Review: Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG



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With all the concerns of our deteriorating climate and rising fuel prices you would be hard pressed to find a car that’s less politically correct than the AMG prepped ML63. The Teutonic behemoth probably emits enough carbon to blot out the sun and gulps down enough fuel in just one week to power a small a village through winter, but there’s something about a 510hp big-cube V8 mounted under the hood of a vehicle that brings a smile to our face.

Styling and Interior
There’s no mistaking the ML63 for anything other than a high-performance AMG model. Quad exhaust pipes, an aggressive front bar, lowered ride-height, and chunky wheels characterize the look of the sporty SUV, while a unique radiator grille, stainless steel running boards with rubber studs and tinted rear lights add a further touch of exclusivity.

Inside, there’s the figure hugging sports seats, AMG branded instrument dials and aluminum pedals that differentiate it from the regular ML field. Other features include Nappa leather upholstery, Alcantara inserts on the seats, and an AMG sports steering wheel with gearshift buttons.

Space is abundant for the driver and four other passengers, with equally generous storage space for all their gear. The tall driving position won’t be to everybody’s taste, especially those switching from a low slung sports coupe, but in return you get excellent visibility, easy access and barely any back strain after hours spent behind the wheel.

Technical
The main element of the mechanical upgrades to the car is the new aluminum V8 engine, now displacing 6.2L versus the 5.4L motor of the previous ML55 AMG. Peak power of 510hp arrives at 6,800rpm and maximum torque of 630Nm stands at 5,200rpm. The high rpm levels for peak output suggest a high-rev nature but this couldn’t be further from the truth: from as low as 2,000rpm the engine’s already producing 500Nm of torque. To achieve its flexibility, the intake and exhaust valves are continuously variable over a range of 42 degrees, while the electronic control of the fuel-injectors maintains pressures between 3.8 and 5bar to optimize combustion and to ensure quick engine response from changes to the accelerator.

Drive is sent to all four wheels via AMG’s SpeedShift 7G-TRONIC automatic gearbox, with the driver able to switch gears using buttons mounted on the steering wheel. Another button located in the centre console allows the driver to switch between three different shift models, Sport, Comfort and Manual, each altering gearshift characteristics and shift speed. The vehicle’s permanent four-wheel drive distributes power to the front and rear axles on a 40:60 basis, which also gives it a sportier feel compared to the regular model’s 50:50 split.

The suspension set-up is based on Mercedes’ air-suspension and features AMG-specific damper struts and a modified electronic control module. An automatic leveling control system will adjust the vehicle’s ride height by raising or lowering the suspension depending on vehicle speed.

The rolling stock for our test car consisted of 19in light-alloy wheels fitted with 295mm tires all-around, however there’s also a set of 20in wheels available as an option. Residing within these wheels are sets of internally ventilated and indented brake discs – 15.4in up front and 14.4in out back.

On the road
The numbers look good on paper but when you consider the vehicle being lugged around is a 2,310kg tank rather than a small car, even power figures as good as those of the ML63 can look a little feeble. Fortunately, the sporty SUV doesn’t disappoint. The engine always remains in readiness for any changes to the accelerator, releasing mountains of torque from very early in the rev-range. There’s a willingness to rev that belies the engine’s 6.2L displacement but once it reaches its power peak the tacho’s needle struggles to creep further. It doesn’t matter because the ML63, like most powerful Mercs, is all about the effortless surge you get much lower in the rev-range.

Our tests saw it cover the standing kilometer in an impressive 24.22 seconds and with a trap speed of 219.2km/h. This was sufficient to beat the time of the 450hp Cayenne Turbo, which took 25.22 seconds to cover the same distance and only reached 210km/h, and it also beats V8-powered sports saloons like the Maserati Quattroporte (24.33 seconds and 219.6km/h) and the Jaguar XJR (24.28seconds and 211.9 km/h). Our 0-100km/h time came up in at five seconds flat.

The vehicle’s kerb weight barely penalizes performance in a straight line and continues to remain imperceptible 90% of the time. The only times it rears its ugly head is when cornering hard, where coupled with the constant AWD system sees the ML63 start to understeer slightly. Thankfully, engineers thought of this and installed a system that allows you to adjust the rigidity of the pneumatic suspension. Set it to a firmer setting and body-roll is almost negated and the vehicle’s handling remains balanced even when driven at speed. So comfortable is the ride and handling through curves that we constantly needed to keep an eye on the speedometer to keep account of the real speeds we were traveling at.

Of course it’s still possible to unsettle the vehicle but push too far and stability control immediately steps in and brings it back into line. The ML63 also comes with some of the best brakes in the business, decelerating the SUV from 130km/h in just 64m – a better reading than the 65.6m achieved by the Porsche Cayenne Turbo.

Final Verdict
The ML63 drives with a level of precision that’s unthinkable for a vehicle weighing in at more than two tons and standing almost two meters tall. From the get go, the ML63 impresses not only because of its hand-built engine but because of the pleasure it delivers when pushed to the limit. With a significant help from the Affalterbach tuners, the ML is now on par with sporty SUV rivals from Porsche and BMW in terms of on-road dynamics but more importantly it marks a return to the levels of performance and quality one would expect from a top end vehicle wearing the Three Pointed Star. For those who doubt an SUV could ever truly be labeled a performance car, we suggest you take a ride in the ML63 and find out just how far things have come.

Review: Pagani Zonda F Clubsport



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The Pagani brand first burst onto the supercar scene during the late ‘90s and immediately tore apart the establishment with its wild-looking creations capable of out-handling the best from cross-town rivals Ferrari and Lamborghini. In fact, the only thing raising more eyebrows than the Pagani cars themselves was the manner in which they were built – at a tiny Italian factory, barely the size of a few houses, whose owner speaks not a word of English but can tell you about a love for cars in a way no one else can.

Pagani was founded by Argentinean-born Italian Horacio Pagani and his first creation under his self-titled brand was the Zonda supercar. The stunning original was considered near perfect by most until Pagani released an updated Zonda ‘F’ with more even power and grip levels. Surely the Zonda F was the most that could be squeezed out of the platform? But Horacio Pagani didn’t exactly see things that way and the Zonda F ‘Clubsport’ was born, an even higher performance version of the already extreme Zonda F and one of the fastest production cars ever created.

The Zonda F Clubsport represents the last hurrah for the Zonda line-up as Pagani is set to replace the model with a new supercar dubbed the ‘C9′ coming next year. As the final iteration of the first Pagani model, the Clubsport holds a special place in automotive history and was intended to be something special, something that would cement the Zonda name forever in the history books.

Seeing a Zonda F Clubsport in the flesh is a strange experience. The cabin sits so far forward that it looks more like a jet-fighter than a car, and its low-slung stature and wide stance combine to give it a very aggressive appearance and great presence.

The attention to detail in all Paganis is first-rate and as expected is a constant theme throughout the Zonda F Clubsport. The sophistication of the red-leather interior and the imposing lines of the exterior leave onlookers stunned as you drive past. Despite this, the new model is almost indistinguishable from the lesser Zonda F bar a tiny ‘Clubsport’ badge at the rear.

Stepping inside, you’re immediately faced with the sheer opulence and richness of materials that only an Italian thoroughbred can provide. After years of boring executive-style interiors from many rival supercar brands, it’s good to see Pagani put the ‘x’ back into exotic. Every panel, instrument, dial and stitch is perfectly matched and of incredible quality. The red-leather looks like a throwback to the roadsters of the 1930s and everything about the interior projects a hand-wrought, bespoke quality.

The driving position is near-perfect and the interior cosseting, making the car feel smaller than it actually is. Visibility is much better than expected, although driving through traffic can still be a little unnerving. Starting the engine is just as theatrical as the appearance of the exterior. Simply press a button at the top of the gearstick and a roar that seems loud enough to wake the entire town fills the air.

The Pagani Zonda F Clubsport, despite its 650hp, its 780Nm of torque, its acceleration from 0-60mph in 3.6 seconds and its maximum speed of over 215mph, is far from being a punishing race car. The clutch feel is progressive and isn’t the violent action as you flip up and down its six cogs that you would find in many other performance cars of this caliber.

One of the most rewarding aspects of driving a Zonda is the chance to engage the exclusive 7.3L AMG-sourced V12. Exploiting the sledgehammer powerplant is downright brutal in the lower-revs and the thrust of the engine is felt right through to the upper limits of the rev-range. The way you feel in the Clubsport after burying the throttle is difficult to describe. With a flick of the foot, your body is sucked into the seat and your stomach is hurled far into your back. The wicked acceleration, the flood of horsepower and the reeling in of the horizon are all over in seconds. It’s an experience that leaves you a little shaken but always wanting more.

With great horsepower must come great stopping power and the Zonda F Clubsport doesn’t disappoint in this aspect either. An optional carbon-ceramic Brembo system ensures stunning deceleration once you get past the initial hard feel of the brake pedal.

The beauty of the Zonda F Clubsport is its ability to carve up a winding road, which is just as impressive, if not more so, as its ability to cover straight stretches of road in the shortest time possible. Where it shines the most is its effortless ability to glide in and out of corners with unnerving speed. The suspension transcribes with needle-like precision every imperfection and nuance in the tarmac, yet the springs aren’t so harsh as to make the ride overly uncomfortable or jarring. Expertly tuned shocks complement the springs to reveal a firm suspension set-up with almost non-existent body-roll.

The Clubsport’s actions are communicative with the driver and it feels as though the car is never struggling against you. The steering is progressive and provides plenty of feedback. It also has a slight heft to it, giving you confidence when pushing the car at speed. Grip and handling are phenomenal, and even when you are certain you are traveling too fast for a corner the car manages to keep its line without any fuss. The rear is fun to play around with and the sensation of oversteer is gentle and predictable, giving you some room to play without biting back too severely.

Amazingly, the entire mass of the car is contained within 1,230kg. This is mostly due to its carbon-fiber bodywork and chassis construction. With all of its 650hp, the Zonda F Clubsport weighs less than a Porsche Cayman. This light weight makes the Zonda easy to dance around a curve as the load-transfers from rapid steering adjustments barely build enough momentum to get you into trouble.

The power to weight ratio of 1.89kg/hp equals that of the Bugatti Veyron, which in comparison features a 16-cylinder quad-turbo engine with a 1001hp output. The cumbersome Veyron is burdened with an additional 700kg and it shows when compared to the Zonda F - where the Veyron is faster in a straight line, the Zonda absolutely decimates it in the corners. About 54% of the Zonda’s mass is positioned over the rear axle and the huge tires ensure exceptional grip, although traction control and a differential keep any loss of grip in check.

While the looks aren’t to everyone’s taste, as a driving machine the Zonda F Clubsport is nigh on perfection. Supple steering, phenomenal grip, and that brutal AMG V12 come together to make this one of the quickest cars we’ve ever had the pleasure of driving. While few people in the world will ever get the chance to look at this thing in the flesh, let alone drive it, anyone that does get that opportunity will find themselves addicted to a driving experience like no other.

Review: 2009 Acura RDX



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The compact sport luxury SUV niche was not so long ago a non-existent thing, though recent years have seen an increasing number of entrants, including German, Japanese and American offerings. The next several years will see even more added as Mercedes brings its GLK to the mix and Audi rolls out the Q5. With so many cars vying for a relatively small portion of overall sales, the competition is fierce, and small weaknesses can be magnified. It’s a case of automotive survival of the fittest.

So can the RDX hold its own in the increasingly intense sub-genre it has chosen for itself? Or will its flaws render it incapable of survival in the harsh automotive and economic conditions of the oil-crunch marketplace?

At almost the same size as a mid-size hatchback - parked side-by-side, one would need a tape measure to distinguish it significantly from a Mazda3, for example, except in height - the RDX isn’t packing a whole lot of cargo space into its repertoire. Neither is it a roomy enclave ready to accommodate four six-footers - though it’ll haul four average-sized people and their gear around with ease. And despite the 2.3L displacement and four-cylinder engine, the variable-flow turbo adds enough punch to make driving it a lot of fun.

Unfortunately, this is where the complications start, at least for those that took interest in the RDX because of its happy marriage of sport-sedan handling and small SUV space. In reality, it’s more of a combination of small SUV handling and sport-sedan space, which, as you may notice, isn’t the best of both worlds.

The engine isn’t as potent as you’d expect from a 240hp (179kW), 260lb-ft (350Nm) 2.3L turbo, especially if you’ve been exposed to the brilliant powerplant of the same displacement and configuration huddling inside Mazda’s hotted-up Mazdaspeed3, and once you start putting foot to floor, the battle isn’t nearly as close as a spec sheet might lead you to believe. The RDX’s rather portly 3,900lb (1,770kg) curb weight certainly contributes to that sensation, as well as the poor fuel mileage, achieving 13-15mpg (15.6-18L/100km) in normal driving in town, 19-21mpg (11.2-12.4L/100km) on the highway - both of those numbers can go even further down if you get caught up in listening to the turbo spool. Those are not the efficiency figures of a sport sedan, but you’d know that from reading the EPA estimates of 17mpg (13.8L/100km) city and 22mpg (10.7L/100km) highway on the window sticker.

Other journalists have opined that the vehicle handles like a sports sedan, and I agree. It drives like a sports sedan or hatchback - that’s been lifted six inches. That’s not a good thing, however. The omnipresent rollover warnings, including one particularly worrying note on the driver’s sun-visor discourage truly vigorous driving. Attacking a twisty tree-lined highway or canyon road is right out, as is essentially anything that requires quick transitional responses, as the car’s higher stance overcomes the stiff springing and firm damping when rapidly changing direction, rendering a tippy, not-so-stable feel. Heed the warnings. They are there for a reason.

Nevertheless, the RDX can be fun to drive. Broad sweepers and the occasional moderately-paced tight corner are treats, handled with relative ease by sport sedan standards and with athletic aplomb by almost any SUV’s measure.

Turbo lag is noticeable, and kills off-the-line acceleration until about 3,000rpm when driving in automatic mode. Once it spools, the power surge makes for jerky driving, which you have to compensate for with your foot, especially if it hits mid-turn. Passengers likely will not appreciate the driver’s hoot and the further acceleration that follows, either. The standard-equipment paddle-shifted automatic is actually quite fun if used in sport mode, though the tippy feeling and all the warning signs combine to really make for an uneasy feeling about pushing it, and therefore actually taking advantage of the shifter paddles for anything but straight-line acceleration. Self-shifting does help alleviate some of the boost lag problems at launch, however.

The Super-Handling all-wheel drive system (SH-AWD) definitely improves cornering, making low-to-moderate speed maneuvers feel ‘flatter’ than they would otherwise, but not more confidence inspiring if you’re used to being fully in control of the car (i.e. completely free of traction and stability control) as it’s obvious something unnatural is going on. When it kicks in, it sends extra torque to the outside rear wheel, giving a feeling that the seat-of-the-pants sensor interprets as ‘slewing’ or ‘yawing’ around corners at first, though that is a feeling that’s fairly easy to grow accustomed to. It’s also easy to understand why Acura feels the system is a suitable replacement for all-wheel steering systems.

The interior will be considered a bit too flashy and bright for some tastes, especially considering the relatively poor tactile quality of several primary pieces, though it is certainly comfortable to inhabit. Silvery plastic pieces make no serious attempt at appearing like aluminum, and their feel would quickly betray the truth if they did. The sheer quantity of silver-colored trim in the cockpit is staggering, and inexplicable, especially when the rest of the materials are so good. The leather feels soft and durable, the remainder of the plastics are solid and impressive, and the eminently ergonomic steering wheel is probably among the best designs in road cars today, at least in terms of size and shape.

Like so many other strong points of the RDX, however, it has a dark side. In a contest with the average Formula 1 steering wheel to see which has the most buttons, the RDX would lose, but only just. Likewise, the center console area, which houses a brilliant sound system and a very good nav system is undermined by small buttons in illogical locations and a counter-intuitive interface. For example, the tiny black strip at the top of the center stack isn’t a decorative feature - it’s the odd and nearly invisible location for the audio and climate control displays.

It’s a shame there’s not more available in the DVD audio music format, because the demo disc that comes with the car proves it’s not just a gimmick. It’s like having a band in the car. Even in non-DVD audio mode, the stereo sounds excellent, filling the whole vehicle with even, balanced sound. The whole technology package in the car is suitably impressive, and despite the small buttons and displays that easily wash out in bright sunlight, it’s a very fun and entertaining environment.

Despite the difficult controls, the navigation provides thorough and accurate information that’s easy to read when the sun isn’t interfering. The live traffic reporting feature is a highlight of the system, but the reviewer’s home area wasn’t within the unit’s coverage, so we’ll have to withhold judgment of this element until a later date.

One of the most underreported features of the Acura RDX is its proliferation of innovative, or at least handy, storage areas, such as the use made of the large door armrest. The center console bin, for example, could hold a mid-sized dog or even a very small child. OK, maybe not quite (and we certainly don’t recommend it), but it’s big, and it’s divisible into several configurations thanks to a handy tray system located at the vertical mid-point. Cupholders are well-sized, if somewhat awkwardly placed on the far side of the center tunnel from the driver.

Headroom is pretty good, even for a six-foot-plus driver or passenger, and legroom is acceptable for tall folks - probably ample for the more average-sized. The fully adjustable seat and steering wheel allow for the driver to customize the seating position at will, even accommodating tall drivers that must sit a long way back from the pedals and don’t want to be constantly reaching forward for the wheel. Room in the rear is better than it could be, and better than most hatchbacks or small SUVs of the same size. Room in the cargo area is a bit scarce, however, even with the seats down, because they don’t lie at a significant angle, rather than folding flat.

Road and cabin noise don’t make themselves known any more than is appropriate, even at brisk highway speeds, and the car is a comfortable ride on smooth pavement. The ‘whoosh’ of the turbo will likely prove appealing, even addicting, to some and a turnoff for others. It’s not intrusive, but it is noticeable. Turn up the DVD audio, however, and it melts into the background. The stiff springing and firm damping - designed to resist rollover, but only so effective - make for a choppier ride than you’d expect over rough or broken surfaces. Speed bumps are nightmares.
Off-road use will be limited, thanks to less-than-stellar clearance, not that the vehicle is likely to see more than dirt or gravel roads anyway - the AWD system is meant to improve handling, not make it a mountain goat, after all, and it’s effective at that.

Though a few angles make it look a bit odd, especially anything low that catches the oddly-upswept front end in profile, the RDX presents a handsome overall image. It will probably win a lot of fans that simply aren’t turned on by the staid Germans. Infiniti’s FX line of sport-compact SUVs, however, offer a seductive alternative, and Mercedes’ GLK shares some of the fashionable look of the RDX, though with a very European flair.

Pricing is relatively good for its class, starting at $33,695 for the base model or $36,695 equipped with the technology package, like the test vehicle, but many looking for a bit more sport while maintaining 99% of the utility of this compact SUV would be better served by a punchy hatch like the Impreza WRX or Mazdaspeed3. Neither offers the level of luxury specification, and the cars that offer both the luxury and the sport are considerably more expensive, for the most part, so the Acura RDX does offer a unique package at a competitive pricepoint. Toss in the (mostly) good looks and the RDX is a contender in the tough compact sport SUV class.

Next-gen Prius coming in three different flavors



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Toyota gave us a preview of a next-generation hybrid model with its Hybrid X concept car (pictured) that debuted at the recent Geneva Motor Show. Given its familiar shape, many pundits, including us, quickly surmised that this was a preview of the third iteration of Toyota’s eco-friendly Prius. According to an article from Automobile Magazine, Toyota will in fact be releasing three new hybrid vehicles labeled the Prius A, B, and C, with the new models due in 2009, 2010, and 2011 respectively.

A company source revealed that all future hybrids will carry the Prius name tag, with the three letters denoting different vehicle sizes. Each model will have its own unique styling and will bear no resemblance to any of Toyota’s other models. The Automobile Magazine article also purports that cars like the current Camry Hybrid will no longer exist, instead being replaced by a new range of stylish and spacious Prius hybrid cars.

All three cars will have to fit rows of batteries into the floor plan, but developers don’t want to create a tall van shaped model like the current Prius. In terms of size, the Prius A is said to be similar in size to the small Yaris hatch, the Prius B will be slightly larger than the current Prius and the Prius C is expected to be a little smaller than the Camry sedan and should look the most like the Hybrid X concept car.

2009 Ford Fiesta / Verve



The clearest shots yet of the production version of Ford's new B-class car have turned up showing both the three- and five-door hatchback models. The new photos show the minis pretty much devoid of camouflage and confirm that they will remain pretty much true to the Verve concept. When the car comes to the US in 2009, we'll probably get the four-door sedan that Ford unveiled in China last week (pictured above) and perhaps the three door hatch. Although unlikely it would be nice if Ford brought over a small diesel for the new car.

Corbin Accessories for the Can Am Spyder



Corbin accessories for the Can Am Spyder

It looks like Corbin has come out with a full line of accessories for the Can Am Spyder providing the same comfort and integrated storage they’ve been adding to motorcycles for years. There is a modular saddle system, Fleetliner saddle bags, the Smuggler trunk, a rear fender and an upper Fleetliner fairing to pick up where the factory left off. They look pretty nice and the bags are huge, 50 liters, … on each side, that’s over 13 gallons per side for the non metric among us.

The fairing raises the air flow and decreases turbulence for a more comfortable ride, the trunk is a convenient place to store a small laptop computer and all of the smaller stuff you probably want along on your commute. The seats look downright comfy, they have optional backrests, too. It’s a well integrated package just like many of the other accessory groups we’ve seen from Corbin. They come color matched for all of the standard Can Am color options.

If you’ve got a Spyder or you’re thinking about getting one and want to give it a little more all around practicality or if you just can’t tolerate the completely stock look, Corbin might have what you need.

Link: Corbin
Related: Can Am Spyder

Corbin Smuggler trunk for the Can Am Spyder