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Don Adair's Seat Time

Archive for November 2012

Cadillac ATS: New kid has attitude

It's all-GM all-the-time this week here at Seat Time.

For the past few days, we've focused on Chevy's new mini-car, the Spark. For the next few days we'll look at Cadillac's newest and smallest, the ATS sport sedan.

We might as well get this out of the way right up top; Cadillac makes no bones of the fact that it benchmarked BMW's 3 Series during ATS development. And why not? The 3 is the world's compact sport sedan of choice; if you're going to pick a target, make it a good one.

The ATS is a four-passenger sedan available in RWD and AWD configurations. It offers a choice of three powerplants - two fours (one turbocharged) and a six - and a wide range of performance enhancements and options.

By its very nature, it's a temptress, beckoning one to places one should not venture — and making sure you love every moment of it.

But more about performance in a later post. For now, we'll say only that the ATS's talents outstrip those of any Caddy before it, save its big brother, the 556-hp CTS-V. Suffice to say, its capabilities also will surpass those possessed by all but a very exclusive handful of drivers.

It's a good one, but so is the 3 Series. We have a shoot-out on our hands, folks.

Before signing off, we'll note that the ATS:

  • is less rougly $2,000 less expensive than the 3, when comparably equipped, says Cadillac;
  • features Cadlillac's new CUE (Cadillac User Experience), an voice-activated touchscreen infotainment system that pairs as many as 10 Bluetooth-enabled mobile devices, USBs, SD cards and MP3 players. You may not love it, but you'll learn to make your peace with it.

Check in tomorrow for a more detailed look at the systems that make the littlest Caddy go.

Chevy Spark: Making more from less

As you would imagine, the base Spark ($12,995, including destination) is relatively spare in the standard-features category. Air-conditioning, power windows, 60/40-split-folding rear seats, a height-adjustable driver seat, a tilt-only steering wheel, a trip computer, OnStar telematics and a four-speaker radio with an auxiliary audio jack are all standard, as are 15-inch alloys.

But whichever Spark you choose, the gauges perch behind the steering wheel in a column-mounted pod, a nod to motorcycle design. There’s an analog speedo, a digital tach and a small driver-information display.

All rather basic and functional.

Body-colored trim bits brighten the interior and rescue it from tedium. Ice-blue ambient lighting comes up gently when a door opens.

The steering wheel tilts but doesn’t telescope, which may bring grief to long-legged drivers. Larger folk are likely to find the cabin too cozy.

Predictably, there are minimal storage opportunities, though a small bin beneath the center stack accommodates a cell phone, which otherwise would find its way into a cupholder. 

One sits on the smallish, slightly bolstered seats, rather than nestling into them. Despite any obvious lumber support, my back survived pain-free, despite logging several serial hours of drive time.

There’s adequate rear-seat legroom for adults, though the bottom cushions are thin and sit low to the floor. No guarantees from here regarding their comfort on longer jaunts.

As I learned the hard way, folding the rear seats to increase cargo space reduces front-seat legroom. 

Chevy's interior designers made a valiant effort to maximize the available space. Fact is, there wasn’t that much to work with.

No such thing as a bump-free revolution

I suspect that in the final analysis, touchscreen navigation and infotainment systems will be found to be dangerous.

IMHO, any onboard function that requires that drivers a) take their eyes off the road and b) reach out to touch an icon on a screen while moving is inherently unsafe. Despite the learning curve involved, I prefer device-based input systems like those pioneered by Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi.
 
Of them, I like Audi’s MMI system best.
 
Strike one: Chevy bases its new MyLink radio infotainment system on touchscreen technology. 
 
Strike two: The system is unstable. MyLink froze four times in four days and refused to respond; even shutting off and restarting the Spark failed to do the trick. I learned to simply wait it out.  
 
Under normal circumstances, this is an annoying glitch. If it were to happen while navigating heavy — and fast — traffic in the urban areas for which the Spark is intended, the consequences could be significant.
 
Strike three: I’ve decided to not levy a strike three, though I’m tempted. The value of smartphone-based systems depends largely on having a functional smartphone with a reliable signal. No signal, no Bluetooth streaming audio, no BringGo navigation, no Pandora Internet radio.
 
Chances are that in those places where cell phone coverage fails, satellite radio will fail as well. Whether lost in the wilds of southern Oregon or buried deep the canyons of Manhattan, where there’s no connectivity, there will be no fun.
 
To be fair, owners will learn to bring along a cable for direct phone-to-system connectivity. At least there will be tunes.
 
Also, as systems mature and voice recognition improves, we'll rely on voice commands to control our car's various functions. 
 
Still, as automakers increase our dependency on cloud-based services, we'll have to learn to fend for ourselves.
 
Like all revolutions, this one comes with bumpy spots.

The mighty mini Spark hits the highway

Not even Chevy claims for the Spark the ride and handling package of a German Grand Touring machine.

Twelve feet long and riding on a 93-inch wheelbase, the Spark has more in common size-wise with a washing machine packing crate than an S-class Mercedes.

Fifteen-inch low-rolling-resistance tires paired with a ping-pong-ball-like curb weight of 2,237 pounds promise a third-world ride-and-handling package.

A 84-horsepower, 1.2-liter engine makes the thing go. It can be mated with a five-speed manual or optional four-speed automatic.

Aside from abundant cabin noise at highway speeds, the Spark acquitted itself well on my thanksgiving-week wanderings, which were not paltry.

Despite an absence of steering feel, the Spark tracks well on the freeway and handles abrupt lane changes with the poise of a larger car. During the nearly three-hour jaunt between Portland and Eugene, I lost track of the fact that I was driving a car the size of a walnut with a glandular disorder.

At 70 mph, the little engine happily revved along at something just over 3,000 RPM, but was smooth and silent at those speeds. The onboard fuel meter consistently read just in excess of 37 mph.

On the winding two-lane Hwy. 38 between Drain, Oregon, and the coast, the Spark carved through curves with minimal body lean and, when I needed to, I could drop a gear or two and get around slower traffic.

Upcoming: Tomorrow, we’ll look at smartphone-base infotainment systems. Further ahead, cabin comfort and amenities.

Chevy Spark: Mighty mite or 2200-lb weakling?

Chevrolet’s Spark is the company’s first mini-car, a competitor to the Fiat 500, Smart Fortwo and Scion IQ.

The anti-Suburban, if you will.

It’s GM’s smallest car, and also, at $12,995, its most affordable.

Yet the Spark has room for four adults and, so configured, enough cargo space for a handful of grocery bags, a gym bag or a couple of overnightbags. Dropping the rear seatbacks trebles cargo space to 31.5 cubic feet, or a little more than a third of the Suburban’s.

A mere 12 feet long, the Spark rides on a 93.5-inch wheelbase and weighs in at 2,237 lbs with its standard five-speed manual transmission and 2,269 with the optional four-speed automatic.

EPA ratings: 32 city/38 highway, on regular unleaded.

In the spirit of austerity — and weight savings — the Spark does without a CD player (true fact: an in-dash CD player can weigh 7 lbs). Instead, a smartphone-based system called MyLink Radio serves as the entertainment center via Bluetooth, cable or USB.

Instead of a navigation system, Chevy will introduce a new $50 app called BringGo. For now, owners must rely on the optional OnStar Directions & Connections package that, after three trial months, requires a $28.50 monthly subscription charge. 

Chevy pegs the Spark as a city car for young, first-time buyers. But there's no reason that older folks, with downsized lifestyles, won't also take a look, especially RVers looking for an affordable toad. 

Coming up: We’ll take a deeper look at ride quality, cabin noise and the like, and give some thought to smartphone entertainment systems.

2013 Escape: More Than Just Cool Stuff

So much cool stuff clings to the 2013 Ford Escape, it would be easy to lose site of how fundamentally good it is.

No doubt you’ve heard about the motion-sensing handsfree tailgate, the torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system and the first-in-class application of active park assist.

Nor will Ford let you forget about the three engine choices, two of which are turbo-charged and direct-injected, or the Escape’s dramatic fuel efficiency gains.
 
Also a new are a blind-spot warning system, a cross-traffic alert system and a system that slows an Escape carrying too much speed into a corner.
 
Be that as it may, I recently crossed the state twice in a minimally equipped, FWD Escape and came away with an appreciation for the basic car, sans frills. In town, the ride is firm but compliant; on the road it’s settled and stable, the result of a longer wheelbase, wider track and new steering and suspension systems.
 
A trim, contemporary exterior replaces the boxy shape of the previous generation and the stylish cabin is finished in high-quality materials.
 
The Sync connectivity system remains one of the best in the business and, while it remains a work in progress, the optional MyFord Touch system is no longer a reason to not buy the car.
 
Fulfills the world-car promise
The Escape makes good on the promise of the world-car. Known in Europe and China as the Kuga, it’s based on the all-new and very good Focus. In a single vehicle, Ford marries the size, efficiency and dynamics demanded by foreign markets with the comforts and technologies sought by Americans.
 
The Escape has been redesigned from the outside in. The roofline comes down about 4.5 inches and ground clearance drops half an inch. The streamlining process results in a bit less passenger space and a bit more cargo space.
 
The base, FWD-only Escape S ($23,750, with destination) is lightly equipped and intended primarily for fleets. Most consumers will choose the SE ($25,895) or SEL ($28,695). The top-of-the-line Titanium rings out at $31,195.
 
A 168-horsepower, 2.5-liter four powers the S. Both SE and SEL can be had with a 178-horsepower 1.6-liter four or a 270-hp, 2.0-liter four. Both are turbocharged and direct-injected.
 
The 2.5 fetches 22 mpg city/31 mpg highway, the 1.6 23 city/33 highway and the 2.0 22/30/25. AWD versions rate 1-2 mpg less.
 
My FWD SE tester had the 1.6-liter Ecoboost engine, which handled Snoqualmie without fuss, though the Ryegrass grade forced a few downshifts. Owners planning to tow or carry heavy loads may need the larger engine.
 
MyFord Touch is still too complex; the touchscreen interface is distracting and the learning curve is steep. Its voice-command lexicon has grown, though, and the system moves us toward the day when we will speak to our cars.
 
Beneath the razzle-dazzle, the 2013 Escape is a seriously good compact CUV, the kind of rig that makes it easy to root for Detroit. 
 
Don Adair is a Spokane-based freelance writer. He may be contacted at don@dadair.com.
 
2013 Ford Escape SE FWD

Vehicle base price: $22,470

Trim level base price: $25,070
As tested: $27,860
Optional equipment: Cargo management package; roof rails with cross bars; tonneau cover; perimeter alarm, MyFord Touch with satellite radio and navigation.
EPA ratings: 23 city/33 highway

Regular unleaded fuel specified

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