Friday, June 25, 2010

Sports car meets SUV in 2010 BMW X6 M

Sacramento, California – Ever seen a crossover sport-utility vehicle on steroids?

Say hello to the new-for-2010 BMW X6 M. Here you’ll find SUV luxury and performance lifted to the mountaintop.

A little history helps explain this incredible machine.

I reviewed the new BMW M6 Coupe in 2006, complete with a 500-horsepower, 40 valve, high-compression V-10 engine with variable valve timing … and a sticker price of nearly $107,000. A seven-speed sequential manual gearbox operated sans clutch, with a computer chip and an electrohydraulic mechanism handling those chores. You could shift via a center console-mounted shifter or rip up and down the gearbox via steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

Now imagine all that in a crossover SUV, with the bodywork styled in such a way as to relay a message of force and menace. That’s the X6 M.

Just walking up to it, you get chills – a big-shouldered, aerodynamic blazer with a grille straight out of Star Wars. The bright-red paint job certainly added to the macho ambience.

The X6 M drew comments of admiration from passersby on the street, in parking lots and at gas stations.

Be advised that you’re going to be spending a lot of time at that last destination as the X6 M gets only 12 miles per gallon in the city and 17 mpg on the highway. That’s the price you pay for having a twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter V-8 and four overhead camshafts under the skin.

Is it worth the price? Well, when you’re unwinding those 555 horses, the last thing you’re thinking about is money. That’s probably a good thing, because the starting price on the vehicle is $88,900.

For your money, you get the satisfaction of just walking away from the great majority of motor vehicles on the road. The X6 M blazed into tight holes on freeway merges. It charged up steep hills like Teddy Roosevelt leading the Rough Riders in Cuba. It cruised at 80 miles hour with quiet serenity. A self-leveling rear air suspension and the all-wheel-drive system add to the enjoyable excellent ride.

It’s truly a fabulous vehicle, the kind that justifies its price with its high level of performance.

From the cockpit, luxury abounds as the outside world breezes by. Comfortable leather seating surfaces are surrounded by convenience and safety features. Notable super-goodies that are standard include a heated steering wheel, heated rear seats, park-distance control and auto-leveling headlights.

BMW still has that quick-hit turn signal that I’ve never been able to figure out – sometimes it stays on, other times it shuts off unprompted – but I think that’s more a me problem than a car problem.

BMW calls it a Sports Activity Vehicle, but folks, this is a crossover luxury SUV in every sense of that term. To me, it came off as a distinct vehicle for someone who is fortunate enough to have a lot of money to spend on a car, but wants some of the old-fashioned utility you get from an SUV. And as a bonus, the vehicle is rich-looking enough to make people think you spent more than $100,000 for it.

In these wobbly economic times, some auto reviewers have characterized the X6 M as a gaudy throwback to pre-recession days, when automakers were trying to outdo each other with luxury, horsepower and sticker prices. I understand those sentiments.

But if your checkbook balance is in your favor, this X6 M stacks up as a must-test-drive right now. Beyond a Porsche Cayenne, I’m not sure you’re going to find anything else out there to match up with this BMW.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Johnson tames Infineon with help from Ambrose

Sonoma, California – Well, so much for Jimmie Johnson can’t win on a road course.

The four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champ crossed the road course victory off his to-do list here at sun-splashed Infineon Raceway, but the triumph came at the expense of one of the most likable drivers on the circuit – Tasmania’s own Marcos Ambrose.

Ambrose, who last year lost a NASCAR Nationwide Series road race in Canada when he misplayed the last corner of a race he had dominated, took heartbreak to a new level here today.

With his first Sprint Cup win all but in the bag, Ambrose inexplicably cut his engine during a caution period and could not refire it as half a dozen cars passed him. Under the rules, a car must maintain pace during a caution period, and Ambrose restarted behind all who had passed him.

Ironically, the fuel-saving measure Ambrose employed apparently was unnecessary. And Johnson likely would not have caught Ambrose had the Tasmanian Devil remained in front – Johnson was saving worn tires, and his crew was telling him to be content with second place.

Ambrose, crushed, summoned the bravery to talk with a TNT Network reporter after the race, and while he said his crew instructed him to save fuel, he said he knew the rules, and it was his fault. Classy.

Which makes it all the more painful to see Ambrose lose a crusher on Father’s Day.

As for Johnson, looking to become a freshly-minted father any day now, it was a return to normal, and then some.

NASCAR’s recent adoption of a rear spoiler on its Cup cars seemed to have Johnson and his Lowe’s racing team puzzled. And some uncharacteristic late-race mistakes in recent weeks sent Johnson down in the points standings, at least for him. Even as he was struggling, he still maintained top-12 status needed to make the season-ending Chase.

Today, Johnson looked to be at the head of the class from the start, sticking on the twisting turns and firing out of the corners with serious zip. Only Ambrose showed the ability to stay with him, including an impressive run to hold off Johnson as the Tasmanian was accelerating out of the pits late in the race.

So sad that a mental error spoiled Ambrose’s day. But as they say, that’s racin’.

For me, Johnson’s day reminded me of another race on this very spot 15 years ago, when Dale Earnhardt won his first road course race. He too had been criticized for not having a road course win up to that point.

Now, Johnson joins the club.

Johnson and Earnhardt. Pretty good company.

And a pretty sensational day here in California’s Wine Country.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Light shining on Jimmie should be brighter

Sonoma, California – Driver Jimmie Johnson has won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship for four consecutive years … and you would think that would be worth more than what it is.

American sports society loves to elevate the sports hero of the moment to god-like status – Kobe Bryant’s now the greatest basketball player of all-time because his Lakers just won the NBA championship; that LeBron dude is a has-been – and while Johnson gets sizable respect in his sport, it’s really at a level below what he’s accomplished.

Beyond stock car racing, Johnson seems to register a mere blip.

I find this incredible.

Let’s say Bryant leads the Lakers to two more NBA championships over the next two years. Don’t you think his face is on the cover of every magazine in the world? Can the solid gold statue on The Mall in Washington, D.C. be far behind?

What if Tiger Woods suddenly gets hot and wins, say, the next six majors. Sainthood awaits.

All Johnson did was win four consecutive titles in a sport so competitive that you have to rely on other drivers to carry you through on some tracks – think Daytona and Talladega – and where the stopwatch separation between excellence and last place is measured in tenths of a second.

And yet, watching Johnson walk the garage and paddock here at Infineon Raceway – where the Toyota/Save Mart 350 will be run Sunday – there are the usual shouts and stares, but they’re nothing like the crowd worship for Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Carl Edwards.

Even Johnson’s superb qualifying effort here on Friday – he’ll start second Sunday alongside pole-sitter Kasey Kahne – was greeted with a comparative yawn from media and fans. Reason: Johnson has yet to win on a road course.

To me, this is sort of like slamming St. Louis Cardinals superstar slugger Albert Pujols because he has not yet hit 60 home runs in a season.

Johnson, of course, laughs it off. He’s heard the not-enough-respect lines before and jokes that perhaps he’d get more attention by adopting a NASCAR bad-guy image – maybe shove a rival driver after the checkered flag, put a couple cars into the wall or maybe let loose with a string or profanities over the in-car radio.

He has a point.

Dale Earnhardt crafted a gunslinger, intimidator image to the point where the myth overrode the driver. Earnhardt handled a stock car like Wynton Marsalis handles a trumpet. He didn’t need the image, but he sure used it to his advantage.

I guarantee you that if Earnhardt had lived to win four consecutive NASCAR titles, the hero worship within the sport would have been off the charts.

So, as I watch Johnson chase a fifth title, I wonder if any of this bothers him, even deep down. My guess is no.

When you have to settle for being Hollywood handsome, a multi-millionaire and being adored by millions, well, life is pretty good.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Subaru Outback rolls on nicely, sans wagon skin

Sacramento, California – What Subaru called “the world’s first sport-utility wagon” when it introduced the Outback 15 years ago has morphed into a no-doubt-about-it crossover sport-utility vehicle.

That’s not a bad thing. It’s just different.

Personally, I liked the ride and the utility, but I was spoiled: My tester was the top-of-the-line 2010 Subaru Outback 3.6R Limited, the most expensive of six trim levels, starting at $30,995. Can’t say that I objected to the extra power and standard goodies.

Car enthusiast friends couldn’t believe that I was driving an Outback, but this fourth-generation Outback is less wagon, more utility. It might look more like a typical smallish SUV, but the pleasant bottom line is that the vehicle is now roomier and more functional.

The look is aerodynamic, or at least as air-smooth as a crossover can be. It doesn’t stand out too much in a crowd, except among folks who remember the Outback when it had more wagon DNA.

As for me, I liked the juice, provided by a 3.6-liter horizontally opposed six-cylinder engine. The power plant is rated at 256 horsepower, but the all-wheel-drive oomph felt much stronger than that on the highways, where the Outback handled with agility and impressive responsiveness. Four-wheel disc brakes stopped with authority.

Subaru’s highly-touted AWD used to be a strong selling point just standing alone. In the tester, there was a bonus.

Outback 3.6R models get a variable torque distribution system, which can strategically send more power to the rear wheels to enhance handling. This system manages affairs perpetually, so it’s hard to put a wheel wrong in this Outback. And why would you?

I put it through some paces on a mild off-road course, and I could almost hear the vehicle screaming at me, “Puh-leeze, is that all you’ve got?!”

Even on the off-road runs, the Outback’s suspension swallowed up most of the bumps and dips. Subaru always has taken pride in these characteristics. In the Outback, they’ve been raised to high art.

Five real-size adults can travel comfortably in the Outback. Passenger volume is a healthy 105 cubic feet. Even with a full crew of five, cargo capacity is a generous 34.3 cubic feet. Fold all the seats for maximum cargo-carrying capacity, and you’re looking at 71.3 cubic feet. Nice.

Fuel mileage is an OK 18 miles per gallon in the city and 25 mpg on the highway.

A generous list of comfort, convenience and safety features completes the package. Indeed, my ride felt downright luxurious, more in the $40,000 neighborhood instead of around $35,000 with a few extras added on, including a power moonroof.

Want the wagon? Well, there are others out there.

The Outback is no longer a wagon. But in this case, change is good.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

2010 VW GTI sedan reviewed in Cruisin' News

Sacramento, California – My review of the 2010 Volkswagen GTI sedan appears in the latest edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin’ News, published out of Folsom, California, by John Sweeney and Evonne Sotelo.

The “Hot Laps” reviews appear monthly in the publication, along with "Oil Drips," some of my thoughts on the auto industry and auto racing.

To subscribe to the Cruisin’ News, visit, call (916) 933-0949 or send an e-mail request to Mailed requests for information should be sent to Cruisin’ News, P.O. Box 1096, Folsom, CA 95763-1096.

SHO time: It's a Ford Taurus with lots of extras

This review originally was published in the May edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin' News published out of Folsom, California -- mg

Sacramento, California -- Finally, MY car of the year.

Yes, I know that Motor Trend magazine’s closely watched 2010 Car of the Year award went to the fuel-sipping Ford Fusion, a politically correct move to be sure and somewhat ironic for a magazine that relentlessly has gas-guzzling, horsepower-laden cars on its cover.

But for me, the 2010 Ford Taurus SHO was the best of the latest new car lot.

Any doubts I had were blown away by the response of neighbors and strangers when I parked my Red Candy Metallic Tinted-colored tester. They’d come running up: “What is that? … Is that an Audi? … Wow, that is one sweet-looking car!”

Told it was a Taurus – albeit one on steroids, with the interior of a Lincoln – they looked at me in disbelief. Believe it, brothers and sisters.

Yeah, it looks good parked. The SHO – that stands for Super High Output, for those who don’t know – rides on 19-inch Goodyear Eagles (20-inch Michelin high-performance tires are an option), wears a stylish decklid spoiler and sports twin chrome exhausts. It has smooth lines and something resembling a hunched shoulders look over the top, like it’s getting ready to throw a punch. And it can deliver a punch.

The power plant is a is a turbocharged 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 with 365 horses and a top torque rating of 350 foot-pounds coming in at a relatively early 3,500 rpm. Power is delivered smoothly – 75 mph feels like 50 – but you can roast the competition with some more pressure from your right foot.

The tester was decidedly nimble with all-wheel drive. Hard to believe you can have this much fun in a sedan, but hey, there it is.

The opulent, smoky black interior on my ride was comfortable and quiet. Ford isn’t kidding when it said it worked hard to bend noise away from the interior cabin. The steering wheel-mounted shifter paddles were a hoot to handle, and the list of standard features was high-end heavy for a starting price of $37,170.

The tester was significantly dressed up with extras that included heated rear seats, power rear window sunshade, rain-sensing wipers, rearview camera and a voice-activated navigation system. That brought the sticker up to $44,275. OK, so now we’re in Cadillac CTS territory – a nice neighborhood if you can afford to live there.

I guess what I like most about the Taurus SHO is that it’s proof that Ford has gotten its act together. After years of Taurus sales success, the automaker turned it into a jellybean look-alike in 1986 and the ultimately killed it altogether. Ford chief Alan Mulally brought it back, and son of a gun if the current SHO isn’t the best Taurus flagship ever assembled.

Customizers, have at it. This SHO was made to be sculpted and given even more alluring lines. Just don’t mess with that hot-rod engine. And if you do, make sure the horsepower curve heads up, not down.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Dodge Ram's dimensions humble urban dweller

Sacramento, California – I’ve driven enough vehicles over the years to know that I’m not easily intimidated by any one chunk of hardware.

But the 2010 Dodge Ram 3500 SLT Crew Cab 4X4 had me spooked. I felt like an ant looking up at the Empire State Building standing next to the truck … or TRUCK!!! to be more accurate.

How big is it? Let me count the ways.

It’s a rolling Zip code. It makes its own weather. You could carry a Smart fortwo in the cargo bed. I felt like painting “Grave Digger” on its side, a tribute to its monster truck stature.

Dually wheels in the back gave it a particularly ominous appearance, like it might take two airport runways to contain this Ram.

For the record, here are the numbers: 7,639 pounds, 78.3 inches tall, 259.4 inches long, 79.1 inches wide, with a whopper of a wheelbase at 168.9 inches. Payload max a little more than 4,500. GVWR max 12,200.

Niche truck? Yeah, I think so. And the builder, contractor, rancher who wants one needs to put up $46,630 for starters. Some extra goodies on my tester pushed the price to $53,860.

I can understand paying that price is you’re hauling massive amounts of food, gear, feed and the occasional buffalo herd, but this is no urban hauler. Naturally, of course, I had to try it out in my mostly urban environment.

Suffice it to say that I baby-stepped my way around Sacramento at first. Not wanting to knock over mailboxes, parking meters or street cafes, I trudged around town, taking turns too wide and generally creating fear among fellow motorists. Drivers seemed more than willing to get out of my way, I suppose because they didn’t like the idea of being crushed like a beer can under a bulldozer.

Surprisingly, I got comfortable with the heavy duty beast in fairly quick order. On the freeways, I had it up to 70 miles per hour in a hurry. Steering was one-hand easy, although I kept both hands on the wheel most of the time, because the 3500 fills up a lane like Kim Kardashian fills up a little black dress.

The ride was a little bumpier than I thought it should be, given the giant suspension system. The truck rocked a little bit in rhythm on bumpy stretches of road. But generally, high speed runs on clean pavement were surprisingly smooth. The 6.7-liter Cummins Turbo Diesel 6 – 350 horses coming in early at 3,000 rpm – was a stout workhorse. It handled all road conditions well, including brisk accelerations.

Gas mileage? Who knows? The truck exceeds the EPA weight standard. I’m not sure I want to know the numbers.

A long list of standard features was a plus, although the dash was Chrysler-typical plain. Seats were comfortable. Interior room was generous. The center console could house a large dog.

All that said, I was happy to give up the truck at the end of a week. I counted myself fortunate to have not hurt myself or anyone else.

For those who do need such heavy duty equipment and can afford it, you’ve earned my applause. Having lots of rural room to wheel this bad boy around is a good thing.

As for me, I need something a little more compact for my urban-dwelling existence.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Indianapolis 500 2010: A tale of two races

Sacramento, California – Watching the last practice, on May 28, before Sunday’s 94th Indianapolis 500, it dawned on me that I had it all wrong.

And after 50 years, you’d think I’d know better. But then again, the best and the brightest in the IZOD IndyCar Series apparently were in the same boat with me.

Indy has always been a tale of two races, both highly publicized.

There’s the race for the pole position, what the bravest of drivers have called the most challenging four laps in motor sports. And then there’s the race itself.

It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of the pole competition … drivers lapping the track at speeds of more than 230 miles per hour, seemingly on the edge of disaster every second. And when a pole winner finally is determined – Helio Castroneves for the fourth time in his career this year, with a sparkling average of nearly 228 mph – it’s easy to assume that car/driver combination is the favorite for the race.

Big mistake.

Pole positions are nice, but 500 miles of excellence tell the tale.

Watching practice last Friday, I watched Target-Chip Ganassi driver Dario Franchitti immediately top the speed chart and stay there. He was lapping at 223, 224, 225 with seemingly no strain whatsoever. Castroneves and the other competitors looked badly overmatched by comparison.

Even more telling, Franchitti was turning quick laps on a hot, humid day. Those are typically tough conditions for making a car stick in the turns, but Franchitti was ripping around the 2.5-mile oval like he was on a rail.

Sure enough, on an even hotter race day on Sunday, Franchitti jumped out front right away and was obviously the class of the field. The dominant car does not always win – ask Dan Wheldon about his 2006 fourth-place Indy finish after dominating all day – but fortune smiled on Franchitti on race day.

It would have been interesting to see if Franchitti would have made it across the line first if the caution had not flown on the last lap. But that’s a moot point. Franchitti was driving the best car, and he was masterful behind the wheel.

Lesson learned: Don’t place your bets based on pole day. The right race day set-up is what counts, and Franchitti’s crew did it right. In golf, they say you drive for show and putt for dough. At Indy, you qualify for show, but you race for the serious dough.

For what it’s worth, I think the last 10 laps of this year’s race were arguably the most sensational in the long, storied history of the 500. It wasn’t just two people battling it out. Five or six drivers were looking to either win or run out of gas trying, and the frightening crash on the last lap only served to make the finish even more of a mind-blower.

Here’s wishing driver Mike Conway well as he spends months recovering from his injuries.

And hats off to Dario and Target-Chip Ganassi for a game plan executed to near perfection.