Monday, March 30, 2009

Fate of Hummer to be decided Tuesday

By Tuesday, General Motors Corp. will have to decide whether its struggling Hummer brand will die a quiet death or live on with a new owner.

The wounded automaker has told the federal government that it will make the decision to jettison or sell Hummer by the end of the first quarter as part of a plan to justify the government loans on which it is living.

GM says it's still talking to several possible buyers, and many of Hummer's dealers nationwide are hoping that someone, perhaps a Chinese automaker, will come to their rescue and buy the brand, which traces its roots to rugged vehicles used for transporting soldiers.

The automaker has told dealers it will make an announcement about the brand's future on Tuesday, but until then, GM will say only that it's still negotiating with some interested parties.

"We are cautiously optimistic," about a sale, said GM spokesman Nick Richards, adding that the companies with which GM is talking are from "all different parts of the world."

Hummer dealers, many of whom sell other brands such as Cadillac, are hoping for a sale and trying to concentrate on customer service. GM put the Hummer brand up for sale in June of last year, and dealers have been in limbo ever since.

Ed Williamson, owner of Williamson Cadillac Hummer in Miami, says GM has told him only that an announcement is coming Tuesday, but he's optimistic someone will buy the brand, perhaps to use the dealer network to distribute other models not currently sold in the U.S.

"My understanding is that they've got more than one candidate," he said. "One of the best assets as part of this sale is the dealer body, 160 of the best dealers in the country," he said.

But Erich Merkle, an independent auto analyst in Grand Rapids, Mich., said that despite the deadline, Hummer's situation isn't much different than it was when GM announced the sale in June.

"I don't know what's going to make it look more attractive as time goes by," Merkle said, adding that the dealer network isn't large enough to be attractive to a foreign buyer.

Hummer's relatively poor fuel economy could hurt GM's ability to meet stricter government fuel efficiency standards that go into effect for the 2011 model year, he said.

GM has been living on $13.4 billion in government loans and has requested $16.6 billion more. Chrysler LLC, it's Detroit-area counterpart, has borrowed $4 billion and is seeking another $5 billion.

Both face a Tuesday deadline to submit completed restructuring plans to the government to justify the loans and prove they can become viable and repay the money.

President Obama is set to announce a plan Monday for the government to provide more money in exchange for tough concessions from union workers, bondholders and others.

Under a viability plan filed with the government in February, GM also plans to sell off Saturn and Sweden's Saab, as well as make Pontiac a niche performance brand. By trimming the brands, GM would focus on Buick, Chevrolet, Cadillac and GMC, spending less on product development and marketing.

More than 90 percent of GM's revenue minus variable costs comes from the four core brands, the company has said.

GM said in its viability plan that Hummer, Saab and Saturn combined post an average annual loss of $1.1 billion before taxes. It did not break out the Hummer loss.

Hummer sales were down 51 percent last year compared with 2007 as gasoline prices rose above $4 per gallon. In January and February, even with gas around $2 per gallon, GM sold only 2,275 Hummers, down 65 percent from the same period last year, according to Autodata Corp.

The H3, the only 2009 model rated for gas mileage by the government, gets 18 miles per gallon on the highway and 14 in the city when equipped with a five-cylinder engine. Hummer also sells the larger H2.

Hummer has always been a niche brand, with U.S. sales reaching a peak of 71,524 in 2006. By comparison, Toyota Motor Corp. sold more than 20,000 Camry models in February alone.

Paul Adkins, general sales manager of Independence Hummer in Charlotte, N.C., said new Hummer sales have started to rebound a bit recently with used sales holding their own or increasing month to month.

Until the announcement, all he can do is keep selling and focus on customer service, said Adkins, whose dealership sells only Hummers.

"We can take it day by day, business as usual," he said.

2009 Mazda MAZDA6 Review

The 2009 Mazda 6 has moved up. All-new, redesigned and re-engineered for 2009, the Mazda6 has moved up in size, in features, and in power. All this without serious damage to price, fuel economy, or driving dynamics.

Virtually every dimension inside and out has increased with the introduction of these all-new 2009 models. The 2009 Mazda 6, or Mazda6 as Mazda calls it, now delivers plenty of room for four or five adults along with a big trunk that holds as much as some SUVs can fit under their luggage covers. For the first time in Mazda6 history, this one has been designed expressly for the North American market and is considerably bigger than the overseas version.

The 2009 Mazda 6 is offered with a choice of four-cylinder and six-cylinder engines, each larger and more powerful than before. Its new V6 is now among the most powerful in the class, producing 272 horsepower, and it comes standard with an automatic. Meanwhile, drivers seeking fuel efficiency will not be disappointed with the four-cylinder's 170 horsepower.

Four trim levels are offered on the Mazda 6 sedan, with prices ranging from less than $20,000 to around $33,000 for a fully loaded V6 model. All are four-door sedans. There is no wagon, hatchback, or MazdaSpeed version available for 2009.

Navigation is available on the 2009 Mazda 6 with voice activation. Bluetooth and blind spot monitoring systems are offered, as are audio inputs and noise-compensation sound systems. These gadgets are convenient, but what we like most about the Mazda 6 is its driving dynamics.

The Mazda 6 competes against an impressive group of midsize sedans, but we think anyone shopping Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Chevrolet Malibu, Nissan Altima, or Hyundai Sonata should have the Mazda6 on their comparison test-drive list. And its sportiness makes the Mazda6 an alternative to the Acura TL, Nissan Maxima, and Volkswagen Passat. The styling isn't conservative and the manners aren't boring.

The 2009 Mazda 6 comes with a choice of engines and trim levels. The Mazda6 i is powered by a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that gets an EPA-estimated 21/30 miles per gallon City/Highway with the five-speed automatic transmission. It's also available with a five-speed automatic. The Mazda6 s is powered by a 3.7-liter V6 with an EPA-rated 17/25 mpg and comes exclusively with a six-speed automatic.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

2009 Acura MDX Review

The 2009 Acura MDX is a seven-passenger, three-row luxury crossover vehicle. The design of the MDX emphasizes style, passenger and cargo utility, and on-the-road comfort and handling, rather than off-roading ability. However, with Acura's inclusion of standard all-wheel drive, the MDX can easily handle muddy trails and shallow streams. The MDX crossover SUV was redesigned for 2007 and carries into 2009 with few changes.

Acura's Super Handling all-wheel-drive system is standard across the 2009 MDX model line; the full-time all-wheel-drive configuration distributes the optimum amount of torque not only between the front and rear axles, but also between the left and right rear wheels, to help maintain better stability and traction when cornering. A 300-horsepower, 3.7-liter V-6 engine brings strong acceleration to the MDX and impressive passing power, thanks to the responsive yet smooth five-speed automatic transmission. The 2009 Acura MDX has impressive towing ability for such a vehicle, with a maximum rating of 5,000 pounds.

If you've been pulled out of a sport sedan because of a growing family, the 2009 Acura MDX is surprisingly entertaining to drive. Along with the responsive powertrain, the suspension keeps the body from leaning too much in corners, even though the ride is quite supple, and the MDX can be hustled along a curvy road like a smaller, lighter vehicle. Each corner is independently suspended, and especially good steering—with feedback from the road—makes the MDX a lot more fun to drive than other utes.

A very clean interior design, with a good mix of contrasting materials and matte-metallic surfaces make the inside of the 2009 Acura MDX feel sporty yet inviting. However, the controls could be simpler—for the audio system especially. Programming the voice-activated system takes patience and time. But it's still better than BMW's iDrive. Driver and front passenger seats are generously apportioned and good for even the tallest and largest folks, but the minuscule third-row seat is only for small kids. Families will find plenty of storage cubbies as well. All models come standard with leather upholstery, 18-inch wheels, three-zone automatic climate control system with humidity control and air filtration, a Bluetooth hands-free calling interface, a six-disc in-dash changer, and XM Satellite Radio. A Sport package with auto-damping suspension is available; it also includes a premium leather interior and a special wheel design. A navigation system featuring real-time traffic and a rearview camera is optionally included in the Technology package, which this year also includes the power tailgate.

The Acura MDX is one of the most secure vehicles of any type, with top results in all U.S. crash tests. It was also an IIHS Top Safety Pick for 2008. The 2009 Acura MDX includes front side airbags and full-length side curtain bags, covering all three rows of seating. The standard electronic stability works in conjunction with the SH-AWD system.

2009 Cadillac CTS Review

After a redesign for 2008 that included a completely new interior, the mid-size CTS returns with only minor changes for 2009.

The CTS sport sedan is Cadillac’s entry-level vehicle in the United States, and takes on compact to mid-size sport sedans from Europe and Japan—such as the BMW 3 Series and Infiniti G37.

What helps the CTS stand out among rivals is its styling; sharp edges and a chunky appearance on the outside are met inside with smooth, flowing contours of the instrument panel. Better materials were used inside beginning with the redesign last year, and now the interior boasts high-quality upholstery and trim a step better than those usually found in this class. In front, firm sport seats give good support, while the backseat is rather snug but good for two adults. The CTS’s ride is firm but smooth, and handling is quite capable and entertaining even with the base setup.

Available on the 2009 Cadillac CTS is a direct-injected, 3.6-liter V-6 hitting 304 horsepower, with base models getting a 263-hp version of the engine. All-wheel drive is offered with either, but a six-speed manual is only available with the 263-hp engine. A six-speed automatic does the shifting for the rest of the model lineup.

Options include an advanced infotainment system with the ability to rip CDs or record and play back radio broadcasts, new for 2009 Bluetooth connectivity, and an advanced navigation system that incorporates the XM NavTraffic feature.

2009 BMW 7-Series Review

Praise and hallelujahs for the 2009 BMW 7-Series—no, it's not the most practical vehicle on the road, nor is it the cheapest. But in its fifth generation, the big Bimmer gets a complete revamp for its formerly odd styling, while preserving its BMW driving feel.

The 2009 edition of the 7-Series sports a much happier, relaxed look and feel. The last version had a tall greenhouse and low nose, so it looked like an awkwardly formal top hat. Its raised decklid might have been copied everywhere, but it was still ugly. Now, the 7er (as it's called by enthusiasts) has been relieved of those awkward forms. It shines—the character line down its flanks lends some crispness to its profile, the ribs in its taillamps add a bit of upscale kink. There's a little blessed anonymity in its rear shoulders, a more open grille, and a wide, low air intake across the face that visually drops the front end. A long-wheelbase 750Li version is offered along with the more abbreviated 750i, but the visual differences are slight.

Inside, it's also a job well done, with a driver-centric design that wears a blend of modern shapes and traditional surfaces. The instruments can be completely blacked out when needed; otherwise they glimmer softly amid wood trim, ceramic-finished knobs, and the futuristic controllers that direct the transmission and driving dynamics, as well as the iDrive system.

For now, there's a single powertrain offered in the 2009 BMW 7-Series. It's a 400-horsepower, 4.4-liter twin-turbo V-8. Off the list for now are BMW's V-12 and any of its marvelous diesels, but the big V-8 pushes the 7er almost as well as the old V-12 did—with just a faint whistle from the turbochargers. It's teamed to a six-speed automatic transmission that helps it offer class-leading fuel economy, BMW says.

Elsewhere the 7-Series' performance is unbelievably nimble for a car so long and heavy. It's planted and stable at the 135 mph, as seen on TheCarConnection.com's tester on the Autobahn. Credit goes to a raft of technology—a lightweight control-arm independent suspension front and rear, active rear steering (which turns the rear wheels opposite the fronts in some situations to enhance turn-in) with variable assist, and on the 750Li, an air suspension. Then there's the somewhat maddening Driving Dynamics Control, which allows you to pick settings for shock firmness, transmission shifts, steering heft, and throttle response. More often than not, you'll find it easiest to let the 7-Series decide on the settings and leave the rest to wasted transistors.

The comfort and quality feel of the 2009 BMW 7-Series' cabin is astounding. The lighter-weight body has ever more passenger room. The multi-adjustable front seats are paragons of comfort, and the back's not shabby either. On long-wheelbase cars, there's 5.5 more inches of legroom in back—thank the Chinese party members who demand regal amounts of space. And if you're into sybaritic pleasure, you can order backseats that ventilate and massage your back and seat. Four zones of climate control keep the interior at an ambient ideal, and the leathers and woods are of Rolls-Royce quality—fitting since BMW has owned Rolls-Royce for a decade. The techno look of some controls detracts a bit from the overall feel.

Safety gear is comprehensive, and includes front, side, and side-curtain airbags; rear-seat head protection airbags; active head restraints on the front seats; and knee airbags. Stability and traction control are standard, along with anti-lock brakes. Additionally, BMW offers a Driver Assistance Package that adds blind-spot detection, a lane-departure warning system that vibrates the steering wheel when the car drifts from its lane, and automatic high beams. Side-view cameras are another option that can help prevent low-speed accidents, as is the 7-Series' available head-up display.

Luxury and technology features of the 2009 BMW 7-Series can threaten the relaxed atmosphere in the cabin. Along with all those safety bits and pieces, the new 7er also offers a new version of iDrive to control navigation, climate, and audio functions, operated through a joystick; Google Maps, which lets you send destinations from a home computer to the car (in Europe, the 7-Series can be ordered with wide-open Internet access in the backseat); GPS navigation with hard-drive map and music storage; an iPod connectivity interface; a six-disc DVD changer; premium sound with Sirius Satellite Radio and HD Radio; and a rear-seat entertainment system. The coup de grace? An owners' manual implanted into the car's electronics, so you can read it from the display screen.

2009 Audi R8 Review

The 2009 Audi R8 looks every bit the exotic, a silhouette that seems designed for high-speed runs with extensive ductwork for engine cooling and brake venting, and huge wheels with a staggered size, front to back. Stunning details such as the LED light bar at the front and a glass engine cover that displays the LED-illuminated engine make it resemble a museum piece.

The entire vehicle weighs only about 3,400 pounds and has a near-perfect (rear-biased) weight distribution to take advantage of the engine's mounting, just behind the front seats. The R8's lightweight construction and racing-inspired details are derived from Audi's experience with the racecar of the same name.

Though the engine in the 2009 Audi R8 isn't particularly torquey for a V-8—it needs to be revved a bit to extract all the power—it delivers very brisk performance with either the standard six-speed manual or optional R-tronic gearbox. The manual gearbox has distinctive metal shift gates inside and shifts easily; the R-tronic gearbox can shift roughly in leisurely driving, but it's the choice for track driving, where it nails down shifts faster than the most experienced drivers and blips the throttle expertly on downshifts to maintain control.

You don’t have to drive the R8 at illegal speeds to enjoy it, though it sure does have a presence on the racetrack. The R8 feels hefty and stable at triple-digit speeds, while also managing to convey lightness and nimbleness at low speeds. Meanwhile, the all-wheel-drive system, which can send up to 35 percent of torque to the front wheels, puts the power to the pavement without drama. And the sound from the V-8 is a nice baritone, but not so loud that it brings on fatigue.

The 2009 Audi R8 is about five inches longer than the Lamborghini Gallardo (with which it’s somewhat mechanically related) and has several more inches of seat travel and legroom than the Italian stallion; even tall people will find the R8 ample in space. Headroom isn't tight once you're in, but some might bump their head on entry or exit. The layout of the cockpit area is very driver-centric, like that of a racecar, with controls and displays angled toward the driver. The R8's interior lacks storage compartments and cubbies for small personal items, and cargo space is limited to a modest area underhood at the front of the car and a cargo shelf that's good only for a small duffel bag.

Major options on the 2009 Audi R8 include carbon-fiber trim, upgraded leather upholstery, a navigation system, a parking-sensor system, and premium Bang & Olufsen sound.

The 2009 Audi R8 hasn’t been crash tested by either of the U.S. testing programs—and it probably won’t because of its low-volume production—but a performance-oriented electronic stability control system is standard on the R8, along with side impact airbags and dual knee airbags.

2009 Audi A4 Review

The 2009 Audi A4 returns in a newly styled body that’s longer and wider than before. In many ways, the new shape resembles the larger Audi A6 sedan, but LED lighting and a unique nose plant the Audi sedan and wagon firmly in the new Audi family that also includes the A5 and S5 coupes. Inside, the A4 has a taller, darker dash that’s not as classically handsome as previous efforts, but it’s still an efficient place to work.

A wide range of engine and transmission choices comes with the new A4. The base engine is a 211-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder, offered with a manual transmission or a six-speed automatic or, in front-drive versions, a continuously variable transmission. A V-6 version comes only with the sweet-shifting six-speed automatic. Quattro all-wheel drive is offered on the four-cylinder sedan and is standard on the six-cylinder car. The A4 Avant wagon comes only as a turbocharged four, with quattro and the six-speed automatic. The new A4 also offers an optional system that allows drivers to select the feel of its ride, steering, and transmission shifts, but the basic car’s nonadjustable settings seem preferable.

The A4 remains a handsomely built vehicle, but this time, Audi’s graced it with much more interior backseat room. Wagon room is particularly generous, and though legroom in the backseat is good, the seat itself could use more bolstering and increased height for better comfort. The trunk is very large on sedans. Quality materials are incorporated throughout, though some details and actions could use work.

Because the 2009 Audi A4 is new on the market, there is no crash-test data available from either the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Safety equipment includes standard airbags all around, as well as traction and stability control.

Apart from its variety of body styles, drivetrains, and safety systems, the 2009 Audi A4 offers a host of standard and optional features that are among the best in its class. Leather is standard; Bluetooth, a navigation system, radar-assisted cruise control, and a blind-spot alert system are offered, as is a Bang & Olufsen audio system.
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