26 Apr, 2016
Audi TT RS hits 400 hp!

The new TT RS follows the same format as its predecessor, but everything gets even stronger. At the first glance, the 2480 c.c. five-cylinder turbo engine seems to be much the same as before, but look closer and you will find it has the cast-iron block replaced with an aluminium alloy one, so the engine is a significant 26 kg lighter, which should improve its weight distribution considerably. The new turbocharger runs a maximum boost pressure of 1.4 bar, up from the 1.3 bar on the RS3 and the old TT RS Plus. Moreover, its exhaust camshaft is added with Audi's Valvelift mechanism probably in a bid to lessen turbo lag (Honda Civic Type R has a similar feature). The result is an eye-popping 400 horsepower delivered from 5850 to 7000 rpm, and 354 pound-foot of torque from 1700 to 5850 rpm.

Like RS3, the transmission has been upgraded to a 7-speed S tronic twin-clutch unit. Quattro 4WD by means of Haldex clutch is compulsory, of course. The hardtop TT RS Coupe weighs 1440 kg, 55 more than the lesser TT S, or 10 kg lighter than the last generation. It quotes 0-60 mph in 3.6 seconds, wow, that's 0.9 second faster than the last gen! Admittedly, part of that improvement is down to the additional launch control. As before, top speed is regulated at 155 mph in standard form but could be raised to 174 mph with optional software upgrade.

The Roadster version is 90 kg heavier than the coupe thus it takes two-tenths longer to do 0-60 mph sprint.

Modifications to the chassis are more predictable. The ride height is dropped by merely 10 mm compared with the standard TT while springs and dampers get stiffer. Magnetic adaptive dampers remain on the option list, as are the expensive carbon-ceramic front brakes. Standard steel brake discs measure 370 mm up front and 310 mm at the rear. Wrapping around them are 245/35ZR19 rubbers. If that's not dramatic enough, you can opt for 20-inch wheels with 255/30 tires.

Outside, as you can see, the TT RS can be easily distinguished from lesser TTs by plenty of aluminum-finish parts, including the prominent front splitter, the recessed honeycomb grille, fixed rear spoiler and dual oval exhausts which replace the smaller quad-exhaust of TT S.

So the new car packs huge performance in a compact package, but it won't be called "pocket rocket" because it won't be affordable. Expect its prices to start from £50,000 in the UK.

26 Apr, 2016
Porsche 718 Cayman

While Audi TT RS gets more expensive, Porsche Cayman gets cheaper, thanks to the integration to the 718 series together with Boxster. Now their pricing strategy is more rational - the open-top version is slightly more expensive as it is also more costly to build than the hardtop coupe. This means the Boxster gets a small price rise while Cayman is on the contrary. The entry-level Cayman, powered by a 300 hp 2.0 turbo flat-four engine, is to start at £40,000 in UK, while the 350 hp 2.5-liter Cayman S is priced at £49,000. Yes, actually cheaper than the small TT RS. Is it tempting?

26 Apr, 2016
DS 4S for China

So far, PSA's DS brand has recieved mixed reaction. With the exception of DS 3, other cars of the brand have few followers in Europe. Neither does the new French premium brand perform well in China. Last year, the combination of DS 5, DS 5 LS and DS 6 sold just over 20,000 units there. However, the company keeps seeing positively the potential of China market, so much so that it has developed the new DS 4S hatchback specially for China.

Built upon the lightweight EMP2 platform, the DS 4S obviously share a lot with the similarly-sized Peugeot 308. These should include the suspensions, steering and all engines. The latter include 1.2 Puretech turbo 3-cylinder with 130 hp and a pair of 1.6 THP with 163 hp or 204 hp. All drive through a 6-speed automatic.

The packaging, however, seems not special enough to warrant a premium car status. The interior, in particular, is pretty conventional despite of extensive upholstery. Neither does the exterior design break the mold of Peugeot 308. The car is expected to be built by its Chinese joint venture with ChangAn.

26 Apr, 2016
Citroen C6 for China

DS 4S is not the only new car PSA built exclusively for China. The new Citroen C6 sedan is another.  Fans of Citroen large cars, especially those admiring the last generation C6 could be disappointed to see a design so dull. It doesn't look like a Citroen at all. (The nose actually has some resemblance with the American and Chinese Volkswagen Passat) You might blame the fact that this car is built together with Dongfeng, which will sell its own version under the badge Fengshen A9. Citroen made it clear that the car has no prospect to be sold in Europe or anywhere else.

This is a pretty large car, measuring 4960 mm long and runs a 2900 mm wheelbase. However, it is built on the same EMP2 platform as Peugeot 308, Citroen C4 Picasso as well as the aforementioned DS 4S. This means cheap cheap front-wheel drive and torsion-beam rear suspension. The sole powertrain consists of a 200 hp 1.8 turbo engine and 6-speed auto gearbox.

The interior should offer plenty of space but the packaging is neither attractive nor expensive. However, it does sports a 12.3-inch TFT instrument display.

26 Apr, 2016
Smart Fortwo & Forfour Brabus

If you think the 90 hp 0.9-liter triple of the Smart duo not powerful enough for your need, now you have a better option. Smart has introduced the Brabus version of both cars, which has the engine lifted to 109 hp and 125 lbft (25 lbft up). Besides, they also get shorter gear ratios, faster DCT programming, 20 percent stiffer suspension, wider tires and more direct steering with variable ratio to match the increased performance.

26 Apr, 2016
Aston V12 Vantage S manual and Vantage GT8

As the Vantage model is edging close to sunset, it needs more small revisions and special editions to keep sales momentum. The first is V12 Vantage S with 7-speed manual gearbox. This is the first time a manual gearbox is offered to the car, which has always been using Sportshift III automated manual. Hopefully this can satisfy more hardcore drivers or those criticising the response and shift quality of the automated manual. Aston claims the same performance for both trannies. The 7-speed manual box features automatic rev-matching and no-lift shift under full throttle, seems very much like the Tremec gearbox on Corvette.

Another model is the racy Vantage GT8. Its availability is limited to 150 units. You may see it as the V8 version of GT12, as it shares a lot of weight saving items, such as aero kits, seats and door panels made of carbon-fiber, lightweight lithium battery, titanium exhaust, magnesium center lock wheels and polycarbonate windows (rear screen and rear quarter). Overall the car is 100 kg lighter than the standard V8 Vantage S. Meanwhile, the 4.7 V8 adds a subtle 10 hp to 446 hp.

1 Apr, 2016
Tesla Model 3

On the stage where the new Tesla Model 3 was unveiled, there was a big counter showing how many orders it had received since the online order book opened merely 24 hours ago. At first it showed 115,000 orders. By the time the event ended, the number passed 132,000. It sounds very much like the launch of a new iPhone. We have never seen such a hot initial reception in automotive history. Admittedly, the deposit for reservation is only US$1000, and it is refundable if buyer cancels the order. Elon Musk is so clever. He made good use of the order numbers to promote the car.

It goes without saying the Tesla 3 is the most affordable Tesla yet. Its price starts at $35,000, about the same as the cheapest BMW 3-Series. That's half the price of the leanest Model S. Yes, the Tesla 3 aims to steal sales from the most popular BMW. The first car will be delivered in late 2017. By the time its production is fully ramped up and all its derivatives are introduced, Tesla expects its ex-Toyota factory in California will be producing 500,000 cars annually. That's also the planned capacity of its Gigafactory which produces batteries. Minus the 50,000 units or so Model S and about the same amount of Model X, this mean 400,000 units of model 3 !! For your reference, BMW built 480,000 units of 3-Series in 2014. Forget Cadillac. Tesla is the America's biggest threat to BMW.

The model 3 is much shorter and narrower than Model S, but it is still a sedan, and it has a strong family resemblance to its bigger brother. The biggest difference, however, is the front grille, or the lack of it. I remember Tesla design chief Franz von Holzhausen said he gave the Model S a conventional-looking psuedo grille just to play safe. Once Tesla is well received, the next design could be more adventurous. Now the model 3 is that adventurous design. Its flush nose might be criticized as "faceless", but that is exactly what makes it different from conventional cars. I actually quite like it.

Sadly, Tesla revealed few technical details on its debut. We know the cheapest entry-level model (that $35K bargain) is good for 0-60 mph in less than 6 seconds and an EPA range of more than 215 miles, which is impressive for the price. That's all Tesla is willing to say for now. Nevertheless, we hear more elsewhere, such as that the body is made of steel to save cost, unlike Model S where many aluminum parts are used. Also save money are the conventional door handles. The cheapest model has the least powerful motor driving rear wheels only. More money will get you dual-motor and 4WD as well as larger battery for longer range. The fastest model should be good for sub-4 seconds 0-60.

Interestingly, even this is the most affordable Tesla, it still gets a classy, full-length panoramic glass roof. Under the roof is space for 5 adults. Although the 3 has a much shorter wheelbase than S, it still offers generous cabin space plus 2 trunks, thanks to the packaging advantage of EV - the electric motors are small thus allow a cab-forward proportion; the battery is placed under the floor like model S; and the lack of fuel tank liberates rear passenger and luggage space further. The minimalist interior design also frees up space. It has no conventional instrument pod or center console, just a 15-inch landscape LCD screen standing freely above the slim dashboard. In other words, even more radical than the model S.

In terms of mechanicals and packaging the Tesla 3 seems to be highly competitive against conventional cars. Its performance and mileage are also good. However, to be a real 3-Series fighter it still needs to prove itself have the right reliability and build quality.

1 Apr, 2016
Volvo S60 / V60 Polestar turns to Drive-E

2 years ago Volvo surprised us by launching a limited production run of S60 and V60 Polestar. As mentioned in my review, they were pretty good but hampered a little bit by an aging engine, i.e. the Ford-supplied turbocharged straight-6. Having finished the production of 750 cars each, Polestar went back to the workshop and the result is these updated cars. They look virtually the same as the outgoing cars, but the straight-6 has been replaced with the new Drive-E 2.0-liter 4-cylinder. This engine is based on the one powering the lesser T6 model, which means it is equipped with both supercharger and turbocharger. However, Polestar enhanced it with new con-rods, camshafts, larger intake, larger exhaust and, most important, a larger turbocharger which lifts boost pressure to a maximum 2.0 bar. This liberates its output to 367 hp at 6000 rpm, versus 350 hp at 5250 rpm of the old car. Meanwhile, maximum torque drops slightly from 369 lbft / 3000-4750 rpm to 347 lbft / 3100-5100 rpm. Moreover, the 6-speed automatic gearbox is upgraded to an 8-speed unit like the rest of the S60/V60 range. As a result, both cars take 0.2 sec less than before to do 0-60 mph (i.e. 4.5 sec for S60 and 4.6 sec for the slightly heavier V60). Fuel consumption and emission are reduced by more than 20 percent.

The combination of a smaller engine and new gearbox relieves the front axle by 24 kg, which should have a positive effect on the car's handling. Overall, the S60 Polestar and V60 Polestar are lighter than before by 15 kg and 38 kg respectively according to the spec. sheet. The rest of the cars seem to be mostly unchanged. They still employ Ohlins adjustable dampers, larger Brembo brakes and Michelin Super Sport 245/35ZR20 tires as well as a 4WD system with Haldex clutch.

In response to the good reception, this time production will be doubled to 1500 cars each.

1 Apr, 2016
Google AlphaRun to challenge Hamilton

Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is secretly entering F1 racing. According to an insider familiar with F1 organizer Bernie Ecclestone, Google has agreed to purchase CVC, which owns a controlling stake in Formula One racing. By doing so, Google will be able to rewrite the rules of F1, allowing autopilot machines to compete with the world’s best racing drivers on a variety of race tracks. It is expected to inject a new lease of life into F1 racing, attracting IT-addicted young people back to the sport.

According to the insider, a key element of the grand plan is to upgrade Google’s artificial intelligence, AlphaGo, which famously won board game Go against professional player Lee Se-Dol last month, into AlphaRun, a version specialized in driving. Like the chess-playing version, its “Deep Learning” technology is able to learn how to drive a race car by surfing the internet, watching the video clips of legendary racing drivers like Sterling Moss, Juan Manuel Fangio, Giles Villeneuve, Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher, especially those featuring how Senna and Schumacher bumped their rivals off track. Deep Learning will also consult the creative driving techniques of Speed Racer and Mr. Bean to make sure it is able to think out of the box and beat professional racing drivers.

To demonstrate its superiority, Google will organize 5 races against world champion Lewis Hamilton using identical cars. They will take place at the most difficult tracks around the world, namely Monte Carlo, Macau, Nurburgring Nordschleife, Pikes Peak and Beijing (if Hamilton could survive its air). The overall winner will take big prizes including free Android Play downloads and unlimited usage of Google Drive, which will be extremely attractive to AlphaRun if not Hamilton.

While the autopilot system is developed by Google DeepMind, the race car chassis is to be supplied by Ferrari. It will feature an elegant “Birdcage” halo protection system patented by Maserati, and hopefully this will replace the ungainly alternatives that Ferrari and Red Bull are developing. It should satisfy FIA’s requirement for all-round protection to the driver while providing additional sense of security, not to mention the unrivalled aesthetic which has been lost in Formula 1 for so long.

In order to slash costs and save smaller teams, Google wants to revise the rules of power unit to accept off-the-shelf production engines. The hottest candidate is tipped to be Viper’s 8.4-liter V10, as there are lots of stocks unsold, enough for McLaren drivers to blow up several every race. Another likely choice is Volkswagen EA189 2.0-liter turbo diesel, whose cheat software should be a perfect mate with AlphaRun. The poorest teams may opt for the very cost-effective Fiat 0.9-liter TwinAir, which may be a little bit down on power, but its characterful noise could easily overwhelm the current F1 engines. Power output of different engines could be levelled out by over- or underclocking their CPUs.

To be fair to its human rivals, the Google race car will not link the AlphaRun central brain directly to its drive-by-wire controls, which could have eliminated reaction lags and presented an unfair advantage. Instead, it will be driven by a monkey through conventional steering wheel, pedals and shift paddles on which signal lamps with banana symbol are attached. AlphaRun will use these signals to guide the specially trained monkey to manipulate the controls in a skillful manner, including heel-and-toe actions of which monkey feet are extremely capable. Hopefully this will realize the vaticination of Nigel Mansell made in 2002, who famously claimed that F1 cars had become so easy to drive that even monkeys could manage the job. How visionary Mansell was!


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