Showing posts with label 2012. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 2012. Show all posts

Saturday, 8 October 2011

First Ride: 2012 Tesla Model S Beta

Tesla had a big weekend. Some 1,500 Model S hand-raisers and their +1s descended on the company's recently acquired NUMMI plant in Fremont, CA to see where their $5,000 deposits have gone. The event, which served as both a product extravaganza and a subtle reassurance, sought to prove that the Model S is well on its way to production. And part of the program included rides in three Model S betas.

As Tesla was keen to point out, showing off a prototype – even one that's 80-percent complete – is relatively unheard of in the industry. Regardless, the EV upstart invited a handful of journalists to go for a brief spin in the passenger seat of the betas. How brief? Less than five minutes.

So... don't expect to find any mind-blowing revelations, 10/10ths impressions or thorough interior dissections. Here's all you need to know: It drives, it steers, it stops, it's practically – and predictably – silent and the interior tech is enough to make gadget nerds forget about the lack of an iPhone 5.

Of the three betas on hand, two were developed for fine tuning the interior and one was set up for rides. There are currently five betas undergoing testing, all of which were built at a contract plant in Detroit and not at the newly refurbished, ex-Toyota plant in Northern California. That said, an extensive tour of the facility revealed that Tesla is almost completely set up to begin Model S production this January before deliveries begin in the middle of next year. The plant currently employs around 180 people, with that number set to hit 250 by the end of the year and then swell to 500 when at full capacity. All in, 300 to 400 people will handle drivetrain production and by 2013, roughly 1,000 people will work between the powertrain and chassis facilities.

So yes, Tesla can build them. And after spending a few hours around the Fremont plant, much of our skepticism about Tesla's abilities to bring the sedan market were laid to rest. They've pulled in equipment and talent from around the world (Germany in particular) to make a modern, world-class facility. And now we get to sample what they'll be building.

Considering this is a prototype, we're suitably impressed with the fit and finish both inside and out. We're sure that Tesla was sweating the details in the run-up to this past weekend's festivities, and the tight gaps in the body panels and general exterior polish of the betas was proof the Tesla can at least get a handful of sedans ready for the spotlight.

Inside was just as refined, save for a few crudely fashioned, but barely noticeable, bits of trim and a transmission stalk and window switchgear pulled from Mercedes-Benz. The backseat proved to be both comfortable and spacious enough to enjoy a 15-minute presentation on the infotainment system, and while our request to sit in the rear-facing jump seats was denied, we were just pleased to see them included on one of the testers.

On the infotainment front, Tesla is using a 17-inch multitouch display, with a persistent climate control interface at the bottom (good for muscle memory). It's just as massive in person as it is in photos – it's essentially two iPads worth of screen real estate – and provides drivers with Google Maps navigation, streaming Internet radio, local music playback, web browsing (HTML5/Webkit-based) and sunroof controls through an infrared touch system. Just like everything else with the Model S, it's still in prototype form, with a capacitive screen set to replace the IR version and the Linux-based OS and its proprietary user interface skin to receive more tweaks between now and the on sale date next year.

That said, it's largely glitch-free, and you can check out the video below for a full walk around of the system, including the configurable instrument panel behind the steering wheel and iPhone app that keeps track of charging and location, along with the ability to control the EV's climate remotely.
When we initially walked up to the passenger-side door, we tried to push in the flush, chrome door handle as we would open an Aston Martin. Nothing. A second later, the motorized handle slowly protruded from the door. A neat – if superfluous – party piece.

We quietly pulled away from the staging tent as our engineer-turned-chauffeur attempted to shove a fistful of wires behind the panel in the center compartment. "Obviously customers won't see this." Fair enough. Let's get underway.

The first run was through a coned-off section of the receiving bay (not fair to call it an autocross course) where the Model S resisted body roll thanks to a combination of its air suspension and low center of gravity provided by the flat battery pack spanning the passenger compartment. Our driver, who races Lotuses on the weekends, didn't push too hard, but wasn't afraid to mash the pedal as we eerily and rapidly accelerated towards a small, banked high-speed stability course, putting out all 306 pound-feet of torque to the wheels.

When the driver comes off the throttle, the brake regen is far more subtle than in the Roadster, failing to shove us into the seatbelt and doing little to upset the balance of the Model S when slowing in a straight line.

Out on the track inherited from Toyota, we kept a quick pace through the first section of the oval, and then accelerated fully down the back straight, hitting an indicated 103 mph before braking lightly into the next 180-degree bend. After three similar runs, we came away impressed with both the planted sensation afforded by the low CG and elongated wheelbase, the suitably smooth ride and the now-expected, yet still disconcerting, lack of racket inside the cabin. But naturally, until we can get some time off the test track and feel that wheel between our hands, we'll remain skeptically impressed from afar.

Who isn't skeptical? Hundreds of people from the Bay Area, along with hundreds more from across the country and around the world, all of which have put cash down to be one of the few with a Signature Series Model S. Potential buyers flew in from as far away as Tokyo, Denmark and Switzerland to be part of this weekend's event, including one gentleman from Iceland who inked a deal to purchase 100 examples for his car sharing service. Fittingly, he signed the papers on the hood of a Model S beta Saturday night – the same sedan we ran around the track less than 48 hours later.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI

We've given Volkswagen a fair amount of flack for the 2011 Jetta – and justifiably so. All the things we held dear in previous generations – high-end materials, solid driving dynamics and that general sense of premium the Germans do so well – were all nixed in the name of market share.

But as we suspected, it's working. Jetta sales in the U.S. are up 74 percent over last year as consumers view the redesigned, cut-priced sedan as an upmarket contender to the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic and Chevrolet Cruze. And honestly, more power to them.

What we've really been waiting for is this, the 2012 Jetta GLI. Packing VW's ubiquitous turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder, a six-speed manual or optional DSG and an independent rear suspension, the GLI is here to assuage enthusiasts' fears that VW has lost the plot in its relentless pursuit of global market dominance. Just as Porsche hasn't given up on sports cars as it expands into un-Porsche-like segments, neither has VW in its efforts to appeal to more people. But unlike Ferdinand's second child, we still have the nagging sense that Volkswagen is leaving something on the table – despite the GLI's potential on paper.

From 40 yards out, it's hard to tell the GLI apart from a standard Jetta. Get closer and even the deeper front spoiler, honeycomb grille and vertical fog lamps pulled from the GTI do little to convey the same racy presence of its hot hatch stablemate. The standard 10-spoke, 17-inch wheels even look a little dinky in their wheel wells, despite the red brake calipers. Thankfully, an optional set of 18-inch, split five-spoke rollers (pictured below) up the aesthetic game and come coated in 225/40 R18 Dunlop SP Sport 01 AS rubber that makes for a worthy upgrade over the standard 225/45 R17 all-season Continental ContiProContacts.

2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI side view2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI front view2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI rear view

The Jetta's tune changes on the inside. And to excellent effect.

Behold, a soft-touch dash; convincing aluminum trim on the dash and flat-bottom, leather-wrapped wheel; bolstered seats coated in optional V-Tex leatherette; and contrast red stitching abound. It's all a massive improvement over the bargain-basement interior we've endured in our Jetta TDI long-termer, although the GLI's plastics go from high-class to low-brow as soon as your hand ventures south (perhaps to be expected considering its plebeian roots).

But why this endless discussion of interior materials? Here's a prime example: Volkswagen is introducing its Fender Premium Audio System into the Jetta lineup for 2012. It's solid, with crisp highs and a punchy low-end when equipped in the GLI Autobahn ($25,545) and Autobahn with Navigation ($26,445) models. Forget for a moment the ironic reason why rockers started using Fender amps to begin with – artful distortion – and let's focus on the lows. When the kick drum popped at a volume level over 15 in our tester, there was a subtle rattling from the passenger-side door. A few minutes of feeling around and we finally found the culprit. The map pocket is made of low-grade plastic and the vibration from the bass rattled the cubby against the cover. Not cool, but a perfect case-in-point about why we harp on discount materials.

2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI interior2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI front seats2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI dash2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI door speaker

But this isn't a story about a reworked interior on a $23,495 Jetta (although it could be). This is about how the GLI holds up as a GTI sans-hatch. And to that end, it's exactly what you'd expect.

Power from the 2.0T is unchanged for sedan duty, with 200 horsepower coming on at 5,100 rpm and peak torque – 207 pound-feet – flowing from 1,700 rpm and up. We spent about 20 minutes in the DSG model (+ $1,100) and found it... fine. But as per usual (particularly in this segment), the manual is the driver's choice – even in start-and-stop traffic.

Clutch take-up is on the high and light side, so puttering around town doesn't require a Tour de France-honed left leg. The shifter standard VW fare, with an enlarged knob and slightly long throws providing a choice of six forward ratios. Braking is handled by 12.3-inch vented front discs and 10.7-inch solid rear rotors, all of which add up to a predictable, linear pedal feel that only began to fade after two particularly torturous runs through the Virginia hills outside VW's North American headquarters.

2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI engine

While the 2.0T continues to gain accolades for its linearity and tunability, VW's tried-and-true turbocharged four-pot is starting to show its age, despite a recent reworking. Two hundred horsepower was plenty for a front-driver in 2005, but consider that the Kia Optima Turbo, BMW's new turbocharged four and – hell – even the old Cobalt SS all make more ponies with the same displacement, and the GLI can't help but feel somewhat ill-equipped for the modern age, even if it gets the job done nicely. We still managed some wheelspin in second gear when planting our right foot and you can hit 80 mph in third gear if you're so inclined, but there's not much happening on the far side of the tach, despite peak horsepower arriving further along in the rev range.

The other added benefit of swapping the GTI's drivetrain directly into the Jetta is the inclusion of the XDS cross differential that's engineered to reduce torque – and thus, wheelspin – to the inside wheel through a corner. As with the GTI, the ABS-based system works, but constant flogging means brake fade comes on stronger than in something with a mechanical torque-vectoring diff. We also experienced momentary traction control engagement with the left front loaded and the right coming over a crest. That's more a product of an uneven (and likely untested) surface than an engineering fault, but considering there's no off switch for the traction control, it's worth noting.

2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI headlight2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI grille2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI wheel2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI taillights

The other core driver bits, specifically the electrically assisted steering, 15mm lower ride height and bolstered seats, are more tuned to around-town runs and freeway cruising than all-out tarmac assaults. Feel from the wheel is above-average, if not overly communicative, and the seats do their best to hold you in place, unless your personal curb weight is on the malnourished side. On the topic of tonnage, the GLI with the six-speed manual comes in at 3,124 pounds, with the DSG-equipped model slipping in just over 3,150 pounds. Compared to the GTI organ donor (three-door manual at 3,034 pounds and up to 3,160 pounds for the five-door automatic), the weight increase is negligible.

Driving the GTI and GLI back-to-back, the suspension work performed on the Jetta combined with the extra 2.9 inches of wheelbase (101.5 vs. 104.4, respectively), made the GLI the more comfortable cruiser – but at the expense of engagement. The extra weight over the rear provided by the GTI's hatch and the shorter space between the wheels made it noticeably more chuckable, with the rear rotating ever-so-slightly and allowing the front to tuck in quicker when adjusting the throttle mid-corner. The seating position – admirable in the GLI – was exceptional in the GTI, and considering the added utility of the hatch and the nominal penalty rear seat passengers pay in the legroom department (35.5 inches for the GTI and 38.1 inches for the Jetta), only regular people-schleppers and hatch-haters would be better served with the sedan.

2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI rear 3/4 view

What we're left with is an overall impression that Volkswagen has made the 2012 Jetta GLI for people who just want more. More power, more flash, more amenities and an interior that doesn't make you retch. In that, they've succeeded. But what VW hasn't made is a real sports sedan. For those people, the Golf R – despite its hatchback – is the what they're after.

Yet for the masses, the Jetta GLI fits the bill. Like the standard Jetta before it, the GLI seems to leave some of what we appreciate on the table, but in exchange nets a total package that's more endearing to the average buyer. While the GLI is closer to what we want than the standard Jetta, it's still at least 20 horses and a stiffer suspension short of ideal. And what bothers us more than anything is that we know VW can deliver it.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

2012 Ford Explorer EcoBoost

Ford is no stranger to convincing buyers to embrace smaller displacement, forced-induction engines over their larger, naturally-aspirated counterparts. A little less than a year ago, skeptics wondered whether typically change-averse full-size truck consumers would be willing to swap their tried-and-true V8 for the turbocharged V6 EcoBoost engine now available in the F-150. According to Ford, that question has been answered – fully 41 percent of its half-ton pickups are rolling out the door with a forced-induction six-cylinder under the hood.

There's no great mystery behind the trend. As fuel prices have inched their way upward, vehicle shoppers have begun to count efficiency among the biggest factors that influence their final decision. According to Ford, a whopping 35 percent of Explorer buyers count the vehicle's fuel efficiency as the biggest reason behind their purchase.

Now the Dearborn-based automaker is hoping to repeat the success of the F-150 with the Explorer, and its smaller stablemate, the Edge, by welcoming a new, smaller engine to the EcoBoost family: a 2.0-liter turbocharged direct-injected inline four-cylinder. This engine boasts more torque and greater fuel efficiency than the standard 3.5-liter V6, but gives up a few horses and will cost shoppers an additional $995 when it hits dealers.

Externally, it takes a sharp eye to pick out the Explorer EcoBoost from its V6 brethren. Newly designed side mirrors and subtle badge work on the rear hatch are the only real indicators that set the model apart from the rest of the flock, though extensive aerodynamic work has been hidden behind the front fascia to increase the vehicle's efficiency. That includes active aero shutters behind the front grille that automatically close at a certain speeds to reduce drag. Ford doesn't recommend using the EcoBoost-equipped Explorer for any serious towing. Max capacity is rated at 2,000 pounds, which means spotters aren't likely to see a hitch dangling from the rear of the vehicle, either.

2012 Ford Explorer EcoBoost side view2012 Ford Explorer EcoBoost front view2012 Ford Explorer EcoBoost rear view

The story is much the same indoors. There is no differentiation between the cabins of EcoBoost and naturally-aspirated models. Ford even averted the easy trap of splaying the dash, floor mats and steering wheel with the EcoBoost logo. It's all clean and very familiar, right down to the MyFord Touch system. If you weren't a fan of the tech integration before, odds are you won't find anything to smile about in its presence here, though Ford is quick to remind its detractors that the system enjoys a staggering 90 percent take rate on the Explorer. We have a sneaking suspicion that fact may have as much to do with how the vehicle's option packages are arranged than any real affinity for the color-coded touch screen interface, however.

Whereas the vehicle's exterior and interior have remained untouched, the engine bay has received a substantial overhaul. Ford has managed to pull an impressive 240 horsepower from the turbocharged inline four-cylinder at 5,500 rpm and an even headier 270 pound-feet of torque at a substantially lower 3,000 rpm. Those figures fall 50 ponies shy of the standard 3.5-liter V6, but eclipse the larger displacement six-cylinder's torque figures by 15 lb-ft. Both engines are coupled to a six-speed automatic transmission, but Ford says that the 2.0-liter EcoBoost can return an EPA-rated 20 mpg city and 28 mpg highway, an improvement of three miles per gallon in both city and highway driving over the base vehicle.

2012 Ford Explorer EcoBoost interior2012 Ford Explorer EcoBoost front seats2012 Ford Explorer EcoBoost fuel economy display2012 Ford Explorer EcoBoost audio and climate controls

Part of that increase in fuel efficiency is due to a slight reduction in weight. With two fewer cylinders aboard, the 2.0-liter EcoBoost weighs around 80 pounds lighter than the standard 3.5-liter V6. Additionally, Ford isn't offering the EcoBoost SUV with all-wheel drive. All that power from the 2.0-liter gets dumped to the pavement via the front wheels only, which makes the machine more comfortable fielding fair-weather mall duty than snowy winter mountain passes, and it also lightens the load by a whole drive axle.

And that's just fine. Ford has brought all of its engineering muscle to bear on this all-aluminum EcoBoost four-cylinder, and as a result, the engine packs twin independently variable cams for greater efficiency over the entire rev range as well as polished bucket tappets, sodium-filled exhaust valves for greater durability and an exhaust manifold integrated into the aluminum cylinder head to save weight. That last bit also decreases the time it takes for the engine to reach optimum operating temperature, which reduces wear on the turbo and increases longevity at the same time.

2012 Ford Explorer EcoBoost engine

Despite an abundance of power available from fairly low in the rev band, Ford has managed to keep torque steer under control. While we were able to induce a good bit of wheelspin off the line, the Explorer didn't seem interested in wrestling the wheel from our hands. Due to the use of a lightweight, low-inertia turbo design, power delivery is linear and smooth without much in the way of lag. Pound the throttle from a stop and the four-cylinder lights up with glee, pulling to 60 mph in a little over eight seconds according to one engineer. Though power seems to fall off slightly higher in the rev range, the six-speed automatic transmission keeps the engine from winding itself out. Instead, the gearbox happily holds its cogs to fully make use of the 270 lb-ft of torque available. With shift logic that isn't quick to drop down, the engine feels more like a traditional V6 than a shrieking four cylinder. The end result is acceleration that feels more than adequate for a vehicle that tips the scales at 4,503 lbs.

Despite its many positives, at the end of the day, we would have a hard time justifying the additional $995 for the EcoBoost option. A jump of 3 mpg in both city and highway driving is nothing to dismiss, but a lack of available all-wheel drive and significant cut in towing capacity are sacrifices that are tough to justify in our book – especially considering Ford is asking its buyers to pay for the reduced functionality. Unfortunately, we suspect the success of the Explorer EcoBoost will probably depend largely on fuel prices in the future.

2012 Ford Explorer EcoBoost headlight2012 Ford Explorer EcoBoost logo2012 Ford Explorer EcoBoost wheel2012 Ford Explorer EcoBoost taillights

Interestingly enough, the exact opposite is true for the Edge EcoBoost. At nearly 400 pounds lighter than the Explorer, the Edge feels like it hasn't given up any driving performance in the switch to four-cylinder power. With its readily-accessible torque and even higher 30 mpg, paying an extra $995 for the Edge EcoBoost is a comparative no-brainer. While Ford is reluctant to stick actual figures to either vehicle's performance, one engineer told us that the Edge is a full second quicker to 60 mph than the Explorer, and as a result, the smaller crossover is significantly more engaging. It simply feels fast and capable, whereas the Explorer merely provides adequate power.

Our Explorer tester came laden with Limited trim and Ford's Rapid Spec 301A equipment package, which included niceties like a power liftgate, power folding third-row seating and voice-activated navigation. As a result, our sticker price hovered just under $42,000 including an $825 destination fee. Buyers will be able to get into a base Explorer EcoBoost for significantly less coin, however. Buyers can spec out a model with the turbocharged four-cylinder engine for $29,165 plus the same destination charges, or just just under the $30,000 mark.

2012 Ford Explorer EcoBoost rear 3/4 view

While we can absolutely see a good reason for buyers to pony up a little extra coin for the EcoBoost 2.0-liter in the Edge, the engine makes more sense to us as a no-cost option in the Explorer. Ford has already employed a similar tactic with the Lincoln MKZ Hybrid, allowing buyers to choose between greater fuel efficiency or greater power in the V6 model without asking them to dig any deeper into their bank accounts. Though the Explorer EcoBoost is a solid driver, we simply don't think the optional engine's benefits offset its taller price tag and reduced capability.


Sunday, 21 August 2011

2012 BMW Z4 sDrive28i

For over a decade, only one premium automaker has offered a four-cylinder in the U.S. And while the recent rise of Audi in the States isn't solely because of its 2.0T engine, it's obvious that luxury buyers are finally coming around to the idea of a fuel-sipping four-pot. As a matter of fact, they're starting to demand it. And BMW is heeding the call.

Next year, BMW will begin offering its turbocharged and direct-injected 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engine on the 3 Series and 5 Series, matching Audi car-for-car in the entry-level and mid-size segments. But before the sedans arrive on U.S. shores – nixing the naturally aspirated 3.0-liter inline-six in the process – BMW is slipping its TwinPower four-cylinder into an unlikely host: the 2012 Z4 sDrive28i.

Why unlikely? Just look at the length of that hood. It was designed from the onset to house one of BMW's venerable inline six-cylinder engines, but by lopping off two cylinders, BMW almost made a front-midship roadster.

2012 BMW Z4 sDrive28i 2.0-liter four-cylinder TwinPower engine

The mounting points used to fit the outgoing six-cylinder and the current turbocharged 3.0-liter are the same that hold this TwinPower turbo four in place. The byproduct is an impressive weight balance of 47.3/52.7 front-to-rear, an improvement – depending on your perspective – from the 47.9/52.1 of the six-cylinder model.

The new N20 four-cylinder is the first engine to benefit from BMW's recently revealed modular engine program, and it's the same mill we sampled earlier this year in the not-for-U.S.-consumption X1 xDrive28i. Power remains almost unchanged in the Z4, with 240 horsepower coming on between 5,000 and 6,500 RPM and 260 pound-feet of torque available from 1,250 and 4,800 revs. While the new N20 is down by 15 hp compared to the six, torque output is up some 40 lb-ft. And the extra juice is evident the moment you mash the throttle.

2012 BMW Z4 sDrive28i side profile view2012 BMW Z4 sDrive28i front view2012 BMW Z4 sDrive28i rear view

Fitted with the six-speed manual, BMW claims the Valvetronic-equipped four will hit 60 mph in 5.5 seconds, while the new eight-speed automatic gearbox does the deed in 5.6 seconds – a decrease of 0.1 and 0.4 seconds, respectively, over the six-cylinder. And as you'd expect, overall weight is down as well, with the new four-cylinder Z4 tipping the scales at 3,252 pounds, or about 33 pounds less than the outgoing sDrive28i.

Predictably, that minimal weight loss can't be felt from behind the wheel, but the extra grunt is front and center. There's a hint of turbo lag below 2,000 rpm when you're lining up for a pass, but as soon as the single, twin-scroll turbo starts huffing and puffing, the Z4 accelerates more authoritatively than the six. Driving the old and new models back-to-back, we also noticed slightly less dive and squat from the mildly reworked suspension (BMW isn't saying what's been done, aside from tweaking the springs and shocks for the new weight balance), but that's probably more a product of the box-fresh four-cylinder compared to the slightly abused previous generation tester.

2012 BMW Z4 sDrive28i interior2012 BMW Z4 sDrive28i tachometer2012 BMW Z4 sDrive28i steering wheel detail2012 BMW Z4 sDrive28i shifter

We also sampled both the manual 'box and new eight-speed automatic transmission, and while we're partial to choosing our own ratios through the slick stick, the auto's quick changes and steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters trade a modicum of engagement for a healthy dose of convenience. It's one of the few times we wouldn't fault buyers for choosing the slush box, and considering the average Z4 owner, we're sure it'll be the most popular transmission.

Naturally, you want numbers, but BMW is only giving one for now: $48,650 (plus $875 for destination). That's an increase of $1,200 over the outgoing model, but for 2012, Bluetooth and USB integration, along with trunk-through loading and an alarm system, all come standard, so the price bump is nearly a wash with the new equipment. As for the other figures you're after, well, BMW isn't giving up fuel economy estimates just yet. With the (surprisingly abrupt) start-stop system fitted to the Z4 sDrive28i, BMW claims that fuel efficiency is up by 20 percent over the six-cylinder in the EU test cycle, but that could go either up or down when the EPA estimates arrive later this year. Figuring the outgoing model managed 18/28 mpg city/highway, it's safe to assume the four-cylinder should ring in around 22 mpg in the city and 33 on the highway.

2012 BMW Z4 sDrive28i rear 3/4 view

More importantly, the character of the Z4 is completely unaffected by the new engine. The six's sonorous tones have been replaced with a hint of turbo whistle and a thrum from the exhaust, but the overall experience remains surprisingly unchanged. Grunt is up, fuel consumption is down and top-down cruising is just as good as it ever was. The replacement for displacement is here, and if it's executed this well, we'll gladly give up a liter or two for the privilege.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550

Mercedes-Benz has a long history of setting trends, which includes being the first company to develop technologies we take for granted today, like traction control systems, airbags and anti-lock brakes. It also kicked off the trend of propelling vehicles with motors, having built and sold the first automobile back in 1885. But it's not usually known for setting styling trends, which is exactly what the company did when it launched the CLS-Class back in 2004.

Despite four doors staring you right in the face, the CLS was officially dubbed a coupe by Mercedes because of the car's sleek coupe-like roofline. Semantics aside, it kicked off an entirely new segment of four-door coupes with its new, artful approach to transporting four people. Just like a fledgling industry followed the Benz Patent-Motorwagen's arrival in 1885, the arrival of the CLS created an entirely new class of vehicle.

Having started the trend, Mercedes gets to show us how it will evolve, and the 2012 CLS550 does just that. It's job isn't just to steer this trend away from becoming a fad, but also fend off a growing number of automakers who wish they had thought of it first.

The first-generation CLS was widely considered a beautiful design, almost shockingly so compared to how the brand was shaping its four-doors back in 2004. If you're a fan of that original design, you probably wouldn't have minded if Mercedes left the exterior alone. Alas, seven years is a long life cycle for any product, and Mercedes can't be faulted for putting pen to paper. The question is whether or not its designers succeeded in making the new CLS more attractive than the old one.

2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 side view2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 front view2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 rear view

The Autoblog team is not unanimous on the answer. There's no one among us who believes either generation is punishment on the eyes, and so either opinion can be held without considering the other side a bunch of tasteless boobs. Your author, however, finds himself on the side of Team First-Gen, so I'll do my best to explain why I think the original is still the better looker of thee two sedans, err... coupes.

Let's start with some analogies. The first-generation CLS is like a man wearing a fitted tuxedo: formal, sharp and clean. The second-gen CLS is like Lou Ferrigno after he beat up the first man and put on his tuxedo: bigger, bulging and intimidating. Now let's get more technical. From the side, the first-gen CLS is expressed by two basic strokes of the designer's pen: an elegant arch for the roofline and a subtly bowed crease that runs from front fender to taillight above the door handles. The second-gen CLS retains the arching roofline, but is growing a crease farm on its doors. The first-gen's simple single line has been replaced by upper and lower ones that start at the front wheel and get closer together as you move rearward, and a third crease bends over the rear wheel to create a flared fender into which the first two end. Together they create a concavity across the doors that makes the rear fenders look even more pronounced. Coupled with a near vertical grille and taller hood, the second-gen's look is more convoluted and just a bit too butch.

2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 headlight2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 LED lights2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 side detail2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 taillights

The aesthetic, however, happens to fit, because if you didn't know, Mercedes-Benz makes muscle cars. Its V8s make us swoon, even the ones not stamped with the letters A-M-G. Known for their large displacements, high horsepower and bellowing exhaust tones, these engines – the 5.5-liter and 6.2-liter AMG specifically – are on their way out across the brand's lineup. Sad as we are to see them go, new emissions and fuel economy standards, not to mention gas prices, make it a must. Their replacements are two new smaller V8s – a 4.6-liter for 550 models and a 5.5-liter for AMG versions, both featuring twin turbochargers and direct injection to replace the lost displacement (it can be done!).

The new CLS550 retains its nomenclature despite housing the new 4.6-liter V8, which while smaller in size produces 402 horsepower at 5,000 rpm and 443 pound-feet of torque at a low 1,800 rpm – big improvements over the larger 5.5-liter V8 it replaces, which continues to make 382 hp at 6,000 rpm and 391 lb-ft at 2,800 rpm in other models. The new engine is also significantly more efficient, with improvements of three miles per gallon in the city and four mpg on the highway for new scores of 17 city / 25 highway. We actually experienced a fuel consumption rate in the high 20-mpg range during a long highway trip, which is exemplary for an engine making 400+ horsepower. This new V8 is one area where we're all playing for Team Second-Gen.

2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 engine

The interior, likewise, is a big improvement, though mostly in the area of materials, which are of a higher quality than the first generation, especially the convincing metal air vents. Ergonomically the cabin looks like most other Mercs, and even much like last year's car with just the elements rearranged. The seven-inch navigation screen has been moved to the very top of the center stack, replacing a pair of vents that now appear below the screen and flank a tasteful analogue clock. The climate controls, which used to be near the top, are now at the very bottom, though laid out in the same way as before with dual rotary knobs and easy-to-press buttons. There's also a new, larger 4.5-inch circular display in the center of the speedometer that gives you access to most of the vehicles high-tech features and functions. Navigating the menus is simple via steering wheel-mounted controls, and there are a lot of them that let you to do everything from change the color of the interior's ambient lightning to turn off the traction control system.

Conspicuously absent is a gear shift of any kind to move the car's seven-speed automatic transmission from P into D. In its place is the COMAND system control knob that operates the navigation, audio, phone and various other vehicle systems. Whether or not you like it depends largely on whether you prefer touch-screens to controller-based interfaces, but we were able to figure it out without cracking a manual and the knob falls to hand without taking your eyes off the road.

2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 interior2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 dash vent2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 dash clock2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 door controls

This begs the question, how do you put the seven-speed transmission into Drive? By using one of three stalks sticking out of the CLS' steering column. The gear selector stalk is on the right side by itself, and using it brings back memories of the column-mounted shifter in my dad's old truck. It's all digitally controlled now and lacks the mechanical feel of the old days, but the muscle memory of reaching up and pulling down to get in gear is still there. The two left-side stalks, meanwhile, are a bane of modern Mercedes interiors. The smaller one on top controls the adaptive cruise control system, while the bottom one does turn signals and headlights. Most people, however, will instinctively grab the top stalk by accident when signaling a turn. Mercedes has finally begun fixing this problem by switching the stalks' positions beginning with the 2012 ML-Class. Unfortunately, the also-new 2012 CLS missed the cut.

The new CLS gets higher marks for its Active Multicontour Driver's Seat. In addition to the standard 14-way seat controls near the door handles, this $660 option adds another set of controls between the driver's seat and center console that adjusts lumbar supports, side bolsters and shoulders supports, as well as activates a massage function for working out the kinks on longer trips. It also adds active side bolsters that, when activated, dynamically move in to keep you from sliding during turns. They come in handy on sweeping turns, especially highway exit and entrance ramps, where lateral g-forces can last longer. However, we wish the system didn't respond below a certain speed; who wants their sides pinched when they're prowling for a parking spot?

A fancy driver's seat is just one of many stand-alone and packaged options offered for the CLS550, which starts at $71,300 with an $875 destination charge. This particular model tops out at $84,545 as tested, which is a big difference, but not so shocking when you see what you get. For starters, the CLS comes with the $4,390 Premium 1 Package that includes popular options like a rear-view camera, iPod interface, heated and cooled front seats, keyless entry and a power-closing trunk. Its best component, however, is the world's first pair of all-LED active headlamps on a production car, an honor shared with the 2012 Audi A6 that also offers a set.

Next up is the Driver Assistance Package for $2,950 that includes Active Blind Spot Assist, Active Lane Keeping Assist and Mercedes' adaptive cruise control system called DISTRONIC PLUS with PRE-SAFE Brake. Many cars today have warning systems to alert drivers when they drift out of a lane, but the Mercedes system gets into the game by actively braking the opposite side of the vehicle to bring the car back between the lines. The adaptive cruise control is also at the head of the class for being able to apply full braking force and bring the CLS550 to a complete stop if needed. Our tester is also loaded with the Wheel Package for $760 that adds 18-inch AMG five-spoke wheels, an AMG steering wheel and a manual mode for the transmission, as well as stand alone options like the PARKTRONIC auto-parking system ($970), split-folding rear seats ($440) and rear side airbags ($420).

2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 start button2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 multimedia system dial2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 door speaker2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 key fob

The last bit of bleeding-edge tech in our tester is the Night View Assist PLUS system, which is the most expensive stand alone option at $1,780. More of a showpiece to impress the Joneses, it uses infrared beams to display a black-and-white high-resolution video feed of what's ahead of you in the dark. It can even identify people and highlight them. The feed appears in the nav screen, so you have to avert your eyes from the road to watch it, but it does work as advertised and might come in handy if a jealous Mr. Jones takes a baseball bat to your all-LED headlights. Watch the Short Cut video above to see it in action.

All of those options are nice, but what about what's beneath them? First and foremost, the CLS550 is a luxury car of the highest order with an AIRMATIC semi-active suspension that supports a three-link independent front suspension and multi-link rear. There's no slop in the ride, body motions are controlled and you can dial in the system even more by choosing either Sport or Comfort mode. We wish the Sport mode were a little more aggressive, as body lean remains distinctly noticeable even with it on. We have no qualms with the electromechanical power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering, and the 14.2-inch front brakes clamped by four-piston calipers and 12.6-inch rear discs with single-piston calipers make stopping this 4,158-pound four-door a drama-free affair.

2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 wheel

What's curious about the new CLS550 is that it's still a muscle car putting on airs. Every electrical nanny is there to keep you and the 402-hp V8 in check, and with all of them turned on, there's a thick buffer keeping the two of you from collaborating. We found the transmission and traction control system to be the most oppressive. The transmission does give you three shift modes: Economy, Sport and Manual. Shifts happen early and often in Economy mode, while Sport mode gets the transmission moving quicker and holding gears longer, and Manual mode takes advantage of the paddles on the back of the steering wheel. We suggest the latter for what feels like the quickest shifts, but chances are you'll spend the most time in Economy mode where the car is most efficient, and in this mode, the CLS550 feels like a race horse that isn't allowed to leave the gate.

The key to flexing the CLS550's muscle is activating the Sport suspension and Manual transmission modes and turning off the traction control system (along with all of the other nannies that beep and flash). With those steps taken, the CLS550 feels more like something from Mopar than Mercedes, willing at a moment's notice to paint the pavement with rubber. After experiencing the CLS550 this way, the manufacturer's claimed 0-60 mph time of 5.1 seconds becomes much more believable. And though the new 4.6-liter doesn't sound quite as deep and rich as the last generation's 5.5-liter, it still burbles and vibrates more than the eight-cylinders in most other luxury cars.

2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 rear 3/4 view

And maybe that's because the CLS550 just isn't a luxury car, or at least doesn't want to be with such a strong, athletic engine. So much effort goes into subduing the V8 that Mercedes could have just as easily offered a V6-powered model, a CLS350, that wears the luxury moniker more willingly while also being more efficient. Maybe we'll soon see one here in the U.S., not to mention a diesel-powered BlueTec variant. Europeans can already have their CLS any they want it, so hopefully it's just a matter of a suit somewhere saying 'yes.'

Even with a split personality, the second-gen CLS is superior in almost every way to the original, maybe every way if you prefer its design. And like every trend setter, it's now surrounded by variations on the theme – some quicker, some sexier and some more serene. Mercedes, however, has successfully kept the CLS their target, and thanks to this wonderful engine, it's a moving one.