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First Drive: 2014 Mercedes-Benz E250 BlueTec 4Matic

The mileage of an econocar, the look and feel of a Mercedes.

by on Sep.09, 2013

Mercedes intros a new four-cylinder diesel with the launch of the 2014 E250 BlueTec.

When it comes time to bring out an all-new version of the mid-range E-Class, the Mercedes-Benz product team doesn’t have much room for error, not when you consider the various sedans, coupes and wagons that make up the line account for a whopping 25% of the German maker’s U.S. volume.

The 2014 Mercedes E-Class is a deserving update, as we’ve previously reported, adding some welcome sporting touches to a nameplate traditional known as the more cushy of the midsize European luxury imports. With the addition of the E250, Mercedes goes a step further, proving that you can also deliver spirited performance out of a sedan that also manages to be surprisingly fuel-efficient, thanks to its new 2.1-liter inline-four BlueTec diesel.

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Better yet, with the addition of 4Matic all-wheel-drive, the new “oil burner” provides the sort of traction that not only grips the pavement firmly in snowy climes while also adding a bit more performance edge for those Sunbelt buyers likely to never see conditions worse than the occasional cloudburst.

Fire up the new diesel and what you notice – make that what you don’t notice – is the lack of the traditional clatter that has long haunted diesels, even at start-up or  when idling. On the open road you’d be hard-pressed to believe this is, in fact, a diesel.


First Drive: Volkswagen Golf GTD

Blowing by 3 motorcycle cops at 120 mph.

by on Jun.25, 2013

VW is giving serious thought to finally bringing the high-performance diesel Golf GTD to the US.

There’s a sickening twist to the stomach when you blow by a cop doing triple digits on the freeway – never mind three of them riding along in the center lane.  Happily, seeing the word, “Polizei” on their jackets reminded us we were on the German Autobahn.  Squeezing back on the throttle, we nudged our little Volkswagen hatchback back up to 120.

It’s been a slow and difficult slog trying to get American motorists to change their perceptions of diesel cars. If any manufacturer has been successful, so far, it’s Volkswagen, oil-burners now accounting for as much as a third of the sales for some of its key models, such as the Passat, Golf and Jetta.

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We’re betting demand could surge even higher once U.S. buyers get access to the Volkswagen GTD, the diesel-powered alternative to the familiar GTI.  Make that “if” they get a chance to buy the sporty Golf variant, as the German maker is still waffling about whether to bring the GTD to the States.  But based on our recent drive of the peppy diesel hatchback we’d be surprised and disappointed if it doesn’t roll into U.S. showrooms in the very near future.


First Drive:2013 Audi S8

A gold medal contender.

by on Feb.19, 2013

Audi delivers a new flagship with the 2013 S8.

The Auto Union was an amalgamation of four German automobile manufacturers, founded during the Great Depression. The company eventually evolved into present day Audi, and the four rings that adorn the grilles of the brand’s modern offerings represent the four original companies of Auto Union: Audi, Wanderer, DKW and Horch.

Each company brought specific technology to the Union, and today Audi is widely known for building All-Wheel Drive cars that feature safety, prodigious performance and superior technology – as well as for its benchmark interiors.

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When you look at the four-ringed Audi grille, you can’t help but compare it to the Olympic symbol — five interlaced rings.  For 2013, just imagine that the Auto Union had an additional company–adding that fifth ring, as the all-new Audi S8 is truly a gold medal contender.


First Drive: 2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid

Prius beware.

by on Nov.07, 2012

The 2013 VW Jetta introduces the line's fifth powertrain option.

If there isn’t an award for California Car of the Year, someone should invent it.  And we’re ready to bet the new 2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid would be not only in the running but at the head of the pack.  It comes close to being the perfect car for Golden State motorists. Stylish, efficient and fun to drive this 45 mpg hybrid is one destined to give the Toyota Prius – currently Calfornia’s most popular car — a run for its money.

Starting price for Jetta Hybrid is $24,995 – even when loaded with a surprising range of features, such as Bluetooth and dual-zone climate control – the VW Jetta Hybrid has plenty going for it beyond mileage.  That includes surprisingly brisk acceleration, sporty handling, plenty of room in the cabin and the trunk, and more.

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The Hybrid becomes the fifth powertrain in the U.S. Jetta line-up. But beyond its badging, it retains the sleek, upscale, and timeless styling present in the rest of the model line. While the most obvious differences are the blue-highlighted VW emblem and unique wheels and front grille, the Jetta Hybrid adds a number of key features that help maximize aerodynamic efficiency and minimize road resistance.


First Drive: 2013 Audi Allroad

Plenty going for Audi's latest wagon, er, ute, er, whatever you want to call it.

by on Aug.15, 2012

Audi brings back the Allroad - in smaller, more affordable form.

Audi is likely to confuse some potential customers in the months ahead.  The maker has announced it will stop importing the wagon version of its small A4, known as the Avant, in 2013.  So what should a buyer make of the vehicle that will be taking its place?  Replacing the Avant, Audi has begun importing the new Allroad.  And, yes, if it looks like a wagon to you, you’re not alone whatever the German maker wants to call it.

But before writing the new offering off, wagon-phobic shoppers should give pause.  The 2013 Audi Allroad is an attractive, fun and highly functional addition to the maker’s line-up.  And if it had to come down to a choice between Avant and Allroad, Audi has come up with the right decision.

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Audi aficionados will undoubtedly recognize the Allroad name.  The maker previously sold a model bearing that badge between 1999 and 2005.  But the original model was bigger – based on the same platform as that era’s Audi A6, and worked hard at passing itself off as a sport-utility vehicle.  Though you can order optional side-cladding, just like the old model, the 2013 Audi Allroad has been downsized to share the A4 platform.  It loses the height-adjustable air suspension and optional two-speed transfer case, as well as the original’s knobby, off-road tires.


First Look: 2013 BMW 7-Series

More power, more technology and your own Attention Assistant.

by on May.25, 2012

BMW officially reveals the 2013 7-Series tonight.

As bells chime midnight along Lake Como the folks attending the annual concourse at tony Villa d’Este will get their first look at the updated 2013 BMW 7-Series.  Lucky for us had a chance to get an advance look at the new flagship sedan following a media ride-and-drive in Santa Barbara.

The redesigned 7-Series will go through a number of notable changes for the upcoming model-year, with exterior design revisions starting from the trademark kidney grille back, as well as significant revisions to the powertrain line-up.  The 2013 sedan will get more power, better mileage, plenty of new technology, and improved safety systems including something BMW has dubbed “Attention Assistant.”

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Even the classic and oft-debated iDrive system undergoes some big changes to match the improvements to the updated 7-Series infotainment system, which now features a super-high-resolution video display that even Apple might envy.


A Second Opinion: the 2012 Volkswagen Passat

In praise of the Passat Owner’s Manual.

by on Jan.03, 2012

Volkswagen's Passat is one of three finalists for North American Car of the Year.

Here we go again. Years ago, I wrote a column for Publisher Paul (at one of his previous enterprises), concerning the gems to be found in the world’s least read book of useful information: a new car or truck Owner Manual.

This time my particular candidate is the exceptional Owner Manual for the 2012 VW Passat, the new Chattanooga product that has made the cut as one of three finalists for North American Car of the Year. (The others are the Ford Focus and the Hyundai Elantra.)

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For me, the Passat—albeit the first VW I have encountered since a retro look at a Beetle some years ago—is pure Vanilla. Driving it for a week doesn’t leave an impression either favorable or unfavorable. It meets all the driver’s needs and pleasures for a solid family five-passenger sedan (except for the $34,000 sticker price including all the standard upscale goodies), plus it has exceptional rear seat legroom and trunk space. There’s nothing at all wrong with Vanilla—Passat should be a conservative buy for those who otherwise likely would lean Camry- or Accord- or Malibu-wise.


First Look: 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG

Muscle, luxury and plenty of space.

by on Nov.14, 2011

Mercedes delivers a big bump in power with the launch of the 2012 ML63 AMG.

Mercedes-Benz is seldom shy about adding some muscle to its more mainstream offerings, and the AMG badge on the back of the third-generation ML line suggests that this sport-utility vehicle isn’t meant for crawling all over boulder-strewn trails.

Then again, neither are any of the other members of the ML line-up, which is more likely to win over soccer moms and commuter dads than rugged outdoorsmen.  In the case of the Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG, the pitch is to those who want a reasonable degree of functionality and flexibility but still hope to find something with the soul of a sports car.

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There’s no question that the fast-beating heart of the 2012 ML63 can impress, the updated 5.5-liter biturbo V8 making518 horsepower and 516 lb-ft of torque – up 15 hp and 44 lb-ft, respectively, over the old model.  For those who need to press things to the limit, you’ll also find the AMG Performance Package bumps that up to 550 hp and 560 lb-ft.  Power is channeled through the Mercedes Speedshift Plus-7 automatic gearbox.


First Drive: Volkswagen Golf R

Maker reveals pricing, specs for mean little hatch.

by on Oct.05, 2011

At 256 hp the new 2012 VW Golf R makes 6 more horsepower than the 2008 Golf R32 VR6.

Few makers have been doing better in the U.S. market, in recent months than Volkswagen, which posted a solid 36% jump last month as new models like the 2012 Passat and third-generation Beetle rolled into showrooms.  Anyone who wonders whether VW can keep the momentum going might just consider what else is in the product pipeline – starting with the 2012 Golf R.

The German maker is just making things formal, releasing pricing and specs on the mean little hatch – which we had a chance to spend a brief bit of time scooting around the Virginia countryside in a few weeks back.

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With its well-equipped interior – and a 256-horsepower turbocharged inline-four – the Volkswagen Golf R is destined to change the perceptions of anyone out there who might think the German 5-door is just a gussied-up econobox.

First, the numbers: the 2012 Golf R will set you back $33,990 plus destination charges.  That’s very definitely not econobox territory.  This is a sporty compact for those who believe that very good things can come in small packages – if you’re willing to pay the price.

The 2012 VW Golf R will be offered in both 3- and 5-door packages.


First Drive: 2012 BMW 6 Series Coupe

2-door lovers, rejoice!

by on Jul.01, 2011

BMW has been building coupes for more than 80 years.

This review has been updated to reflect new information about pricing and the U.S. availability of the BMW640i Coupe.

BMW aficionados know the Bavarian brand has a long tradition of building coupes – dating back to 1928, shortly after the onetime aircraft maker entered the automotive business.

It all began with the Model3, which was based on a design borrowed from Austin’s Dixi 3. It took nearly another decade before BMW was ready to go it alone, introducing the 327, its first coupe in the modern sense, in 1937. In total only 179 units were built before production was ended, in 1941, as war swept through Europe. But it established BMW’s reputation for building some of the world’s most desirable 2-doors, an image that it intends to bolster with the upcoming launch of the all-new 2012 BMW 6-Series Coupe.

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The launch of the coupe follows the debut of the well-received 6-Series Cabriolet, which BMW wisely chose to roll out first, hoping to catch buyers desperate to enjoy the summer sun.  Two Coupe versions will be available, initially, the big, V-8-powered 650i, and the smaller, but still peppy 640i.

Other variants will follow, including an all-wheel-drive offering, though there appear to be no plans – at least not yet – to bring the 640d, with its 3.0-liter, 6-cylinder diesel, to the States.  All-Wheel-Drive, or as BMW prefers, xDrive, will be added to both Coupe and Convertible in September 2011.