First Ride auto news

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Harley-Davidson LiveWire [w/video]

06/26/2014   [Original: Autoblog]
Category: Videos, Motorcycles, Design/Style, Electric, First Ride

Harley-Davidson LiveWire

Days before Harley-Davidson shocked the world with news that after 111 years of building increasingly larger, gas-powered V-twins, it was going all Tesla with its plug-in electric LiveWire, I had the chance to ride it.

The country's largest and most iconic motorcycle maker had set up shop on a remote strip of SoCal asphalt, a pair of top-secret LiveWires at the ready. The trailer that had carried them was unmarked, and with the exception of two Harley employees, no one was around to notice that the motorcycle silently blazing down the runway was from Milwaukee's finest. If it weren't for the black-and-orange color scheme or bar-and-shield badge, the LiveWIre's provenance would be a wild guess. It's just that different from the cruisers Harley has cranked out for decades.

Gone is the laid-back riding position, along with the bigger-is-better profile and long-haul-touring floorboards. In their place: a compact machine with an aggressive, forward-leaning stance and sporty centered foot pegs. Even the trellis frame is more Ducati than hog, hiding, as it does, a stack of lithium ion batteries instead of proudly showcasing a hulking, 103-cubic-inch V-twin. There is no gas tank. No exhaust. Just a bobbed tail suspended on a monoshock above a rear tire driven with a belt instead of a chain.

The LiveWire ignition is keyless and, like most Harleys, works in combination with a fob, but that's where the similarities end. Turning it on is a matter of flipping a switch on the right grip - an act that isn't greeted with the nearly trademarked, and now electronically programmed, potato-potato-potato exhaust note. Instead, there is a low-grade hum as an oil pump kicks in to cool the 74-horsepower electric motor bolted to its belly and a second pump that cools its ECU.

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2015 Ford Mustang EcoBoost

05/16/2014   [Original: Autoblog]
Category: Coupes, Sports/GTs, Ford, First Ride

2015 Ford Mustang EcoBoost

Earlier this week, Ford invited us to Charlotte, NC, to ride in an all-new 2015 Mustang fitted with its turbocharged 2.3-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder. It's the first forced-induction, four-cylinder ponycar for the Blue Oval since the sun set on the 1986 Mustang SVO. We jumped at the opportunity, as only a handful of people have ever been in the passenger seat of this new car, and most automotive media won't get as close as we did until this fall.

As we revealed in our Deep Dive, Ford will slot this new turbocharged four as premium powerplant between its naturally aspirated 3.7-liter V6 and the naturally aspirated 5.0-liter V8. At last mention, the automaker said the direct-injected, all-aluminum engine will develop 305 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque, returning the best fuel economy of the three powerplants in the process. History buffs will note that those figures are appreciably stouter than the 200 horses and 240 lb-ft that the '86 SVO realized out of the same displacement, and the latter's figures were hugely impressive at the time. On paper, the new EcoBoost four looks to be a good fit for most owners who want to balance performance with efficiency - we were eager to see how it felt from the passenger seat.

Riding Notes

  • Ford is continuously polishing its final product. The Mustang we rode in was a prototype, still in need of some final tweaks. Its interior was mostly complete, but many of the surfaces were lacking texture or constructed with the incorrect material - standard prototype fare.
  • A manual and a traditional automatic transmission will be offered at launch, with both containing six gears. While the standard trans is a carryover, the automatic has been upgraded with paddle shifters and is driver configurable with four different electronic modes (Normal, Sport, Track and Snow/Wet) that alter shift points, traction control and throttle response. Our test car was equipped with the automatic.
  • The steering effort may also be adjusted between three different settings (Comfort, Normal and Sport), thanks to its new electronically assisted rack.
  • Our car was optioned with a Performance Package that will be a must-have for enthusiasts. It includes firmer dampers and higher-rate springs (take a closer look and note that the 2015 model already rides a bit lower, with tighter wheel well gaps), chassis bracing, upgraded front bushings and stiffer sway bars (by about five percent). More capable four-piston brake calipers are fitted to the front axle over 13.8-inch ventilated rotors, while the rear brakes retain a single-piston sliding caliper over 13.0-inch ventilated discs. The package does nothing for the engine, but a new 3:55 rear axle ratio (replacing a 3:31) will make it feel a bit quicker. Lastly, a set of 19-inch alloys wrapped in performance-oriented Pirelli PZero rubber (255/40R19 at all four corners) improves grip.
  • Off-the-line acceleration wasn't tire-chirpingly quick, even in the sportiest setting, but once the engine was under full boost - we noted a bit more than 15 psi on the analog dial between the center HVAC vents - it started to pull strongly, wanting to stretch its legs. (Ambient temperatures were in the mid-90s, with equally high humidity, both of which work against a turbocharged powerplant.) The short autocross course limited the driver to just second gear, with the shift from first to second arriving smoothly. Our pilot demonstrated shifting in both automatic and manual modes, which features nifty rev-matching throttle-blips, and it never felt sharp, harsh or tiringly aggressive.
  • As is nearly always the case with a four-cylinder engine, the new 2.3-liter lacks the ultimate smoothness of a six or eight. At this stage of tune, however, it's no better or worse than the racket emanating from BMW's new four. There was a notable intake and exhaust note, both pleasantly tuned, but we couldn't catch any turbo whine in our short jaunt (Ford didn't allow us to pry open the hood and view the intake design). This Mustang's siblings will each have much better lungs, while the four will require some acclimating.
  • One big advantage a four-cylinder holds over a six- or eight-cylinder is reduced mass. During the parking lot autocross, the new Mustang felt impressively agile and light. There was very little body roll, even during extreme maneuvering (the car in this picture is cornering aggressively). Under heaving braking, the new chassis and sporty underpinnings - independent rear suspension and all - seemed to successfully resist the urge to dive or become unsettled. There was a bit of front-end push in the tightest sections, but applying the throttle quickly moved the weight rearward, extinguishing the understeer (the front of the coupe felt lighter than the rear, which would indicate good balance). We'd be willing to bet that the four will be the most nimble in the family.
  • It's likely that Ford sees even more potential in the idea of an EcoBoost Mustang - new spy shots and video revealed earlier today suggests that the company may be working on a model with even higher performance, though its cylinder count remains unclear.
In a nutshell, we climbed out of the passenger seat in Charlotte impressed. Three quick laps observed from the passenger side are no substitute for a thorough test drive, but we've sat right seat in hundreds of vehicles, with the majority of those being far less competent. Climbing behind the wheel of the 2015 Ford Mustang for ourselves can't come soon enough.
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2014 Ducati Monster 1200 S

03/31/2014   [Original: Autoblog]
Category: Sports/GTs, Motorcycles, First Ride

2014 Ducati Monster 1200 S

The Ducati Monster 1200 S has the power-to-weight ratio of a Bugatti Veyron 16.4 Grand Sport Vitesse and the contact patch of a playing card. I'm elbows deep into leaning this pulsing, growling, screaming red animal across a one-lane hairpin on the edge of a volcanic island, when a sequence of questions flit through my mind: What if I hit a patch of gravel? What if a car rounds the corner and barrels toward me? What if I overcook the bend and somersault down the mountain, followed by a tumbling 461-pound bike?

Though these thoughts occur to every motorcyclist, they're less toxic than one might think aboard the latest naked bike from Ducati.

Allow me to explain.

The Monster barks in anger when its massive, 145-horsepower L-twin fires up, and its distinct lack of bodywork lends its mechanical entrails a fascinating - if somewhat grizzly­ - presence. There's the pretty (Brembo monoblocs, TiN-coated Öhlins shocks, an aluminum single-sided swing arm), the ugly (cooling hoses, sloppy wiring, and an ill-fitting radiator shroud), and the optically clever (twin exhaust silencers of subtly staggered proportions, an LED-illuminated license plate mounted on a rear hugger). But despite all this visual and visceral data, the bike's electronics systems have a sneaky way of taming this two-wheeled chimera.

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First Ride: 2014 Ural Gear Up [w/video]

01/30/2014   [Original: Autoblog]
Category: Time Warp, Videos, Motorcycles, Special/Limited Editions, MISC, First Ride

2014 Ural Gear Up

I would soon find out that nothing - not mud, not snow and not even a rushing stream of mountaintop runoff acting as a de facto roadblock to vehicles with lesser capabilities - would stand in the way of the 2014 Ural Gear Up making its way to the top of Snoqualmie Pass outside the suburbs of Seattle.

But first, the heavily updated Ural was going to have to prove its mettle where past models fell farthest short: on the highway. And for a first test of newfound high-speed capability, the conditions were about as bad as could be, with a mixture of rain and sleet combining with near-freezing temperatures to send a full-body shiver through my innermost fibers.

I found myself in this predicament due to a complete set of upgrades from Ural for the 2014 model year, including a fully electronic fuel injection system replacing the previous carburetors, triple-disc brakes and a hydraulic steering damper supplanting the old screw-on friction unit that was impossible to adjust on the fly. These bits and pieces serve to bring the Ural outfit, which could otherwise be charitably thought of as 'time tested,' closer to the modern world. And that's a good thing, considering that the tough-as-nails bikes trace their heritage all the way back to World War II, when Russia "borrowed" the designs of BMW's three-wheeled German war machines and hauled the tooling to a plant near the Ural mountains deep in the Land of Rus.

Highlighting these upgrades on paper is one thing. Putting them to the test, with life and limb clinging to Ural's redesigned knee pads on the gas tank and twin handlebar grips, is another thing entirely. And so I approached my first highway on-ramp with a day's worth of riding set out ahead of me and my guide, a rider astride an earlier Ural that didn't have my model's updates. I honestly feared for both our lives... me for my inexperience and him for his old-school mount. As it turned out, I needn't have worried about either.

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Quick Spin: 2014 Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive

11/26/2013   [Original: Autoblog]
Category: Hatchbacks, Mercedes Benz, Electric, First Ride

2014 Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive

Last year, Mercedes-Benz showed off a few European-spec B-Class models with alternative powertrains, particularly the B-Class Electric Drive with a range extending engine and the purely electric B-Class Electric Drive. It is the latter that we got a ride in during a recent trip to Germany and the one that is coming to the US next year - before it goes to Europe - to help crack open the market for premium compact electric cars.

Introduced at the New York Auto Show in 2013, the B-Class Electric Drive will be the first battery electric car from Mercedes. If you like the idea of the B-Class, then this one has a lot going for it, but perhaps the larger question is: who's going to go for it?

Driving Notes

  • The first-generation A- and B-Class models were designed with sandwich floors that could accept alternative powertrains, but it was way back in 1997 that the first A-Class arrived and it's taken this long to get to the point where it could all come together properly. The current, third-generation A- and B-Class platform comes in low-floor and high-floor variants, and the B-Class Electric Drive takes advantage of the high-floor option and so-called "Energy Space" it allows. There's a step in the cabin floor beneath the driver's seat that runs all the way to the rear of the car to create a "semi-sandwich floor," with the the 28-kWh lithium-ion battery slotted into the gap between the cabin floor and the car floor. The gas-powered B-Class, though, does not contain the Energy Space.
  • The Energy Space allows the B-Class Electric Drive to remain virtually unchanged from its gas-powered sibling, which is one of the selling points Mercedes-Benz will stress with the car. Nothing changes for the front passengers, but a tiny bit of room is sacrificed in the rear quarters: the floor behind the front seats is raised by 3.03 inches and the rear seats by 1.14 inches. The exceptionally-tall-inside B-Class can spare it, our experience being plenty of headroom in the rear quarters and plenty of trunk volume that was, naturally, free of the clunky battery intrusions one sometimes finds in such vehicles. Mercedes also stresses the vehicle's passenger room, the sentence "it's a true five-seater" never far away whenever the car was being discussed.
  • It weighs 300 kilograms more than the standard B-Class, but its powertrain comes from a company that's proven it knows how to move weight: the battery, electric motor and power electrics are straight from Tesla. Tesla builds them in California then sends them to the B-Class factory in Rastatt, Germany where the Electric Drive is built on the same line as the standard B-Classes.
  • The biggest difference is that Mercedes uses software to dial down the power of the Tesla unit, from the 416 horsepower and 443 pound-feet of torque of the Model S Performance to 174 hp (up from the 134 hp quoted at the New York Auto Show and four more than the BMW i3) and 228 lb-ft. Other small changes are the J1772 connector on the B-Class instead of the Tesla Supercharger connecter; a European charger will come for the model aimed at The Continent. The 10-kW charger at 430 amps is the same as the Tesla.
  • Even with power numbers that put the Electric Drive right about even with the 168 hp and 221 lb-ft of the diesel-powered B220 CDI and a weight penalty of 660 pounds over a base car, the instant torque of the Electric Drive means wheelspin is always on the menu and has to be tamped with software. The 0-60 mile-per-hour sprint takes 7.9 seconds, 0.4 faster than the B220 CDI, and top speed is limited to 100 miles per hour. Mercedes estimates a range of "around 115 miles," but behind that they say they're going for a number in the triple digits, so the certified number could be lower. To get a charge good for 60 miles takes two hours on a 240-volt, Level 2 charger.
  • Other changes between it and the regular B-Class are that it sits about an inch higher because of slightly larger tires and taller springs, and it sports wheel arch trim. Inside, the right-side gauge in the dash cluster is a Power Meter that provides feedback on energy usage. On top of the US-regulation lights, our models will come standard with a pedestrian warning sound at low speeds while in Europe that will be an option.
  • The are two major options, the first being the availability of three-mode energy regeneration toggled through using the shift paddles behind the wheel. The modes are free-coasting D+, medium regen D, and pretty strong regen D-. It's essentially the same as on the SLS AMG Electric Drive but with three modes instead of four. If a buyer doesn't opt for the feature, the D setting is the default.
  • The second major option is ordering a battery that can be "up-charged" to accept 15 percent more energy in case a driver needs more range. The driver turns on the option before plugging in the car, and it will allow driving "beyond 200 kilometers just in case." The feature is only meant to be used sparingly, but we were told that the car won't monitor how often it's used - the hope is that "people will use it when needed" and won't abuse the battery. Beyond that the B-Class Electric Drive will come with the same suite of convenience features offered with the Smart Fortwo Electric Drive, allowing owners to check on the status of the car and pre-condition the cabin via an app.
  • On our brief ride around Stuttgart, the electric B-Class proved that it has all the attributes of the standard B-Class - roomy, even-tempered, peppy - and it's silent. Which is exactly what it's supposed to be, so there aren't any surprises and really no reason not to buy one when it arrives...
  • Except for what it's going to cost. No one at Mercedes would say anything about price except that it will be "premium and competitive." Those two descriptors really add up to just one competitor (for now): the $41,350 BMW i3. The i3 and the B-Class Electric Drive represent two takes on electric driving, the first a re-envisioning of electric transport, the second those who want to stick with everyday car amenities - and "a true five-seater" - but don't want the emissions. Yet 41 grand before options is a tough number - it's high enough that the buyer can afford something 'nice,' but we're not talking Model S levels of disposable income; it's not so high to select for consumers looking for vanity projects, and you can get a lot of very good first cars or frugal second cars for a lot less, both of which can travel further than 118 miles without stopping.
  • That quandary (and the regulatory directives that are compelling automakers to develop these cars in the first place) would explain the humble sales expectations for both the B-Class Electric Drive and the i3. Mercedes copped to wanting sales in the four digits in the US, while BMW will be happy to move 15,000 worldwide (the company recently said it already has orders for 10,000 of them). We'll find out who's ready to make such a deal next year when the B-Class Electric Drive goes on sale sometime around April. We wonder now if it isn't people with Tesla Model S money who want a city-car option and are willing to sacrifice all of the flash for around half of the price.
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