Friday, June 18, 2010

2010 Audi A6 3.2 FWD CVT Review

While I was at the 2011 BMW 5-Series Ultimate Driving Event, I also drove the 2010 Audi A6 3.2 FWD CVT which they had on hand for comparison. They should have brought along the A6 3.0T Quattro for a fair comparison. Anyway, this event was paid for by BMW, so they could do whatever they want. I’d gladly take the A6 3.2 FWD, or any car for that matter, out for a spin.

The exterior styling is elegant, but a bit dated in my eyes. The trendy LED daytime-running-lights and taillights look cool, but they couldn’t hide the car’s aging design. The interior also shows its age quite gracefully. Fit-and-finish is top notch, a VW/Audi tread mark. The soft plastic is high quality, but there is just too much of it. The leather is pretty hard though. All the controls operate with precision and are placed logically. The MMI is so much better than the original iDrive from BMW that it seems to me that BMW has used Audi’s MMI as a benchmark in developing its latest generation iDrive.

The A6, in this configuration, is just a bad car in terms of driving, and I said that with the lack of power, when compared with BMW 550i, taken out of the equation. The engine is okay with adequate power and is pretty smooth. The CVT is extremely sluggish and slow to react. Mashing the throttle at a standing still, it takes a while for things to get moving. This was my first encounter with CVT in a car other than the Toyota Prius, and I absolutely hated it! As far as I’m concerned, CVT should not be used on any car other than hybrids where the engine switches from on and off frequently while in motion. Another major problem surfaces once the car starts going eventually, the A6 FWD had so much torque steer that I was constantly fighting with the steering wheel just to keep the car in a straight line. Worse yet, the steering was too light and had very little feedback that I had no idea what the front tires were doing other than it was fighting me. Close to 70% of A6's weight is at the front of the car, and even worse, most of it are ahead of the front axle. The physics takes its toll in the big way. Brakes were not bad except there is a lot of front-end squading and rear-end lifting under hard braking. Again, physics wins another one here. The word “balance”, in term of handling, never came to mind during the entire drive. The ride is pretty good though. It’s just a bit more floaty than the BMW 5-Series, but the body motion is still well controlled.

I’m not sure how much AWD would have helped its driving dynamic, but I don’t understand why anyone would buy this car, at least in this configuration, and not ANY of its competitors. Heck, I’d buy the VW Passat or CC (with 2.0T and DSG) which do everything almost as well as, if not better than, this car if I were in the market for a FWD Germen sedan at half the price.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

2011 BMW 550i Review

I drove the 2011 BMW F10 550i w/ sports and dynamic handling packages at the Ultimate Driving Event (the 535i, which I’d rather drive, at the event didn’t have either package so I passed). The E60 5-Series was, in my opinion, easily the best car in its class in term of driving dynamics but fell short on pretty much everything else. Though quite aggressive, its looks never grew on me after all those years. Other than the front-end being a bit plain, I love the exterior styling of the F10. Elegant yet aggressive (even more so with sports package wheels). The E350, one of the comparison cars on hand, is cheap-looking with busy lines on the side. Audi A6, another comparison car on hand, is elegant but dated and didn’t look “hunkered down”. The F10 5er’s interior is 1000 times better than the E60 5er. Fit-and-finish is top notch. The multi-contour front seats are super comfortable and are perhaps the best in the business, a must-have option on this car. The 10+” LCD is clear, vibrant, and can do split-screen. The Napa leather (a $1,000 option on top of Dakota leather ) is much softer and finer than the Dakota leather which I personally don’t care for. The trunk is enormous with 18+ cubic feet of well laid out space. The E’s interior, by comparison, just looks down right cheap. The A6’s is appropriate for the class, but looks and feels dated.

Getting into the 550i, it took very little time for me to adjust the seats/steering to my liking. Did I mention that I love those multi-contour seats? The steering wheel feels just right. The steering-wheel-mounted shift pedals are finally placed correctly with right-up/left-down instead of pull-up/push-down. The latest generation of iDrive is so much better than its predecessor that I can actually make peace with it now as opposed to I’d rather pay to not have it. All the controls are oriented toward the driver, are logically located and are within easy reach. One thing I don’t like about this car in the driver interface is its electronic shifter. Instead of the conventional P-R-N-D, it had R-N-D with a button on top of the shifter for Park. To shift to reverse, you hold a button on the left side of the shifter and actually push the shifter forward instead of pulling it backward like we are so accustom to. Worse, once you push it forward to reverse, the shifter returns back to the N position. I had to rely on the indicator in the instrument panel to determine what gear position I was in. I can see the confusion or danger this could potentially cause for people who drive this car infrequently.

On the road, the F10 rides very quietly and comfortably. The Adaptive Drive, which is part of the dynamic handling package, allows the driver to change the response of the engine, transmission, steering and suspension with a toggle switch, positioned to the left of the shifter, from one of the four settings: Comfort, Normal, Sport and Sport Plus. Most of my drive was done in Sport Plus mode. The body motion is well controlled. The active anti-roll bar, also part of the dynamic handling package, keeps the body roll to the minimum when cornering. The steering is nicely weighted with a lot of precision and feedback. Because the drive was not conducted on a autocross course, I couldn’t report on near-the-limit handling, but it is very balanced and composed at least on the public roads. The 4.4 liter twin-turbo V8, making 400hp, is very powerful, smooth and linear. Turbo lag is almost non-exist. There is power everywhere in the RPM range. Huge burnouts can be performed rather easily. All F10’s come equipped standard with 8-speed automatic transmission (the 6-speed manual is offered on 550i and 535i as a no-cost option), and what an awesome transmission it is. Shifts happen very fast and smooth, and it seems to be in the right gear at all time. Speed builds so effortlessly in this car, and there’s no perception of speed other than what is being indicated by the optional heads up display suggesting that I could potentially get a ride to downtown if I get pulled over. With this kind of power and speed, it’s good to know that its brakes are very powerful with firm pedal feel. I did two 0-100mph-0 runs with less than 30 seconds in between, and the car stopped quickly with great stability in both runs without a hint of fade.

The 2011 BMW 5-Series is essentially a shorten version of the F01 7-series, and it shows. It is a big improvement over its predecessor in terms of styling, quality and refinement. Perhaps too refined and composed. I don’t know if I would call it “a very refined BMW 5-series” or, dare I say, “a Lexus GS done right”? Either way, it is the best car in its market segment in my opinion, and I would not hesitate to recomment it to my families and friends. I predict that this car will be a big hit for BMW.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mercedes-Benz E63 & C63 AMG Driving Impressions

I went to the Mercedes-Benz AMG Performance Tour a few months ago at the former El Toro Marine Base to sample the latest AMG products. The event was invitation-only with no exception as I saw a guy tried to do the walk-in and got turned away. There were about 25 to 30 participants in my session. The main tent was pretty “ritzy”. Coffee, juice, water, fruits, and pastries were served.

There was no presentation to sit through, and we went directly to the driving tent. There were three lines for each of the three models, 2010 SL63, E63, and C63, which we will be driving. All three shares the same engine and transmission. The 6.2L (yep, its “63” name is mislabeled) V8 which produces 518hp/465lb-ft in E63 and SL63, but produces “only” 451hp/443lb-ft in C63. Each AMG engine is hand built by a single engine builder from start to finish. All those horses are put to the rear wheels via an AMG Speedshift MCT 7-speed automatic transmission. It’s a multi-clutch unit not unlike VW/Audi’s DSG. Like the Jaguar XFR, all three models received subtle exterior and interior modifications to distinguish themselves from their lesser siblings. The price for the C63 starts at $57,350, the E63 starts at $85.750, and the SL63 starts at $135,000. One can easily add 10 to 15% to the price of the car after checking only a few option boxes. The staff gave us some information about the cars, went through the safety rules, introduced the instructors, and sent us off to our cars.

I drove the E63 first. The course was laid out with a bias towards higher speed to showcase AMG’s addictive power. Since I was the first in line, I didn’t have to wait before jumping into the E63. The engine was barely audible at idle. Flooring the car at the starting line, the rear tires spun for a brief second due to the dusty track surface and awesome torque. Once regain traction, the car surged forward with authority. The power was linear, fierce, and without feeling running out of breath as it approached redline. What an engine! The throttle response was excellent. The exhaust note was as good as, if not better than, the Jaguar XFR with a wicked burble between shifts at wide-open-throttle. Speaking of shifts, the AMG Speedshift MCT (with wet clutch pack, not torque converter) 7-speed automatic shifted rapidly and seamlessly. One of the AMG modifications, in both E and C, to improve the vehicle dynamics was to widen the front track to improve the turn-in and overall front-end grip. The turn-in was crisp, but there was a bit of initial understeering. Though, it didn’t have the nervousness that the Jaguar XFR had at turn-in. The rear of the car didn’t have the tendency to swap ends with the front. Steering was nicely weighted with ample feedback. Decelerating from 110+ mph to about 40-ish, brakes were powerful, and pedal was firm. The overall handling was rock-solid.

After a lap in the E63, I got in line for the C63. They had two of each model, so there was wait time even with relatively small group. I waited about 10 minutes to drive the C63. The C63 got off the line with more eagerness and wheel spin than the E63 due to less mass. My butt dyno told me that it’s slightly quicker than the E63, but not by much. Its handling was also slightly livelier than the E63. Turn-in was sharper, and the car was more tossable. Though, the rear-end was less stable, and I had to be more patient with my right foot when exiting corners. Steering and brakes were very confidence-inspiring, just like the E63. Though much better than the “regular” C’s (C300, C300 4-matic, & C350 that I drove in previous events) which I thought were very sloppy when driven aggressively, the overall handling of the C63 was by no mean precise. It’s just way too much power and torque in an okay-at-best chassis. However, did I mention that it has an epic engine?

I was going to drive the SL63 next, but the line was too long. So I picked the shortest line and drove the C63 again. I sat in an E63 that they had on display for about 5 minutes before heading home. Front AMG sports seats were comfortable and supportive. The steering wheel was thick with shift pedals perfectly placed and felt great in my hands. The interior styling was a bit too angular, and the center console seems a bit too plasticy to me. However, everything operates with the usual Germen precision, and the fit-and-finish was top notch.

I came away impressed with the E63 AMG. It is what the AMG is about: speed, comfort, and class in an understated package. In my opinion, it’s the best car in its class.


Like: Epic engine, fast-shifting transmission, intoxicating exhaust note, rock-solid chassis, subtle yet aggressive exterior styling.

Dislike: Makes its size known in the corners, plasticy center console, high price after checking a few option boxes.

Verdict: The best car in its class.


Like: Epic engine, fast-shifting transmission, intoxicating exhaust note, subtle yet aggressive exterior styling, good steering response.

Dislike: Plasticy interior, handling lacks of precision, pricy options.

Verdict: After a spirit drive in the C63, the driver gets out of the car and says “whoa, I’m still alive”.

Event Rating: 3 out of 5.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Upcoming Event: Lexus F-Sport Track Day

Registration Site:

When: 1/27/2010

Where: Homestead Speedway, Miami, FL.

You will get to drive the IS-F or F-Sport IS or GS on a autocross course (most likely the infield road course like they did at the California Speedway) at the Homestead Speedway.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

2010 Jaguar XKR & XFR

I attended the Jaguar driving event at the former El Toro Marine Base earlier in 2009. The event was put together very nicely with large, air-conditioned tent, friendly staff, and small group. Fruits, breakfast bars, coffee, juice and water were served in the main tent. The event was divided into three parts: 30 minutes of video/PowerPoint presentation, 30 minutes of public road driving, one lap driving on a closed course, and one lap driven by a professional instructor (and I do mean “professional”. Read on to find out). Interesting fact that I learned from the PP presentation: J.D. Power ranked Jaguar #1 in their most recent reliability study. Either Jaguar has improved their quality dramatically in recent years or J.D. Power has gotten a big, fat check from Jaguar.

The cars which I drove were the 2010 Jaguar XKR and XFR. The R is the performance division of Jaguar, much like BMW’s M and Mercedes Benz’s AMG. The engine in the R cars are the all-new 5.0L, 510hp/461lb-ft, supercharged V8 which is mated to the ZF-sourced 6-speed automatic transmission with pedals shifter (almost identical with the ones on the Audi’s) perfectly placed behind the steering wheel for easy operation. Active differential is added to help getting the power onto the tarmac, and so is the “competition mode” for the stability control which allows some wheel spin and allows the driver to slide the tail out a bit before yanking it back. The R division has done an admirable job distinguishing the R cars from regular models without having to shout, “Hey, look at me. I’m special!” There are the 20” wheels, stainless steel grille on the more aggressive front bumper, a more aggressive rear diffuser with quad exhaust outlets, sports front seats, thicker steering wheel, and some small “R” badges throughout the car. We were told that there is no optional equipment for the R cars because they only come fully loaded, Nav and radar-based cruise control included, from the factory. The price for the XFR is $80,000 while $96,000 will buy you the Aston Martin-like XKR coupe ($102,000 for the drop top XKR).

Onto the public road driving part of the event, each of us pick a car out of about 12 or so XKs, XKRs, XFs, and XFRs. Some of us had to share car with others, but luckily, I didn’t. We were supposed to follow the lead car to a shopping center about five miles away, switch car/driver, and drive the same route back. My choice of the first leg: the XFR. Though not as aggressive looking as the BMW M5, the XFR’s exterior styling is more fluid, classier, and not as busy. The fit-and-finish is top notch. The interior is modern, yet beautifully appointed with abundance of lush wood and soft leather coving most of the surface where you can see them. However, the level of attention to detail (especially in areas where drivers don’t frequently look at) and precision of fit-and-finish are still not up to the Germens. Once all eight cylinders are ignite, the hockey-puck-like shift knob rises up. The shift pattern is pretty ordinary; P-R-N-D-S, but it employs rotating motion instead of the longitudinal motion like all of us are used to. I don’t see the benefit of switching to this method, but I guess it adds to the “cool” effect. The car has very good throttle response and has awesome (and I do mean awesome) power/torque at any RPM in any gear. The Eaton-sourced supercharger (the same unit from either the Caddy CTS-V or the Corvette ZR-1) does its job without making the usual supercharger whine. Speaking of gear, the automatic transmission shifts quickly and smoothly. It certainly is one of the best automatic transmissions I’ve encountered. The exhaust note emits subdued rumble that won’t turn your neighbors against you under light engine load, but it make a thundering bawl that you can hear from far away at wide-open-throttle. With Delphi’s magnetic shocks, the ride is taut, but not harsh by any means. At the switching spot of the public road drive, I jumped into a XKR convertible. XKR’s has an even classier design, as it supposed to be, than XFR’s. The convertible’s chassis is rock solid without a hint of rattle when going over uneven road surfaces. Back to the base and onto the main activity of the event: closed course driving.

The layout of our autocross-type course suited the XFR and XKR very well with long straightaway, high, medium and low-speed corners. I chose the XKR and had Roberto Guerrero, a former Formula One and Indy driver, riding shotgun as my instructor. To my surprise, this big cat was a blast to drive on the track! The steering was light but communicative. Turn-in was not lighting quick, but still very good. I was able to point the car to where I want it with little steering correction. Body roll was well controlled. The overall handling was balanced and confidence-inspiring. In a series of low-speed 90 degree turn, esses and increasing-radius hairpin, the car under steered a bit, and I had to be patient getting back on the throttle. Medium to high speed turns were where the XKR came alive with tons of grip, and the acceleration was intoxicating. Brakes were powerful, and the pedal was solid and easy to modulate. After my lap, I swapped seats with Roberto to see what he could do with the car. He was so smooth with his inputs. I felt that the chassis was constantly loading/unloading with tires constantly at their limit of adhesion. That’s the level of smoothness and fluency I strive for. After our laps, Roberto, his son who also worked at the event, and I talked about cars and compared our driving while waiting for the rest of the group to finish up. Then he said “do you want to go for another lap in the XFR?” What was I going to say, no? Of course I took advantage of his offer. The XFR was a little more of a hand full to drive on track than the XKR. The car was a bit nervous at corner entry. The gap between I turned the wheel and when the car took a “set” seemed long. Also, it had a bit more body roll than the XKR. However, it had a lot of grip once the car took a “set”. I just had to be more delicate with my inputs with it than I did with the XKR especially in the high-speed transition.

For an average driver who is in the market for this type of cars, I think the Jaguar XFR is a better choice than the BMW M5 which is too clunky and harsh in everyday driving. Yes, the M5 is an engineering triumph with its awesome V10 and is, without a doubt, faster on the racetrack. However, one will need the Autobahn and racetracks to fully appreciate what it has to offer. XFR suits the real world better in pretty much all aspects while avoiding gas-guzzler tax (15/21 MPG). Try that in a M5!


Likes: Beautiful shape, great engine, intoxicating exhaust note, balanced handling.

Dislikes: Cramped (especially head room) inside, seats don’t offer adequate lateral support.

Verdict: One of the best GT on the market.


Likes: Beautiful shape, great engine, intoxicating exhaust note, good ride/handling compromise.

Dislikes: Nervous at corner entry on the track, interior fit-n-finish could have been better.

Verdict: A legit competitor to the mighty E63 AMG and M5.

Event Rating: 4 out of 5.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Mini Driving Event & Mini Cooper S Review

Event registration site:

I went to this particular event at the Home Depot Center last November. The car, Mini Copper S w/ AT, was a hoot to drive. The course was short, but suited the car quite well. For $20, you become a “VIP” which gets you a T-shirt, two hot laps with pro/semi-pro autocross driver, and to drive the manual JCW Mini instead of the auto Cooper S. I did not think the perks were worth the $20, so I passed on it. To each of his/her own.

The Cooper S handled beautifully on the short and tight course. Its handling was lively, toss-able and immediate with minimal body roll. At no time did I feel the car was underpowered. However, the turbo lag from the force-fed 1.6L inline-four was quite pronounced when I lifted off the throttle to transfer the weight forward so I could rotate the rear-end and then rolled back into the throttle. The automatic transmission on the S I drove certainly exaggerated the problem even more so. The steering was nicely weighted and provided plenty of feedback. The steering wheel felt great in my hands. The brakes were strong, and the pedal was firm.

During my second two-lap session, I chatted with the “instructor” about the tires because I noticed that among the two S’s they had on hand, one had run-flat Yokohama's on while the other had non-RFT Yokohama's which was the tire sponsor for the event. When I asked about his preference between the two, he said “you know what? After this lap, let’s jump into the other car, and then you tell me which one you like more.” After a back-to-back comparison, I like the RFT better than the non-RFT (at least in the case of Mini Cooper) because while the overall grip was about the same, the turn-in was noticeably crisper due to the stiffer sidewall. He agreed. This is complete the opposite of what my impression was prior to this quick comparison. I've always disliked the RFT's largely due to their super stiff sidewall. Although the initial turn-in is slightly sharper than the non-RFT's, the RFT's gives very little feedback, less ultimate grip, and the break-away is more sudden than the non-RFT's. The RFT's also ride harder and are noisier.

The event itself was okay at best. No food/snacks. Though, they did provide bottle water. There was no enclosed tent to lounge in. The wait to drive was long (I waited about 30 minutes between my two two-lap sessions). They gave me a water bottle after filling out the exit survey. Overall, if you live close to one of the event location, do it. Otherwise, it’s not worth the time to go out of your way for this event.

Event Rating: 2 out of 5

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Smart Fortwo Test Drive

I recently test drove the Smart Fortwo at the dealership. I've seen many of them on the European streets during my trip there a few years ago. Unlike most cars which park parallel to the curb on the streets, these Smart Fortwo's can be parked perpendicular to the curbs. Yes, they take very little parking space which comes in handy in many crowded metropolitans.

The Smart Fortwo comes in two body styles: coupe and cabriolet. The base (Pure) coupe starts at about $12k, the higher-trim (Passion) coupe starts at $14k, the Passion-only cabriolet starts at $17k, and then there are the Brabus dressed-up coupe and cabriolet ($18k and $21k, respectively). Its motivation comes from a 1.0L, 70hp/68lb-ft, three-cylinder engine which hooks up to a 5-speed automated manual transmission. The front suspension is MacPherson strut while the rear wheels are linked by beam axle. Brakes are disc/drum setup with ABS and force distribution system. It has all the safefty features one would expect from a modern car.

Let's do some tire-kicking. The exterior body panels are made out of ABS plastic which feels quite flimsy when you knock on it. Though, the paint quality and exterior fit-and-finish seems pretty good. The rear glass hatch and tailgate can be opened separately to access the tiny cargo compartment. The cloth for the top on the cabriolet model seems high-quality, opens neatly, and fits tightly when closed. Very Mercedes-like. Once inside the car, the material and fit-and-finish are pretty good. Seats are okay with not much lateral support. Seating position is too high for my liking. On the plus side, the steering wheel feels great in my hands, and the shifter is short and stubby.

The test drive was done on surface streets with no freeway driving. Why? Lack of power is an understatement for this car. My right foot was pinned on the floor during almost the entire drive. It has no low-end torque nor mid-range power. Only at near redline can you feel the slightest forward movement. You really have to drive it like you stole it to barely keep up with the flow of traffic. The manufacture claims that it tops out at 90 mph. However, I'm interested to find out how much distance it needs to get to that mark. The transmission was equally dissatisfying. I'm a huge fan of dual-clutch automated manual gearbox such as the one in VW GTI. However, I'm far less of a fan of single-clutch automated manual gearbox such as the one in BMW E46 M3 and our feature car here. In the E46 M3, the gearbox shifts SLOOOOOWLY in auto mode, making everyone in the car a bubblehead. The clutch-less manual in the Smart is far worse. Not only are the shifts painfully slow, the transmission doesn't handle the starts from standing still well at all. It hesitates whether you start leasurely or aggresively. I tried mashing the gas from a standing still and felt a lot of slippage from the computer "feathering" the clutch too much. Maybe there's a bright spot in Smart's handling? Yes, there is one. It has exteremely tight turing radius, and that's about it. The ride is quite harsh, and the straight line stability isn't great. I can imagine it bouncing all over the place at highway speed on freeways with less-than-perfect road surface. The steering is light and numb with minimal feedback. As stated earlier, the test drive was done on public roads so I can't report on its handling at near-limit, but I don't expect any pleasent surprise there, either.

What about fuel efficiency? This car should save the planet, right? The EPA rates it at 33/41 MPG. However, I seriously doubt that average owners will see even mid-30's overall because how hard you have to drive this thing. That, to me, is not very efficient given its size and the sacrafices one has to make owning this car.

In my humble opinion, the Smart Fortwo is too small to be practical (unless you live in New York or Rome or London....), too slow to be safely driven on the freeways, too harsh and noisy to drive comfortablely, and too expensive to be economical. The Smart Fortwo has just beaten the Chrysler PT Crusier and Chevy HHR for my "The Worst Car That I Have Ever Driven" award. I would not buy one at ANY price. For what you get, this is a very expensive car. There are many better, in all aspects, alternatives on the market in its entire price range.

Like: Tight turning radius, good steering wheel.

Dislike: Just about everything else.

Verdict: The worst car that I have ever driven, period.