Author - Adam Barrera

Fast Forward: 2010 GMC Terrain SLT Review

What's the point of launching a new vehicle into a crowded segment if it doesn't boast clear superlatives out of the gate? Manufacturers on the comfortable side of the perception gap can afford to launch anonyboxes. That doesn't describe General Motors. GM must deliver premium vehicles at every price point to solidify their image, and the GMC Terrain is outfitted for the task. Ambient lighting in the center stack, high-contrast upholstery accents, a standard rearview camera and an optional height-adjustable power liftgate might've been enough to differentiate this crossover from its competition, but the Terrain pushes farther in two especially meaningful ways. As society begins to value the aesthetics of information, the advantages of a well-designed user interface become clear. GM's corporate navitainment display splits radio and navigation data to give drivers the information they need at a glance, and hardware radio presets mean drivers can rely on haptic defaults instead of paging through screens. On the road, the Terrain's high-efficiency gasoline direct injection engine and noticeably meticulous transmission calibration work together to deliver enviable highway fuel efficiency that trumps cross-continental rivals. These future-forward technologies enable the Terrain to compete on its true merits, rather than the cachet of its nameplate. [nggallery id=130]

Fast Forward: 2009 Chevrolet Corvette and Pontiac G8 GXP Review

In my youth, when one-way buff books were the end-all auto media, the Chevrolet Corvette was a ubiquitous staple in any magazine's "supercar shootout". Today, in an era where spoiled enthusiasts yawn at engines under 300 horsepower, the Corvette has been demoted to a  "sports car" by those who won't grant status to anything less than a Veyron. When did car guys become jaded to the Corvette's timeless targa top, fighter-pilot-style Head-Up Display gauges, and a 186 MPH top speed? Does a pricetag under $50K reduce the Corvette's credibility? Nope. It sure as hell makes an auto writer smile, though. Any "enthusiast" who writes off the Corvette's 6.2-liter LS3 V8 because of its pushrod design simply hasn't driven the car. In one application, General Motors proves every negative pushrod stereotype wrong. The LS3 revs freely. Its soundtrack is thick, melodic and technical. And, thanks to the 'Vette's light curb weight and an extra-tall sixth gear ratio, the LS3 is stunningly fuel efficient. If the heart of a supercar is its engine, the Corvette's world-class LS3 is the only credential it needs. Port the powertrain to an unexpected form factor, and its versatility shines. GM's Australian subsidiary Holden has been perfecting the formula for years: mate a solid Euro-tinged chassis to a brash American powertrain, track the beast every weekend, and call the car home-grown. For a limited time, North America was able to sample Holden's signature brew via the Pontiac G8 GXP. It's a shame this relaxing rocketlounge was unceremoniously buried with the Pontiac arrowhead. Both cars' interior idiosyncracies will be easy fodder for critics who fancy themselves experts on shutlines and trim interfaces. Those that prefer stoic status-cars will likely be left dusted and bankrupt by badges that can't deliver the LS3's classic bang-for-the-buck.

Fast Forward: 2010 Ford F-150 SVT Raptor Preview

Faithful Ford truckers often fall into a dichotomy. Lightning enthusiasts crave quick rigs to gain cred at the track. Bronco fans miss muddy rockcrawlers meant for trails. Ford's Special Vehicle Team could've easily built a truck for either purpose, but as guardians of automotive culture, it's not their duty to take a safe route. SVT rethought "speed truck" ethic entirely. Instead of engineering a tire-shredder, SVT focused on sustaining high speed off-road in a way that no stock vehicle has before. The 2010 Ford SVT F-150 Raptor tackles both asphalt and desert sands so masterfully that it is instantly deserving of supercar status. The Raptor's victories in design, safety, navitainment and ergonomics mean that it isn't just a great truck -- it's a great vehicle.  Children will mount posters of this desert bandit on their walls. In an era of lowest-common-denominator commodity cars, that's indicative praise indeed. If you weren't able to follow my Tweets from the introduction, this video preview of the 5.4-liter V8-equipped model should tide you over until this winter, when Ford will begin shipping faster Raptors equipped with a new 6.2-liter V8. You can expect a full review from Speed:Sport:Life then.

Behind Domed Doors: At GM, R&D means “Research and Design”.

[caption id="attachment_1867" align="aligncenter" width="387" caption="I suggested the #GMTech hash tag to a friend, and it snowballed."]The #GMTech hash tag started here.[/caption] As the upfitted GMC TopKick blogger-hauler crossed through fortified gates into the forbidden General Motors Tech Center, I felt like a spy. A time traveler. A trusted friend, but a careful messenger. I was one of 100 "social media influencers" invited to the most holy automotive land to preview the General's powertrain research and future design direction. My camera was taken, my cell phone was blinded by a serialized PicPatch, and photography was further prohibited by smiling security guards posted in every presentation room. However, at no point were my microblogging colleagues told not to reveal our observations through text. Most program attendees' passions lay in non-automotive areas. Therefore, most didn't realize the deeper magnitude of many minuscule details revealed. @RaymondKing and I were an exception. One overexposing tweet could destroy my career. Thankfully, years of practice crafting oblique automotive prose helped to preserve my integrity while capturing followers' interest. Until Automotive News and Autoblog pieced together most of what I was nervous about reporting, that is. Now that GM's secrets have been told with varying degrees of accuracy, I've got a few blanks to fill in -- while preserving a little mystery. And my career, of course.

[caption id="attachment_1864" align="aligncenter" width="600" caption="Before we visited the Dome, we took a trip to the GM Heritage Center, a hallowed chapel of history."]We began with a trip to the GM Heritage Center, a hallowed chapel of history.[/caption] A brand-by-brand showcase intended to demonstrate nameplates' clarity and focus began in the fabled -- and rarely entered -- Design Dome. As I walked through doors flanked by Securitas agents, I scanned the room in front of me and felt my internal video card overheat. I blinked as my vision flickered and jammed. Lines skewed. Decklids blurred. In a microsecond, I decided that there was a catch to the Chevrolet in front of me. Breathlessly frustrated with those around me who shuffled past the car without fainting, I grabbed Raymond's arm. "My God," I sighed. "It's the mid-cycle Malibu." I was partially mistaken. The tail in front of me belonged to the fully-refreshed next-generation 2013 Malibu. I'll grant reports of "Bangle-butt" partial credit -- from a dead-on angle, they're right. From any other angle, the dramatic surface language suggests a magically suspended decklid spoiler. The pixel-simple taillamps will stay with me. The rear is still easily understood, without being as flat as the current Mali's deck. Reports that the Malibu somehow apes the Kia Forte are frankly incorrect. The Forte's headlamps don't have the next Malibu's layered detail. No Forte can claim the next Malibu's updated clamshell hood, which requires some of the world's tightest manufacturing tolerances to execute. Current generation Malibu owners should enjoy their uniquely thick chrome window surrounds -- GM seems to be moving away from one of my favorite Malibu styling cues. The Malibu moved the American midsize upmarket with its thematic twin-cockpit rendered in bold colors. The twin-cockpit motif is now gone, but the dash textures have to be finger-traced to be believed. There is literal depth to this dashboard. I'll leave it at that. The Spark looks true to what we've seen before. Reports that the Aveo is inspired by the Lancer are accurate, but Chevy is doing interesting things with lamp lenses and Beretta things to the C-pillar. The Orlando's baseline body lines have been maintained, though I would've liked to have seen a more deeply beveled daylight opening surround. Its headlamps aren't as aggressive as in the concept. Two Volt interiors were displayed: "iPod white", as seen before, and a color scheme that matches my Sprint HTC Touch Diamond. David Lyon, Executive Director of Interior Design, mentioned that five interior color schemes would be available -- and that the two on display were the least daring of the bunch. [caption id="attachment_1863" align="aligncenter" width="600" caption="Inside the Chevy Cruze high-contrast interior."]Inside the Chevy Cruze high-contrast interior.[/caption] When mass-market interiors are as edgy and well-executed as the Volt and Malibu, it often feels as if highline brands can't possibly provide more -- and lose their relevance. Cadillac interior designer Phil Kucera reassured me that "leather and wood can evolve into realms you haven't even dreamed of." We were shown an interior buck for a RWD global Alpha-based compact car called ATS, which featured a production version of the Converj's concept steering wheel. The mostly serious black interior was accented by high-contrast stitching in an unexpected 90s color. Another interior designer promised that the bold accent was actually under consideration for production. The interior buck's gauge cluster housed a digital audio GUI that I've seen in DAPs, but never in an auto interior. The full-size XTS4 concept was coated in a color very near the Chevy Groove concept's Lunar Quartz. The hue spilled over edges, onto a waterfall C-pillar, and into a continuation of the "hint of fin" Cadillac taillight trend. The 4 at the end of the long concept's name signifies the availability of AWD. In my opinion, for clarity's sake, the XTS name should be dropped in favor of DeVille or Fleetwood -- IF the final product deserves such a hallowed name. Frankly, alphanumerics have lost meaning -- Lincoln buyers can't discern between an MKS, MKT, and MKZ, and the brand suffers because of that. I never believed that GMC would be relevant in the new GM without autonomous product and a strong brand identity. The Orlando-based GMC Concept did a great job of hiding its origins, with intense Terra4/Terradyne styling ethic up front and squinty, precise lines in back. (For what it's worth, GMC's concept reminded me a lot of the Ford SynUS in its aura and attitude.) The biggest surprise here was the body-length character line that traveled from the C-pillar, down into both side doors, and culminated in a brake cooling duct for the front wheel well. After seeing the Camaro's complex single C-pillar and rear fender, as well as the CTS Coupe's complicated twisting A to C pillar, I believe that GM has not only the ability to mass produce these shocking, technical stampings -- but the guts to make it happen, as well. GMC will need this literally edgy styling to remain a relevant brand. If even one product is a soft, recognizeable badge job, GMC will lose all value. [caption id="attachment_1865" align="aligncenter" width="600" caption="@RaymondKing posted GM Heritage Center shots on his Twitpic feed."]Raymond has a ton of pics from the GM Heritage Center. See his Twitpic feed.[/caption] "Soft" is exactly how I'd describe Buick going forward. Buick seems to be the "safe option" for those who are too wussy to go with the other brands' declarative exterior styling. It will be tough to shed stigma without a seriously declarative halo vehicle for the brand. Michael Burton, Buick design "advocate," envisions the brand as "premium without being pretentious." The "Buick Vue" should launch with a slightly updated interior and more NVH refinement, said the brand's Craig Byerly. A curvy smaller crossover was shown -- thankfully, I couldn't tell what platform it shared, and I was content not to know. It did not feature GPiX or Agile styling cues, as reported by some attendees. This vehicle had four doors, conventional side glass, and a conventional C-pillar. I worry that the fairly bland Opel Insignia-based Regal will be lost between the bigger LaCrosse and smaller Delta-based compact sedan. The Delta compact is surprisingly tasteful in execution -- the nicest of the lineup we saw by far. It employs cues from the LaCrosse that translate very nicely into the smaller form factor. The Delta Buick is a "believable" vehicle. It needs a meaningful name. "Skylark" won't work. [caption id="attachment_1861" align="aligncenter" width="600" caption="Raymond discusses adapter theory with plug-in connector lead Jim Khoury."]Raymond discusses adapter theory with plug-in connector lead Jim Khoury.[/caption] Raymond drove a plug-in hybrid Vue mule. Its engineers let us know that the hybrid components would take up a moderate amount of cargo space, and that the final product would include a two-tier cargo area to maximize space while accommodating hybrid components. I drove the HCCI Saturn Aura, which switched from normal gasoline operation to diesel-style combustion under certain conditions to create a 15-percent improvement in fuel economy. It was the strangest feeling "hybrid" (operation) engine I've ever driven. At first, the car felt like a normal gasoline-powered engine. Then, at once, the engine started making diesel sounds and fuel economy spiked. The novelty of the switch was intriguing and delightful. This technology deserves further research and development, a more marketable name, and a better-branded mule. An HCCI LaCrosse would bring attention and interest that Buick would otherwise not get.

[caption id="attachment_1862" align="aligncenter" width="600" caption="Raymond took a great shot of the Volt at speed."]Raymond took a great shot of the Volt at speed.[/caption] We both saw Chevy Volt chief engineer Frank Weber positively *flog* a development mule on the autocross course. The little car seemed to jet around the course, even fully loaded with passengers. I didn't get a ride -- I'm a believer in the technology and wanted Luddites to have their chance first. It was intensely validating to see 200 pre-production Volts in every build stage. It was heartwarming to see mundane production elements -- labels, bulbs, cloth, trim -- that proved that my faith had not been misplaced. Naysayers said the Volt was impossible, that the Volt could never happen. To them, I say, "I've seen it. It's real. And it's coming for you. Fast."

Fast Forward: 2010 Chevrolet Camaro 2SS Review

Sometimes, I wonder if "esteemed automotive journalists" are just "failed ad copywriters." When every new vehicle launch is met with a cacophony of praise, the legitimacy of an automotive critic certainly fades. I personally preserve unabashedly glowing reviews for well-engineered vehicles that represent something more than a blacker bottom line -- vehicles that "give back" to car culture. In hope that I'll maintain your trust, I present my video review of the Chevy Camaro. Over the course of several months and 2500 miles of testing in five states, I've forged lifelong friendships and have the Facebook to prove it. The Camaro has changed my outlook on honking: now, when I hear a blast at a stoplight, I'm sure it's just another ally eagerly hoping his thumbs-up is well-received. That's moderately embarassing honesty. That's not hyperbole. [nggallery id=34]

S:S:L Event Coverage: 2009 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb

Photos by Robert Story
The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is a relevant, engineering-driven, lightly commercialized race endangered by uncorralled fans' lack of common sense, the commoditization of the car, waning manufacturer support, and the paving of the roadway. If you didn't go this year, you need to be there in 2010 -- before inevitable filters change the event forever. In wild western Colorado, both vehicles and footwear are earth-toned and traction-centric. For outdoorsy natives that may very well burst into a 20-mile hike or interstate whitewater trip at any moment, camping on the Peak is akin to a passport stamp. Camping is permitted only once a year, on the day before the race. It's feasible, then, that a sizeable portion of the yearly attendees are drawn primarily by the prospect of personally taming the mountain, and stay for the race out of both casual curiosity and convenience. Staking a spot on the mountain entails a steep $100 charge per car. Proceeds benefit the US Forest Service, which cedes control of the mountain during practice sessions and on race day.

Thirteen of my friends and I piled our overnight gear onto a Mitsubishi Outlander and a Land Rover Discovery, and ditched the manicured media junket in favor of an honest, rootsy experience. Sleeping on a bare tent floor is both 'rootsy' and 'rocky', indeed -- bring an inflatable mattress instead, and don't skimp on the blankets. Until race morning, the mountain is bitterly cold. By midday, the temperature rises to rival concrete-crusted Houston. At any moment, a front can roll in and God will start sleeting all over your camera gear. You'll probably have to poo in the woods and cuddle with dudes to keep warm. You may be accosted by well-meaning rednecks who are made uncomfortable by dude-cuddles. The Peak's grandeur is so disarmingly picturesque during every weather condition that you'll be thankful through every shiver fit and shed of clothes -- just be prepared. Prepare to be jarred by the level of trackside access, too. Even the most golden NASCAR, ALMS or F1 credentials can't get you as close to the action as a general admission Hill Climb pass. Almost none of the 12.45-mile course is barricaded or crowd-controlled. Fans hide in roadside trenches to snap photos -- the same craggy trenches that even the most precise drivers sometimes dip a wheel into. Brave, dumb, or dedicated fans can dart across the track between entrants to frame the perfect shot. If their timing is off, they can easily find themselves in the path of an 800-horsepower machine operated by a driver focused solely on the checker. This year, at least two drivers cited pedestrian traffic as the reason why their cars were wrecked before the finish line. Radio chatter indicated increased frustration among race organizers. In the future, spectator barricades could spell the end of an aspiring race photographer's best photo op.

Almost every major auto manufacturer has competed in the Climb at some level. The Chevrolet Lumina, Saab's 900, Peugeot's most beautiful rally car, and even a Toyota Tacoma have all etched their way into the Climb's annals. Today, raceday on the Hill is Suzuki's time to shine -- and perhaps the only day American media pays real attention to the microcar masters. For a decade, Suzuki has chased the clouds in a quad-digit-horsepower, and sometimes twin-engined, dirt devil. Two years ago, SuzukiSport founder Nobuhiro Tajima, better known as "Monster", drove a race-bodied XL-7 from start to summit in a record-breaking 10'01.408. A scramble to break the ten-minute barrier has ensued. This year, Tajima's SX4-badged rocket won overall, but fell short of a record time, prolonging the marketability of a sub-ten chase.

Sadly, Suzuki's popularity on the hill has not yet translated into a turbocharged SX4 at retailers -- or curbed their sales slide of 78 percent on the year. Suzuki has famously failed to tout its decade of dominance through grassroots advertising. Hyundai, on the other hand, banked a great deal of street cred on its Peak-bound Genesis Coupe. Young drifter Rhys Millen, son of former Climb record-holder Rod Millen, has a name and persona as marketable as Tajima's. However, Hyundai hyped Millen's Genesis with multimedia Web 2.0 campaigns aimed squarely at a thrillseeking demographic. Millen's Genesis was often the prime subject among young fans, even before the drifter set a new Time Attack record in the 2WD production class. Fostering enthusiasm and culture among burgeoning drivers is a smart way to grow strong brand advocates. Some brands recognize that. Others, unfortunately, do not.

If one manufacturer deserved enthusiasm to match its prevalence on the Hill, it was definitely Ford. Two factory Fiestas chased Suzuki's hallmark, but the unluckiest of the pair could not quell a tendency to roll over. The other car couldn't touch ten minutes, but its seasoned rally pilot Marcus Grönholm captured Rookie of the Year honors. It remains to be seen whether the Fiesta's factory-backed presence on the Hill will be nurtured into a winning effort, or was simply a one-time promo for the car's US launch. The factory-backed effort wasn't Ford's only presence on the Peak. Blue-badged privateers thrilled fans across nearly every class. A Falcon captured first place among Vintage entries, while Mustangs filled both the Vintage and Super Stock classes. Ford was easily the most prevalent manufacturer in the mudslinging Pro Truck class. Several Outlaw-style Open Wheel drivers displayed "Powered by Ford" decals. The most historically important vehicle on course, Mach 2 Racing's 1984 Ford RS200 Evolution, commanded cheers and reverence. However, due to mechanical failures during practice trials, driver Mark Rennison never had the chance to run the complete course before raceday, and thus couldn't match rivals' faster times. Both Rennison and Grönholm promise to return.

Each year, additional segments of the once-raw Pikes Peak Highway are paved over. Today, about half of the race route is rendered in asphalt. Someday, an asphalt-biased race course could dramatically change the nature of the race itself. Until then, Suzuki's dominance, Hyundai's support, Ford's prevalence, and fans' loyalty may ensure that the ten-minute barrier is indeed broken before the world's attention wanes. [nggallery id=32]