As car guys working for an automotive publication, we’re regularly asked, “Which cars excite you this year?” And while the question is well-intentioned, it’s often a difficult one to answer. Does the person want to know about performance cars? Dream cars? Everyday cars? We sat down and asked ourselves which cars were exciting enough to make our “recommendation list,” and as a result, we compiled this list of seven cars to watch for 2005:
* Lexus GS 300
* Mercedes-Benz M-Class
* BMW M5
* Ford Fusion & Lincoln Zephyr
* Porsche Carrera & Porsche Boxster
Based on what we’ve seen at the auto shows, experienced during the test drives, and read in the media kits, these seven cars strike us as extremely promising for 2005. Enjoy.
2005 Lexus GS 300
Lexus is Japan’s US-market luxury brand success story. While Acura and, more recently, Infiniti have made inroads into the territory, it’s really Lexus that comes to mind when one thinks of upscale cars from the land of the Rising Sun. Being ‘top dog’ brings with it some responsibility, however, and Toyota’s high-end subsidiary thus bears the burden of remaining at the front of the pack. Fortunately, Lexus has scored home runs with just about every product, from the gussied-up Camry that is the ES330 to the sublime LS430. The revised GS300 and GS430, as shown at Detroit’s North American International Auto Show, represent the next salvo in this ongoing battle. Fortunately for what is now America’s leading automaker, Lexus’ middle sedans look to be winners.
Lexus’ GS300 and GS430 have a sporting flair, something in between the IS300 and the LS430. Competing directly with the Infiniti M-series (also new this year), the GS family can be likened to BMW’s 5-series and Mercedes’ E-Class as well. Great gobs of power, of course, are de rigueur for sedans in this class, and like the aforementioned cars, the GS is available with a V6 or a V8. The 4.3-liter V8 in the GS430 pumps out 300 horsepower and 325 ft/lbs of torque, which should be good for a run to sixty mph in around six seconds–it is, after all, being touted as “the fastest Lexus ever built.” Even the healthy 245hp V6 is expected to propel the GS300 to sixty in under 7.5 seconds. Both models feature a close-ratio, six-speed automatic transmission with adaptive programming.
With an eye on the lofty goal of a truly exhilarating driving experience, Lexus debuts its Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management system on the GS. VDM is a next-generation stability control system geared towards allowing the driver to explore the handling limits of the GS. An Adaptive Variable Suspension system with four settings allows the driver to optimize the handling for the conditions at hand. The electronic assistance should be welcome to all but the most experienced drivers, and we expect that Lexus will do excitement as well as it does comfort.
Other technological advances include an upcoming, optional full-time all-wheel-drive system and variable-ratio power steering. Further, Lexus hints that the GS will be the brand’s second model to get an available hybrid powertrain.
The exterior of the new GS features an even more rounded, aerodynamic design than the last generation–a venerable model with styling that wore well indeed. Still, the sporting character of the car is carried over, and its slightly sinister visage emphasizes the athletic nature of the beast even more than before. The new GS is longer and looks lower than its predecessor, and the V8 model wears standard 18-inch rubber.
Inside, typical Lexus luxury meets sporty aspirations. Gorgeous wood and leather delight the senses, while brushed metal accents, triple gauges (with some of the slickest lighting you’ve ever seen), and driver-oriented controls hint at the car’s true capabilities. Keyless entry and start–the kind where the fob never leaves your pocket–is standard, as is a tire-pressure monitoring system and Lexus’ cool adaptive lights that peek around curves as you saw at the wheel.
The GS comes to market in March, a month prior to the hybrid version of the ever-popular sport-ute, the RX400h. Pricing is expected to be in league with the previous model, a solid value when compared with the German competition.
2005 Mercedes-Benz M Class
Average folks, meaning that majority of the population that reads things like stock quotes or sports scores instead of publications such as this, may be forgiven for not making the distinction between the new-for-2006 Mercedes-Benz M-Class, introduced at Detroit’s North American International Auto Show, and its previous iteration. The SUV’s overall appearance is true to the original, and upon first inspection, looks little changed. However, maybe that’s a good thing. DiamlerChrysler has been selling around eighty thousand of these Alabama-built trucks annually, since the first non-military Mercedes rock-hopper hit the road in ’97. Who can blame them for sticking with a winning formula?
Subtle changes were made, however, including deeper indents into the bodyside, sleeker new headlights and taillights, a toothy new grille, and an overall more curvaceous shape. The next-generation M also features a more rakish windscreen, and has grown an inch or two in every dimension. Somehow, all this adds up to better aerodynamics, with a coefficient of drag down to 0.34.
The interior features more comprehensive upgrades. The leather and plastics look to be supple and class-leading as usual, melded together in a modernist design that more clearly bespeaks the M-Class’ mission. It’s somehow more rugged, and grab-handles in the center console suggest a level of adventurous driving that most Ms will probably never see. Keeping with industry trends, the M-Class now features an engine start button instead of a traditional ignition cylinder.
Other news comes on the safety front, where new features mean new security for driver and passengers. One such system is Mercedes’ new “PRE-SAFE,” which uses radar to monitor surrounding vehicles and obstacles and a microprocessor to determine if a crash is imminent. When they system is triggered, it “prepares the vehicle for impact” by tightening front seatbelts, adjusting seat positions, and closing the sunroof in event of a perceived rollover. Revised crumple zones are engineered into the new structure, airbags lurk nearly everywhere, and whiplash is tamed via optional new “NECK-PRO” active headrests.
For motivation, Stuttgart’s finest have cooked up several new motors. The most popular will likely be the 274-horse ML 350, with the 3.5-liter V6 that serves so well in the new SLK. Also available will be the ML 500, the V8 range-topper until the inevitable AMG derivative arrives. Finally, we’re told that for the first time two diesels will be fitted, a 2.8-liter and the 3.2 that we’ve tested in the impressive E 320 CDI. At least one of those ought to make it stateside. Shifting duties fall to the standard seven-speed automatic, (the “7G-Tronic”), with ratios driver-selectable via steering wheel buttons or column-shift lever.
Two four-wheel-drive systems are offered. The standard system works well for foul-weather jaunts to the shopping mall, while an optional off-road package includes a transfer case, locking differentials, and driving aids that mimic Land Rover’s Hill Descent Control and Subaru’s Hill Holder. Also included is a version of Mercedes’ venerable AIRMATIC air suspension, which, tailored for off-road expeditions, can raise or lower the SUV’s ground clearance by almost two inches.
2005 is slated to be a banner year for Mercedes. “Never before have we introduced so many new models in one year,” said one executive. DCX cemented that point by showing the Vision R and Vision B sport-tourer (industry-speak for minivan) concepts at the 2005 Detroit Auto Show, both of which presage upcoming production models. Prices remain unannounced, but we expect a modest increase across the board. The new M-Class will find its way to dealer lots by spring of this year.
2006 BMW M5
Any new M-series car from BMW is an event in the automotive enthusiast’s world. Schoolboys fantasize, potential buyers start reworking budgets, and automotive journalists like ourselves become giddy with anticipation of our upcoming test-drives. Among the entire M line, and indeed among sports sedans in general, it is perhaps the M5 that inspires the most such passion.
Five hundred horsepower are on tap from the V10 in this machine, although you must press a button to access the last hundred. Yes, the M5 is engineered to run on ‘only’ 400 horses under normal operation. Simply marked “Power,” the magic button is located next to the shifter, and summons the extra battalion of equines via remapped intake and valvetrain settings. This technology, and the engine itself, is entirely new and presently exclusive to the M5. It displaces five liters, and while naturally aspirated, it makes use of nearly every power-making trick in the modern engineer’s book. BMW claims the sprint to sixty mph takes 4.7 seconds, with a governed top speed of 155 mph.
The sole transmission is BMW’s Sequential Manual Gearbox, essentially a manual with a robotically-operated clutch. Seven forward speeds are on tap in this complex apparatus, with several different settings to control the automatic function’s shift speed and timing. You can also shift for yourself via the stubby console-mounted lever or paddles behind the wheel. Mourn the absence of a conventional stick-shift all you like (and those who appreciate smooth gearchanges will), but none is nor will be available. The disappointment is mitigated somewhat by the clever Launch Control function, which allows for effortless perfect takeoffs.
Three suspension settings are available–comfort, normal and sport. The adjustable system allows for a comfortable ride in this machine, which is otherwise capable of nearly flat 1g cornering. Everything is stiffened, strengthened and engineered for maximum performance in this car. The size and solidity of the suspenders are matched by the upgraded brakes, with drilled rotors measuring almost 15 inches in diameter. The standard 5-series’ active steering and anti-roll bars are eliminated, as are the run-flat tires, in the interest of handling perfection.
The interior features upgrades to the seats and gauges, as well as two optional configurations–a leather-and-wood setup or a more sporting aluminum-themed scheme. Otherwise, it’s the same 5-series interior that we’ve come to enjoy as one of the most sporting in the midsize class.
The exterior follows the same formula of subtle modifications suggesting the more purposeful mission of the M5, overlaid upon an already attractive foundation. You’ll notice a bigger air dam, revised front and rear fascias, and exclusive cooling slots in the front fenders.
The appeal of the M5 has always been that of a car that provides the most thrilling drive possible with four doors. It is the car that can get four of your colleagues to that meeting in style and elegance–and easily turn “five minutes late” into “ten minutes early.” This new edition is the best of the bunch, with power and handling that was heretofore unheard of, even for owners of previous M5s.
BMW also showed an all-wheel-drive 5-series, which should broaden the appeal of the 5-series line even further. True enthusiasts, however, won’t even notice that 530x–once you spot the M5 on the lot, anything and everything else on your mind vaporizes like the rear tires during a hard launch. And with good reason–driving the ’05 M5 promises pure, unadulterated bliss. This is the sedan for Ferrari owners who must, on occasion, shuttle the kids around. This is the car for the CEO who secretly wishes he was still racing go-karts after school. This is, quite simply, the sedan to trump all others.
2006 Ford Fusion & Lincoln Zephyr
The new Ford Fusion, and its Lincoln Zephyr sedan sibling, make the same promise as the Five Hundred. That is, to appeal to the yearning masses while helping regain market share lost in the aftermath of Ford’s self-proclaimed ‘Year of the Car.’
Some have chosen to knock the FoMoCo brands these days, pointing to perennially declining sales and yawn-inspiring product. But remember, the Blue Oval Boys are the guys who’ve brought us what might be the ultimate performance bargain, the sub-$25K Mustang GT, the bar-raising F150, and the awe-inspiring GT. So while conventional wisdom says last year’s Five Hundred might have missed the mark–appealing largely to geriatrics and golfers who appreciate the five-golf-bag trunk capacity–we think the Fusion and Zephyr will succeed.
After all, while we haven’t driven the sedans in question, we have driven the Mazda6, which donates its platform and drivetrain wholly to the new midsizer. A slight wheelbase stretch means the Ford and Lincoln variants are more America-sized.
Exterior styling is some of the best we’ve seen from any domestic maker in a while. The Fusion, originally the “Futura” until Ford realized Pep Boys trademarked the moniker for a brand of tires, is based on the 427 concept car shown at auto shows around the country. Thankfully, the best elements of the concept, including the sleek shape, jeweled lights, and brightwork, were spared from beancounters and focus groups. The Zephyr takes the sleek theme even further, and is probably the best-looking Lincoln in several years.
Motivation will be familiar to Mazda6 owners as well. The Fusion shares the 160-
horsepower 2.3-liter four and the optional 210hp, 3.0L V6; while the Zephyr, in keeping with its upscale intentions, delivers the six as standard. Both engines are enthusiast favorites, if not for raw power, then for smoothness and responsiveness. Unfortunately, only the four is available with a manual transmission; the V6 is mated to a six-speed automatic.
The interior has a classy and durable feel, with materials that are on par with the Five Hundred’s. Quality finally seems to have become the watchword at Ford. Folks trading in Tauruses for Fusions will feel like they’ve stepped into another world–or at least another brand’s dealership.
Ford invested in safety technology for the Fusion and Zephyr, both of which feature dual-stage airbags, energy-absorbing seatbelts, load-limiting retractors, and enhanced crumple zones. An optional all-wheel-drive system is promised within a year of the fall launch, and a hybrid powertrain is also promised.
The new Ford Fusion and Lincoln Zephyr look to be winners, at a time when both brands sorely need good product. We look forward to our first test drives and expect that if the experience lives up to the platform’s promise, we’ll be impressed. The Fusion and Zephyr, as well as their Mercury Montego twin, should turn out to be appealing cars that will stanch the flow of customers to foreign brands while at last fulfilling the promise inherent in Ford’s ‘Year of the Car’ pledge.
2005 Porsche 911 Carrera and Porsche Boxster
No other brand inspires the kind of owner loyalty that Porsche does, so the unveiling in Detroit of the new 911 Carrera, known as the 997 to Porschephiles, is a long-awaited event. On the heels of the new Boxster, this 911 evinces a more classic look than the last generation, managing to blend heritage with aggressiveness. To further increase the salivation factor among the faithful, the team in Zuffenhausen improved the powertrains across the board as well, and upgraded the interiors to ice the cake.
Porsches are highly evolved vehicles and design changes to these uber-sportscars are by definition limited to detail work, as opposed to the basic shape of the cars. Larger fender flares lend a more aggressive stance, and the new taillights and revised ducting are attractive touches. The return to classic rounded headlights hearken back two generations, to the 993 models, but make no mistake–these are bona-fide new cars, with some 80% of parts new.
The heart of any Porsche (save possibly the new V6 Cayenne) is the motor, and the 911 and Boxster do not disappoint. The Boxster’s 2.7-liter flat six now makes 240 horsepower, while the Boxster S model’s 3.2 puts out 280hp, for an increase of 22. Performance is commensurately upped, with zero to sixty now coming at 5.9 seconds for the base model, and seven-tenths less for the S. The 911 models are also, as ever, motivated by flat sixes; 3.6 liters and 325 horses for the standard Carrera and 3.8L and 355hp for the S. The speed-demons have pulled another one out of their hats–how does 4.4 seconds to 60 grab you?
Base Boxsters get 5-speed manuals; all other models feature a 6-speed. A Tiptronic automatic resides on the option list for the commuter.
Suspension tweaks include stiffer platforms, wider wheels and tires, and the ‘Porsche Active Suspension Management’ electronic system for the 911 that allows pilots to choose between ‘normal’ and ‘sport’ settings. The active spoiler that raises at 75 mph and lowers at 50 is retained, thankfully. Optional on the naturally-aspirated 911 for the first time are Porsche’s celebrated Ceramic Composite Brakes that reduce unsprung weight, shave precious feet off stopping distances, and practically eliminate fade and rotor replacement.
Although Porsches are much more about the driving experience than the driver’s comfort, one area where the brand has recently taken flak has been in the quality and luxury quotient of the interiors. With these new models, however, Porsche has raised the bar. The redone interior, gauges, and controls are several cuts above the last models. The cockpits feature upgraded materials molded into a design that is at once more ergonomic and attractive–more fitting for the $69-79,000 Carrera and its $43-53,000 Boxster sibling.
With these new models, Porsche has taken several steps forward as far as engineering goes… and a calculated step back, design-wise. Both the Boxster and the 911, in their many editions, should keep Porsche on top of the sportscar heap–and what would life be without Porsches to aspire to?