Wednesday, November 25, 2015

2017 Porsche 911 Carrera / Carrera S

 First Drive Review

The big news out of Stuttgart for 2017 is that the 911 Carrera and Carrera S are now turbocharged. That’s right, turbos aren’t just for 911 Turbos anymore.

Both the Carrera and the Carrera S get two turbochargers hitched to a 3.0-liter flat-six that is smaller in displacement than last year’s naturally aspirated engines. Buying a Porsche turbo is now easier but not easy: You’ll still have to get over the Carrera’s $90,395 point of entry.

Turbocharged 911s have existed for 40 years, but putting a turbo in a regular 911 is met with suspicion among fans of the crisp response of Porsche’s naturally aspirated engines. “Turbos are for Turbos,” they’ll chant. Confusion will follow, chaos will reign.

So, what’s the big deal about turbos? After all, turbos gave the Porsche 959 superpowers, put the Lotus Esprit in Bond movies, and made the Buick GNX a blue-collar dream machine. Turbos are magical little snail shells of power, but they imbue engines with a different feel than naturally aspirated engines. Turbos need to build pressure to provide power and consequently there can be a bit of a wait for full thrust. Old 911 Turbos really made you wait, and then they hit with the subtlety of a three wood.

But Porsche has been battling turbo lag and working to smooth out the hit longer than just about anyone else. Perhaps that’s why the 3.0-liter twin-turbo engines in the new 911 Carrera and Carrera S are not only stronger than the larger, non-turbocharged engines they replace, but nearly as responsive.
The Carrera . . .

The turbochargers make a big difference in the base Carrera. Here, the turbocharged six makes 370 horsepower at 6500 rpm (20 more than before) and 331 lb-ft of torque (44 more) from 1700 to 5000 rpm. The turbo engine has midrange oomph that the previous 3.4-liter never had. That engine required big revs to provide meaningful thrust, producing just 243 lb-ft of torque at 3000 rpm compared with the 331 lb-ft that the turbo makes at the same engine speed. It’s a massive difference. The old engine didn’t wake up until the tach needle swung past 4000 rpm, and peak torque didn’t arrive until 5600 rpm.

The turbochargers bring the power much earlier in the rev range, but at low rpm there is a brief spool up before the power arrives. It’s not a big delay, just a minor calm before the storm. The push comes quickly and it’s a much harder shove than delivered by the old naturally aspirated engines. In lower gears, the engine pulls easily from idle and makes strong boost by 2000 rpm. By 3000 rpm, it’s a mad dash to the redline, and there’s no detectable lag, just thrust. Lug it in sixth or seventh and the boost takes more time to arrive, but we don’t recall the naturally aspirated engines pulling with any gusto from low rpm in high gears.

Porsche claims zero-to-60-mph times of 4.4 seconds for the seven-speed manual, 4.2 seconds for the PDK automatic, and 4.0 seconds for the PDK automatic with the optional Sport Chrono package and its launch-control function. Those numbers are two-tenths quicker than Porsche’s claims for last year’s Carrera. In our hands, we hit 60 in 4.2 seconds in the old 3.4-liter manual Carrera. We expect to beat Porsche’s numbers by a tenth or two. So, that means that the base 911 Carrera might break into the three-second range.
. . . and the Carrera S

We’re certain that the 420-hp Carrera S ($104,395) will break into the three-second range. Porsche claims zero-to-60-mph times for the Carrera S that are 0.2 second quicker than before in each configuration. The gap widens even more at higher speeds. In around-town blasts, the Carrera S is a missile. A two-millimeter-larger turbo impeller and tweaks to the engine-management software are the major differences between the Carrera and the Carrera S. To make the extra power, the S runs more boost: 16.0 psi to the Carrera’s 13.1. With so much in common, it’s not surprising that the S’s power is delivered with the same smooth linearity of the Carrera; there’s just a whole lot more of it. The tach needle swings even quicker as you pass 3000 rpm. The acceleration will flatten your hair against the headrest. Headrest head is now a thing. Bring a comb.

Lower the windows and a faint turbo whistle can be heard behind the characteristic raspy zing of the 911’s engine. Windows up, the only sound is the growl of the intake, which makes sense, as Porsche pipes in intake noise to enhance the engine sound. The notes aren’t manufactured, however; it’s actual engine sound channeled into the cabin. A Sport exhaust is optional—recognizable by the two round pipes in the center of the bumper—and gives the driver the ability to open or close exhaust flaps to further raise the volume.

2016 Mazda 3 2.0L Manual Sedan

 Instrumented Test

Many carmakers are fond of employing the term “DNA” in describing their vehicle lineups, but few have as much product justification for doing so as Mazda, and fewer still exhibit as much restraint. We hear a lot about zoom-zoom, of course, but that, too, seems justified. From top to bottom, Mazda’s offerings are uniquely uniform in terms of one key DNA trait: an engaging driving experience.

You’d expect that from the little MX-5 Miata sports car, of course. But you might not from the much bigger and more utilitarian CX-9 crossover, Mazda’s family wagon. Nevertheless, it’s there, right across the board. And it certainly distinguishes the Mazda 3 from most others in the compact corral. Hatchback or sedan, the 3 tops our compact-car rankings, largely on the strength of its athleticism, although for 2016 Mazda also has ramped up the 3’s value.

For example, Mazda has trimmed the pricing for the basic 3 i Sport by $600, to $18,665, while at the same time expanding its standard feature content. Our 3 i Grand Touring test car—which essentially lacked only LED exterior lighting and real leather to be top-of-the-line—included navigation, a 7.0-inch touch-screen display, Bose nine-speaker audio, heated front seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, cruise control, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, Bluetooth with text-messaging capability, Pandora, a rearview camera, a blind-spot monitor, and rear cross-traffic alert. The only option was a $70 cargo mat. By compact-class standards, it adds up to a pretty comprehensive package for less than $23,500.
2.0 vs. 2.5

Our test car was powered by the 3’s basic 2.0-liter four-cylinder. Adding about two grand will put the optional 2.5-liter four under the hood, with 184 horsepower and 185 lb-ft of torque compared with the 2.0-liter’s modest totals of 155 and 150.

Consistent with Mazda’s sporting ethos, both engines can be paired with either a six-speed manual (standard) or a six-speed automatic transmission. Our test example had the manual, with its endearingly crisp engagements enhanced by a very sweet clutch.

The zero-to-60-mph run takes 7.5 seconds. That’s not a thrill ride, and it’s just 0.1 second quicker than a 2.0-liter paired with the six-speed auto. On the other hand, it’s only a couple tenths behind a 2.5-liter manual hatchback we tested. The acceleration disparity magnifies as the drag race goes on—the 2.5 hatch reached 100 mph 2.1 seconds quicker than the 2.0 sedan. Even though that particular hatchback weighed in 120 pounds heavier than this sedan, horsepower eventually will tell. The point, though, is to decide whether a few tenths in such a test are worth the extra money.

And the further point is that, 2.0 or 2.5, acceleration isn’t the 3’s primary appeal. It will hold its own in the daily-commute derby, but where this car comes into its own is on a two-lane back road with a variety of turns and a paucity of traffic. Chassis rigidity is on par with a bridge girder, body motions are modest, the car responds to inputs with immediacy, and the electric power steering is quick (2.6 turns lock-to-lock), informative, and dead-bang accurate. Attention steering engineers worldwide: Check out this system, learn, adopt.

Is there understeer? Sure, and you’d expect that in a front-drive car. But it’s modest. Grip—0.86 g on our skidpad—is better than modest, even with a set of relatively high-profile all-season Bridgestone Ecopias (205/60-16). Braking performance could be a little better, and on the test track we noted hints of fade. However, fade wasn’t an issue in our real-world exercises, the pedal is easy to modulate, and tires less focused on fuel economy undoubtedly would improve stopping distances.

Speaking of, fuel economy is rated at 29 mpg city and 41 highway by the EPA. Once again, we underachieved, logging 29 mpg on suburban and rural roads. Summoning haste from the 2.0-liter engine doesn’t do much for fuel economy.
The dark side

The interior of our test car will look okay at a glance—provided the beholder is partial to black. Although there are little licks of silvery material here and there, the overall impression is midnight at the oasis. A few small, carbon-fiber-look trim panels don’t do a lot to relieve the darkness.

The front seats provide adequate lateral support, but the bottom cushions feel a little thin. And making adults happy in the rear seat will require territorial concessions by those up front.

Assessed as eye candy, the Mazda 3 sedan has a family look, with attractive sculpting in the side sheetmetal, enhanced by a snappy set of 16-inch aluminum wheels. We still prefer the more athletic looks of the hatchback version, but the sedan isn’t a wallflower, either.

Leaving dynamics out of the equation, the Mazda 3 stacks up as a modestly attractive compact sedan with good fuel economy and a solid value story. But dynamics are this car’s strong suit—and the prime reason we see the 3 as tops in its class.

As the age of the autonomous automobile draws ever nearer, Mazda continues to be guided by the premise that operating a motor vehicle should be both involving and gratifying. The new corporate mantra sums it up: Driving matters. Long may it last.

2016 Nissan Altima

 First Drive Review

There’s an interesting phenomenon that happens in Olympic competition, wherein silver medalists tend to feel less satisfied with their accomplishment than those who win bronze. Call it the “second place is just the first loser” principle, but runners-up are seemingly tormented by not winning, whereas those finishing third are more likely to recognize the accomplishment of beating nearly everyone in the world.

It’s that attitude that informs the fifth-generation Nissan Altima, which has had a lock on third place in mid-size-sedan sales since it was introduced in summer 2012. Confident in the Altima’s near-universal appeal, Nissan’s mid-life-cycle refresh for 2016 is concerned more with reinforcing the car’s desirability than amending weaknesses. After all, moving over a million units of any automobile is an accomplishment.

More in the Family

The most obvious updates to the new Altima come in its new front and rear fascias, which now resemble those of the Murano and the new Maxima. Fresh head- and taillights necessitated sheetmetal changes to the hood, fenders, and trunk, making this more of an overhaul than is usual in the industry. The look certainly works to give the Altima a more current family resemblance, although this styling language still seems awkward to our eyes. Especially if there’s a Mazda 6 parked nearby.

Updates are less apparent inside, but Nissan has applied some of the same patterned plastic trim that first debuted in the Murano. The Altima-specific design looks something like fossilized leaves preserved in amber, and it’s bound to frustrate owners in the way it seems dirty when it catches the light just so. But the cabin remains a quiet and comfortable place to while away a commute, thanks to improved insulation and acoustic laminated glass. Some road noise does filter through, but an improved version of Nissan’s continuously variable transmission no longer drones away at high rpm. The so-called “D-step” CVT, borrowed from the Murano and Maxima, instead behaves like a traditional automatic, dropping revs to emulate an upshift.

Engines carry over from last year, although the 2.5-liter four-cylinder gets some small efficiency tweaks including a bump in compression ratio from 10.0:1 to 10.3:1. Horsepower and torque are unchanged at 182 and 180 lb-ft, respectively, as is the coarse groan of the ancient engine whenever it’s really pushed. But combined with underbody panels, active grille shutters, and the fuel-sipping transmission, the tweaked four-cylinder allows the Altima to achieve a 1-mpg gain in highway fuel-economy testing. Nissan says the car will carry EPA ratings of 39 mpg on the highway, 27 mpg in the city, and 31 combined.

Enter the SR

The evergreen VQ V-6 with 3.5 liters of displacement and 270 horsepower returns (with a CVT, natch), even as Nissan expects it to account for only six percent of sales. That’s actually twice the volume in the outgoing car; Nissan’s projections are based on the introduction of a new SR trim. This is largely a handling package, although SR cars will get some mild aesthetic enhancements including a small spoiler and unique interior trim.

Four-cylinder SR models sit in the middle of the pricing range, starting at $25,295, and a V-6 Altima in SR trim will set you back $28,215. The base price for the Altima is up $200 from last year, to $23,325, while increases on other trims can add as much as $740 to the MSRP.

Sadly enough, Nissan didn’t have any V-6 cars of any trim level available to drive at its launch event, but we did get to try out the four-cylinder SR and came away encouraged. Being saddled with an old engine and a CVT, Nissan’s engineers were constrained in what they could do to make a sportier Altima. Taking that into consideration, the SR comes off as well as can be imagined.

Nissan tells us the standard Altima has slightly stiffer rear springs that reduce body roll a bit from last year, yet the SR improves on this with thicker tubular anti-roll bars and a unique damper calibration. In the front, the standard Altima’s 22.2-mm bar is replaced with one that is 24.2 mm in diameter, and in the rear a 26.5-mm bar replaces the standard 22-mm one, changes that Nissan says reduce body roll by 21 percent. The revisions to the suspension also help the Altima’s brake-based torque-vectoring system better assist the car in turning. We can expect an oddly specific 12.5-percent improvement in grip once we get the Altima SR out on the skidpad, says Nissan.

The Altima’s electrohydraulic power steering has been reprogrammed across the lineup for a weightier feel and a bit more feedback, and on the street the SR feels poised and well-planted. Add its standard 18-inch wheels and column-mounted shift paddles to exercise a bit of control over the CVT, and the SR is certainly the most appealing Altima, even if it falls short of being a true mainstream sports sedan. Whether or not it remains third in the sales race, the updated Altima should leave its legions of buyers satisfied.

2016 Audi S8 Plus

 First Drive Review

BMW might have the longest history of sporty luxury sedans, and Mercedes-AMG might make the most powerful one—in the form of the insanely expensive S65 AMG—but as far as the overall package is concerned, a new player from Audi warrants a close look. Ingolstadt is out to impress with the new S8 Plus, the most powerful derivative of the A8 yet. Its 4.0-liter twin-turbocharged V-8, mated to an eight-speed automatic, is rated at 605 horsepower. That's up 85 horsepower from the regular S8, which remains in production for other markets but steps aside for the Plus in the U.S.

There was strong demand for an enhanced S8 from the German market, where owners were tired of running into an electronic ceiling at 155 mph, a velocity that few U.S. drivers have experienced but that is not all that uncommon in Germany. The S8 Plus can be specified with a Dynamic package that raises top speed to 190 mph, creating a comfortable distance from the pack.

Like 155 mph, 190 is of a rather academic nature to us, but we certainly can appreciate this S8’s vicious acceleration. The sprint from zero to 60 mph takes 3.7 seconds, according to Audi; we think that figure is somewhat conservative considering we ran a 420-horse A8 4.0T to 60 in 3.9 and the previous S8 did the deed in 3.6. That kind of performance means that every other car in this segment will get a good look at the Audi's quadruple exhaust tips before they disappear into the distance. The surreal power delivery of the S8 Plus is underscored by the engine’s dark, subdued rumble.

To create the S8, Audi modified the A8's chassis and air suspension considerably and fitted it with a torque-vectoring system for the rear axle. The S8 Plus retains the regular S8's hardware, but its electronic programming has been further sharpened. While the Comfort mode remains virtually unchanged (it will allow considerable body roll), the Auto and Dynamic settings are noticeably more firm, agile, and precise than on the S8. When specified with the Dynamic package (not to be confused with Dynamic driving mode), the S8 Plus comes with a carbon-fiber rear spoiler, a sport exhaust system, and carbon-ceramic brakes that bite hard and decelerate harder, which is good considering the package’s aforementioned heightened speed limiter.

Despite its rear-biased all-wheel-drive system and its performance mien, the S8 Plus remains a luxury sedan at its core. This means a nearly unparalleled ability to cover long distances while its occupants are cosseted in absolute comfort. It's a big car that'll perform remarkably well on twisty roads, but it’s not something with which you want to chase Porsche Caymans.

And that's why it's not called an RS8, even though the S8 Plus was developed by Audi's performance division, Quattro GmbH. Even the styling is on the modest side: This powerful sedan's voracious appetite for air required larger air intakes, but they are successfully hidden behind the current S8's front fascia. What's new is the gloss-black trim around the grille and the windows, part of the optional Black Optic exterior package.

The new S8 Plus is by far the sportiest offering in its segment, and it’s safe to say the outgoing S8 won't be missed—if only because there is absolutely no trade-off with the new model. That includes price. The S8 Plus retails for $115,825, the exact same figure as the outgoing S8.

2016 Ferrari F12tdf

 To build its latest red-blooded creation, Ferrari first ruined a perfectly good car. In transforming the sure-footed F12berlinetta grand tourer into the fast-and-loose, apex-hounding F12tdf, Ferrari engineers deconstructed the stability that’s inherent in the F12’s long wheelbase, its substantial weight, and its high polar moment of inertia relative to mid-engined cars. The front tires grew in width from 255 millimeters to 285 millimeters, an aggressive alignment boosted turn-in and lateral grip, and—with no change to the rear tire width—a fickle, oversteering monster was born. One Ferrari chassis engineer described the team’s work bluntly: “First, we screwed up the car.”

With the chassis suitably squirrelly, engineers applied the brand’s first use of rear-wheel steering to dial in just enough stability to make the car manageable and predictable. Ferrari calls the resulting package Passo Corto Virtuale, or virtual short wheelbase, and it shrinks the F12tdf’s 107.1-inch wheelbase and 3600-pound curb weight to Miata-like sensations. Okay, maybe the F12tdf doesn’t drive quite that small and nimble, but it more than compensates with the uncanny precision that $490,000 buys.
Virtual Short Wheelbase, Real-World Awesome

The F12tdf worms its way into your psyche with delicate, light steering that is direct, immediate, and unforgiving. Spin the steering wheel too fast or too far and the rear responds just the same, rotating too fast or too far. Get it right, though, and the car darts where you look with the rear tires faithfully following the front end in a tight, tidy arc. It’s ironic that the steering feels like the most special of the F12tdf’s specialties, because while Ferrari massaged the F12’s engine, transmission, suspension, brakes, and aerodynamics for the F12tdf program, the hydraulically assisted steering system is the one component left unchanged.

The electric motors that steer the rear wheels at up to two degrees in either direction come from ZF, but Ferrari engineers performed all of the software calibration to ensure the system works in harmony with the electronically controlled limited-slip differential, the magnetorheological shocks, the traction control, and the stability control. As you click the steering-wheel-mounted manettino drive-mode selector from Sport mode to Race to CT Off (traction control off), the car’s agility swells. Neutral is the wrong word, though, because neutral implies a car that can be provoked to understeer as readily as it oversteers. The F12tdf’s front tires only plow when you do something truly stupid.

Modern rear-wheel-steering systems, including those in the big-dog Porsche 911s, typically countersteer relative to the front wheels at low speeds to improve agility and steer in the same direction for greater stability at elevated velocities. Ferrari claims its adaptation doesn’t need to countersteer the rear wheels; the natural behavior of the car is sufficiently agile. Instead, the Italians need only the enhanced stability to keep the tail from overtaking the front of the car in corners.

Ferrari’s previous track special, the aptly named 458 Speciale, can turn any driver into a hero with its beautiful balance and unflappable cool. That mid-engined car’s reactions will flatter you into believing your every move is a flawless execution of vehicle-dynamics theory. The F12tdf is far less forgiving. It demands more focus, more skill, and more respect. In return, it delivers honest fun that is both uncommon and uncanny in a car with this much power and this much grip.
Oh, Did We Mention the 769-hp V-12?

Think of it as a testament to just how alive and intoxicating the chassis is that it’s taken some 550 words to get around to the 6.3-liter V-12, because the drama of unleashing all 769 horsepower is man’s greatest tribute to the internal-combustion engine. At full throttle, it bellows like a thousand angelic trumpets ushering you into car-guy heaven as the revs wind up like a crotch rocket’s.

The F12tdf musters an additional 39 horsepower and 11 lb-ft of torque over the standard F12 with the help of a new air-filter box, revised intake plumbing, and a larger throttle body. Solid lifters replace hydraulic tappets. The resulting weight reduction allows Ferrari to add more valve lift to the intake-cam profile and to raise the rev limiter from 8700 rpm to 8900 rpm. Variable-length intake runners use telescoping trumpets within the intake plenum to shrink or stretch the runner length for optimized airflow. In the F12tdf, Ferrari uses just two distinct positions—short and long—but future cars may take advantage of the fact that the position of the trumpets is continuously variable between the boundary conditions.

Shorter gear ratios throughout the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transaxle are augmented with quicker shift times. We project a 2.8-second blast to 60 mph on the way to a 10.8-second assault on the quarter-mile. The always-on nature of the big-displacement, naturally aspirated 12-cylinder engine demands a delicate right foot on corner exit, but the pedal obliges with long, linear travel. When it’s time to reverse thrust, a brake pedal with just as much fidelity activates a carbon-ceramic braking system borrowed from the LaFerrari hypercar.
Lighter, But Still Luxurious

Ferrari intends the F12tdf to be a car that owners will drive to the track, at the track, and back home from the track. But in readying the F12 for regular track service, the suspension has lost some suppleness. Even with the dampers set to their more compliant mode, the F12tdf skims over humps in the road like a skipped rock. In city driving, the F1 dual-clutch transmission isn’t as velvety as Porsche’s or McLaren’s gearboxes, particularly in off-throttle downshifts. Overall, though, the F12tdf remains a civilized road car. While lighter microsuede replaces leather and carpets have been removed altogether, Ferrari still fits a radio, navigation, and air conditioning.

Ferrari stripped a total of 243 pounds from the F12. A chunk of that weight comes from reducing the amount of glass on the car by tapering the rear window and shrinking the rear-quarter windows until the transparent section is no larger than an iPhone. Carbon fiber is now used for the door skins inside and out, plus the front and rear fascias. And while the rest of the body panels are still aluminum, the roof and the A-pillars are the only pieces that carry over from the F12. The bevy of dive planes, spats, and spoilers increase downforce to more than 500 pounds at 124 mph. While they’re added for functional purposes, the cooling and aerodynamic changes also create something visually striking. The righteous louvered fenders bulging around the rear tires are both an homage to classic Ferraris and a carnal suggestion of what the car is capable of. Ferrari may have taken one step backward to start work on the F12tdf, but its finished product is miles ahead of the F12 in driving excitement.