2011 Ferrari 599 GTO

Three years ago, I would’ve told you it would be near impossible to improve upon the 2007 Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano. After all, the V-12 berlinetta proved quicker to 60 mph than even the vaunted Enzo, taking just 3.2 seconds. But that was before Ferrari invited us to test out the new 2011 599 GTO at Autodromo del Mugello, a 3.3-mile ribbon of undulating asphalt located in a lush green valley not far from Florence, Italy.

In producing the 599 GTO—the fastest-ever Ferrari road car, at least in terms of lap times around Ferrari’s home track (Fiorano)—the engineers in Maranello, Italy, focused on four key areas: increasing power, decreasing weight, reducing understeer and improving downforce. Tall orders, yes, but Ferrari learned great lessons with its track-only 599XX, and the 599 GTO you see here is the result of a marriage between the 599XX and the 599 GTB Fiorano.

Ferrari says the GTO’s 6.0-liter V-12 is “about 90 percent of the 599XX’s engine.” Internal friction was reduced by 12 percent compared to the GTB. Besides adopting the 599XX’s crankshaft and intake system, the GTO V-12 has new connecting rods and pistons, raised 11.9:1 compression (up from the GTB’s 11.2: 1 ratio) and the 599XX’s lighter (and 8-decibel louder) exhaust—with catalytic converters, of course. The result is 661 bhp at 8250 rpm and 458 lb.-ft. of torque at 6500 rpm, which make the 599 GTO the most powerful road-going Ferrari ever.

Compare those figures to the GTB (611 bhp at 7600 rpm and 448 lb.-ft. at 5600) and you’ll note the power has moved up the tachometer. In other words, you need to rev the GTO, but this certainly isn’t a problem; as with all Ferraris, the 599 GTO is designed to be wound out high and hard, allowing you to bask in a glorious, hair-raising cacophony that’s accompanied by the most wondrous snap, crackle and pop from its exhaust with each shift. Ferrari says upshifts from the 6-speed single-clutch F1 gearbox have been reduced to just 60 milliseconds and downshifts take just 120 milliseconds. The 599 GTO can also perform multiple downshifts by simply holding in the left carbon-fiber paddle shifter (just as on the 599XX). The downshifts are always perfectly timed, accompanied by soul-stirring throttle blips.

Besides being more powerful, the 599 GTO is 220 lb. lighter than the GTB (which weighed 3865 lb. on our scales). But the GTO is no stripper—the interior remains as fantastic and exotic as ever (a notable change being the exposed aluminum floor) and still retains creature comforts such as air conditioning and power windows—it probably has a stereo, too, but why would you listen to that when you have a wondrous V-12 soundtrack?

Nearly every area of the car was put on the chopping block in an effort to shave pounds. The transmission is 18 lb. lighter, and the exhaust has been trimmed of 29 lb. thanks to hydroforming technology that allows thinner tubing and fewer welds. Brembo also managed to take almost 7 lb. out of its carbon-ceramic brake system, adding ceramic pads for the first time on a road car. Ferrari says these brakes were absolutely required to cope with the 599 GTO’s increased performance level.

Items such as thinner windows, an aluminum trunklid and a lighter aero underbody contributed to a further 68 lb. savings, while the interior is some 73 lb. lighter due to highly bolstered, carbon-fiber-backed seats with grippy (but very un-Ferrari-like) fabric inserts, lots of matte-finish carbon-fiber trim and a lightweight suede material in place of what would usually be leather.

2012 Ford Focus

Engineered primarily by Ford of Europe in Germany, the 2012 Ford Focus is available here in both four-door sedan (as tested) and five-door hatchback configurations. Sharing nothing with its immediate predecessor in North America, it is essentially an updated and reconfigured version of the outgoing Euro-spec second-generation Ford Focus. Buyers in North America missed a generation, instead receiving a badly warmed-over version of the first-generation model. It was bad. Really bad.

But things are off to a good start with this car, which bears little in common other than a name and a general place in the market with its predecessor. We like to be surrounded by nice things, so we anted up for a well-equipped Focus Titanium sedan, the range-topping model in the U.S. Although buyers here want four doors, Ford realized that the two-door coupe Focus it briefly offered here was a flop – so a hatchback is also available once again.

At $25,805 as tested, the Focus Titanium is at the opposite end of cheap. But Ford is banking on buyers moving en masse to compact cars as gasoline prices continue to climb, so it felt the need to offer more luxe than is normally associated with the compact class. It’s a theme we encountered first, arguably, with the Focus’ Mazda3 platformmate, and it’s something we’re also seeing from the Chevrolet Cruze and the Hyundai Elantra.

2012 Cadillac Escalade

The Escalade lineup features integrated powertrain, chassis, safety and interior systems that deliver some of the most powerful, efficient luxury SUVs in the segment, led by a 6.2L all-aluminum V-8 engine with variable valve timing technology delivering 403 horsepower and 417 lb-ft of torque (565 Nm). The 6.2L engine is also a flexfuel engine and can run on renewable E85 ethanol.

The Escalade and Escalade ESV are available in AWD and RWD configurations. The Escalade EXT sport-utility truck features standard, full-time AWD. A strong frame and chassis support the Escalade's robust powertrain and enable exceptional responsiveness and smoothness.

Four-wheel disc brakes and an ABS system help ensure braking performance. ABS works with the StabiliTrak stability control system's rollover mitigation technology. This software algorithm technology uses sensors to proactively predict vehicle "tip-up" and apply appropriate brake force to help prevent such events.

A roster of advanced features reinforces Escalade's position as technology leader, designed to bolster comfort, convenience and safety. They include:

* Side blind zone alert
* Power retractable assist steps
* Automatic headlamps with IntelliBeam automatic high/low beams
* Ultrasonic rear parking assist
* Rear vision camera system
* Bose AudioPilot active noise cancellation technology, which continuously adjusts the music in response to background noise
* Fully functioning LED headlamps (exclusive to Escalade Platinum)
* Heated and cooled cupholders (exclusive to Escalade Platinum)
* Magnetic Ride Control
* Power-titling and heated steering wheel
* Eight-inch navigation radio with new CompactFlash memory and auxiliary jack
* Rear-seat, DVD entertainment system
* Heated and cooled front seats
* Adaptive remote start
* Power liftgate

Also available is an advanced navigation system with real-time traffic, expanded voice prompts and 3D imaging of major landmarks.

Escalade also has a full array of safety features: Front row-dual stage airbags, head curtain side airbags for all passenger rows, front row thorax airbags, and front row seat pretensioners.

2012 BMW M5

2011 Chevrolet Equinox

For 2011, the Chevrolet Equinox's optional V6 now has E85 capability. Enhancements include heated cloth seats on 2LT models and a compass on LS models. A USB port, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and Bluetooth connectivity are now standard on 1LT models, and OnStar service has been upgraded to standard Directions and Connections (providing access to OnStar's navigation and information services) for a six-month trial period.

Roomy and graced with an available snappy V6, the previous-generation Equinox had its charms, but it didn't shine brightly enough to surpass its rivals. As a result, Chevy's capable but undistinguished hauler was left to linger on the lots as shoppers flocked to more popular choices from the likes of Honda and Toyota. But thanks to a full redesign last year, the latest Equinox has vaulted up to be a top pick in the small crossover SUV segment.

The 2011 Chevrolet Equinox boasts character and refinement two traits that were missing in previous-generation models, and indeed many small crossovers in general. With a rear seat that slides back to create an expanse worthy of a prom-night limousine, the Equinox easily counts rear legroom among its strengths. Ride quality is another plus, with the Equinox delivering a stable, well-planted ride. In terms of equipment, the Chevy is fully competitive, with plenty of standard features and some nice upgrades like a hard-drive-based navigation system.

Under the hood you'll find a choice of either a 182-horsepower inline-4 or a 264-hp V6. Both of these engines deliver respectable acceleration, and the four-cylinder is notable for its above-average fuel economy (even though we've found it doesn't quite meet its lofty EPA estimates). Another Equinox selling point is its upscale good looks; the cabin is attractive and expensive-looking and features interior materials quality that's finally competitive with other choices in this segment.

2011 BMW 3 Series

The 2011 BMW 3-Series lineup includes coupes, hardtop convertibles, sedans and wagons with rear-wheel drive or BMW's xDrive all-wheel-drive system. Designated based on their engines, trims include the 328i, 335i, 335d, the new 335is and the M3. All body styles, except the convertible, are offered with xDrive in versions designated 328xi and 335xi. The 335d is a sedan, the 335is is offered only as a coupe or convertible, and the M3 comes only as a sedan or coupe. The convertible has a power-retractable hardtop.

All 3-Series are well equipped. Notable standard equipment on the base 328i includes leatherette upholstery, dual-zone automatic climate control, HD radio and run-flat tires with 16-inch wheels on sedans and wagons and 17s on coupes and convertibles. Coupes also come standard with a sport suspension. Moving up to the 335i adds driver's seat memory, adaptive headlights, a sunroof for coupes and sedans, and leather upholstery for the convertible.

The new 335is, which is offered as a coupe and convertible, adds equipment otherwise offered only in the M Sport package, including the M Sport steering wheel, M Sport seats, an anthracite headliner, 18-inch wheels and stiffer engine mounts. The 335is also has a slightly modified look front and rear.

The M3 comes with a limited-slip differential, larger brakes, performance suspension and staggered 18-inch tires. The M3 coupe also has a carbon-fiber roof.

All 3-Series iterations come with a full slate of safety features, including dual front airbags, front side airbags, anti-lock brakes, a tire-pressure monitor, traction control and electronic stability control. All but the convertible also have side curtain airbags, while the convertible has automatic pop-up roll bars. Manual-transmission versions also get a hill-holder clutch.

2011 Peugeot RCZ GT

What we're driving is the 2011 Peugeot RCZ, a shapely concept car from the 2007 Frankfurt Auto Show that has finally reached production. It promises to make Peugeot an exciting brand again. Remember, this is the car company that made the Peugeot 205 GTi into the car of the decade in Europe during the 1980s, and then made it into a world-beating rally car, the 205 T16 Group B. Of course, we remember only the Peugeot 405 Mi16, the last car the company sold in the U.S. before it went home to France in disgrace in 1991.

Sure, we're talking about French cars here, but these were great-handling French cars, if rather less mighty when it came to construction integrity. Since then, the quality has slowly improved, but Peugeot has lost its way with the dynamics, producing ever-duller cars when it comes to coursing through corners. And we've been repeatedly told that Peugeot will never again build cars like the 205 GTi again, partly because Citroen is the cute partner in the PSA Peugeot Citroen concern and partly because (goes the unspoken word) the 205 GTi would challenge inexperienced drivers with its lift-off oversteer.

2011 Peugeot RCZ

In the past Peugeot is a manufacturer that has never really succeeded in capturing my attention. Their cars were just not as interesting as Citroen, and not as good to drive as Renault.

They have always been pleasant to look at, particularly the Pininfarina designed 406 coupe and the 407, but there was never really a car to stir the emotions.

They have a motorsport pedigree and have also created some incredible concept cars like the 907 of 2004 but they haven’t made a production car that has received significant praise for its performance and driving dynamics since the now legendary 205 GTi was launched way back in 1984.

Then, in 2007 Peugeot revealed a new concept car called the 308 RCZ, a great looking sports coupe which, thankfully, has become a reality in the exquisite form of the rather splendid Peugeot RCZ.

Now here’s a car that demands you look at it. Love it, or hate it the RCZ is a little attention grabber.

It is a small and very stylish 2+2 coupe, although as is the case with many 2+2’s you would be hard pushed to get anyone over the age of about 10 to actually fit in the back.

The RCZ is a bit special. It is more individual and better looking than its rivals which, in its price bracket, includes the Audi TT and BMW 1 series coupe.

The interior quality is outstanding; you won’t find much in the way of cheap, nasty plastic in the RCZ which is a major downfall of many modern cars.

The seats are comfortable for cruising but hold you in place when you feel like opening up a bit. It’s full of gadgets like parking assist, electric seats and windows, light and rain sensors, electronically-controlled rear spoiler, Bluetooth and a high-tech sound system.

The RCZ is available with a choice of three engines including a 2 litre diesel and two 1.6 litre turbo charged four cylinder units, one with 197HP and an entry level version with 156HP.

Our test car was the 156HP version with a six speed auto ‘box and both engine and transmission were impressive and capable of getting the RCZ from 0 to 100KM/H in a respectable 8.4 seconds.

The turbo four pot features a useful 240NM of torque available from just 1400 rpm giving it great flexibility and brisk acceleration and unlike some turbo cars it’s happy to rev, pulling strongly all the way to the redline.

Usually, in a car like this I would only consider a manual gear box but the auto in our test car did its job well and will undoubtedly be the most popular option in the UAE.

The car has a very smooth ride, despite its 19-inch wheels and is happy to cruise but when pushed in the corners it proves to be well balanced and disguises its front biased weight distribution well.

The car brakes quickly and stably from high speeds although the steering could do with being a bit more communicative. I would love to see a particularly high performance version of this car with about 250HP, the chassis feels like it could take it in its stride with ease.

Overall, a very enjoyable car to drive but, come on Peugeot, give us one with a bit more grunt and how about a panoramic glass roof?

2011 Lotus Elise

We here in the U.S. have only had access to the Lotus Elise since 2004, but elsewhere in the world, the car has existed in its current form since 2000. Although its relative rarity mitigates the perception that it is aging, the little rocket is still due for a face lift. Lotus isn’t fully revamping the car for 2011, but a mild update is in the cards for the world’s smallest provider of huge thrills.

The biggest change is actually one that we won’t see in the U.S.—the addition of a 1.6-liter four-cylinder to the lineup to power base cars. The 134-hp four will stay in Europe, while we on this side of the ocean will retain our choice of naturally aspirated or supercharged 1.8-liter fours making 189 and 218 hp, respectively.

No Such Thing as a Mature Lotus

What we will see here are a series of small changes to the body. Up front, a new fascia consolidates the various intake elements into one, Miata–like grin—now sans strakes—while single-element headlights replace the staggered-size units occupying the previous Elise’s hood. The strakes are similarly deleted from the cooling intakes positioned on the hips and the taillight panel, which now stretches uninterrupted across the rump. A new, thicker bumper otherwise unclutters the rear end and sits above a wider diffuser.

Two new wheel designs are available, one of which weighs only 65 pounds per set of four. The biggest news for daily users of the Elise (Hi, Caswell!) is that the trunk can now be opened from inside the car, rather than relying solely on the key fob to be unlocked. Also, there is now a tiny Elise graphic on the new LED turn-signal element, so there’s that.

2011 Honda Sports Car

Rated at 28 MPG for city driving and 35 MPG for highway driving, the 2011 Honda Fit is nearly as fuel-efficient as a hybrid. However, with an MSRP of $15,100, the Honda Fit certainly isn’t priced like a hybrid. In short, the Honda Fit is an affordable, attractive, and very efficient little car.

US News & World Report ranked the 2011 Honda Fit #2 amongst all affordable small cars, citing the interior storage options, the largest cargo hold of all small cars, and the high safety ratings bestowed upon it by the insurance industry. The high safety rating derives from the Fit’s six airbags, driver and passenger head restraints, Vehicle Stability Assist with Traction Control, and anti-lock brakes. In government rollover crash tests, the 2011 Honda Fit received four out of five stars.

The base Fit includes a generous list of features – air conditioning, MP3-compatible CD system, and power windows / locks / mirrors all come standard on both the Fit and Fit Sport. The base features for the Fit Sport also include cruise control, keyless entry, a sound system with USB connectivity, and 16-inch allow wheels.

Multiple test drivers state that the Honda Fit has a lot of get-up-and-go for a small car. Granted, the Honda Fit is definitely no sports car, and some reviewers weren’t pleased with its acceleration and responsiveness, but its four-cylinder, 1.5-liter engine nevertheless provides a decent 117 horsepower. While customers looking for something on the sporty and particularly responsive side might be disappointed by the Fit, the average office dweller with a highway commute will find the Fit to be a nice blend of fun, practical, and affordable.

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