We make no claim to objectivity.
We’re often asked, by readers and automakers alike, what the qualifications are for an All-Star award. It’s simple. It has to be a car (or truck) on sale in America at the time of our fall testing exercises. The reigning Automobile of the Year is never an All-Star, which is why you won’t read about the Tesla Model S here. We generally, but don’t always, exclude exotic metal. We bring no score sheets, just open minds and a desire to recognize the best and most significant vehicles. This year, sixteen editors and contributors voted for some twenty-five brands and forty-four models — loudly arguing over some of them — but only eleven vehicles got their names engraved on a 2013 All-Star trophy. And who doesn’t like a trophy? This year, we went a step further and took those winners on adventures on three continents.
This is the golden age of sports cars.
Yeah, we know. Some self-important little guy with a rule book in his hands has been telling you that sports cars are dead, and whatever you might think of the merits of some car that you see on the road, he says it doesn’t qualify because it has too many cylinders or not enough camshafts or the wrong number of seats plus electric windows and besides it isn’t a Morgan Plus 4 made with wood. It’s enough to make you want to stab yourself with a fork, eh?
So let’s get this out of the way. The whole sports car thing began simply as a description of a car that could be used for competition on the track as well as for daily use on the road. Today, we celebrate three of the best cars that meet these criteria in ways that you might not have anticipated: the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, the Porsche Boxster, and the Subaru BRZ (and its Scion FR-S twin).
These cars are part of a wave of high-performance sportsters that are coming from automakers in every country, as high performance has become an accepted approach to marketing and selling significant numbers of street cars. Indeed, these days we see badges that evoke the racing spirit of checkered flags on everything from the Fiat 500 Abarth to the Cadillac CTS-V. Certainly anything is possible in a world where the Bentley Continental GT Speed can exist.
In recognition of this trend, we felt obligated to take the 2013 Boxster, 2013 BRZ, and 2013 Camaro ZL1 to the track, since this is pretty much what everyone is doing. There are so many racing series, driving schools, track-day experiences, consumer clinics, corporate team-building events, car-club outings, and track-day competitions that road-racing tracks are being built every day just to stage these entertainments. That’s what led us to Chuckwalla Valley Raceway (opening in 2010) in Desert Center, California, a place in the middle of the Mojave Desert — which makes it one of the most remote racetracks in the United States.
The Subaru BRZ will cause plenty of sports car traditionalists to begin snuffling with self-importance, but we knew from the moment we headed down the road during our traditional All-Stars drive last fall that this is exactly the sort of sporting car that will have enormous influence. To start with, the BRZ has a price tag that won’t swallow your wallet in one gulp. As much as car enthusiasts might like to hype the notion of artistic purity, simple affordability is an essential ingredient to sports car success. At a starting price of $26,265, the Subaru gets on a lot more shopping lists than a BMW 128i. The BRZ Limited has all the options, and its price sticker says $28,265.
Only when you see the BRZ in the context of traffic do you realize that it is scaled right down for the driver, even though it has space and functionality for four occupants and their stuff. Measuring 166.7 inches in overall length on a 101.2-inch wheelbase and weighing 2776 pounds in Limited trim with the manual transmission, the BRZ makes us recall the famous simile to horse and rider that has always guided the development of the Mazda Miata.
You feel much the same Miata-style energizing spirit on the track in the BRZ, as the 200-hp, 2.0-liter Subaru boxer four-cylinder responds eagerly at low rpm, and quick work with the short-throw linkage of the six-speed manual transmission transports you into ever-higher portions of the speedometer dial. This car steers much like an all-wheel-drive Subaru Impreza WRX, which is to say that the front tires feel like they’re doing a lot of work. We think this makes the BRZ safe and controllable for most drivers, even if it’s less lively than the Scion FR-S.
The BRZ’s brakes fade quickly on the track, and we could feel the Subaru roll under the sidewalls of its 215/45WR-17 Michelin Primacy HP tires in Chuckwalla’s fast, downhill ess combinations. Then again, this is why they call it “driving,” not “gaming.” You learn to manage with what you’ve got instead of simply looking up the cheat code for an upgrade to a more track-ready suspension. Moreover, you become aware of the BRZ’s merits on the way home, which is an experience that won’t destroy your enthusiasm for such a sporting car.
Just as the Subaru BRZ stretches the sports car concept in one direction, so, too, the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 expands it in another. This is a seriously large car, measuring 190.4 inches in overall length on a wheelbase of 112.3 inches. You can feel every one of this car’s 4120 pounds as if you had carried them yourself to the ZL1’s assembly plant in Oshawa, Ontario.
So what can you say about a 580-hp car? That sometimes 500 hp just isn’t enough? As you’d expect, the ZL1 is very quick, as only something capable of tearing through the quarter mile in twelve seconds can be. Yet the miracle of the Camaro ZL1 is your ability to control it. It’s not refinement we’re talking about (although it indeed is wonderfully refined), but instead the ability to command 580 hp and make use of so much muscle in appropriate circumstances. That is to say that you can look out of the ZL1’s windshield at the dragway or racetrack and think to yourself, “I have a dead-solid, 50/50 chance of making it through this without bursting into a ball of flame.”
We could go on about the miracle of the supercharged V-8, a powerplant as stout as any crate engine from GM Performance Parts. We could go on about the chassis, which actually rides more comfortably than any lesser Camaro when you dial the mode for the adaptive dampers to the Tour setting. We could say that this car is so drivable even with the six-speed manual transmission and the heavy-effort clutch pedal that the oldest and most feeble of us (yr. obt. svt.) was able to negotiate three hours of bumper-to-bumper rush-hour traffic in L.A. without harming either himself or anyone else.
But what you really want to know is what it’s like to engage launch control and feel the 305/35YR-20 Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar G:2 rear tires hook up at the starting line with barely a scratch, or what it’s like to lean on the throttle coming out of a corner and feel the car simply rush forward without a stutter as the electronics modulate engine torque 1000 times per second. Well, this particular Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 carries a sticker price of $59,240. Anyone can buy one.
In comparison to such extreme statements as the Subaru BRZ and the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, the Porsche Boxster seems less than breathtaking, as close to a generic example of the modern sports car as you might find. After all, how many Boxsters have been built since the model was first shown at the 1993 Detroit auto show and then introduced into production in 1997? Roughly 245,000. And yet this third-generation Boxster is remarkable precisely because it has come to define the modern sports car. It’s no longer just Porsche Lite, the sports car for those who haven’t yet worked up the courage (or bank balance) for a Porsche 911.
First of all, the 2013 Boxster looks great. It has become a little more itself and less an echo of the original Porsche 550 Spyder, although it does seem larger. It measures 172.2 inches in overall length on a wheelbase of 97.4 inches and weighs 2888 pounds with the six-speed manual transmission. And did we mention that it’s great to drive in everyday life? You are keenly in touch with the pleasures of
operating the machinery, and you’re always reminded that this is a device that you are operating, not an algorithm. After all, no algorithm sounds like this 265-hp, 2.7-liter flat six-cylinder.
Even better, you can drive the Boxster quickly without having to take a leap of faith. Of these three cars at Chuckwalla, the Porsche proved the easiest to drive. Its 235/40YR-19 Pirelli PZero front tires found the racing line with unerring precision, although we have to say that the long, double-apex corners that distinguish the Chuckwalla layout reveal the slightly light effort level that’s calibrated for the electrically assisted steering. At the same time, the Boxster’s easy controllability is backed by an array of safety electronics to enhance stability in cornering and braking, making this a car in which you can face a dark, winding road with confidence.
Compared with the $120,000 price for virtually any new Porsche 911 for sale in the real world, even this heavily optioned $75,615 example of the Boxster seems like a bargain. Yet the Boxster is no one’s compromise, no little brother of the 911. This is the car about which little boys will dream, for which young men will save, and which real men and real women will drive in the real world.
Naturally, there will be lots of arguments about what cars best represent the driving machines of these times. We like the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, the Porsche Boxster, and the Subaru BRZ/Scion FR-S because they represent doorways into the enjoyment that pure, track-oriented fast driving offers. These cars — each an All-Star — can make fast driving a reality for almost everyone and will then let you drive home in comfort and safety when it’s time to get back to real life. — Michael Jordan, photography by Andrew Yeadon
Chevrolet Camaro ZL1
Price: $56,550/$59,240 (base/as tested)
Engine: 6.2L supercharged V-8, 580 hp, 556 lb-ft
EPA mileage: 14/19 mpg, 12/18 mpg (manual, automatic)
Price: $50,450/$63,050/$75,615 (Boxster/Boxster S/as tested)
Engines: 2.7L flat-6, 265 hp, 206 lb-ft; 3.4L flat-6, 315 hp, 266 lb-ft (Boxster; Boxster S)
EPA mileage: 20-22/30-32 mpg, 20-21/28-30 mpg (Boxster, Boxster S)
Subaru BRZ / Scion FR-S
Price: $25,255/$26,265/$28,265 (base FR-S/base BRZ/as tested)
Engine: 2.0L flat-4, 200 hp, 151 lb-ft
EPA mileage: 22/30 mpg, 25/34 mpg (manual, automatic)
You never really think of this while scarfing down a burger, but a cow can be a mean beast. Particularly when that cow is actually a steer with twin horns as long and pointy as scimitars.
Right now there’s a big ol’ Texas longhorn a dozen paces away, head lowered and glowering. If this were a cartoon, smoke would be bellowing out of his nostrils. He’s either gonna charge or break off to the right and escape. I’m supposed to get him to turn around and follow the herd. It’s a Mexican — or Texan, perhaps — standoff.
Then…kaboom! His massive frame explodes into action, thousands of pounds of lean, delicious meat making a hard break sideways. I make my own move: standing on the gas pedal and giving life to a supercharged 3.0-liter V-6.
The beauty is faster than the beast. Tires spin through soft dirt. The car plows through high weeds, skims over prairie-dog holes, and cuts him off. The steer stops short, snorting, then flips a callous tail and follows his cow buddies. Turns out a $72,000 Audi A7 makes a pretty convincing cutting horse.
I look over at Chris Thomsen, a real cowboy on a real horse, and, just behind him, another longhorn — the Ram 1500 Laramie Longhorn Edition. Who needs you guys, anyhow?
We’re at Texas Ranch Life, an 1800-acre working dude ranch an hour outside of Houston. There are a few hundred longhorn and bison in this rutted field. The Ram is the obvious ranch vehicle, but right now I’m feeling pretty darn tootin’ about my Ingolstadt steed of steel. You’d also assume that the Audi is the better urban runabout, but I’m no longer convinced of that, either.
These are two of our 2013 All-Stars: the Audi A7 and the Ram 1500. The A7 starts at $61,000, while a fully loaded Ram 1500 can brush past $55,000. They seem to occupy two parallel universes, the twain never to meet. But, who’s to say any driver is so singular, so mono-minded, so damn boring? Some days we feel like a supple sedan with sinuous lines and others an übermasculine rip-roaring, Hemi-snorting pickup truck.
There’s one place in the world where the A7 and the Ram might be cross-shopped — Houston. Swimming in crude, awash in petro-dollars, the town draws multinationals who dig their automobiles. Although it is less crass than Dallas, Houston is built on a bedrock of irascible, leave-us-alone determination, peopled by bleeding-red Republicans and more than a few would-be secessionists. So, you know, still Texas.
Which vehicle would be the quintessential Houstonite’s go-to ride? Only a series of tests could decide.
Test No. 1: Is it Houston Hot?
The French Cowboy is riding shotgun in the Ram, and he’s pleased. “Texas women would like this very much,” he says. “I’d do well with this truck.” The French Cowboy, as he’s nicknamed, is actually French, and I sense he’d do fine even without the truck. Philippe Schmit is the chef/owner of an eponymous restaurant in a chic part of town. Philippe the restaurant is a place of leather stools, frosted mirrors, and an attractive clientele. Philippe the man moved to Texas almost eight years ago after stints in top New York restaurants like Le Bernardin. He’s our guide for a night about town and a litmus test to which vehicle might best please a Houstonite.
The Laramie Longhorn Crew Cab is the tippy-top model, with a $3805 premium over the regular Laramie. The as-driven price of $54,335 includes coveted mechanicals such as the 5.7-liter Hemi V-8, four-wheel drive, and air suspension. It takes its crew-cab duties seriously; rear doors are full size, and full-size humans actually fit.
The Longhorn gets an extralarge dose of leather frippery. The chocolate brown hide and thick stitching are of European quality, there’s real wood on the dash, and it comes without the tawdry veneer that looks like cheap plastic. (The Audi, interestingly, has almost the exact same wood on the dash and center console.) The Longhorn jumps the luxury shark, though, when it comes to the studded faux saddlebags on the front seatbacks. They are as subtle as a loud-voiced Texan in, well, a restaurant in Paris.
But George-H-W-Bush are the seats comfortable! And creature comforts like the backup camera, Garmin navigation, and rain-sensing wipers call the Ram’s essential truckness into question.
Houston traffic demands swift lane changes and prompt stoplight escapes. Despite its weight and girth, the 1500 handles admirably even in emergency maneuvers, as evidenced by our avoidance of a stray dog on a lonely Texas road. This is due partly to the optional active air suspension ($1595), which keeps the chassis relatively level. At speed you can feel the truck squat, and shutters in the grille close to improve the aerodynamics. This is not to say the Ram doesn’t ride like a truck, but you don’t have to manhandle it.
More surprising still is that our truck has the same number of gears as the Audi (eight). ZF happily strikes again. The Hemi is perhaps more a psychological salve than a mechanical necessity, as the available 3.6-liter V-6 (305 hp, 269 lb-ft of torque) is highly capable. However, if you’re going all out in the epicenter of the American oil world anyhow, what’s a bit less gas mileage for the Hemi’s 395 hp and 407 lb-ft of torque?
It’s getting dark and, with the A7 following behind, Philippe directs us to Uptown Park, an area of upscale restaurants, swarming with Houston’s omnipresent socialites and valets. Over appetizers, Philippe dishes about Houston’s mansions and mentions that his investors favor Lamborghinis. Then he glances at his watch. “I have a date now, and I’m late. She may be waiting for me. But no rush.”
I whisk him away in the A7, and although he compliments the speed and élan of the Audi, he says, “The Ram is the one for me.”
I have an appointment with our next local guide anyway, a jewelry designer in her twenties, Lauren Craft. She grew up here and moved back from New York to start her own company. Lauren is wearing a couture skirt, Louboutin heels, and a friendly, if slightly confused, smile. “What are we doing, exactly?” she asks politely. Well, she’s taking us — and the vehicles — out.
She slips into the Audi’s passenger seat and we whirlwind through hot spots with names like Uchi and Anvil and Katsuya. Valets swarm (the pretty girl doesn’t hurt), and the A7 is placed alongside such cars as a Ferrari California and an Aston Martin Vantage. The Ram often vanishes to the back of the lot. At one point, it’s left in the middle of a street clogging traffic as the valets play a game of chicken. One finally relents and is visibly sweating as he backs it into a tight spot.
“The Audi fits in,” Lauren says. “It’s sleek and sexy, and I like how low it feels to the ground.” When we switch to the truck, she looks down dubiously at her sparkly short skirt and then at the height of the Ram. “Wait!” I cry. “It sinks down.” So it does, with two clicks of the key fob, a bit of street theater. She pops inside, rubbing the outlandishly large leather Longhorn stamp. “I’ve never seen a truck with details like this.” It isn’t necessarily a compliment.
No question, in the eyes of the valets and the fashionistas, the Audi wins in terms of Houston hotness.
Test No. 2: Does It Earn Its Keep?
The Audi is so unctuously smooth in traffic that it can almost seem a bit like light jazz — pleasantly background — except for the vibrant yip from the 3.0-liter V-6. Power is moderate at 310 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque, but the supercharged engine uses it wisely, all midrange punch. There’s something sensuous about the A7’s ghost-in-the-machine drive quality. You slipstream through traffic, low-slung and yet somehow still above it all. It’s arch and elite but not BMW arrogant.
So, too, goes the interior, a cyborgian mix of nature and technology that’s bloodlessly blended together. The cockpit takes itself a bit too seriously to be called warm, but you’ve got Wi-Fi, Google Maps, and a sharp sound system. It’s a better place to live than many actual living rooms.
What you really don’t expect from the A7, considering the pared-down, sexy lines, is its sheer practicality. Essentially, the Audi is a long-limbed hatchback. And right now at Texas Ranch Life, the mother/daughter duo of Taunia and Lacey Elick are shoving four large hay bales back there.
This is part of my ranch test. Texas isn’t California, so no slackers are allowed. A vehicle has to earn its keep. The A7 is quick enough to round up cattle and capacious enough to haul around hay — in this case to feed the ranch’s miniature horses, Horace and Harry.
I even go so far as to sit in the back of the A7 with the hatch up and shoot skeet out of it. Twelve-gauge shotgun to shoulder, mindful not to blow out any windows, I pop off several rounds at hand-thrown clays. (And miss, every time.)
The A7 is game, but when I stand in the bed of the Ram to shoot (and score a hit), I’ve got to be honest with myself. It was the Ram we took off-roading to recover a runaway cow. It hauls ten times as much hay. The Ram is the king of the ranch.
Test No. 3: Urban practicality
Texas is famous for being big and flat, so I’d hoped that driving and parking would be a cinch. Not so much. It’s basically Los Angeles traffic with a twang.
When you live in a city, you’re always running late for some meeting. Our final test was one of urban practicality: getting somewhere quickly and finding a place to park. We arranged a race from the Hotel Derek to downtown, ten miles away, using freeways. Road test editor Christopher Nelson would pilot the Audi. We’d start with vehicles off and have to plug the destination into the nav systems. The first vehicle to park downtown wins.
And we were off.
The Audi’s nav system is great. The Ram’s? Well, I may have misinterpreted its initial directions. The Audi seamlessly slipped into the flow of traffic. I had to wade in with the Ram. The Audi took the most expeditious route. I was lost and had to get creative.
The freeways were packed. Somehow I found a back road, but I’d wasted long minutes. Still, the difference in the predicted arrival time was a mere two minutes. As in all of my tests, the twain were more closely aligned than anyone could have expected.
Yet when I arrived downtown, the Audi was already neatly parallel parked, idling in the only available space. I took one look and realized that the Ram never would have fit in there anyhow.
The Longhorn is the ultimate in cowboy cool, but Houston is an Audi kind of town. — Jason H. Harper, photography by Martyn Goddard
Price: $60,995/$71,970 (base/as tested)
Engine: 3.0L supercharged V-6, 310 hp, 325 lb-ft
EPA mileage: 18/28 mpg
Price: $24,395/$54,335 (base/as tested)
Engines: 3.6L V-6, 305 hp, 269 lb-ft; 4.7L V-8, 310 hp, 330 lb-ft; 5.7L V-8, 395 hp, 407 lb-ft
Drive: Rear- or 4-wheel
EPA mileage: 16-18/23-25 mpg, 14/19-20 mpg, 13-15/19-21 mpg (3.6L, 4.7L, 5.7L)
As a set of keys whizzes overhead in a bank-teller-style vacuum tube, Rob May stoops to pick up a stray scrap of paper marring the floor of the otherwise spotless Honda factory in Marysville, Ohio. It’s the kind of effort you make in the hopes that the plant manager will happen to notice. The thing is, Rob May is the plant manager.
Over the next two hours, May narrates a tour of the plant, all the while chatting with line workers and periodically pausing to nab those stray scraps of paper. He’s worked here for twenty-eight years, starting out on the line and making his way up the ranks. Now 120 cars come off the assembly line here each hour, raw steel going in one end of the factory and Accords and Acura TLs driving out the other. It all looks impossibly complex, and it is.
Did you ever ponder the door of a Honda Accord? It’s stamped, mounted on the car, painted, and removed from the body. Then it’s sent down a separate line where the guts are installed — windows, switches, interior skin — and then eventually it rejoins its same car, which in the meantime has experienced its own transformation. That’s just a door. So it’s all the more astounding when Mays and I walk under an electronic board tallying productivity, and the figure for today’s downtime reads “.6”. Six-tenths of what? “Six-tenths of a minute,” he replies.
Everything here happens fast. I grab a seat in a fresh-baked Accord for a shakedown run on the test track outside, and within a minute we’ve checked steering, brakes, cruise control, suspension, and maybe a few other parameters I’m not even aware of. The driver steers toward a closed garage door that leads back inside, approaching it with a good head of steam. WrraPPPP! The door flies open and we’re back inside. Even the garage doors waste no time.
I’d like to spend all day here bothering these friendly Ohioans and watching robot welders spraying sparks, but in twenty-four hours I’ve got to be three states away. And outside in the parking lot, there’s a San Marino red example of Marysville handiwork waiting to take me there.
The new Accord is, in general, very good to drive — hence its well-earned 2013 All-Star award — but a V-6 manual coupe is on another level. I know it’s front-wheel drive, but the soul of the NSX is in there, I tell you. If you’ve got 500 miles to dispatch in a single shot, this is a fine way to do it. If those 500 miles include a climb through the brooding mountains and twisty hollers of West Virginia, so much the better.
Or so I thought. When you look at a map of West Virginia, great swaths are covered in unbroken green, mile upon mile of forest wilderness. On paper, it looks like a recipe for a great drive. And it probably is. When it’s not snowing.
Of course, it is snowing.
At a tollbooth on I-77, photographer A. J. Mueller gestures to the greasy precipitation coating the road and calls over to the cashier, “Is this normal?” She shoots back, “This is West Virginia.” I reply, “This is April!” I like to communicate by yelling facts.
And the fact is, we’re in trouble. Somewhere near Princeton, West Virginia, traffic slows to a stop. It takes an hour to cover the two miles to the Princeton exit, but at least now we can find a hotel and call it a night. Which is the exact idea that occurred to the several thousand other motorists who exited ahead of us. The highway is closed, and there are no hotel rooms here or within the next fifty miles. We’re right on the edge of one of those great big green spots on the map, hemmed in by weather and topography. There’s a distinct chance we’ll spend the night in Château d’Accord, parked on the shoulder in some West Virginia forest, listening to the plaintive cries of chupacabra and flying monkeys.
So we press on, all the way to North Carolina. We arrive in the wee hours of the morning, but the upshot is that we’ve almost reached our destination: the Charlotte AutoFair, where I’m scheduled to attend an Elvis competition. While dressed as Elvis. If I get really caught up in this, I might eat a fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich and shoot a De Tomaso Pantera.
This spring’s Charlotte AutoFair includes, in no particular order: cars, 90-mph racing lawn tractors, Elvises, a swap meet, people pushing shopping carts that have racing slicks for wheels, the world’s biggest TV (200 feet across), Rascal scooters for rent (screw walkin’), and more cars. I am not lying when I say I enjoy the Charlotte AutoFair more than the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. And there are probably about as many Hondas in either place.
This isn’t a Honda crowd. By the time I park next to the Elvis stage on the infield of Charlotte Motor Speedway, the only other Japanese-brand car I’ve seen is a NASCAR Toyota Camry, and I don’t think that counts. I don my Elvis gear and mill about with my fellow Elvi, most of whom look quite convincing. One Elvis repeatedly uses the Accord’s side glass as a mirror, combing his coif. A European guy approaches me and asks for a photo, and we stand in front of the Honda as I Elvis-sneer. Just a car built in Ohio and a guy from New England who’s dressed as a guy from Mississippi for a contest in North Carolina. What’s more American than that?
When I was about thirteen, I got a ride in a new Accord owned by some family friends. Coming from my Subaru-heavy background, that car struck me as impossibly luxurious — silent, tight, resplendent in tan leather. I thought, “If you can afford this, you’ve got yourself a damn nice way to get around.” Sure, I had no perspective, but this new Accord has me agreeing with my thirteen-year-old self. Whether you’re talking about a V-6 or a four-banger, coupe or sedan, the Accord feels like it aspires to standards that should apply to more expensive machinery. Nobody told the Accord that it’s a mass-market conveyance, rolling out of Marysville at a rate of 1900 per day.
In the past twenty-four hours, I’ve toured the factory, driven 500 miles, and worn an Elvis jumpsuit. It’s time to go home. I climb back behind the wheel, one more Accord hitting the highway. — Ezra Dyer, photography by A. J. Mueller
Price: $22,470/$24,140/$30,860/$31,140 (2.4L sedan/2.4L coupe/3.5L sedan/3.5L coupe)
Engines: 2.4L I-4, 185-189 hp, 181-182 lb-ft; 3.5L V-6, 278 hp, 252 lb-ft
EPA mileage: 24-27/34-36 mpg, 18-21/28-34 mpg (2.4L, 3.5L)
Hiroshima, Mon Amour
After the war, scientists thought nothing would grow in Hiroshima for close to a century. They were wrong. One of the first things to flower here was Mazda. Over a few decades, it transformed from a local cork manufacturer to a global automaker — and not just any automaker, but one known for building cars that we love to drive. As Automobile Magazine recognizes Mazda with its twenty-first All-Star award, this one for the CX-5 crossover — the company’s most significant new product in years — we decided that it was time to pay a visit to the Japanese carmaker’s home.
Hiroshima represents for most non-Japanese what researcher Robert Jay Lifton calls a “symbolic evocation” of “our entire nuclear nightmare.” In reality, it’s a bustling industrial city with more than a million residents. Visitors will invariably check out the poignantly beautiful Peace Memorial Park and Museum, but you’ll see more locals cheering on the perennially bad Toyo Carp at Mazda Zoom-Zoom Stadium (Mazda’s founding family runs the baseball team).
Hiroshima has more than rooting interest in Mazda: the company accounts for nearly 20 percent of the city’s GDP and directly contributes to the employment of about a third of its population. But this foundation has been fragile as of late.
“We were not allowed to fail,” explains CX-5 program manager Hideaki Tanaka over lunch at Mazda headquarters, located south of the city. The squat buildings nearly blend in with the oyster beds that dot Hiroshima Bay and remind us of something both Hiroshima residents and car enthusiasts might overlook: “Mazda is small. Other automakers are big,” says Tanaka.
The 2010 divorce from Ford left Mazda in an unenviable position. It sells fewer vehicles than BMW (about 1.2 million in 2012), and none of them are very expensive. The CX-5 is the first new car developed since Mazda split with Ford, and, through its new platform, engines, and transmissions, the small SUV lays the foundation for the independent company’s viability.
That’s a lot to ask of any car, but the CX-5 doesn’t seem to suffer from the burden. The right-hand-drive, diesel-powered model we borrow during our time in Hiroshima exhibits the same qualities we’ve praised on the other side of the Pacific. The electric power steering is precise and evenly weighted. The brake pedal is firm and progressive. Even on Japanese roads, where it’s quite large, the CX-5 feels like a small, nimble car.
Hiroshima is in some respects a city of shrines. The Gokoku Shrine dates back to the nineteenth century and was rebuilt after the war. Although most Japanese profess to be secular, it’s still common practice to have a new car blessed for good luck. The normal charge is 5000 yen (about $50), but after brief negotiations in Japanese with our Mazda tour guides — who apparently point out how much their company donates — the Shinto priest agrees to waive the fee. Another functionary opens the door, hood, and trunk and chants over it. “We believe everything has a soul,” explains one of the guides. “Even a car has a soul.”
Shintoism may offer one explanation for why Mazdas have what Tanaka calls “sentiment.” We’ll suggest a more prosaic reason: driving around here stinks. The streets downtown are congested; the highways are mined with speed cameras. This isn’t Germany. It’s easy to see why Mazda, unlike other enthusiast brands, pays so little mind to quantitative performance numbers but devotes so much care to how a vehicle actually drives. That’s true even for the CX-5, which competes in one of the most heavily benchmarked, homogenized market segments. So, even as Mazda engineers aimed for class-leading fuel economy (a combined rating of 29 mpg with the base 2.0-liter gasoline engine), they also analyzed the finer points of brake feel. Tanaka fought to offer a manual transmission in the United States, even though the take rate hovers around five percent. It’s indeed these qualities that make the CX-5 a better choice than more powerful alternatives. That said, we’re happy to dip into the diesel’s 310 lb-ft of torque and hope to see this engine soon back home (it has been confirmed for the U.S. market in the new 6 but not in the CX-5).
We arrive next at a shrine of universal spiritual import, the Genbaku Dome. It’s hard to imagine, as we drive along the riverbank on this perfectly sunny day, that
on a similarly sunny day nearly seventy years ago a nuclear bomb detonated above a spot just a couple hundred feet from here. When it did, it incinerated everything within a mile, killing 60,000 to 80,000 people instantly; the final death toll was roughly 140,000. The concrete dome, which had served as the city’s industrial promotion hall, was the nearest surviving structure. Mazda’s headquarters, located some three miles from downtown and shielded by a mountain, survived the blast and, for a time during reconstruction, housed the municipal government.(The bombing of Hiroshima is a vast subject in itself. We highly recommend reading Hiroshima, by John Hersey.)
In the midst of the larger economic miracle that swept postwar Japan, Hiroshima’s partially rotary-powered resurgence was particularly miraculous. Residents started returning as soon as the city was deemed safe, often living in improvised shacks. Within fifteen years, the downtown area had been painstakingly planned and rebuilt. Our obligatory visit to the Mazda corporate museum, guided by forty-nine-year Mazda lifer and RX-8 owner Sumio Kato, reflects the same energy and focus: first car in 1960 (the tiny R360), first sports car in 1967 (the Cosmo), Le Mans winner in 1991. We thank Kato for the tour and tell him he clearly has Mazda blood in his veins. He grins as this is translated. “Domo arigato,” he says.
Mazda and Hiroshima’s next fifty years may prove more challenging for different reasons. Manufacturing towns across Japan face kuudouka, or “hollowing out,” as companies look for lower labor costs and more favorable exchange rates. Even Mazda, which has been among the slowest to move offshore, is planning to build the next 2 in Mexico.
Hiroshima hardly feels hollow, however. It may lack Tokyo’s glittering pretensions, but it is clean, bright, and has plenty to offer — shopping, karaoke, arcades, and more. We settle for a dinner of okonomiyaki, a kind of savory pancake sautéed at our table.
Back at Mazda’s headquarters, the CX-5 has one of the factories running at full capacity. Plant manager Hironori Okano points to advancements that boost manufacturing efficiency, including a new molding process for the front bumper that cuts both weight and build time. Mazda has long pioneered new production methods at Hiroshima — it was one of the first, for instance, to align doors for proper fit before drilling the hinges. This may not sound as exciting as, say, a rotary engine that can spin to 9000 rpm, but they’re two sides of the same coin.
“Engineers collaborate from day one,” says Okano. This is true at all automakers but rarely to the degree it is at Mazda, where designers and engineers work within walking distance of the assembly line. Line workers also suggest improvements, such as a device that dispenses precisely the needed number of washers for a particular workstation. The goal is to improve plant efficiency — that is, reduce head count — by five percent each year. “Isn’t it odd to ask employees to contribute to their own attrition?” we ask.
“This is something difficult for Westerners to understand,” Okano says.
Mazda will need all the talent and devotion Hiroshima has to offer if it is to survive. The company’s size and its dependence on its homeland make it vulnerable. So, too, in a way, does its focus on driver engagement in an era when fewer customers care about driving — even Tanaka has traded his Miata for a minicar and a bicycle. But the CX-5, a 2013 All-Star and, just as important, an early commercial success, proves that Mazda and Hiroshima can still bloom together. — David Zenlea, photography by Susumu Okano/Mazda
Price: $21,990/$25,410 (2.0L/2.5L)
Engines: 2.0L I-4, 155 hp, 150 lb-ft; 2.5L I-4, 184 hp, 185 lb-ft
Drive: Front- or 4-wheel
EPA mileage: 24-26/30-35 mpg
Compact For America
Like Tantalus straining for one lousy fruit, America’s unquenched thirst for European-market hatchbacks has been a tale of pure pathos. Here, the three-decade odyssey of homegrown small cars was downright tragic; a grim march through rusting Chevrolet Chevettes, oil-spewing Dodge Omnis, and wannabe hot hatches of all tacked-on stripes.
The Ford Focus rewrote that musty book in late 1999. Finally drawing on its European division’s superior small-car expertise, Ford’s international player instantly became Detroit’s most competitive small car ever. Fourteen years later, the Focus’s winning style and substance have nearly extinguished memories of fiery Pintos and foul Escorts, but that evolutionary path was strewn with bumps and blind spots.
The Focus ST, as the rocketing apogee of this year’s Focus All-Star lineup, performs a valuable public service. This 252-hp rival to the Volkswagen GTI reminds enthusiasts of just how far our small cars have come. Its acclaimed arrival instills hope that America has joined the first world of small cars and that Ford will no longer deny hot-hatch-loving Americans, however small their number.
To better understand and celebrate the Focus’s All-Star win, we arranged a family reunion in Provence, France. Invitations went to the range-topping 2013 Focus ST and its honored European forebears: a rebellious 2009 Focus RS, a 2005 Focus ST, and the seminal 1998 Focus.
Like any family reunion, the get-together sparks fond memories but also dredges up old resentments. As disappointed Yanks will tell you, the 225-horse ’05 ST and the 305-hp RS — two of the greatest Focuses ever — were never granted American visas. Ditto for the 350-hp Focus RS500, a limited-edition legend of 2010 and 2011. Instead, Americans got the briefest tease of Focus performance, the pesky 170-hp SVT Focus of 2002 through 2004.
We start from the 100-hp beginning, a right-hand-drive 1998 Focus secured from Ford’s heritage collection in the United Kingdom. Parked next to the tangerine scream ST, the first Focus looks beyond humble with its tiny fifteen-inch wheels, mint-green-appliance paint, and 1.6-liter four-cylinder. Yet it’s worth recalling what a worldwide splash this Ford made. Even in Europe, the Focus received numerous Car of the Year awards. To Americans weaned — more accurately, malnourished — on Motown’s bottom-feeders, the Focus, when it eventually reached us, seemed like the space shuttle in comparison. We subsequently named it our Automobile of the Year in 2000.
Even today, the Focus’s good genes shine through on a fast climb up the Alps. The old ’98 proves surprisingly game, keeping the muscle-bound ST in sight on snow-dampened roads despite producing less than half the power. The original’s supple chassis and steering, steadily improved upon, remains a key to the modern Focus’s charm. Its backbreaking seats have given way to pleasing chairs, including the robust, teenage-dream Recaros of the ST — their fabric ribbed for your pleasure.
Next up, the right-hand-drive ST of 2005, less than a year removed from Ford’s first full redesign of the Focus, which was also when Ford suits hoped for Americans to suffer some Men in Black–style amnesia. The company skipped selling the second-generation car here entirely, continuing to fob off a first-generation, tarted-up Focus in native showrooms. (Premium small cars, Ford’s blinkered Detroit execs insisted, were too expensive, too weird, and too European for mainstream U.S. shoppers.) That insult wouldn’t be rectified until 2012, when Ford finally put America on the same third-generation page as the rest of the world.
What we lost becomes clear from the Audi-like thrum of the ’05 ST and its turbocharged, Volvo-based, in-line five-cylinder engine. Americans would have swooned over the evolved, soft-touch interior. There is even a navigation system with a female-voiced route helper, which in 2005 would have seemed unimaginably posh in a home-market compact.
That 2.5-liter engine peaked with the RS models. On the road, a noisily spinning turbo, Quaife limited-slip differential, and 305 high-strung ponies make the ’09 RS seem more like a SEMA special than a production car. Yet in the likely event that another RS is in the cards, Ford honchos suggest that this time it’ll be sold on our shores.
Although the RS models remain history’s most hard-core Focuses, the new ST crushes sour domestic grapes with every blast of turbo juice and lift-throttle shake of its shapely hindquarters. The ability to induce easy, controllable oversteer — in a front-wheel-drive car — is a counterintuitive marvel that has eluded highfalutin compacts from the MINI Cooper to decades of VW GTIs. This tightrope balance was bequeathed by Jost Capito, the former head of global performance vehicles at Ford, whose résumé also includes running Porsche motorsports and Red Bull’s Formula 1 team. The German-born engineer has since departed to lead Volkswagen’s racing efforts but left Ford’s performance unit in similarly energetic, capable hands.
Enthusiasts can and should geek out over the ST, a hatchback that smokes roads without torching the budget. But let’s remember that the vast majority of people will buy, and be thrilled by, a standard-issue Focus — an All-Star last year, too, we’ll remind you — whether hatchback or sedan. That car’s bedrock brilliance starts with a dynamic chassis and a 160-hp, 2.0-liter, direct-injected four-cylinder. Closer to the surface, the Ford’s formidable design and features set an alluring new standard for affordable American cars.
Even with all that, Ford still wasn’t satisfied. The Focus Electric plays the green card, slapping a lithium-ion battery in back and that cribbed Aston Martin grille on the front. Sure, the Electric is expensive and short-ranged, but that’s true for all early-adopter EVs. More important, the Focus’s essential dynamic goodness isn’t squelched by those weighty lithium-ion battery packs and complex electronics.
With the Focus ST finally speaking the international language of turbo shove, who knows? Perhaps Ford will gift us with the overachieving 123-hp, 1.0-liter EcoBoost three-cylinder that’s been introduced in European models and is currently penciled in for our 2014 Fiesta.
Yes, the Focus proves that Motown squirts can be All-Stars, too. But there’s more to it. The scrappy Ford confronts Detroit’s most enduring, pernicious mind-set and kills it dead: That small cars are a necessary evil, loss leaders and CAFE fudgers designed to keep factories and rental counters humming. And to hell with pride or performance.
Almost unimaginably, the Focus is now the world’s most popular car, posting just over one million sales in 2012.
The international Focus finally backs the company’s “One Ford” boasts, a world where Americans are no longer second-class citizens. As such, the Focus represents a toast to car lovers. Raise a glass, and vow with us: no more forbidden fruit. Somewhere, Tantalus is smacking his lips. — Lawrence Ulrich, photography by Tim Andrew
Price: $16,995/$24,495/$39,995 (base/ST/Electric)
Powertrains: 2.0L I-4, 160 hp, 146 lb-ft; 2.0L turbocharged I-4, 252 hp, 270 lb-ft;permanent-magnet motor, 143 hp, 184 lb-ft
EPA mileage: 26-27/36-38 mpg, 23/32 mpg, 110/99 mpg-e (base, ST, Electric)
To Live and Drive in L.A.
You see a lot of 3-series BMWs in L.A. That’s not surprising, really. Los Angeles is known as a place where your car is not just a place you spend a lot of time, it’s also an extension of yourself. And in the car culture of Southern California, where self-expression is a way of life, driving a BMW tells people something about you that driving a mainstream brand does not. Given the fact that the 3-series has long been the most accessible BMW, well, you see a lot of 3-series BMWs in L.A.
Here’s what’s weird: The 3-series is celebrated for its performance and athleticism, but that doesn’t matter to all those little BMWs stuck on the San Diego Freeway, crawling through the Cahuenga Pass on U.S. 101, motionless on the way to downtown on the Harbor Freeway, or simply creeping from light to light on La Cienega, Ventura, or Sunset Boulevards. For most of its citizens most of the time, L.A. is a mind-numbingly bad place to drive.
Over time, the BMW 3-Series has evolved to live that life, and it does it well. For example, it seems that every new iteration of the car has a roomier interior, to the point that the current car’s back seat now comfortably accommodates adults and is among the best in its class. The cabin, which was once a warren of hard plastic, now proffers soft-touch surfaces and luxurious materials, making it a more pleasant place to while away the hours when stuck in traffic. It’s also an environment more in keeping with the higher sticker price, which in our test example was $46,795 and can go much higher. Besides the expected Bluetooth and navigation, an available phalanx of cameras helps the driver negotiate close quarters or dense traffic. Even BMW’s initially (and justly) maligned iDrive has grown into a system that is genuinely helpful and easy to use.
Mechanically, the 3-series has adapted to its new mission as well. The 328i has replaced its normally aspirated straight six with a turbo four-cylinder, reaping significant fuel-economy gains with no loss in performance and only some degradation of the auditory experience. Now BMW has added a 320i, which features a turbo four that sacrifices 60 hp but still sprints to 60 mph in 7.1 seconds; more important, the 320i lowers the 3-series’ entry price to $33,445. Buyers who really want to save fuel might wait for the diesel 328d, which arrives this fall and is expected to return 45 mpg on the highway. Meanwhile, all 3-series engines, including the turbo six-cylinder in the 335i, include automatic stop/start to save gas when you come to a stop. A six-speed manual is available with both turbo fours and the straight six, but those who choose an automatic — the vast majority, particularly in congested environs such as this — get an excellent one, with eight forward speeds, impressive shift logic, and available shift paddles.
BMW’s vaunted chassis tuning, historically the heart and soul of the 3-series, is now customizable. The 3-series is offered in four different “lines.” The Modern and Luxury Lines share the base car’s suspension; the Sport and the M Sport have a firmer setup. Also, there’s the optional Adaptive M Sport suspension and Variable Sport Steering. The standard Driving Dynamics Control adjusts steering effort, throttle calibration, and automatic-transmission mapping along with the firmness of the optional adaptive dampers. This allows BMW to broaden the model’s bandwidth, making it more things to more people.
All that makes ordering a 3-series a much more complicated process than it used to be, but spec it right (Sport Line or M Sport is a must, and the Dynamic Handling Package bundles the worthwhile Adaptive M Sport suspension and the surprisingly good Variable Sport Steering) and this BMW still can ignite an enthusiast’s fire in a way that its competitors cannot.
Similarly, we were happy to discover that it’s possible to bust out of the gridlock in the L.A. basin into the mountain canyons, notably those on either side of Mulholland Drive, which runs along the crest above Malibu. Here you can experience the automotive paradise of California mythology. And when you do, the BMW 3-series (OK, the right BMW 3-series) is the perfect car to have under you.
It’s in the way the steering effort loads up during a seemingly endless series of switchbacks, the way the suspension reacts with each turn of the wheel, and the way the throttle is so precisely calibrated. You can feel the connection to the heritage that goes back to the BMW 2002 and the dawn of the compact sport sedan. The cabin of the 3-series, so spacious and placid on a harried freeway, seems to wrap more closely around you when the going gets urgent. This BMW still is very businesslike in the way it delivers information, still offers a pitch-perfect driving position, still allows for excellent sight lines. The active driver is rewarded.
The BMW 3-series is so ubiquitous that it’s easy to forget how exceptional it really is. Here in L.A., where everyone either drives a BMW or wishes they did, we’re reminded that, while the 3-series is now more attuned to the often grim reality of everyday driving, what makes us love it is how rewarding it is when you’re livin’ the dream. — Joe Lorio, photography by Paul Barshon
2013 BMW 328i M Sport
Price: $41,595/$46,795 (base/as tested)
Engine: 2.0L turbocharged I-4, 240 hp, 255 lb-ft
EPA mileage: 22/34 mpg, 23/33 mpg (manual, automatic)
The complex is served by eight on-site stores as well as fourteen restaurants that produce 30,000 meals a day, and a fleet of more than 6000 bicycles is on hand for internal mobility without pollution.
“There is no there there.”
The expatriate American writer Gertrude Stein said that about her hometown, Oakland, California, but her cogent analysis applies just as well to Wolfsburg, Germany, whence have come Volkswagen cars for three-quarters of a century. No matter where you go in the company town, population 120,000, Volkswagen is there, but not much else is. VW was there before there even was a city. Wolfsburg was the name of a castle in the vicinity of Fallersleben, a tiny village adjacent to which the criminally insane Third Reich built the sprawling factory that stands today.
The centerpiece of the town — and everything in and around it — is that massive brick factory complex, built in 1938 for the express purpose of producing the Ferdinand Porsche (and uncredited Hans Ledwinka)–designed “Strength Through Joy” People’s Car, probably the only good thing to come out of Nazi Germany. The architecture is imposing, and all the parts that were bombed flat in the first half of the 1940s have long since been meticulously reconstructed, minus the political symbols that once adorned the façade.
Assembly Hall 54 is almost a mile long, and the entire works covers 2.6 square miles, 1.2 of them under a roof. It’s staggeringly big, with 50,000 workers doing three shifts a day. The complex is served by eight on-site stores as well as fourteen restaurants that produce 30,000 meals a day, and a fleet of more than 6000 bicycles is on hand for internal mobility without pollution. Given that Volkswagen cars are really well made, with tight fits and good finishes, it’s almost shocking to see how inefficient the production process is, despite the presence of thousands of robots for shifting, lifting, placing, welding, and painting. There’s not a hint of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, as the workers are given plenty of time to perform their tasks, and they work on wooden floors, which are easier on their joints than concrete or steel. To a visitor it looks like a very good place to work. However, it’s all endearingly haphazard. Apparently finished cars are scattered around at odd angles here and there along the sides of internal roadworks, and cars deemed too hazardous to drive 100 yards from the end of the last inspection point to the wheel-alignment station are wheeled away by electric carts that jack up the front end before trundling them around a corner.
We are here because the Golf VI GTI — still being built for the U.S. market alongside the Golf VII GTI shown in Geneva earlier this year — is once again an Automobile Magazine All-Star, and we wanted to see if there might be an environmental reason for the GTI being the quintessential European hot hatch. Were there trying roads that demand exceptional dynamic qualities? Driving around a very clean and prosperous-looking Wolfsburg, we found nothing to suggest that. The town is without hills or winding roads or ancient narrow streets and is built on a gridded layout. We spotted all the commercial entities you’d expect to see in any small city, but our VW communications-department guides — Catharina Mette and Janine Katzwinkel — kept identifying establishment after establishment as VW-owned or -directed or -endowed. A university for mechanical education is one of those. There’s also the handsome Volkswagen Arena built eleven years ago on the site of “Italian Town,” where imported guest workers lived in the 1960s. Our genial guide to the production process, Giacomo Cammisano, is the Wolfsburg-born son of one of those early-’60s arrivals.
As a sign of VW’s pervasive influence in the area, we noted that the electric Golfs available for rental at a repurposed old gas station all have EV (for Electric Vehicle) on their license plates, and the Touran used by the PR staff includes VW in its registration, so local functionaries are well-involved in promoting the town’s business. We thought to seek out the places where designers and engineers might gather after work. That idea brought forth laughter from our guides. “Oh, those people don’t live in Wolfsburg — they go to Berlin or Braunschweig, where it’s lively,” adding that they, too, would be leaving town immediately after our excellent dinner in an Italian restaurant that might well have been in rural northern Italy. It’s conveniently located across the street from the Italian cultural center.
Ultimately, the fate of Volkswagen depended on the British, who were responsible for the zone of partitioned postwar Germany where VW was located. The factory was offered as reparations to British industry — and was rejected — and to Ford, whose executive Ernest Breech thought neither the car nor the factory were “worth a damn.” British Army Major Ivan Hirst, who was responsible for helping rebuild normal life for people in the vicinity, decided to restart production, if only to provide vehicles for the British military to use. It was a farsighted decision, one that, as time went on, had worldwide implications. The Type 1 Beetle became one of the most important and most-produced cars of all time. Curiously, we saw not a single Type 1 during the time we spent in Wolfsburg. That part of the company’s history is not particularly evoked, not even in multiple glass display boxes in the parking lot for Autostadt, the Disneyland-like theme park where all the many VW Group makes are featured. Instead, assorted Golf variants are shown, most of them second-generation (Golf II) models.
The Golf is key to VW’s current prosperity, and for the moment Golfs VI and VII are running down the assembly lines together until later this year. In a sense, the Golf’s success was a fluke. Rudolf Leiding, VW’s third postwar chairman, wanted to kill it before its launch, as he had killed the engine-under-the-back-seat VW designed by Porsche, but he thought it was so far along that it had best be finished and put on sale. Today it is so important to Wolfsburg that even before the twenty-five-millionth Golf was made there in 2007 — it’s on display in the factory, covered with thousands of signatures from workers who helped make it — the city changed many of its signs, substituting a G for the W, turning the municipality into Golfsburg for several weeks.
Golfs are great cars, and our All-Star GTI is the greatest of them all. — Robert Cumberford, photography by Tom Salt
Engine: 2.0L turbocharged I-4, 200 hp, 207 lb-ft
EPA mileage: 21/31 mpg, 24/33 mpg (manual, automatic)