Tuesday, 13 September 2011

2011 Hyundai Equus Ultimate

Our 2011 Hyundai Equus long-termer continues to pile on the miles in the effortless fashion that one expects of a premium sedan. August's main outing was a weeklong stint in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, about 800 miles from Detroit. All-in, the trip accounted for over 2,000 miles, during which the Equus stretched its legs as a capable freeway cruiser and even was pressed into undignified service as a surfboard transport (see above). In case you're wondering, no, an eight-foot rental longboard won't fit in a luxury sedan (not in this or any other we can think of), so you'll be forced to do the shish-ka-windows-and-empty-side-road-creep with the hazard lights on if you don't have any alternatives.

With the exception of a modest bit of track time at Hyundai's Seoul proving grounds in a few prototypes, this was your author's first experience with the Equus. As one might expect, it acquits itself better over-the-road than on the track, delivering a comfortable ride and plush confines in which to while away the miles.

What was surprising for this driver was how much attention our Equus garnered – it's rather innocuously styled, after all. But we hadn't been driving further than our first rest stop when a couple of attractive twenty-something ladies stopped to ask about our car as we got out in the parking lot. "What is it?!" they gushed. "Believe it or not, it's a Hyundai," we answered. Puzzled looks. "Wait... really? Well... it's still really nice, though!" We laughed a little inside and moved on, but their reaction was telling – "It's still really nice, though!" is both a credit to what a pleasant surprise the Equus is for Hyundai, as well as a subtly backhanded ding at the company's "off the radar" standing among many consumers. The same rest area yielded a discussion with a very enthusiastic Genesis sedan owner, and subsequent conversations were held at stoplights with frantic arm-waving Toyota Avalon drivers and more random people in parking lots, including a BMW E60 5 Series owner fed up with his ownership experience. We have to admit, we viewed the Equus as something of a generic knockoff design-wise, but our conversations suggest that the general buying public doesn't feel the same way (or doesn't care).

We do have some nits to pick with our big white whale, however. Others have mentioned this, but it's worth pointing out again – the adjustable lumbar support seems to be in perpetual state of overinflation. No matter how much we tinker with the air bladder controls, it just feels too prominent on our lower backs. It's so uncomfortable that it's led to both your author and Editor-In-Chief Neff to ponder drastic, pin-shaped countermeasures. We wouldn't, of course, but it's still bothersome. The best solution for long-distance comfort seems to be extending the bottom cushion a bit longer than we normally might, as this somehow alleviates the stress.

Otherwise, the interior offers plenty of amenities and creature comforts, though the controls, finishes and design aesthetic lack the same sort of aura of refinement as rivals. Overall, our Equus Ultimate succeeds at feeling like a great value, but stops short of feeling like a great full-size luxury sedan. That's partially due to the interior and partially due to the 4.6-liter Tau V8. Its 385 horsepower and 333 pound-feet of torque certainly aren't anything to sneeze at, but this is 4,600-pound mass of Korean real estate, and it simply feels adequate. Other media outlets have tested the Equus and found 0-60 times in the mid-to-high six-second range, so it's certainly not slow, but the ECU and transmission tuning makes both off-the-line acceleration and highway passing feel more leisurely than we'd expect. More chutzpah isn't far off, thankfully – the 2012 model is widely expected to adopt the 5.0-liter V8 and eight-speed automatic gearbox recently introduced in the updated Genesis sedan.

Despite sustained higher speeds, traversing Pennsylvania's Alleghany mountains, negotiating a dead-stop traffic jam and a lot of pottering along in beach traffic, we averaged a solid 21 miles per gallon, smack in the middle of the 18/22 city/highway mix the EPA predicts. During that stint, we saw sustained freeway running with indicated mpgs in the mid-to-upper 20s without even trying, suggesting that it's likely quite easy to beat the Equus' official fuel economy estimates if you take it easier than we did.

2011 BMW X3 xDrive28i

Despite enchanting few critics along the way, the all-new 2011 BMW X3 has been helping its German parent clean up on the sales charts.

Like the rest of the premium crossover segment, the X3 has been viewed by some brand diehards as a blatant cash-grab. The starting price might be easy enough to swallow, but start ticking the option boxes and the sticker swells to a size more startling than the first time you heard your mother drop an F-bomb. Despite this, we wanted to see if the 2011 BMW X3 xDrive28i could break through the enthusiast's wall of prejudice. As you'd expect, it's a mixed bag.

The 2011 BMW X3 is roughly the same size as the original X5. The 110.6-inch wheelbase is essentially unchanged, but there's now three more inches of overall length for an even 183 inches from tip-to-tail. The styling uses that new room to stretch, and the dynamically straked profile makes the increase look like at least double that.

Clamping the stubby, original X3 in a taffy pull and giving it a yank leaves the 2011 X3 looking both familiar and like a part of the modern BMW family. The carefully detailed bodywork plays up its conservative image to good effect. The Bangelized original lines have been matured without radical changes.

2011 BMW X3 xDrive28i side view2011 BMW X3 xDrive28i front view2011 BMW X3 xDrive28i rear view

BMW has also brought the interior of the 2011 BMW X3 up to par with the rest of the range. Like the exterior changes, BMW hasn't gone and reinvented the steering wheel, so the design of the dashboard and door panels does little more than look and feel like a current BMW interior. Materials and fit-and-finish are improvements, though the shifter and spring-loaded blinker stalk are still annoying to use for some. The clean design isn't avant-garde, but it means clear ergonomics, and the eight-way power front seats are fantastically comfortable. Rear seat passengers get a newly liveable area, benefiting the most from the size increase. The latest implementation of iDrive is finely tuned and the standard LCD has crisp graphics, but pales in comparison to the optional 8.8-inch display that's the automotive equivalent of an ostentatious plasma screen.

A benefit of the continued refinement of iDrive is an uncluttered center stack. Our tester was bereft of navigation and the larger screen, so its limited iDrive feature set was particularly easy to navigate. Analog gauges are clear, there are real cupholders and the Sand Beige leather and warm-toned Fineline Sienna wood trim created an inviting atmosphere, especially when paired with the big, airy panoramic moonroof – worth every bit of its $1,350 price tag. Visibility in all directions is not hindered by gigantic pillars and the elevated crossover seating position makes for confidence-bolstering sightlines, too.

2011 BMW X3 xDrive28i interior2011 BMW X3 xDrive28i front seats2011 BMW X3 xDrive28i rear seats2011 BMW X3 xDrive28i rear cargo area

The naturally aspirated inline six-cylinder engine in the X3 xDrive28i is one of the most celebrated engines in the BMW family, even if it is facing internal competition from BMW's new twin-turbocharged 2.0-liter four. Engineering skill is shown off with a composite block of magnesium alloy for light weight, a valvetrain twiddled by Valvetronic and Double VANOS systems that do away with a throttle plate, and other slick, efficiency-boosting technology like Brake-Energy Regeneration. All the whiz-bang results in 240 horsepower and 221 pound-feet of torque from 3.0 liters, but the issue at hand is how this engine and its attendant eight-speed automatic transmission behave out on the road.

Peak torque plateaus between 2,750 and 4,000 RPM, and the eight-speed transmission does its best to keep the engine in the lip-smackingest meat of the powerband, but not even BMW can overcome the fact that the X3 weighs 4,100 pounds. That's about the same as the original X3, so kudos for keeping weight in check, but it's a heavy load for the available torque to cope with, wide powerband and cornucopia of gear ratios aside.

2011 BMW X3 xDrive28i engine

Ride and handling aims for the storied BMW smooth-and-responsive target but winds up shy of the bullseye. Occasional traces of harshness shake and stir occupants – a trait not likely improved by the Sport Activity Package (X-Line exterior trim, front fascia insert, aluminum satin roof rails, Sports steering wheel, sport seats) and its 18-inch V-Spoke wheels with all-season run-flat tires. At least the package looks spiffy and puts a nice steering wheel in your hands.

Most annoyingly, throttle tip-in is noticeably sluggish. More than once after nosing the X3 out to snag a gap in quick traffic, we found ourselves with an indecisive vehicle and angry oncomings. The throttle doesn't just choke during clutch plays, either – the initial deadness was constantly infuriating. The situation is compounded by the whims of the eight-speed gearbox, which tries to cycle through its cogs too often. We've experienced this same ZF transmission in many other cars – indeed, in many other BMWs – and we don't recall it being so indecisive.

2011 BMW X3 xDrive28i headlight2011 BMW X3 xDrive28i wheel2011 BMW X3 xDrive28i roof rack2011 BMW X3 xDrive28i rear detail

The X3 has gained access to the BMW bag of technowizard tricks through its redesign, and there may be some alchemy in there to improve responsiveness. Dynamic Damping Control adds buttons to the center console that give you the choice of Normal, Sport or Sport + modes. Selecting one of the sport options makes the throttle response more immediate, stiffens the suspension and adjusts the transmission shift points. Variable-ratio steering is another enhancement our X3 didn't have. The standard electromechanical power steering system strives for both efficiency and feel and just achieves the former. By doing its best to avoid using any boost to reduce engine drag, the system unfortunately erases most of the feedback for the driver, too.

But out-and-out driving enthusiasts aren't who the X3 has been created for, even though the XDrive all-wheel-drive system defaults to a rear-drive bias and the available Dynamic Handling Package includes Performance Control, which keeps the torque split rear-drive oriented. This is a vehicle made to appeal to buyers looking for technology, cachet and premium detailing. With that in mind, the details have been sweated, going so far as to include little treats like lighting in the door handles. The interior has an array of storage cubbies and there's a cargo-rail system in back, too. Think of the 2011 BMW X3 as a 3-Series wagon for the non-wagon buyer and you'll have it right. The X3 cedes territory dynamically to be a Sport Activity Vehicle – BMW-ese for "crossover" – but that doesn't seem to bother buyers.

2011 BMW X3 xDrive28i rear 3/4 view

That's good, because the price can scorch. Our test X3 hit the checkout line with a $45,725 price tag with plenty of room to go if you want to drop bigger cash on a smallish vehicle. The model's $36,750 base price is lower than the outgoing 2010 X3 xDrive30i, last year's only model, but it swelled by adding the $3,450 Premium Package, Cold Weather Package for $1,150, and Sport Activity Package for another $1,550. We were enamored with the head-up display that added another $1,300 to the bottom line, but start throwing in the other available goodies like the M Sport, Dynamic Handling and Technology Packages, and you're well into X5 xDrive30i territory. As it is, our little X3 wasn't far from the $47,000-and-change base price of an X5.

Despite its driveline foibles, the 2011 BMW X3 feels like it belongs in the current family of BMW products, and it has the styling and available equipment to attract buyers' attention. The Audi Q5 puts up a particularly good fight to the newfound charms in the X3, and, to a lesser degree, so does a Mercedes-Benz GLK. There are lots of options for your thousands of dollars, but at least now there's a proper modern BMW available in this class.

Fisker Surf shooting brake wows Frankfurt Show

Ahead of its official unveiling at the 2011 Frankfurt Motor Show, Fisker Automotive bosses had us up to a studio in Munich for a thorough advance viewing and info download on their second model, a shooting brake called Surf.

The first words out of our mouth was, "The shape is a bit like a Ferrari FF." First thing out of their mouth – as though they were utterly perched to form the words, too – "But with four doors!" Henrik Fisker and COO Bernhard Koehler much prefer hearkening back to the 1970s iconic Lamborghini Espada when talking about the Surf's inspiration.

The Surf is the second model from the Fisker design pool, and it is so-named partly because a Fisker owner can now load a surfboard either in or on it. This joins the Karma sedan on the production line at Valmet Automotive in Finland, and should be ready for deliveries worldwide by July 2012.

The Surf shooting brake could well be called the Fisker Karma station wagon since its main objective is to respond to the ridiculously skimpy trunk on the sedan, which measures an adorable 7.1 cubic feet – less than the total storage room in a Ferrari 458 Italia. The expandable room in back now measures anywhere from 12.7 to 29.0 cubes. Hardly cause for a group "Wow!," but certainly a handy improvement.

Aside from the added carriage work and its space afforded, overall weight on the Surf versus the Karma increases by just 77 pounds, putting it in the 4,400-pound neighborhood. Work is reportedly underway for creating a custom set of luggage that best makes use of those awkwardly meted out cubic feet.

The entire powertrain, chassis, and interior execution of the Surf are identical to the Karma sedan, with the only major cabin change being the additional room in back for a couple of adults. We had a six-foot colleague get situated comfortably in the driver's seat while we sat our 5'11" body in the rear seat. Memories of the Aston Martin Rapide's "rear-passenger capsule" sensation came up, but the only insufficiency really is foot room beneath the front squabs. Fisker could have done a better job there. The 1.2 inches of added rear headroom work well for those of us up to six feet in height.

Whereas the exterior rear roof-mounted solar panel on the Karma is a 120-watt gathering unit, the available panel for the Surf is a 133-watt unit. The sturdy black plastic grille insert is a new look, as are the very sharp new 22-inch standard wheels. Fisker is currently working with an outside supplier to create an easy roof rack system to slide into the standard aluminum roof rails.

When we last drove a Fisker Karma, we were critical of the sound that entered the cabin via the footwells whenever the 255-horsepower GM Ecotec turbocharged and direct-injected 2.0-liter four-cylinder chimed in to extend the range of the 315-cell lithium ion battery pack in Sport mode. Fisker tells us that the silencers have since been swapped out to create a more appropriate $100,000-plus premium noise. We're hoping that this is true. In the meantime, the awesome "signature Fisker external sound" gently fills the eardrums in Stealth mode as on the Karma.

Fisker Automotive tells us that pre-orders remain at just above 3,000, which is where they reportedly stood back when we drove the Karma dynamic prototype in February of this year. "Those initial enthusiasts," says Koehler, "are still with us and first deliveries have happened in the U.S. We have then a list of thousands more who are simply in the 'wait and see' mode and have the firm intent of buying once they hear first-hand feedback from the first customers."

Designer and CEO Fisker also tells that the Surf should do particularly well in Europe, a continent renowned for its addiction to larger premium wagons. Fisker hopes to sell 3,500 Surf models per year, rather ambitious for a shooting brake.

Pricing is set to reflect a slight premium over the $95,900 to $108,900 range of the Karma, but no exact Surf numbers have been announced yet. They did blurt out, however, "It'll be like the FF but with four doors and at one-third the price."