, expectations are high next time you step up to the plate. So here’s the third generation TT—mechanically sophisticated, and bristling with electronic wizardry. But does it have the same curbside wattage as the Bauhaus original? Maybe not. The proportions are athletic, but angularity has supplanted the uniquely rounded profile. Then again, the original TT defied evolutionary change. Anyway, as you’d expect, the new TT is cutting edge in terms of technology, highlighted by its so-called virtual cockpit, with nav system, climate, and other secondary controls displayed in the instrument nacelle, eliminating a big and potentially distracting display screen in the center dash. And if the exterior’s one-of-a-kind zaftig curves have given way to edges, the dynamics—lighter body shell, stiffer chassis, more power—figure to be exceptional. Look for pricing to start at a little over $40k when the TT hits showrooms later this year.

Jeep Renegade

2015 Jeep Renegade Latitude and Trailhawk Models

This was the coolest Jeep in the show. Now, that may sound like an excessively narrow category. But there were other Jeeps on the Jeep stand, as well as a number of Jeepish knockoffs presented by other manufacturers. The Renegade is, in fact, a response to knockoffs like the Kia Soul and Nissan Juke, considerably smaller than the Jeep Patriot and Compass models it will replace. Consistent with Jeep tradition, the little Renegade will have real off-road chops, in sharp contrast to its Korean rivals. But it also represents a sharp departure for this all-American brand. The foundations come from Fiat, shared with the 500L, the 1.4-liter turbocharged base engine is shared with the 500 Abarth, assembly will take place in Europe, and corporate execs expect European sales to exceed those in the U.S. Never mind. The Renegade is a timely and well conceived addition to the Jeep line, one that will quickly eclipse the disappointing Patriot and Compass. Look for Renegades to begin reaching U.S. showrooms late this year.

Honda Civic Type R

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I confess to a weakness for pocket rockets, and this little Honda is a prime example. Presented as a concept, a “racing car for the road,” the little three-door sports the usual aero bits, a racy rear wing, 20-inch wheels backed by oversize brakes, and propelled by a new 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine capable of generating upwards of 275 horsepower. That would make it a serious rival for U.S. market hot hatchbacks like the Ford Focus ST and Volkswagen GTI. But don’t get your hopes up. High-performance seems to have been back-burnered at Honda North America, and the likelihood of a the Civic Type R becoming a production reality for U.S. Honda dealers is pretty close to nil.

Mercedes S-Class Coupe

Mercedes-Benz S 500 4MATIC CoupŽ Edition 1 (C 217) 2013

In a market segment where opulence, technical sophistication, dynamic superiority, and prestige are all on a pretty even footing, styling is often the tie-breaker. And considered on that basis, this big Benz two-door emerges as a star. The S-Class Coupe replaces the Mercedes CL-Class, and is in my estimation the sexiest thing issued by Mercedes since the first CLS (the so-called four-door coupe), back in 2004. That takes in a lot of territory, because the Mercedes design team hasn’t exactly been sitting on its hands since then. As you’d expect, the new coupe will embrace several techno innovations and deliver plenty of power. But assessed as eye candy alone, it goes to the top of the chart versus rivals from Audi and BMW, the other major players in this rarefied realm.

Mini Clubman Concept

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Mini’s auto show concepts are invariably previews of production cars, and this Geneva Clubman update is no exception. From a practical point of view, this version of the Clubman makes plenty of sense—four real doors, instead of the two and a half doors of the current model. This is a bigger Clubman, too—just over 10 inches longer, and almost 7 inches wider, making the rear seat area more useful. It retains the vertical rear cargo doors, which you may or may not appreciate—I don’t like what they do to rearward sightlines. But be that as it may, this expansion makes me wonder yet again how much elasticity there can possibly be in the word Mini. Webster’s defines the word as “miniature, very small.” Like the Countryman and Paceman, which are neither miniature nor small, this Mini is another example of the English language in transition. Look for this concept to become production reality by the end of the year.

Geneva Then

10 Mar

Of the major European auto shows, Geneva has always been my favorite, for several reasons. First, it’s in Geneva. Amazing coincidence, that. Second, it’s held in early March, so there’s some hope that the earth will once again tilt toward spring in the northern hemisphere. And third, the show brings back memories. (Fast forward to today at “Geneva 2014“)

My first Geneva show was in 1980, and three of its elements are still bright in the otherwise murky landscape of my memory.

Number One: Paper

Reams of paper. Brochures. Booklets. Photos. The Internet was only a concept in 1980, and journalists used typewriters. There was no World Wide Web, so of course there were no web sites. Press information was doled out as printed matter, and there was lots of it. I must have accumulated about 25 pounds of press kits, which included a lot photography, mostly black and white.

The challenge of covering the show today is posed by the sheer volume of press presentations, but the Web and press kits on USB drives have eliminated the stevedore element—no more lugging mass quantities of printed material.

Number Two: Ferrari

Geneva has long been a favored forum for Ferrari, and in 1980 its major introduction was the Mondial 8. This was my first Ferrari intro, and it’s composed of two chapters in my memory. Chapter one was the show car, a handsome mid-engined 2+2 styled by Pininfarina. I was impressed.

photo credit: SpeedHunter XxX via photopin cc

photo credit: SpeedHunter XxX via photopin cc

But that positive impression was tempered by chapter two, when I drove a Mondial across the country, from New Jersey to Sunset and La Cienega Boulevards, in Hollywood, where I was employed by Motor Trend magazine. The Mondial turned heads, but it didn’t turn them quickly. There was a 3.0-liter twin cam V-8 engine mounted behind the cabin, driving the rear wheels. It was nourished by Bosch K-Jetronic mechanical fuel injection—the same engine was fed by carbs in the GT4, the Mondial’s predecessor—but at 205 horsepower, propelling some 3500 pounds of car, acceleration was distinctly ho-hum, and not at all what I expected from a machine bearing the logo of Enzo Ferrari.

Number Three: De Lorean

Perhaps this should have been number one, because it’s certainly my most incandescent memory from that 1980 show.

photo credit: SpeedHunter XxX via photopin cc

photo credit: SpeedHunter XxX via photopin cc

You’ll recall that John Zachary De Lorean was the General Motors renegade who left GM to establish his own company around a mid-engined two-seat sports car with gullwing doors and stainless steel skin.

The set designers for the De Lorean presentation must have been theater professionals, because the stand was beautifully set up, with soft lighting that dramatized the car’s silvery skin as well as the man’s thatch of salt-and-pepper hair. He wore his hair fashionably long, and the team that prepped the set may have spent as much time on that coiffure as the car. De Lorean was a handsome man with a strong presence, a compelling presenter, and a very good speaking voice—qualities that served him well as a fund-raiser, as they had when he rose to leadership of GM’s number one sales division.

I can’t recall specifically what De Lorean had to say in his Geneva pitch. It was generally predictable—the bold independent casting off the shackles of convention to create something memorable. But just about everyone crowded around the stand seemed mesmerized by De Lorean’s delivery.

It was a great moment, and proved to be the zenith of the entire DMC (De Lorean Motor Company) saga. I suppose it glimmers in my memory as it does because what followed entailed so many disappointments and so much disillusion.

Many of us were rooting for De Lorean and his dream—naively, it seems. Because even as we listened to John Z’s oratory, the dream was already coming apart at the seams. The car may have looked dramatic, but assembly quality was abysmal, power was tepid, and at about $25,000 it was overpriced. Though not as exotic, a new Corvette delivered much more performance, as well as readily accessible factory service, for about $9000 less.

Beyond that, the British government, which had heavily subsidized the startup, to create jobs in Northern Ireland, was already asking hard questions about where its loans were going. De Lorean, for his part, was simultaneously asking for more financing.

So in retrospect that great beginning at the Geneva show was actually the beginning of the end for De Lorean. Though there was a memorable press preview driving event in Northern Ireland. But that’s another story.

Requiescat en pace, John Z.

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