Sunday, January 18, 2009

Suzuki Swift - The Cars We Need Now!

No one is better than Americans at blurring the lines between wants and needs, and the sudden upheaval in the car market is proof of that. In the past few months of this year, small-car sales have shot up, while sales of large SUVs and pickups have dropped sharply. American car buyers' needs haven't changed; consumers have just realized that they never actually needed those gas guzzlers in the first place. And now they're seeking ways to contain their fuel bills.
Fact is, a small, economical hatchback is all the car most of us need most of the time. The Suzuki Swift is a practical car that addresses what consumers really need: simple transportation. As an added bonus, the Swift strokes a few of our wants, too-it's downright adorable, a complete hoot to drive, and available with some of the toys from the big boys. Things like steering-wheel-mounted radio controls, keyless entry, air-con-ditioning, and power windows aren't real needs, but they're features many of us really want.
The first three generations of the Swift were sold here from 1984 through 2001, occasionally badged as Chevrolets and Geos, Sprints and Metros. They offered remarkable fuel economy, their window stickers promising as high as 53 mpg in the city and 58 mpg on the highway. The fourth-generation Swift (pictured here) isn't sold in the United States, and it isn't quite that easy at the pump, but it's the kind of car many Americans-especially those who are Suzuki dealers-could use right now. Luckily, an all-new fifth-generation model will return the Swift nameplate to the States in 2010 as a 2011 model.

The current Swift has been on sale around the world since 2004. It's almost fourteen inches shorter than the new Honda Fit but more than two inches longer than a Mini Cooper. Four adults can ride comfortably, provided they don't have much luggage (there's not much room behind the rear seats). Because the Swift is a hatchback, its back seats fold down, creating a large, usable cargo space.
The Swift is offered with a choice of four-cylinder engines displacing 1.3, 1.5, or 1.6 liters. The high-revving, cammed-out 1.6-liter powers the Swift Sport, and with 123 hp arriving at a lofty 6800 rpm, it isn't messin' around. Even the 100-hp 1.5-liter is, well, swift. It has a meaty torque curve thanks to variable valve timing, and short gearing helps the Swift feel even quicker than its ten-second 0-to-60-mph time suggests. And unlike penalty-box economy cars of yore, it's not at all scary at its 115-mph top speed.

In fact, if there's one thing that the Swift is, it's fun. Driving it reminds you that light cars can have authentically light controls without the need for feedback-numbing assist systems tuned to overboost to compensate for a heavier vehicle's heft. It reminds you how much fun we used to have behind the wheel-how satisfying it was to rev the bejeezus out of a willing little four-banger; how exciting it used to be to drive at crazy high speeds like 75 mph; and how much fun it was to go forty miles on a single gallon of gasoline.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Introduces 2009 Honda Jazz

In today’s climate of high petrol costs, small cars are rapidly increasing in popularity as Aussie motorists move away from large cars and SUVs to something a little more frugal.

The timing then for Honda’s Australian release of the second-generation Honda Jazz could not be more perfect, as its spacious interior, light weight and thrifty engine line-up looks to be just the thing to give cash-strapped motorists some relief at the petrol pump.

The look of the 2009 Honda Jazz may be familiar to most of you, but the sheetmetal is all new. It’s a little chunkier than the outgoing model and the front now sports an almost Civic Type R-ish visage. The tailgate is a little less squared-off than the old model too and the sides are a little more dynamic than the featureless slabs of the 1st-gen Jazz, thanks to more pronounced rear fender flaring and a few strategically-placed body creases.

The new Jazz comes in three trim levels: the base GLi with a 73kW 1.3-litre engine, the more powerful VTi which comes with an 88kW 1.5-litre inline four and side and curtain airbags; and the top-spec VTi-S, which adds a sportier front and rear bumper, side skirts, cruise control, leather steering wheel and 16-inch alloys to the VTi’s equipment.

ABS brakes with electronic brake force distribution and dual front airbags are standard across the Jazz range, however you’ll need to check the box for an optional Safety Pack if you want side and curtain airbags on the GLi.

While sub-100kW power outputs wouldn’t even excite your great-grandmother, the new Jazz’s engine lineup’s biggest drawcard lies indisputably in its fuel economy. The 1.3-litre sips just 5.8 litres per 100km when equipped with the 5-speed manual, while the 1.5-litre needs just 6.4 litres to travel the same distance with the same gearbox.

The 2009 Jazz can also be optioned with a newly-developed 5-speed automatic, the only one of its kind in the compact car segment. The automatic VTi-S also gets a pair of steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters for rowing through the ratios.

The suspension has also undergone some changes for 2009. Steering geometry has been revised to endow the Jazz with a 9.8 metre turning circle, while new suspension bushes and a redesigned rear torsion beam improve handling.Honda Australia has made no mention of when the exact release date is, or of the pricing for the various models, but we’ll be sure to let you know as soon as the information comes to hand.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Nissan GT-R race car prototype: Spy shots: FIA-GT1

Just when you think there’s nothing more to see or read about Nissan’s GT-R supercar, images of a mysterious prototype start to crop up on the internet. The latest shot depicts a car with several features you would normally find on a GT style race car, leading to speculation that Nissan is planning to take its GT-R into the international motorsports arena.

According to Japan’s Auto Sport magazine, where this image was sourced, Nissan is planning an assault on the FIA-GT1 series or possibly Le Mans endurance racing.

While Nissan is yet to reveal any specs for the race car, or even confirm its existence, it is expected to feature a Nismo bodykit, GT-style wing, plastic windows, uprated brakes and tires, and a vented bonnet. The car is also rumored to be running a naturally-aspirated 4.5L VK45DE V8 engine instead of the production model’s twin-turbo 3.8L V6. The V8 mill is the same unit used by Nissan for its SuperGT race car.

Other details include a rumored ¥65,000,000 ($720,000) asking price, a kerb weight of just 2,976lbs (the production model weighs 3,792lbs), and a power output of 592hp (442kW) and 506lb-ft (685Nm) of torque.

One of the benefits of Nissan competing in motorsports with its GT-R is the introduction of street-legal homologation special. For its latest R35 GT-R, Nissan is once again expected to revive the LM badge for a detuned version of its GT-R race car, but like previous generations it will be very exclusive. Production is tipped to be limited to just 300 units

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Fat & Furious - Twin-Turbo Nissan 350Z

When it comes to turning heads few cars on the road are the equal of the Nissan 350Z. It may be the car's roots in JGTC racing or simply its low-slung, highly appealing shape. No matter the reason, the Z has been an enthusiastic body tuning participant from the beginning. So when we heard the first-ever VeilSide wide-bodied 350Z was coming together we lined up a photo shoot especially for our special body kit issue.

VeilSide is known for its leading-edge design characteristics and precision manufacturing. The brainchild of Yokomaku Hiranao, the company name is taken directly from Yokomaku's name, "maku" meaning Veil and "yoko" meaning Side. VeilSide was established in 1990 and at its first Tokyo Auto Salon in 1991 took home the first of many awards of recognition.

VeilSide really hit it big time at the 1994 Auto Salon when its Combat Kit for the Toyota Supra made a ground-shaking debut. The original Combat kit spawned others in the line-up as well as new line-ups of styling kits. As the number of applications grew so did the VeilSide legend.
One year at the Auto Salon VeilSide went crazy and filled an entire row with wild looking cars ... the same car with insane body transformations. It took peering in the cockpits and seeing the gauge clusters before we realized all the cars in the row were Supras. Therein lies another of the company's strengths. They don't just make one kit for every application. If a particular car inspires multiple looks, Veilside will make multiple kits.

Such is the case with Bill Chen's seductive Nissan 350Z. The car's wicked stance is enhanced with a VeilSide Combat Version 3 widebody kit. The VeilSide parts include an aggressive front bumper, widebody fender flares, rocker skirts, a rear bumper, a trick hood and carbon fiber wing. Heck, the only surfaces left untouched are the roof and the trunk. The installation of the kit and application of the car's gleaming red paint was handled by 20/20 Autobody.

The widebody look has trickled down from racing where wider bodies mean wider tires and more mechanical grip. To this end Chen's Z boasts gargantuan 20x9.5s up front and mind-blowing 20x13s out back. The weapon of choice: Work Meister S1s, each wrapped in sticky, low-profile Continental rubber. The remainder of the car's footwork consists of Tein Flex coil-overs with EDFC, which allows cockpit adjustment of dampening on the fly and a Brembo front brake upgrade flexing 14.3-inch lightweight rotors and big-bore calipers.
With meaty 13-inch wide wheels and a correspondingly massive contact patch Chen's next goal was to make 'em chirp in third gear. Answering the call is a GReddy twin-turbo kit. Chen started with the basic kit and intercooler upgrade but elected to mix it up with twin TiAL wastegates, an HKS SSQV blow-off valve, twin Helix straight pipes and an HKS F-CON V Pro for tuning.
On the fueling side of the equation we find a pair of Walbro 255 lph pumps feeding six RC Engineering 440cc injections via an HKS rail. The installation of the hard parts and the tuning of the F-CON V Pro was performed bySP Engineering.

On the dyno the boosted VQ35DE pumped out 425 whp and 384 lb-ft of torque at a conservative 16 psi. It seems that 425 is a healthy number; good power and acceptable stress levels on the V6's stock internals.

The Combat-kitted Nissan is a leisure car taken out on fair-weather weekends and for special occasions. Imagine leashing up a T-Rex and taking it for a walk in the local dog park and you get an idea of what weekend drives in the country must be like for Chen. Yep, with its dominating widebody-enhanced stance, 20-inch meats and turbo induction even the pit bulls cower, whimper and scurry away.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

New Subaru Impreza WRX STI

If the regular Subaru Impreza leaves you feeling underwhelmed, the addition of three letters - STI - on the tailgate totally transforms things. We've finally got behind the wheel of the eagerly-awaited all-new Impreza STI at Fuji Speedway in Japan to see how this icon of the performance car world matches up to the previous model's reputation as one of the quickest, grippiest, best-value cars on the planet. Subaru has certainly taken a radical new direction: it's only available as a five-door hatchback, the base versions of which have been criticised for their insipid looks.
STI version is the utter opposite of the dull Impreza hatch, with its wide wheelarches, aggressive spoilers and multiple vents. While the essentials remain the same - turbocharged four-cylinder 'boxer' engine, permanent four-wheel drive, close-ratio six-speed gearbox - there are more driver aids - including stability control for the first time - and more power. When it goes on sale in March 2008, it's going to have to beat the Mitsubishi Evo X due at the same time while Subaru also says it's raising its game to tempt Audi and BMW buyers.
Our Fuji Speedway drive in Japan centred around the Japanese-spec STI, which sticks with a 2.0-litre engine with 304bhp; we will be getting a 2.5-litre 296bhp engine in the UK. There's no doubting the raw power of the turbocharged flat-four powerplant, at least once its turbo is spinning above 3000rpm or so. The STI remains one of the quickest-accelerating cars this side of a supercar, with an estimated 0-62mph time of 4.8 seconds. However, the 2.0-litre engine suffers from a lack of low-down torque; we hope and expect that the 2.5-litre engine will have better response at lower revs.
A new feature for the STI is Subaru's Si-Drive - a dial that lets you switch between engine response programs. Comprising normal, sharp and super sharp, the settings progressively speed up throttle reaction times to suit your mood and driving style. The six-speed gearbox is basically the same as before but its shift action is faster and lighter; a good thing, as the old STI gearbox's mechanical feel wasn't very appealing. When it comes to stopping, the Brembo brakes certainly don't lack power. But we were disappointed to feel just how unsettled the STI can become during hard braking on the Fuji circuit.Watch our video roadtest of the Subaru Impreza STI
Imprezas are all about grip, and four-wheel drive remains a major contributor to the STI's uncanny levels of purchase on the tarmac. The tyres will eventually start squealing in protest, but only at very high cornering speeds. As before, the STI allows you to dial in how the torque is directed to the front and rear axles via a Driver's Control Centre Differential which now incorporates a switchable auto mode for the first time. Pulling the control switch all the way back does noticeably reduce understeer but the tendency for Impreza's nose to push wide around corners remains an annoying feature.

For the first time ever for an Impreza, the STI incorporates a stability control system. Heresy? Not really. It boosts safety in extremis and you can still switch if off, or even to a half-way 'Traction' mode that delays its onset to increase driver feel. The steering is rather lighter than many performance cars but you always feel utterly confident that the STI will get you around bends. And there's a surprising amount of body roll for such a performance-orientated car, the result of some soft suspension settings that improve the ride quality over the previous STI. Overall noise is also a good deal more subdued now.
Oh dear. For a car that Subaru says it wants to compete on quality with Audi and BMW, the cabin feels like a car that costs half its price, not surprising with the regular Impreza starting at £12,495. There are swathes of hard, low-rent plastic in the cabin, which is a shame as the instruments and overall design are quite attractive. The five-door layout boosts practicality and there is a decent sized boot, complete with folding seats for the first time. The longer wheelbase of the new Impreza, and the wider body, make room inside much better. Two types of front seat are on offer: standard leather-and-Alcantara seats or optional deeply bucketed and very supportive Recaro items.

Economy and safety

You don't buy an Impreza STI if you're worried about fuel consumption as it's always been terrible. While there are no official figures yet, Subaru claims that the new STI will be fractionally more frugal than the last one but that was certainly no miser at 25.9mpg. As for safety, the four-wheel drive system certainly offers excellent grip, and finally the STI moves into the modern age with curtain airbags and stability control for the first time.
The MSN Cars verdict: 4/5

First, the good news: the all-new STI remains a titanically fast performance car with astonishing grip. Its design is also just aggressive enough to please existing enthusiasts, without being too over-the-top. And it's a good deal more practical, more refined and rides better. But the new STI doesn't represent the great leap forward we had hoped for. Despite all the driver aids, the STI remains a stubborn understeerer, while its straight-line braking is rather wayward. Regular performance hatches may not be as quick, but they've caught up with Subaru in terms of the fun factor. We'll have to wait and see if the larger-engined UK version, due in March 2008, can iron out the problems.