Sunday, July 06, 2008

Cars and Tech 2009 Model Year Preview Part 3 (N to V)

By Chris Haak


Note: Part 1 of this article, from A through F, can be found here.
Part 2 of this article, from H through M, can be found here.

In the previous two installments of this series, we have covered A through F in Part 1, and H through M in Part 2. Today, the series concludes with Part 3, N through V.

Nissan's legendary new GT-R, which in earlier generations was not available in the US except in video games and magazine articles, hits dealers this summer. The car is a technological tour de force, with a 480 horsepower (which is significantly underrated, by the way) twin turbo intercooled 3.8 liter V6, all-new six-speed dual clutch gearbox, sophisticated all wheel drive system, virtual user-configurable "gauges" designed by video game makers, and room for four (as long as two of the four are of small stature and can squeeze into the back seat). The resulting car is almost GT-size and weight (tipping the scales at just under 4,000 pounds, while a similarly-priced Corvette Z06 is under 3,200 pounds) - but puts up absolutely breathtaking performance numbers. According to Car and Driver, 0 to 60 occurs in 3.3 seconds, the quarter mile whizzes by in 11.5 seconds at 124 miles per hour, the top speed is just under 200 miles per hour, and pulls 0.99 g on the skidpad. According to Nissan, the GT-R can lap the Nürburgring's famous Nordschleife faster than nearly any production car, at 7 minutes, 29 seconds.

Nissan's other big news for the 2009 model year is the launch of its second-generation Murano crossover this past January as an early 2009 model. In fact, although the new Murano is a 2009 model, Autosavant has already reviewed it. The 2009 Murano's styling is an obvious evolution of the original version's (which first went on sale in 2002 as a 2003 model), but has a stiffer structure, more powerful engine, more luxurious interior with better materials and more amenities. Pricing actually dropped from the previous 2007 model (there was no 2008 Murano) to the 2009 model, making a new one a better deal than it had been before, as long as you can look past its controversial new front end.

The Toyota Matrix-based (which itself is Toyota Corolla-based) Pontiac Vibe is all-new for the 2009 model year and saw an early launch. The Vibe retains its sporty wagon persona, with a cleaner design that eschews the plastic cladding of the original version and improves upon the interior design and materials of the old car. A larger 2.4 liter engine is now optional (the base engine is a 1.8 liter four shared with the Corolla) in higher-end models. All wheel drive is again available in the Vibe, which results in a pretty competitive package. I feel that Pontiac did a far better job styling the Vibe than Toyota did with the 2009 Matrix, especially considering they had the same raw materials to use.

Other news at Pontiac for the 2009 model year includes model line extensions; the existing Solstice convertible is joined by a coupe and the G8 GXP is added to the G8 line. For the Solstice Coupe, engine choices will remain the same as the convertible's, but the roofline has a much sleeker, cleaner shape than the lumpy convertible top that appears as if it's just an afterthought in the Solstice convertible's design. The G8 GXP features a 6.2 liter 402 horsepower LS3 V8 taken from the base Corvette (but detuned by about 30 horsepower) and coupled with the G8's first six-speed manual. Zero to sixty should happen in a brisk 4.3 seconds in the GXP model.

GM's former import-fighting brand, which now instead imports several of its models (the Astra from Belgium, the Vue from Mexico) doesn't have much to report for the 2009 model year after a very busy two year span where its entire lineup was refreshed. However, there is big technology news as the 2009 Vue Two Mode Hybrid. The 2008 Vue Green Line Hybrid was a 2.4 liter four cylinder coupled to GM's BAS (belt-alternator-starter) "mild" hybrid and saw barely any fuel economy improvement over the standard four cylinder Vue. However, the two-mode hybrid Vue (the Green Line moniker will be dropped from all Saturn hybrids for 2009, by the way) will have a direct injection 3.6 liter V6 instead, and the far more sophisticated two mode hybrid system, which is similar in engineering to the system found in the Tahoe, Yukon, Silverado, Sierra, Durango, and Aspen hybrids offered by GM and Chrysler. However, the Vue will be the first V6 application of the system and also the first front wheel drive-based application of the system. Expected fuel economy improvements are similar to those seen in the large trucks (over 40%), but pricing has not yet been announced. Expect the most green of the Vue line to fetch over $30,000, although the higher gas prices climb, the shorter its payback period is before the hybrid expense has paid for itself.

The 2009 Subaru Forester was yet another early 2009 model year launch, and is on dealers' lots right now. The new Forester is slightly larger than the old model, but has kept its weight gain down to just about 100 pounds, so driving characteristics should be similar. This cross between a mini SUV and a tall wagon is easy to drive and park, yet offers its owners a lot of utility. Also, the new model's pleasing shape, while sacrificing some of the "distinctiveness" of the old model, should prevent owners from having to make excuses for its homeliness. It has a more traditional small-SUV shape now, but it's a far cleaner design than the Tribeca or Imprezza were at their launches, so at least Subaru appears to have some clue about the appropriate design direction for some of their vehicles.

Small car specialist Suzuki is launching its first pickup in the US for the 2009 model year, called the Equator. US buyers should be pretty familiar with the truck, though, as it's just a Nissan Frontier with a different front end. The Equator will be available in two- or four-wheel drive and in regular or extended cab variants. While all pickup sales are tanking in the US this year, it's probably a win-win for Nissan and Suzuki; Suzuki is able to sell a vehicle that can carry its ATVs and motorcycles, and Nissan gets additional plant utilization in its Smyrna, Tennessee facility that builds the Frontier and Pathfinder, among others.

Toyota has already launched two early 2009 model year vehicles, its Matrix and Corolla. The Matrix is identical to the also-new 2009 Pontiac Vibe, but clad in entirely different (and not necessarily attractive) skin. The Matrix also has the same powertrain options that the Vibe has (both 1.8 and 2.4 liter four cylinders). The Corolla, one of Toyota's best sellers, went into its early 2009 model year with an all-new body that is about three inches wider and one inch shorter, giving the car more pleasing (and more US-friendly) proportions. I drove a 2009 Corolla S for a week, and while it was a good car and had plenty of room inside for a cheap car, the driving experience was not particularly engaging, and it's disappointing that the Corolla's city and highway fuel economy got worse with the new generation.

Toyota is also launching an all-new Camry-based two-row crossover called the Venza this fall. Similar in concept to the Nissan Murano and Lexus RX350 (midsize, luxurious, comfortable), the 2009 Venza will offer both front- and all-wheel drive and either a 3.5 liter V6 (the same engine that powers the Camry V6 models) or a new 2.7 liter four cylinder.

Ambitious (yet painfully naïve about the US market) Volkswagen comes to bat for the 2009 model year with its first small SUV to be sold in the US, the Tiguan. Supposedly, this manufactured word is a combination of tiger and iguana. Regardless of its unfortunate name, the Tiguan competes with other small premium SUVs such as the Acura RDX and Volvo XC60 (see below) and brings the expected luxury and technology to bat, including adaptive front lighting, a touchscreen navigation system, and a 30 GB hard disk for storing music files. The Tiguan is powered by a 2.0 liter turbocharged four cylinder coupled to a six-speed automatic.

Volkswagen also re-enters the minivan market in the US, this time on the back of Chrysler with its Routan. The Routan is nothing more than a rebadged Chrysler Town & Country/Dodge Grand Caravan with a Volkswagen nose and taillights, plus some minor interior trim differences. I actually prefer the Routan's front end to the Chrysler's, as it flows more smoothly and doesn't try too hard to be "tough" or "truck-like." Volkswagen has already said that the Chrysler-based Routan is a one-generation only product, and any eventual replacement will be developed in-house.

Volvo's new premium small SUV, the XC60, offers a new design direction for the Swedish brand, while still retaining familiar Volvo cues as well as a definite family resemblance to the older and larger XC90 SUV. As expected in a new Volvo, several safety-related innovations were incorporated into the new XC60, including something called City Safety, which closely monitors the area around the front of the vehicle to detect any potential collisions. If it believes that one is imminent, it will apply the brakes automatically, including taking the vehicle to a full stop if necessary. The XC60's engine at launch will be a 285-horsepower six cylinder turbocharged engine and should arrive at dealers in early 2009.

As I said in the introductory words to Part 1 of this series, the 2009 model year actually seems to be a "slow" year, with many brands trotting out mostly the same lineup they had last year. The recurring theme for the 2009 model year was also early launches - very few 2009 vehicles will be launched in the traditional fall timeframe, and are instead already on the road, and have been for several months in the case of some, such as the 2009 Nissan Murano.

In spite of the auto industry's enormous struggles for the past few months - which are likely to continue for at least the next year - there really hasn't ever been a better time to buy a new car if you want an efficient, excellent-performing, safe, comfortable new vehicle. The deals ain't bad nowadays either.

Part 1 - from A (Acura) through F (Ford) can be found here.
Part 2 - from H (Honda) through M (Mitsubishi) can be found here.

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