Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Luxury for you: Infiniti G25 sedan is the ticket

Sacramento, California – Yes, I know it’s frustrating: You’ve worked hard for years, and you’re tooling around in an 8-year-old minivan with food stains permanently squished into the interior panels and rips in the carpet created by an endless procession of soccer cleats, courtesy of your offspring and their youthful teammates.

Adding insult to injury, it seems like all the neighbors are wheeling spectacular Cadillacs, Jaguars and various Lexus models, presumably without a care in the world.

Are you selfish for wanting just a little luxury in your life? Of course not.

That’s why they make the Infiniti G lineup. Here’s where you’ll find coupes, sedans and convertibles loaded with perks and priced to move.

My 2012 Infiniti G25 Journey sedan is a primary example.

Starting at $33,800 – and believe me, this is a bargain in the luxury sports sedan segment – you get a feature-laden cruiser with room for five and enough sexiness to show off to friends and family. The tester’s only extra was a $1,000 power moonroof, so I can identify with what makes up the basic model.

And the basics are pretty nice. Standard fare includes 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels, dual chrome exhausts, leather surfaces, eight-way power/heated front seats, heated exterior mirrors, a rearview monitor, high-intensity xenon headlights, plentiful high-tech audio features and a long list of secure-feeling safety appointments.

So, you’re feeling better already, right? Good, things get better.

On the roll, the 2.5-liter V-6 with 218 horsepower is a smooth, more-than-willing drive system. The G25 accelerates well and dices in traffic with very little strain, a point accentuated by the absence of exterior noise reaching into the cabin. The seven-speed automatic transmission manages the gears with quiet precision, and before too long, you feel like you’re in a $50,000-plus ride.

It’s a good feeling.

The G25 has a relatively simple sedan appearance, but for me, that’s part of the appeal. You don’t want wild and crazy swoops on an entry level luxury sedan; that makes it look like you’re trying to hard. Simple and understated … That’s the ticket.

Gas mileage is OK at 20 miles per gallon in the city and 29 mpg on the highway. I can live with that, even as the per-gallon price of gas approaches what you’d pay for a top-tier Mondavi red.

You take your luxury where you can find it these days. And with the G lineup, you can get it from Infiniti.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Who will win auto racing's top trophies in 2012?

Sacramento, California – Auto racing season begins in earnest with this weekend’s Daytona 500, and dovetailing with the Academy Awards, it’s a good time to make some predictions.

Racing-wise, that is.

I’m nervous about Sunday’s race on the high-banked Daytona oval. NASCAR technical officials and Sprint Cup Series drivers don’t seem to have a solid grasp of what the cars will do in a pack, and some nasty crashes in last weekend’s Budweiser Shootout and one of the Gatorade Duel 150-mile qualifying races on Thursday only heightened my concerns.

Some drivers are publicly voicing alarm as well. Watching NASCAR newcomer Danica Patrick slam Daytona’s inside wall at tooth-rattling speed on Thursday makes me wonder what things will be like Sunday with 43 cars in the mix.

One thing seems obvious: The two-by-two pack racing that pushed surprise winners to victory at NASCAR’s two Daytona events last year is gone. Notice that the Budweiser Shootout and Gatorade race winners were old-guard NASCAR stars? No surprise there. They know how to race in a 10- to 20-car pack.

Despite all the talk about a “changing of the guard” in NASCAR, I’m expecting a familiar face in Victory Lane at Daytona on Sunday. Defending series champ Tony Stewart appears to have kept his momentum up this year, and he knows how to run up front at Daytona. I like his chances on Sunday.

Last year, I picked Carl Edwards to win NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series title, and he did everything possible to take the trophy … everything but score one more point than Stewart. Edwards is on the pole for Sunday’s Daytona 500 – a nice way to begin the year -- and I still like his ability to win on short tracks, superspeedways and everything else in between.

I’m picking Edwards to claim the Sprint Cup Series title he came oh-so-close to winning last year.

In the IndyCar Series, I can’t remember being more in the dark.

New cars, new race management, new faces in new places. But in the end, can anyone deny Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver Dario Franchitti a fourth consecutive IndyCar Series title? He’s seemingly in a class by himself, although rival team owner Roger Penske’s (pictured) drivers have lost legitimate shots to beat Franchitti for three years running with assorted mishaps in the pits.

The death of 2011 Indy 500 Dan Wheldon in last year’s IndyCar season finale in Las Vegas basically pulled a black sheet over the end of last season; the long duel between Franchitti and Penske driver Will Power was understandably smothered by the violent crash that canceled the race and took Wheldon’s life.

With safety improvements – both mechanical and among race officials – put in place as a result of the crash in Las Vegas, we enter 2012 with hopes renewed.

Just knowing Penske’s history, I have to believe that the team has worked exhaustively to get a jump on the competition with the new-for-2012 cars. But also knowing Ganassi, I can pretty well assure you that racing team hasn’t been sitting around doing nothing all winter. And will team owner Michael Andretti’s drivers step it up a notch this year?

Hard to say. Look for Franchitti and Ganassi teammate Scott Dixon to continue to run up front this year, but I’m expecting one of the Penske drivers – probably Power, given his proven abilities on the road courses – to take the series title. At the Indianapolis 500, I expect Penske driver Helio Castroneves to come back from a deeply disappointing 2011 season and claim his fourth Indy 500 victory.

Enough said. Green flag is out. Let’s go racing.

Friday, February 17, 2012

2012 SLK350 ... Hot wheels for a steal

Sacramento, California – Few people are 100 percent truthful about their cars, and I think that’s a good thing when it comes to the Mercedes-Benz SLK350.

I’m not saying you should lie about this two-seater with the retractable hardtop if you’re fortunate enough to obtain it. It’s just that … well … let me explain …

Park the third-generation, reworked-for-2012 SLK350 in your driveway, and unless the neighbors are well versed in Mercedes-Benz models, they’re likely to think it’s something like a Mercedes-Benz SL550 (think $104,000) or maybe even a Mercedes SLS roadster with AMG performance engineering (starting price $196,100).

I’m just saying that you don’t have to tell the uninformed gawkers that your SLK350 starts at the relatively bargain-basement price of $54,800. When the neighbors run up and tell you how fortunate you are to have a smokin’ hot, horsepower-laden, super pricey Mercedes-Benz, your response should be something along the lines of: “Right on.”

And here’s the good part: The 2012 SLK350 really is packed with a ton of fun stuff for the price.

It looks sufficiently hot, with a sculpted grille and a hoodline that looks long enough to be certified as a helipad.

With just two seats and the controls wrapped around you in close quarters, you feel like you’re in command of a purpose-built racer. Performance enhances that feeling. The direct-injection 3.5-liter V-6 is rated at 302 horsepower and delivers the satisfying roar you expect from those numbers when you nail the gas.

Handling is light and agile, with a seven-speed gearbox handling the road conditions with seamless perfection. Granted, you don’t get the 500-plus horsepower rush of other Mercedes models, but how much do you really need on a car wearing a sticker just a shade over $54,000?

Take my word for it: The SLK350 delivers all the punch and uphill oomph you’ll ever need. And gas mileage for this 300-horsepower growler is pretty darn good at 20 miles per gallon in the city and 29 mpg on the highway.

One gripe on those two seats: If you put them all the way back, they’re going to squeak with every bump and turn. You have to have them forward just enough so that there’s no contact between the back of the seat and the cockpit hindquarters.

As usual, working the retractable hardtop (with roof panel) is a blast, but wait, there’s more. The SLK Class can be had with something called Magic Sky Control, enabling the driver to change the tinting of the roof panel.

How does that work? Mercedes explains: Sandwiched between two layers of glass, a chemical film called a matrix polymer holds oblong nano particles that line up uniformly when electrical current is applied, allowing light to pass through. When the electrical current is turned off -- via a button above the rearview mirror -- the nano particles disperse randomly, reducing light and tinting the roof panel.

Holy Mission Impossible! I’m a nano brain when it comes to complex engineering, but for my money, this is the coolest thing since they put a mute button on the TV remote.

And yeah, this SLK350 is a cool car that anyone with a drop of sports car-lover blood in his/her body would be proud to have.

Just don’t tell the neighbors what you paid for it.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

In simple terms: Audi A6 looks hot, goes fast

This review originally appeared in the January 2012 edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin’ News published out of Folsom, California – mg

Sacramento, California -- No fooling, here’s what the sticker said on this recent ride: 2012 Audi A6 3.0 TFSI quattro Auto Tiptronic Sedan.

They almost needed two stickers to fit that name on there. For simplicity sake, here’s what you need to know: It’s an Audi sedan. It looks hot. It goes fast.

Got your interest? OK, keep reading.

This A6 is a definite player in a crowded field of luxury sport sedans. As I said, it looks most racy for a four-door, including a wide-open-mouth grille ready to devour slowpokes.

The look is backed up by a 3-liter supercharged V-6 topping out at 310 horses. Performance is not so much brute-like as it is velvet hammer. Nailing the gas produces butter-smooth acceleration that wowed me and several passengers I took along on rides.

The eight-speed Tiptronic transmission is a wonder, handling the gearing chores with seamless perfection.

The smooth blast can fool you, however. Believe me, you are nearing three digits on the speedometer before you realize it, so care during operation is advised, unless you like chatting with highway patrol officers in the middle of your commute.

Base price on the new A6 is a C-note short of $50,000, but the tester was dressed up with extras that brought the bottom line to (deep breath!) $57,470. Throw in what you can expect to pay for gas with federal ratings of 19 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on the highway, and you’re talking about some serious change.

Alas, the car was mine for only a week, so I savored extras that included 19-inch performance tires, steering wheel-mounted shift paddles and a sport-tuned suspension.

A flat-black interior was simultaneously imposing and sexy, loaded with comfort/convenience controls – so many linked to little, tiny buttons that mastering the dash without looking down takes some doing.

For me and others, this is a fantasy car, which is fiscally challenged journalist-speak for: I can’t afford it, but I sure had fun driving it.

For those who can afford it, I salute you. And a dash of envy comes free of charge.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Infiniti jumps into hybrid pool with M35h sedan

Sacramento, California – Infinti. Luxury sedan. Hybrid.

Just a few years ago, those are words I did not envision saying in order anytime soon.

But for 2012, Infiniti has offered up the M35h, billed by the automaker as putting out “V-8 power and four-cylinder economy.”

In my week with the car, I can tell you that Infiniti’s claim is spot-on. With a 3.5-liter V-6 delivering 258 foot-pounds of torque and an electric motor capable of about 200 foot-pounds on its own, you definitely get the V-8 experience.

Yet fuel mileage comes in at an impressive 27 miles per gallon in the city and 32 mpg on the open road. By comparison, a 2012 Infiniti M37 with a standard 3.7-liter V-6 and 330 horses delivers 18/26 on the mileage chart.

But you have to think beyond that, because just like scheduling two dates on one night, it’s complicated.

For starters, the M35h has a starting price of $53,700. That’s $6,000 more than the basic M37 sedan. That might seem like a wide space, but in the world of gas engine-versus-hybrid the chasm is not that large. Consumer stats tell me that Infiniti buyers tend to keep their cars for a long time, which means they’d likely make up the price difference in gas savings in fairly quick order, especially at today’s prices, with the hybrid.

Bottom line: You need to do the math on your own driving habits and what you’re paying annually for gas BEFORE writing a check for an M35h.

But wait, it gets a bit more complicated. Power in the M35h is delivered via what’s called a one-motor, two-clutch parallel hybrid system, with the significant byproduct being the car is capable of speeds up to 62 miles per hour in pure-electric mode.

Let me assure you, that’s a big deal. In theory.

In practice, however, I found that the M35h sometimes seemed to be confused at significant changes in speed above 60 mph threshold. The confusion manifested itself in an occasional hard “thump” of a transition between engine and electric motor. It did not happen all the time, but it happened enough to make me think the new offering might need a few tweaks up the road.

Otherwise, the M35h was a typically posh Infiniti sedan getting better-than-nice fuel mileage.

My tester was overstuffed with exotic extras that brought the bottom line to nearly $68,000. Frankly, the standard perks were plentiful and likely to please most motorists. Part-of-the-standard-deal features included 10-way power/heated leather front seats, a memory system that automatically adjusts just about everything for drivers ranging from 5-feet tall to 7-footers, rain-sensing windshield wipers and V-rated, all-season tires. The automatic gearbox is a 7-speed.

I found the cabin to be quiet, the audio system rockin’ and the passenger comfort level high. Controls were easy to use. Highway smoothness was excellent. Ditto steering. The car handled like a smaller machine. It also looks good, especially on the front end, where oversize headlights fit nicely on either side of a two-tiered grille.

All in all, this is a good “green” effort for a luxury auto builder … Perfect the engine-electric transitions, and things will be just about, well, perfect.