Anshel: Hello everyone, I?m the Editor-in-Chief of BSN* and we?ve been working on expanding our website towards car tech, specifically focusing on the things that we know: The tech aspects of cars and how they?re becoming more and more computers on wheels. Alan and I recently got new cars and we realized that picking our new cars involved a lot of the same things that you would do for a whole car review, so we decided to explore the topic and share our own experiences. We both love cars and driving, so we take it pretty seriously when they?re something we care about.
Alan: Exactly. The debate between x86 vs. ARM which has caught the attention of the tech world, is going strong in car technology. NVIDIA has an entire automotive division working not only on infotainment but also using the GPU to accelerate the mathematics needed for driver assistance technology like number-recognition for camera-based speed limit detection or improving the instrument panel. I have been involved with online tech journalism as a hobby for about 15 years, so I?m glad to work with Anshel on this feature. By day, nights, and weekends, I?m an orthopaedic spine surgeon. So besides my usual perspective as a car and tech enthusiast, my background in biomechanics and experience of frequently being part of the first team of physicians to evaluate a patient being brought into a trauma bay after a car accident has given a different perspective on car safety which I hope to share today.
Anshel: Speaking of safety, my previous ride was a 2000 Volvo S40 and was an incredibly zippy and sturdy Swedish Vehicle. Except, this car wasn?t actually made in Sweden, it was actually made in the Netherlands by Nedcar which was a joint operation with Mitsubishi Motors. As a result the S40 was internally almost identical chassis to the Mitsubishi Charisma of those years.
Alan: Yeah, the old Lancer Evolutions were called ?Carisma Evolution? in some countries. The S40 was built on the same platform as the Evo III! You could have had import tuner street cred?
Anshel: I did have a sweet spoiler on the back! The car was nothing technologically fancy other than the fact that it had a tape deck (Yayy) and a CD Player which is basically worthless nowadays. I actually used the tape deck more often since I had one of those tape deck adapters that gave you a 3.5mm jack for your phone or iPod.
The US version of this vehicle was a 2.0 Turbo and was an inline 4 engine that was rebadged in the US as a 1.9T and had a maximum horsepower output of about 158 HP and 170 ft lb of torque. I made almost no modifications to this vehicle other than replacing random parts of the engine that needed replacing. It did, however, come with a nice sunroof and had all of the window switches in the middle of the vehicle, like a true Volvo. The steering was responsive and I had wider tires than were recommended for better grip on turns. Before I had this car, I drove a 1995 Toyota Camry, so it was a huge upgrade because I had leather seats, a sunroof, and a more powerful engine with a more aggressive transmission as well.
Driving this car around was an enjoyable experience and I probably would?ve never stopped driving it (I planned to drive it into the ground) if the repairs weren?t so expensive, constant, and incredibly dumbfounding. There was simply a point where taking this car to get it repaired was an exercise in futility. Something always seemed to be wrong with the coils.
This wasn?t really a sporty car, but I definitely made it a fun to drive car. It rode pretty smoothly and handled pretty well, as it got older the engine started to take some time to wake up, especially in cold weather. But even with its flaws, it was still a great car and I was prepared to drive it until it died on me. Because of the 2.0L turbo, I was able to get the car?s turbo to kick in at around 2,500 to 2,600 RPMs and as a result, got some pretty stellar highway mileage. On a good day, highway-only driving I could easily get 30 to 31 MPG. With combined city and highway driving, I usually got around 23 MPG, which was pretty good for a car that?s over 10 years old and over 100,000 miles on it. To be fair, I did maintain the car pretty well and it was running fully synthetic motor oil for many miles.
Alan: I?m coming from a 2008 Infiniti G35x. My car was as Spartan as they came. No sunroof, navigation, or even Bluetooth. I went with no sunroof on this car for increased chassis rigidity and stiffened it even further with a front-tower strut brace. I added paddle shifters and swapped in lightweight 18? Enkei rims running Michelin Pilot Sport A/S Plus tires. Huper Optik ceramic tint. I ran German Castrol 0W-30 with Purolator One oil filters from the first oil change and on.
The all-wheel-drive system of the G35x has its roots in the old 1989-2003 Nissan Skyline GT-R. That meant that it used an electromagnetic wet clutch which split the torque 25% front/75% rear from 0 to 10 mph and then switched to a 100% rear bias above 10 mph. When rear wheel slip is detected, the vehicle can deliver up to 50% of power to the front wheels. This meant that I got the AWD benefits of straight line acceleration and the handling characteristics of a rear wheel drive car. With a 1-foot roll out, a brake launch, and Shell 93 Octane V-Power gasoline and ambient temperature in the 40?s, I was able to get 0-60 times of 5.38 seconds. The car was advertised with an EPA 17/25 mpg. In San Francisco, my actual commute averaged 14.9 mpg.
Compared to a G35s with a stiffer suspension and lower ride height running on Bridgestone RE050A, the G35x?s handling was slightly floatier and the torque transfer from rear to front was something easily detected. Just as the rear was about to kick out, you would feel the power being transferred to the front wheels. This gave the sensation of being on rails for a brief moment and then, if I kept pushing it, the car would begin to understeer. As artificial as it sounds, the results was very predictable and certainly explains why the old R32 Skyline GT-R was such as great car on the track in Japan. You knew exactly when the car was beginning to lose grip before actually losing grip and had a small safety net.
What was most impressive about the car was that while the G35/G37 sedan and coupe could be thought of as a more comfortable and practical version of the Nissan 350Z/370Z with tuned specimens making the cover of magazines like Import Tuner, the sedan was also the Consumer Reports Top Upscale Sedan for 2007, 2008, 2009, and then Sports Sedan 2010, 2011, and 2012 only losing to the 2013 F30 BMW 328i. It really says something when you have a car that appeals to readers of both Import Tuner and Consumer Reports for a six-year period. Great car. I was just getting tired of refueling all the time and wanted a trunk bigger than 13.5 cubic feet.
Anshel: I really enjoyed the size of the Volvo, so I was looking for a vehicle of comparable size, but also had to be properly updated in terms of tech since my Volvo was going on being 13 years old and only had a tape deck and a CD changer. I also needed something more reliable that wouldn?t cost me an arm and a leg to maintain.
Based on this, I decided that I was going to test drive all of the cars that fit in that segment and that met my pre-determined parameters.
One of the things that sparked my interested was Cadillac?s $299 a month offer on the ATS. Obviously I knew that this was going to be the bare bones model, but I had no idea how far I?d stray from that. After that, I decided that I would also look at the Subaru BR-Z and Scion FR-S since they had piqued my interest and had just been released. I went to a local dealership and was treated with a level of arrogance that I was frankly shocked to experience. I was told that they were selling so many of the Subaru BR-Zs that they only had one in the showroom and it was for serious buyers only. Keep in mind, this car is only $25,000 MSRP. This immediately turned me off and I didn?t even bother to go for a test drive or to look for another dealership and I refocused my efforts and regrouped another day on the weekend… Alan: I agree. In elementary school, I remember my Dad going to the library to read Consumer Reports and getting a physical copy of the Kelly Blue Book before shopping for cars. Today, we all go on the internet and have more information than ever before. You can find good or bad salesman off Yelp reviews or message boards. A sleazy car salesman or saleswoman is always a complete deal breaker for me.
Anshel: I told myself that I would test drive all of the cars in a similar class and decide which one fit me the best before reading any reviews or anyone else?s opinions. I first went to check out the Acura TSX and was incredibly surprised with the amount of comfort, luxury, performance and tech that the car was packed with. I was especially surprised by how well it handled and how smoothly it rode considering it was effectively a luxury Honda.
Alan: In fact, the TSX is sold in Europe as the Accord. The Accord Euro-R was one of my favorite cars in Gran Turismo 3. Before I bought my G35x, I considered the first-generation Acura RDX with the 4 cylinder turbo. The TSX has aged well I think.
Anshel: The staff at the dealership were incredibly helpful and didn?t pressure me to buy that day or get my credit checked. I was pretty impressed with their non-car salesman style of car sales. I would get a similar experience from all of the subsequent dealers I went to afterwards. To this day, I?m not sure whether or not this was a result of my attitude or a change in the way cars are sold. Back when my dad was a car salesman, some 20 years ago, you had the logical salesmen and the shiesty salesmen. The latter generally produced the best numbers, but the former got the most return customers. Unfortunately for my dad, those customers wouldn?t need a car from him for a while. Nevertheless, the experience at all of the dealerships was actually quite pleasant.
Alan: I?ve had pressured sales tactics from several brands. I?ve experienced it at Honda, Mazda and Lexus. I don?t think things have changes systematically yet. You can have good/bad Lexus dealers and good/bad BMW dealers too. You took a look at the 3 series, right?
Anshel: Of course. The BMW dealer was almost next door to the Acura dealer. I drove both the 328i and 335i just to get an idea of what was different. My personal expectations for the 328i and 335i were pretty high since BMW has the reputation of being the ultimate driving machine. To be honest, I was the most disappointed in BMW in my driving. The interior didn?t feel like a luxury car and everything felt a bit dull.
Alan: I agree with you on this. I ultimately ended up with a BMW myself, but not the 3-series. The interior didn?t have the fit and finish I wanted, and I particularly disliked the appearance of infotainment screen that breaks the line of the dash. Still, it?s one of the most popular vehicles in wealthy communities and today?s 3-series is almost as big as the old-school 5-series from a decade ago which is a good thing for someone looking for a sedan with sporty personality rather than true sports car with 4 doors.
BMW lost some of its sporty edge once the company moved its cars toward runflat tires. Runflat tires are great for safety and great for protecting you against a group of bikers trying to slash your tires, however the grip isn?t very good. Motor Trend showed that the difference that tires made in a video recently:
The short of it is that a stock 328i was as fast as a Mustang V6 and faster than a BR-Z on the track: Streets of Willow. But if you swapped in racing slicks, the 328i was much faster. In fact, if you look up historical track times, a 328i with racing slicks matched a 2006 911 Turbo?s track time (1:30.7) which is even faster than a 2004 Ford GT and 2004 NSX according to Fastestlaps.com.
Anshel: The driving aspects of the vehicle were nice, but nothing that made me feel like this was the best car of the bunch. I left the BMW dealership pretty disappointed. After the disappointment at the BMW dealership, I was interested to see what Lexus had in store with their 2013 IS250 and IS350. Upon speaking with the salesman, he basically said that there was little point in driving the IS350 considering how similar the two cars were and that they didn?t have many if any 350s to test drive. I listened to his recommendation and took the 250 for at test drive and was pretty impressed with the overall driving experience as well as the technology behind it.
2013 Lexus IS 250 Exterior
2013 Lexus IS 250 Interior – image credit: Autoblog
2014 Lexus IS 250 Interior
However, I was incredibly disappointed with Lexus? decision to put an absolutely hideous flat plastic panel in the dash of the vehicle. It looks incredibly cheap and evokes nothing about a luxury car. Upon speaking to the sales person about my distaste for this huge plastic piece of dash, he told me that the IS series all had the same hunk of plastic and that you would have to move up to a GS or higher to get rid of that ugly thing. This issue has actually been addressed by Lexus in their 2014 model which wasn?t out when I was shopping, along with the incredibly boring exterior styling of the vehicle. While Lexus hasn?t made any drastic improvements to the IS250/350 they have made it a much less boring car to look at than in the past.
2014 Lexus IS 250 Exterior
Alan: I actually like the 2014 IS exterior. I also think that Lexus has made huge improvements with the new IS. The new grille is completely out of place on the rest of the Lexus line-up, but it works great with the IS350 F-Sport in Ultra White. The new IS was actually the first car on my shopping list. Though the G35 had served me well, the new VQ37VHR engines in the G37 and Q50 seemed too finicky to me, requiring specialized Eneos ester oil, and even the Q50 seemed to be too small of an upgrade to the G35. But what says ?reliability? better than Lexus? With some stellar reviews in the press about the precise steering and a slick LF-A inspired LCD dash, it seemed like a no-brainer.
At the time I was looking, the IS had just begun to make it to dealer showrooms. A fully loaded IS350 F-Sport with an MSRP of $48791 was being offered at prices closer to $48000 though it probably could be negotiated down another $1K. The Lexus dealer was great, with no pressure and excellent customer service. I wanted to test drive the IS350 F-Sport. They didn?t have any demo cars available to drive? except for one that was on its way to becoming the dealership?s promotion vehicle with the San Francisco Giants. On the test drive, the car handled wonderfully and the the driving dynamics were vastly superior than the previous generation IS as well as the G35/37. Whereas the old IS was a trade-off for cruising comfort with performance compared to the G, the new IS was giving me all of the performance of the Infiniti G with reduced noise, vibration and harshness. It was a proverbial wolf in sheep?s clothing. What really struck me was that to really appreciate the refined steering and handling, I had to drive the car at what would be completely inappropriate speeds on public roads.
Lexus GS 350 F-Sport
With that in mind, I took a look at the 2013 GS350 F-Sport. $58961 MSRP / $52000 negotiated price. For basically another $4K over the IS350, I was getting a car with an MSRP that was $10k higher. This was a huge step up in value. While I lost the cool looking LF-A inspired dash, the car interior actually felt like a true step above my G35 and the IS350. With the dynamic dampers in Sport+ mode, the GS350 handled like a far smaller car than it actually was. But even with the size of the GS350, to reach the limits of the GS350 F-Sport, I also had to drive at completely inappropriate speeds on public roads.
That?s when it really hit me. The IS350 F-Sport had not blown me away compared to the GS350 F-Sport. I didn?t need the fastest car on the track ? I wasn?t going to get a track car. So many magazines and car reviews focus on track performance when the reality is that most of today’s cars are plenty fast. Yes, the kid in me who grew up dreaming of an Integra Type-R and Supra Twin Turbo still smiles every time a 2014 IS350 F-Sport drives by but the adult version of me knew that it wasn?t going to be the right car for me. Where?d you go to after Lexus?
Anshel: After Lexus, we took a quick dip on over to the Mercedes dealership down the street (car shopping is so convenient when everyone is just down the street from each other). Here we were once again greeted by a very polite gentleman that suggested that I drive the C250 for the same reason that the Lexus salesman had suggested. The cars were very similar but the best value is the C250 and most of the experience will be felt in a C250 just as much as a C350. Driving the C250, I really did enjoy the paddle shifters, but the plastic paddles felt a bit cheap and some aspects of the knobs and buttons felt cheap. The C250 was not a disappointing car, however, it felt like you were getting less than you were paying for.
Alan: Did you consider waiting for the CLA? It?s too small of a car for what I want, but that looks like a great car.
Mercedes Benz CLA 250
Anshel: Yes, I did think about the CLA, however, at the time they still hadn?t announced the exact pricing nor the specs of the vehicle as it wasn?t slated to be available until September that year. As such, I kind of watched cautiously but wasn?t all that crazy about it partially because I didn?t think it would deviate much from the C250 or C350. Now that we know more about the CLA, we know that there?s only really one version of the CLA worth getting and that?s the AMG version.
Alan: Sure, the AMG is awesome but the regular CLA isn’t that horrible. You still get Mercedes safety features like Collision Prevention and Attention Assist standard. If you treat it like a two seater with a back seat for occasional use, it?s still cheaper than a 320i which is its closest competitor. So, why the ATS?
Anshel: I was ready to head home actually until I was reminded by Theo that the Cadillac ATS was what had originally sparked the new car idea to begin with. So, we headed down to the Cadillac dealership and were greeted by a place that definitely caters to an older crowd. A dealership that definitely needs to be freshened up like the other dealerships we had been to except maybe Mercedes and BMW.
Alan: So true. One of the reasons that Lexus was so successful in the 90?s was that they created a new dealership experience from the regular Toyota experience. Even today, people still associate Cadillac with an old person’s car. They’ll be fine though. Ten years ago, Samsung and LG televisions were low end. Now they are best of breed.
Anshel: Anyways, I digress, we took a pretty well loaded Premium ATS 2.0T RWD for a test drive and I immediately fell in love with the way the car handled, accelerated, and the overall quality of the interior. It really blew me away, because the quality of the interiors of all the other vehicles didn?t come anywhere close. Perhaps it was the fault of the sales people, but nothing about the Cadillac ATS looked or felt a shred of cheap other than the CUE center console made of a big hunk of plastic. This somewhat reminded me of the Chevy Volt, and was the only thing that bothered me about the entire interior.
The ATS fully loaded would be a Premium model with AWD and the 3.6L V6 naturally aspirated engine. The ATS came in three different trims, with various options that came standard with each version. Each of these could be customized one of the three engines, a 2.5L inline 4, 2.0 Turbo and the 3.6L V6. In addition to that, the AWD option was only available for the 2.0T and 3.6L V6. Since I live in Southern California, the AWD option didn?t really seem like an important one to have, nor the cold weather package. Both options that I didn?t get with the vehicle.
Alan: So it was love at first drive, huh? I was pretty close to signing for a GS350 F-Sport, but I decided to give a BMW 5 series a chance. The current version of the car has developed a reputation in the US as being a luxury sedan that had given up its sporty dynamics with a suspension that was too soft and steering that was too numb. Internationally, however, the BMW 535i is still seen as a sporty vehicle. On the Auto Zeitung test track, the BMW 535i is faster than a ?07 Porsche Cayenne S, the Mercedes S65 AMG, and even the Scion FR-S/Toyota GT-86. At Hockenheim Short, the 535i is faster than a Ferrari Testarossa, Lamborghini Countach and Bentley Continental GT. That?s on the stock run-flat tires. So while the US press was criticizing the BMW?s lack of sporty dynamics, Ben Collins (?The Stig?) had nothing but praise for the 535i and even called BMW?s ABS tuning one of the best in the industry with a very aggressive tune.
It turns out that both the US and European press were correct in their assessments. BMW USA never offered the M-Sport suspension in the US until the 2013 model year and we only had the lower quality suspension. To date, there hasn?t been a US car magazine looking at a 2013 or 2014 rear-wheel drive 5 series with the M-sport suspension.
As I began my search for a 2013 car, BMW began to build their 2014 5-series. For 2014, BMW re-tuned the steering and suspension. While the M-Sport suspension would still be the suspension to get if beating a Cayenne S on the track was important, the regular suspension could now offer the cosseting ride comfort of the world?s best luxury sedans and allow you to waft through the countryside effortlessly, yet reduce body roll and maintain the precision handling of the M-Sport vehicle if you were driving in a spirited manner. The 2014 upgrade increased the sportiness of the sedan dramatically. What was also a surprise was that the 2014 535i had dramatically sportier seats with beefy lateral bolsters and more precise and communicative steering than the 2014 328i. The 3 series was definitely more ?tossable? thanks to its lighter weight, though ?tossable? is something I only want on the track.
The 5 series is built on a shortened version of the Rolls Royce Phantom and Wraith platform. With the BMW 550i offering the same torque-to-weight ratio as the $300,000 Rolls Royce Wraith and the BMW 535i sacrificing power for fuel economy, the BMW 5-series comes close to the power and beauty of the Rolls Royce? without the drama. The 2014 BMW even features satellite navigation assisted transmission. Anshel: What?s that? It sounds a bit ridiculous and unnecessary.
Alan: It links the automatic transmission to the GPS data to anticipate the gear you need to be in. You don?t have to be using the GPS routing actively, but if there is a branching road and you don?t have the turn signal on, having a destination programmed will make it more accurate. BMW says that it?ll anticipate a bend and subsequent bend to make sure you have engine braking before the bend, are in the right gear to accelerate out of the bend, and times the shifts optimally. It has special tuning for turns, roundabouts, and when merging onto a highway. When merging onto a highway, it?s supposed to keep you in lower gears so that you have maximum torque available for merging. It?ll have different tuning whether you?re in SPORT or COMFORT mode. In the ECO PRO, it disables this because it?ll electronically put you in neutral for coasting for squeezing out the last bit of fuel economy.
This is primarily a Europe-only feature but reflects the Rolls Royce engineering that trickles down into the 5 series. Anyway, I had a superb experience getting my car. Remember when Newegg.com first came out or Amazon.com started carrying motherboards and CPUs? Suddenly, computer enthusiasts had an easy and no-hassle way to get the exact components they wanted at a better price than had ordinarily been available to the ordinary public. My guy at BMW is just like that. I?m officially giving a shout-out to Greg Poland at Pacific BMW in Glendale, California. Besides giving me a great deal where my 2014 custom-spec?d vehicle was essentially the same price as what other dealers were asking for their 2013 cars, the whole process was fully transparent, with superb attention to detail. All of the negotiation and paperwork were done via email and when I took delivery of the vehicle, I arrived at the dealer at 1:15PM and left at 2:15PM. That was for everything including meeting with the ?finance guy? and taking the time to install my trunk mat. You can’t beat that kind of service.
Anshel: Once I found the car I wanted (which was basically the car I test drove) it took about a week total to get the financing and paperwork lined up appropriately. At that time, many people hadn?t heard about the ATS yet or what made it so unique. Was it hard to find a 2014 on the lot with the options you wanted?
Alan: It was impossible to find what I wanted on the lot. I really did custom order one and tracked the whole thing from production to delivery, following it as the cargo ship went through the Panama Canal and everything. One of the nice things about custom ordering a car is that you actually save money because you don?t have to buy any options or packages you don?t want. I don?t even have fog lights on my BMW. Actually on the point about ordering my car, on the BMW enthusiast message boards, you?ll actually see people on the East Coast ordering from Greg since he can offer a better deal than their local dealer even when accounting for vehicle transport. A good example of his character is that when my car suddenly qualified for another $1000 off promo from BMW North America, he made sure it was applied to my car. I ended up being well under invoice after all was said and done and had stacked multiple promotions. I didn?t have to ask him for it and he went out of his way to make sure I got the best deal even though it was going to bring sale price of the car down (and therefore the commission). His job is to take care of his customers, not nickel-and-dime them with the hope that they?ll be repeat customers or refer him to their friends. So, if you?re thinking about getting a BMW, email gregpoland at pacificbmw.com and let him know that Alan Dang sent you and he?ll take care of you.
Anshel: So, when you look at the overall way that both of us found the cars that we wanted, we ended up getting the cars that weren?t necessarily the most expensive or the fastest, but rather the ones that made the most sense to us and connected with us on a practical and emotional level. The truth is that most people don?t get nearly as much enjoyment out of the things they buy if they buy the most expensive things, it?s usually from the things that they know that they worked hard to earn and match their needs best.
Alan: Well, it?s the reason why very few tech journalists decide to go with liquid nitrogen cooled PCs RAID-0 a dozen drives together as their primary computer. There?s the fun of pushing something to the limit, and then there?s reality of how you?ll really use it.
Stop me if you think I?m going to bore our readers, but I think there?s an interesting story that somehow, you and I ended up picking the cars we did. I don?t know if any of today?s cars will reach a million miles or if the era of electric vehicles will take over, but I do know that some of the cars on the market today reflect a perfect storm of engineering that may never be accomplished again. Think back to the time period before 2007. The global economy was strong and the future looked brilliantly bright. Now imagine that you?re the CEO of a billion-dollar company in that era, completely unaware of the looming Great Recession. If you were CEO, would you work on mundane and conservative products, or look to launch something bigger and bolder and take the initiative to develop something no one had ever seen before, expecting that the economy would scale up by the time your product reached the market?
Anshel: The second, obviously.
Alan: Exactly. It?s no surprise that some of the boldest ideas had roots in the time period before the Great Recession.
iPhone. Project initiated 2005. Launched 2007.
RED ONE digital cinema camera. Company formed in 2005. Launched 2007.
Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Firm configuration completed 2005.
McLaren MP4-12C. Work initiated 2005.
Even the Nissan GT-R Concept which was first showcased in 2001 was just a design project. The GT-R Proto from 2005 was closer to the true predecessor of today?s GT-R.
All these great ambitious projects came to reality during a period of huge economic growth. It?s in that setting that the Cadillac ATS was first conceived.
In 2007, GM began work on two supercars. The first was the C7 Corvette which we see as the 2014 Corvette today. Lovely car. Hands down the car I would get if I was in the market for a sports car in that price range. The other supercar was something more ambitious. Instead of developing something to go after Ferrari or Porsche, GM?s second supercar was going to be something for the common man, a high-performance, luxury rear-wheel drive platform that could take on BMW and Mercedes for the next decade. GM?s belief in the project was so substantial that they codenamed it ALPHA, representing the beginning of something new. A billion dollars later, the Cadillac ATS was born.
Anshel: You know what?s funny about that? I actually heard a story about how the Alpha platform almost never happened. In the early days of the development of the ATS they were discussing whether they should recycle an old platform or move forward with the new Alpha platform, which would obviously cost them quite a bit more money. Some people inside of GM were advocating for the cheaper option, recycling the Chevy Malibu?s platform, while others remained steadfast in their decision to create the Alpha platform. This internal battle went on between the two camps and eventually the Alpha platform was built, and considering the result that we see today, I think they?re glad they didn?t save any money on it. A lot of people were relieved that they didn?t do that, because that car would?ve been a joke
Alan: That’s an incredible story.
Anshel: Yeah, it was kinda crazy to think that they were going to try to recycle a platform that has no track record of being a luxury or performance vehicle in a new performance luxury car.
Alan: Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, BMW was looking toward something ambitious as well. In the late 1960?s, BMW began codenaming their vehicles with the letter E followed by a number. The BMW E3, for example, referred to the BMW New Six. For almost 50 years, BMW would continue to use this nomenclature. In 2005, BMW began work on the next generation of their flagship sedan, the 7 series with a plan for launch in 2009. This vehicle would be codenamed F01, reflecting BMW?s belief that it would be the foundation for the BMW?s next 50 years. With US gasoline prices averaging less than $2/gallon, BMW engineered a chassis with unique elements such as over 400 pounds of zinc-coated boron steel, one of the strongest metals in the world to provide exceptional torsional rigidity and passenger safety. Moreover, this would provide the chassis foundation for the next-generation Rolls Royce as well as the next-generation 5 series, responsible for approximately 50% of BMW?s profits.
The engineering GM and BMW invested in these platforms has nothing to do with the infotainment system, the type of leather or wood being used, or even the cosmetic appearance of the vehicle. A vehicle platform is about the chassis, suspension and powertrain.
So think about it, what was so monumental that GM believed that ALPHA was an appropriate name and so monumental that BMW thought they could restart the codenames with the letter F?
It was the actual chassis itself.
In the perfect world you could have an infinitely rigid chassis which was infinitely light. Why is this? In an infinitely rigid chassis, the suspension becomes entirely responsible for the ride characteristic. A suspension has dampers, springs and linkages whereas a chassis acts like a tuning fork or a water bed. With an infinitely stiff and rigid chassis, the suspension would be the sole determinant of the vehicle?s handling and ride characteristic. An infinitely rigid chassis with a plush suspension will ride like a Rolls Royce while an infinitely rigid chassis with a stiff suspension will corner like a GT-R. An infinitely rigid chassis with an infinitely stiff suspension is horrible because any bump in the road will cause loss of traction. It?s the very nature of a suspensions ability to combine springs, dampers, sway bars, and geometry to provide different characteristics for large and small loads so that traction is maintained when cornering and potholes are navigated without any drama. That?s how the McLaren MP4-12C can switch between Rolls Royce waftability in the comfort mode and Porsche 911 like handling in track mode.
Now, in the real world, stiffness adds weight and extra mass leads to problems. Newton?s Laws of Motion basically means that a heavy car won?t corner as well, nor will it accelerate or decelerate as well. So while mathematicians have defined the need for ?as rigid as possible while also being as light as possible?, engineers determine where along that curve they want to be and allow for a little bit of flex in the chassis. When a chassis has too much flex, engineers need to firm up the suspension. That?s the only reason why people say that a chassis can be too stiff. It?s not that the chassis is too stiff, it?s that it?s too stiff for the suspension that?s on the car at the time.
The 5 series is over-engineered and built on what is essentially the shortened version of the platform used in a Rolls Royce Wraith (or lazy-engineered if you were a penny-pincher because they took a platform intended for a heavier, bigger and more expensive car and shrunk it down), the 5 series has exceptional torsional rigidity for a sedan. At 37,500 Nm/deg, the chassis is more rigid than the Porsche Carrera GT (26,000 Nm/deg), and Lamborghini Aventador (35,000 Nm/deg). The other bonus behind having a torsionally rigid car is safety.
Anshel: Wait a sec. If rigidity is so important and your 535i is more rigid than a Lamborghini, you can?t be claiming that it?s a better design than those cars.
Alan: No, it?s just one thing, and weight is the trade-off. You can only make things stiffer by geometry or material properties. Geometry is the shape of the structure. Using extra stiff steel adds rigidity. Using high-tensile strength aluminum gives similar strength to conventional steel but is lighter. Or, take carbon fiber. You can make a car with the same stiffness but way lighter by using carbon fiber reinforced plastic or vice-versa, make a car with the same weight but way stronger.
The ATS tackled this with improvements in geometry and improved materials.
The ATS beats a lot of supercars too: Aston Martin Vanquish is 28,500 Nm/deg, Audi A8 is 25,000 Nm/deg, the previous E90 3 series was 22500 Nm/deg. That tells you how serious GM was about ALPHA. The F30 3-series (current gen) is quoted as being 30% more stiff than the E90 so it?s about the same as the ATS. Of course, the real supercars are in a whole different class: Bugatti Veyron is 60,000 Nm/deg, Lexus LF-A is 39,130 Nm/deg, Koenigsegg Agera R is 65,000 Nm/deg?
The CTS is a larger version of the ATS. It?s 8.5% lighter than the previous generation and 40% stiffer. But it?s not as stiff as the ATS. The CTS only has a 26800 Nm/deg torsional stiffness. If I didn?t get the 5 series, and I wasn?t getting a Corvette Stingray, there?s no question that the 2014 CTS V-Sport would have been a great option. Maybe if there was a CTS V-sport wagon. I think the ATS-V, when it comes out, is going to give the BMW F80 M3 a run for its money.
Anshel: After seeing how similar the ATS and CTS are in terms of weight I would not be surprised if someone opted for the 2014 CTS V-Sport, it is a nice comfortable car with a very big and powerful engine. As you said, it won?t be as stiff as the ATS, but it?ll still be way more agile than it looks.
Alan: That’s the thing, right? The CTS doesn’t look agile. The Audi A6 and BMW 5 series look agile. Either way, getting back to the chassis. Weight and rigidity go hand in hand when it comes to safety. When it comes to safety, there are 3 things I consider: Active Driver Assistance, Active Safety, and Passive Safety.
Driver Assistance represents tools like blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic monitoring, driver alertness monitoring, and lane departure warning. I see this as a category of technology intended to assist a distracted driver and with the exception of perhaps blind spot monitoring/rear cross traffic monitoring are insurance against driver distraction. More than 70% of motor vehicle collisions are caused by recognition errors such as inattentiveness or neglect and studies show that drowsy driving is as dangerous as drunk driving. So driver assistance is a good thing to have from a societal perspective. It makes marginal drivers better drivers. (But it doesn’t help bad drivers).
Active driving safety is the buzzword you get to use to justify to yourself or your significant other the practicality of a sporty car. If your car has a big brake kit from Akebono or Brembo, that extra stopping power can mean the difference between a close call and a collision. The same can be said about handling characteristics. A car that has less aerodynamic lift and a lower center of gravity will corner better, but also reduce the risk of a roll-over accident. Precise and predictable steering along with an aggressive ABS may help you avoid the deer that runs into the road when your brakes and tires cannot bring your car to a stop fast enough and all the driver assistance gizmos would not have helped. Or think about a kid running into the street. If you knew that you could save a life thanks to a sportier car with better brakes and handling, isn’t the ethical thing to get the best handling car you could afford? I’m being a little sarcastic, of course.
Passive safety is how the car handles once a collision is occurring. This is where chassis design also comes into play. Everyone understands the concept of crumple zones, but why is it that some cars have 5 star ratings and some cars don?t? The same chassis rigidity that helps with handling and activity safety also helps in a crash.
Crumple zones don?t tell the whole story. First patented in 1952, crumple zones helped to divide the car into a rigid passenger cell and crumple zones surrounding the occupants. The crumple zones absorb as much energy as possible but then it is up to the rigid compartment to withstand the remaining forces. This requires good geometry to distribute the forces across different parts of the car so that no single part of the rigid cell sees the full brunt of the collision. It also requires high strength materials which also happen to be useful with torsional stiffness.
For safety, we want infinite stiffness as well so that it could absorb an infinite amount of energy before deforming. Like the performance issue, the real world requires compromises and we want high stiffness and low weight for handling. This leads to technologies like carbon fiber reinforced polymers or Advanced High Strength Steels.
Recently, the IIHS started testing cars with a small front overlap test. ?NHTSA 5 star cars? and ?IIHS Safety Picks? were suddenly graded as marginal. Though crash tests are important and are designed to be as realistic and useful as possible, they are like every other benchmark ? subject to optimization. But what?s interesting is that I think I could have predicted those crash test results by looking at the chassis design.
Let?s start with a great car, the Porsche Cayman S. These images are produced by the automotive manufacturer, but I got them from boronextrication.com.
If you look at the design of the vehicle, aluminum is used in non-structural portions of the car. Besides the contribution to the crumple zone, the use of aluminum helps to decrease weight which improves handling.
The silver metal is low carbon steel. These type steel is soft and has little tensile strength. Accordingly, it?s used for cosmetics as well as in the crumple zones. You then have higher strength steel in green for the passenger cell with reinforced higher strength steel (in yellow) for the side-impact and roof. This multiphase steel is strong but also has strain rate sensitivity which means it absorbs more energy the faster it is deformed. The highest strength steel (red) is used for the roof to protect the passengers in a rollover collision.
Let?s look at the Volvo S60.
When you look at this vehicle, high strength steel is used throughout the entire front of the vehicle. Additionally, it has the diagonal strut that reinforces the car during a ?small frontal offset? collision while also providing structural support in a front passenger side impact. Volvo doesn?t distinguish what kind of metal is being used though.
Now compare this to the BMW 3-series
Although the 3 series is lightweight, it is only using the highest strength steel for the B pillar. From a pure chassis perspective, you can learn a lot about the car. The Volvo S60 potentially offers a sturdier chassis than the 3-series when you look at the Institute for Highway Safety?s recent ?Small Overlap, Frontal Impact.? The BMW is relying purely on the energy absorbing multi-phase steel and you can imagine a car crash with a small overlap is only going through a little bit of the multi-phase steel before hitting the driver. On the other hand, it?s important to emphasize that the number for torsional rigidity is not the only important detail. The 3-series has that horizontal beam where the rear axle while the Volvo just has the tiny inverted triangle for reinforcement. That?s why on a ?whole chassis? stand point, the 3-series wins with torsional rigidity of 29-ish-thousand Nm/deg compared to the S60?s 20,000 Nm/deg. On the other hand, if I were to imagine a rear oblique impact, the 3 series might be better than Volvo.
If we look at your Cadillac ATS, we can see that it?s using the highest strength steel in the A-pillar as well as the roof.
You would expect the ATS to have better crash test results than the 3-series because it?s got more of the press-hardened steel along the front of the vehicle and has an energy absorbing column in the front.
Anshel: It?ll be interesting to see what the results are when IIHS gets around to testing the ATS.
Alan: Definitely. Now, moving up the ladder, both the Tesla Model S and BMW 5 series use boron-steel as well. In the Model S, the battery pack acts as a structural component of the vehicle, but the highest strength steel used for the B-pillar. This is how the Model S broke the machine used to test roof strength. Although there is no high-strength steel used at the front of the car, the Model S has no traditional engine and therefore there is no traditional engine that will impale your torso and pelvis. Although it?s not shown here, the rear bumper is double reinforced in the 7 seater Model S.
Last, the underlying chassis of the 5 series tells a story of exactly what I?m paying for over a 3 series. In comparison to the 3 series, nearly the entire front cell is made with the heat-formed zinc-coated boron steel. One would expect the 5 series to do much better in a small offset frontal collision. Notice how the BMW extends the use of the highest strength steel to the middle of the rear wheel arch, protecting the rear passengers in a side impact to a greater degree than the Volvo, likely reflecting the roots of the 5-series chassis as being intended for use in a Rolls Royce where the owners are more likely to be chauffeured. In addition, more energy absorbing steel is used as well.
Unlike the Cadillac ATS and the Volvo S60, there is no use of ultrahigh strength steel crossing the roof to connect the two sides of the vehicle. One would expect the roof strength to be lower in comparison and turns out that?s the case with the test measurements. Anshel: So when shopping for safe cars, it?s hard to go with just the star rating. If you look at the IIHS, they can have a car like your 5 series with a good score for the moderate frontal overlap. At NHTSA, your 5 series is only 4 stars even though it?s 5 overall. How much of this really matters?
Alan: For a frontal crash, remember that a car crashing into a barrier will test ?like vs. like?. That is, a 3000 lb car in a frontal crash test is crashing into another 3000 lb car while a 5000 lb car in a frontal crash test is crashing into another 5000 lb car. If both cars have exactly the same ratings in terms of head injury criterion (HIC) or newtons of force, in real-life, the 5000 lb car going up against that 3000 lb car will win. The NHTSA and IIHS test slightly different things and this is a good thing because more data is better data. The NHTSA uses a full-on frontal crash which doesn?t happen often in real-life, but allows them to test both a 50th percentile male and 5th percentile female crash test dummy. They do it at 35 mph. The IIHS uses moderate overlap frontal crashes which are the most common real-world crash (40% overlap) and at 40 mph. This is a tougher test but the IIHS just uses a 50th percentile male dummy, so it?s not as predictive of what would happen if you were a smaller driver.
Recently, IIHS did a small overlap test with only 25% overlap. These types of crashes are less common in real-life but are associated with the highest rate of injuries and fatalities.
Head Injury Criterion (HIC) is something you need to know. This can be measured in the first 15 or 36 milliseconds by convention and predicts brain injury. 250 is quoted as a threshold for concussion in NFL players. An Olympic-level Taekwondo turning kick can deliver a HIC of 672.74±540.89. At an HIC of 1000, you have about a 16% chance of a severe brain injury.
NHTSA Full Frontal Crash:
So if you look at this, you can see how the bigger 5 series and model S do a good job of protecting a driver and 50 percentile male. Not only are the scores better than the ATS, the bigger cars are getting hit by a bigger car (like vs. like). On the other hand, the ATS does well with protecting the legs of a smaller person.
Even with modern safe cars, in all of these cases, the 5th percentile female passenger has enough head trauma to reach thresholds associated with concussions (HIC > 250).
Anshel: So clearly, still room for improvement for full frontal crashes. What about the femur numbers?
Alan: The Volvo really stands out according to the NHTSA?s test. Bones are strongest in compression and weakest with torsion. When it comes to bending, a femur probably can tolerate 3.9 kN (males) and 2.6 kN (females).
Femoral shaft fractures are associated with a lot of bleeding and can be deadly, particularly in elderly patients, but modern medicine does a pretty good job of healing femoral shaft fractures as long as you?re a non-smoker. While you?re below the threshold of injury in these tests, remember that this is comparing like vs. like crashes and at higher speeds, the injuries will be higher and that a real crash is never 100% identical to the test conditions.
So in general, not bad. No crash dummy in those simulated crashes should have fractured their femur as long as their bones were healthy. Based upon those numbers, at a head on collision at 35 mph, you should be able to walk away with bruises and scratches and potentially a mild concussion. High school physics taught us that kinetic energy = 1/2 mass x velocity^2. So, better brakes that slow you down faster to decrease the velocity at the moment of impact helps. Active safety ? your argument for buying a better handling car.
As you increase the speeds, the energy is higher. Just take a look at this classic Fifth Gear test:
Anshel: What about side impact?
Alan: Side impacts are easier to compare between cars. In a side impact, a simulated vehicle of specified weight is used. That means the weight of the car being tested has no bearing. In the NHTSA tests, a 3015 lb barrier on a sled is slammed into the driver?s side at 38.5 mph into two crash test dummies 5? 7? and 170 lbs. The IIHS uses a heavier sled (3300 lbs) that?s shaped more like a SUV (taller) and performs it with a slower speed (31.1 mph) and uses smaller crash test dummies replicating a 106 lb ?5th percentile female?.
I would probably argue that the very best drivers can probably avoid a large number of frontal collisions. For example, if the car is coming toward you, you might be able to take evasive maneuvers. If you?re paying attention, you may be able to avoid causing your own crash. But like every Hollywood action movie can tell you, the side impact is the one you never see coming ? the other guy may have run the red light. There?s also a lot less physical space for engineering and metal between the side of the car and you.
NHTSA Side Impact:
Those HIC numbers are superb and for a 50%-tile male, you’re probably safer in the ATS and 5-series than you are in the Model S. For comparison, a 2006 Nissan Altima would generate a HIC of 2609 and 2006 Mazda 6 would generate a HIC of 2165 under a side impact collision. The 2013 Altima and 2014 Mazda 6 have a HIC of 292 and 182, respectively. The difference is side curtain air bags. If you have a reliable beater car that doesn’t have side curtain air bags, you might want to think about budgeting for a new car.
Anshel: What about the pubic symphysis and pelvic force? Thanks for teaching me the proper terms for those.
Alan: For the pelvis, you can dislocate your SI joint at about 3.5 kN and fracture the pubic rami at 2.7 kN. The pubic rami fracture isn?t that bad but for lateral compression fractures of the pelvis can be deadly. It?ll take somewhere between 4.4 to 4.9 kN of force at the most conservative threshold. The ATS doesn?t do a great job for a side crash if you’re a 5%-tile female, but like everything ? it?s a trade-off. Lightweight cars have better fuel economy and handling. Heavier cars potentially are safer. Newer technology makes a difference. No car can be 100% percent safe.
And don?t forget that the best way to avoid deadly crashes is to not text and drive. The driver is entirely at fault in crashes like these:
The other side impact that NHTSA tests is the pole crash test. Here, a test vehicle is angled at 75 degrees and is then pulled sideways at 20 mph into a 25-cm diameter pole at the driver?s seating location. This mimics a side impact crash involving a narrow, fixed object like a utility pole or tree. While mass of the car makes a difference, it?s fair to make direct comparisons since people in bigger cars aren?t driving more slowly.
NHTSA Oblique Pole Impact:
Notice that the Model S has the worst scores of this group (even though it’s a 5-star vehicle overall). I?d still buy a Model S and put my family in it because it?s a safe car, but it?s worth understanding the details.
Anshel: So like laptops advertising “all day battery life” a five star rating doesn’t tell the whole story. You need benchmarks and real numbers.
Alan: Exactly. I guess, I?ve spent enough time with the geeky car chassis talk ? let?s talk about the actual cars.
Anshel: The Cadillac ATS is probably the most stunning car that I have ever laid my eyes upon. That is until GM released the Cadillac Elmiraj and Corvette Stingray. But even so, the ATS has a very unique look to it that gives it the balls that most of the other cars in its class simply lack. If you look at the Lexus IS, BMW 3 Series and Mercedes C-class vehicles, you can clearly see that they are not very exciting looking cars not to mention everyone owns one of those cars. I really didn?t want to be seen in the same car as an overpriviledged teenager drives.
Alan: ATS as most stunning car? That’s your “dad goggles” talking. Everyone’s kid is always the best looking kid. Obviously, I wouldn?t have bought my 5 series unless I liked the exterior. On the one hand it’s superficial by the very definition of the word. On the other hand, your car is probably the single most expensive item any of us will ever buy. All cars depreciate to zero. Buying a home actually builds equity. The 5 series doesn?t shout ?look at me? but it remains a gorgeous car in real-life from almost nearly every angle. For 2014, the revised front fascia gives it a more aggressive look which is sport while still having a level of refinement. I’m not big fan of the rear chrome treatment on the luxury line in dark colors but it works with lighter colors.
Anshel: Okay, Okay, the ATS is ambitious. But doesn?t the BMW have fog lights? I got a bazillion things thrown into the ATS when I went for the premium package, which is the top most config of the ATS.
Alan: Not without a $2,100 ?Luxury Line? package which also comes with upgraded leather BMWs were never good values. As an example, the BMW 320i makes the alarm system optional. More so with BMW and perhaps Porsche than any other manufacturer, the real price of a car is probably about $10,000 more than the base price to have a moderately equipped car.
Anshel: I mean, the Cadillac ATS doesn?t have fog lights either, but it kind of does with the LED DRL option which runs from the bottom of the bumper all the way to the top of the hood. The LED daytime running lights (DRLs) are an absolute signature feature. It is almost a crime to get any Cadillac without them because Cadillac?s are so differently applied than many other car manufacturers. I actually had a chance to talk to Cadillac?s design team about it and they made a very interesting point. The headlights and taillights (especially the LED DRLs) are designed to bring the old fin-like designs of the old Cadillacs while brining a very unique and modern function to them.
I also really love the adaptive headlights that curve with the road and enable you to see more of the road on curves. The truth is that the high beams on the ATS are almost unnecessary because the headlights combined with the LEDs are beyond effective on their own. The projection headlamps on this car are like daylight and because of that Cadillac very smartly has them pointing very far downward so that oncoming traffic does not want to murder me.
Alan: For some reason, the rear lights are exactly one of the reasons why I think Cadillac still has been unable to shed its image of being an old person’s car. The Cadillac Cien is over a decade old now and the rear lights really haven’t changed. Compare that to the evolution of a company like Jaguar and the design language from a 2002 Coupe to the 2005 XK to the current F-type.
Anyway, I like the LED headlights on the BMW a lot. They?re optional, of course, and by the lumens, it?s not significantly different from xenons, but the real-world experience is superb. When you first bring home the car, the lights don’t seem that fancy. Half the time, you’re picking up the car during business hours and only get to experience the headlights at dusk. It’s only when you start to drive the car more and start taking familiar trips at night that you realize the difference. The way that the road and reflective markers are lit is uncanny. You find yourself noticing things in the road that you never saw before. My car comes with auto-high beams which uses a CMOS camera to look for oncoming vehicles so as not to blind drivers.
Like you, I don?t find that I miss out on the fog lights. The M5 and Euro-spec M550d don?t offer fog lights at all because they need the room for engine cooling actually. Some of the enthusiasts with the M-sport package even remove the fog lights and put in the grills from the M550d to give their car a more aggressive look.
Anshel: What really excited me about the appearance of the ATS was the fact that they used as much leather as they possibly could and they put real woven carbon fiber in the doors and dash as accents with a very classy red backing to match the red leather I had in the car. The car simply oozes quality when you look at the overall fit and finish of the car, it doesn?t feel like it was just thrown together.
Alan: The BMW interior is done tastefully. I actually put the most emphasis on the interior since this is where a driver and the passengers spend most of the time with a car. The 5 series doesn?t shout for attention yet it never feels basic.
Anshel: Well, I can?t argue with that. Perhaps that?s why I was so turned off by the 328i, it simply didn?t have that attention factor with me. I was really impressed with Cadillac?s use of real materials and maximizing the amount of leather and the quality of materials. Nothing in that car feels cheap like it does in the Lexus, for example. Another big thing for me was the fact that the ATS uses solid metal paddle shifters which I must admit are absolutely a joy to hit when driving because they have a very satisfying clank to them with every shift.
Alan: The 3 series guys are always talking about how their car looks just as good as the 5, while the 5 series guys are always talking about how much nicer their car is compared to the 3. I really think that the soft touch materials are superior in the 5, as is the overall quality of the plastics being used. I feel that the 3 series has a Teutonic utilitarianism not unlike a VW while the 5 series is closer to luxury that you associate with a Mercedes S class. The difference isn’t as apparent in pictures. A lot of people are unimpressed by a 3-series but are impressed by the 5-series.
Anshel: We sort of alluded to this in the beginning of this discussion that one of the reasons why cars are geting more interesting to technology sites like BSN* is that the infotainment and navigation overlap so much with today?s tablets and smartphones. How do you like your BMW? They were one of the pioneers of an integrated infotainment system. Infotainment and Navigation
Alan: BMW currently ships an infotainment system combining an Intel 1.3GHz x86 CPU with a NVIDIA GPU that’s been developed by Harman. Neither Intel nor NVIDIA would comment on the hardware specifications in the BMW but since the unit handles 1080p videos and handles the 3D graphics at 1280×800 with something closer to 24-30 fps, I?d estimate performance close to a GeForce 4MX type GPU but with modern PureVideo support. So maybe GeForce Go 7200/7300-ish performance. The NVIDIA ION platform was available at the time BMW transitioned to Intel/NVIDIA but I would expect smoother transitions if it was using ION hardware assuming that the drivers/software are appropriately optimized. For comparison, a GeForce 4MX is faster than a Tegra 3 (but slower than a Tegra 4).
Anshel: NVIDIA tolds us that they?ll be announcing more automotive wins at CES and they have indicated that no new products will be built around x86 GPUs, only Tegra. Jaguar will be using Intel processors in the future. Nissan is using Intel processors also. Speaking of Intel, did I ever tell you the story of how I nearly hit Andy Grove with my car?
Alan: Uh? no.
Anshel: I had a meeting with some people at Intel and was up in the Bay Area. My meeting was at Intel HQ?s RNB (Robert Noyce Building) and I was very close to being late. As I drove up to the guest parking on the right side of the building there was an older gentleman that looked just like Andy Grove and what appeared to be his daughter.
Alan: You don?t even know if that was Andy Grove.
Anshel: I?m sure it was Andy Grove. Next time he gives a keynote, you should ask him.
Alan: He won?t remember. For you, the day he graced your driving route was the most important day of your life. But for him, it was Tuesday. (Bonus points to our readers who know what movie that?s from).
Anshel: Eh, I just didn?t want to be responsible for injuring or killing one of the greatest men in IT history and a fellow member of the ‘tribe’.
Alan: Fine. Anyway, NVIDIA is being very aggressive in putting Tegra into cars. Besides the Tesla Model S, they?re putting Tegras into the new MINI Cooper, the new Audi A3, and in Europe, even the Golf. Google is getting aggressive about pushing Android into cars. Things are going to get exciting.
Getting back to the car review, even in its stock form, iDrive remains one of the few systems that allows passengers to make modifications to navigation system instead of making the driver come to a complete stop. While you might think this would make it a perfect GPS, BMW sadly is Spartan with voice instructions. It would be nice to know if a destination is on the left or right.
Anshel: When it came to CUE, I pretty much avoided using the GPS primarily because of all the restrictions on operation while moving. And before they replaced my CUE due to a faulty radio, it really didn?t do a very good job of voice recognition. Since then, however, the voice recognition is spot on about 90% of the time as long as I speak slowly and clearly. Truthfully, the experience is nowhere as good as it is on my Google Nexus 5 and until it gets to that point, I will probably continue to use my phone (as many do).
What bothered me about CUE, was that if you were in the climate control menu you simply could not control the temperatures using the touch screen. In order to adjust temperatures you still have to press the physical capacitive buttons instead of the touch screen. The fan can be adjusted by either method, but the temperature cannot, which is bizarre. The truth is that CUE?s touch experience is quite poor and laggy and in an era of incredibly responsive touch devices, the CUE?s biggest fault is its slow touch response time. I?m not sure if this a touch driver issue or a GPU render issue, but I can clearly see that BMW chose to go for the dial approach for a reason.
Alan: yeah. BMW actually does this superbly. On the 5 series, you have a tried and true dial for temperature control which can be synced or run in two zone or four zone (if equipped). Probably what makes the BMW better than any other car I have owned is that the auto mode works. Seriously, I just set the car to 70 degrees and it doesn’t go crazy. It won’t go full blast on the heater when the outside temp is 65 or full blast air conditioning when it’s 72. The auto recirculating works too. It’ll close the vents when a foul odor is detected from the outside. The car actually always starts in auto A/C mode every time. BMW also has an analog dial that changes the temperature of the upper vents relative to the rest of the car.
So you can ask the car to run a little warmer or a little cooler depending if you’re wearing a short sleeve shirt or a soft shell, etc. it sounds over engineered and it probably is, but I like it a lot. I have never used auto mode in any other car. I heard a BMW engineer talk about the effort they try to put into ergonomics and making sure that buttons are positioned in such a way that there is minimal effort from the driver to reach them. Of course, they were using digital human modeling to optimize button placement and his next sentence was that his group didn?t get enough CPU time on their supercomputer clusters since the ergonomics didn?t sell cars the way engines optimization could.
Anshel: I think that?s where the involvement of companies like Apple and Google will have the greatest impact.
Alan: I agree. Another place where BMW did a superb job is the audio. I didn?t go with the Bang & Olufsen setup but I did get the Harman Kardon upgrade. I?m a pretty big audiophile. I run Trinnov room correction and use Magnepan MG-III speakers at home which are 6 feet tall. I power them with a McIntosh MC2102 tube amp which is one of the most advanced tube amps ever made. I don?t use tube amps for the distortion and warmth, I use a tube amp because I?m a believer of the school of thought that says that the first watt of power is the most important watt when listening to music at normal levels. In the first watt, my tube amp has lower distortion and a better signal to noise ratio than even high-end amps like the D?Agostino Momentum monoblocks which cost almost as much as my car and the Bryston B135-SST2 which has around the same power.
The Harmon Kardon audio in the 5 series is pretty solid for a factory system. The 4? woofer has a 30mm voice coil, the bypass capacitor for the tweeter is mylar, and they?re using digital amplification for everything. There?s a slight high frequency roll off, above 15k or so and a slight bump in the bass around 60 Hz which adds a little bit of boom. It quickly rolls off after 50Hz or so ? you won?t get a lot of thump.
For HD Radio, Logic 7 always makes everything sound better. For CDs and FLACs, you get more detail with Logic 7 off on audiophile-grade recordings, but overall the improvement in soundstage with Logic 7 on makes me keep it as my standard setting. The BMW system isn’t high-resolution enough to let you hear the ?rosen on the bow? but it?s absolutely musical and is something I could and I have listened to non-stop for 8 hours+.
Anshel: Wait, FLAC? In order to play FLAC in my car, we had to connect an iRiver AK100, that we actually reviewed. In fact, one of the tests of the Cadillac ATS?s Bose sound system involved us plugging in the AK100 into the AUX port on the ATS and listening to some FLAC files, and they certainly sounded good.
Alan: Yeah. The BMW is awesome with connectivity. The USB port supports NTFS formatted drives and will read FLACs natively including high-res 24-bit 192kHz stuff. I?m not sure that the extra resolution is necessary in cars given wind and road noise, but it?s nice to avoid re-encoding everything. Overall, the $875 option really gives you something that you might be able to get with a carefully set up $875 home surround sound setup. At $875, you might be able to get 5 NHT SuperZero?s a basic receiver with USB input and no subwoofer. Usually, car audio pales in comparison to the equivalently priced home audio setup, so that?s actually a big win for BMW. The sound quality actually reminds me of the discontinued JBL HLS-610, which was one of the best home speakers under $300 in its era.
The non-upgraded stereo is OK as well, but the car stereo is one of the most commonly used features in your car, so it?s well worth the upgrade. Enough about the gadgets, though. How does your car drive?
Continued on Next Page…
Driving Experience and Character
Anshel: When it comes to driving the ATS, the damn thing is nothing short of amazing. The stunning 18? chrome wheels combined with the Bridgestone runflats and stock Brembo brakes means that you get a pretty sweet driving experience regardless of which version of the ATS you get. Also, most people don?t know this but the front and rear tires aren?t the same size. The front tires are 225/40R18 while the back is 255/35R18. This delivers a supreme handling experience but at the cost of having two different tire sizes and losing the ability to rotate.
Alan: The BMW only runs staggered tires with the M-Sport package with 19″ rims. It does a great job with the 18? runflats, but no question it?d be even better and even sportier if I swapped the tires for something like Michelin Pilot Super Sports and just carried a Continental ContiComforKit in the trunk. I’m ambivalent on the value of larger rims due to the added weight. Some enthusiasts have swapped in the 20? forged M5 rims with good results with the rim offset still being manageable.
The steering wheel and seats of the stock 5 series are sportier than the steering wheel and seats of the stock 3 series. Throttle control in comfort mode is appropriately subdued with the 8 speed automatic making seamless transitions. If the road was well maintained, I?d be completely comfortable with an open cup of coffee in my car. Ok, maybe I?d have a little bit of hesitation…
The BMW really shines once you get past 45 mph or so. As you go beyond there, the 5 series just continues to go faster and maintain composure. It’s not ?tossable? but the 5 series is very predictable and rewards the driver focused on a smooth race line. In Sport mode, the throttle is sharpened a bit and the gear shifts occur later. The ABS remains aggressive and seems to let you reach the full potential of the rubber.
Anshel: What really amazed me about the Cadillac?s drive quality was the fact that it pretty much rides like a much larger luxury car, but handles like the car it is. The thing that I find myself missing most when not driving the ATS is the heads up display (HUD) because I simply never take my eyes off the road when I drive the ATS. If I want to know the speed of my vehicle, I simply look at the road and don?t bother with the archaic analog speedo. Personally, I think this approach is much more elegant than what companies like Honda have done by putting gigantic digital numbers deep into the dash near the front of the windshield.
Alan: I know what all of the research says about the value of a HUD but I specifically opted out of it. For the way my eyes and brain works, I find that I am able to focus much more quickly between the road and the instrument panel than I can between the road and the “front of my hood” where the HUD floats. Studies show the opposite to be true for most people and most BMW enthusiasts love their HUD. I did drive a loaner car with the HUD and the images are crisp and in full color and it works from a technical standpoint with flexibility to position and rotate the HUD. My brother loves the feature. But for me personally, it doesn?t work well so it’s definitely a feature to try before you buy.
Anshel: The one thing that sucks about the ATS, however, is that it really does not comfortably fit 5 adults. And honestly, I didn?t get it for that purpose. I wanted this car to be something fun for me to drive and to be somewhat practical in being able to carry people and other things. You can easily fit children back there and smaller people, but most of my friends are over 6 ft tall and as a result, there?s lots of moaning and complaining. I kind of consider this a deterrent to prevent people from wanting to be in my car. If you can?t get in the driver or passenger seat, you probably don?t want to sit in my car for any longer than 30 minutes. In the 2014 CTS, this is not a problem, there?s easily 3-4 inches more leg room and 2-3 inches more head room. But that?s supposed to be a bigger and more comfortable car, even if it looks almost identical to the 2013/2014 ATS.
I actually took the ATS up to Palomar Mountain on a Palomar Mountain Run (as we locals call it). I did this because I wanted to go shoot Perseid?s meteor shower and to see how well the ATS handles curves, at night.
Considering that Cadillac so heavily advertised this car?s hill driving abilities, I thought it would be a great way to test out the car and see if it lived up to the hype. The route itself only gets interesting once you leave Hwy 76 and join Palomar Mountain Road which pretty much takes a 7 mile long windy path up the mountain with countless hairpin turns. This drive is easily a measure of a driver?s skill as well as a vehicle?s ability to handle and corner, I have driven up Palomar Mountain Road many times and this was by far the most fun and terrifying experience. I had two other willing passengers accompany me on this test drive and the amount of G?s experienced on the curves was absolutely nauseating for one of the guys and I had to tone it down just a bit. But the truth was that I was able to easily power through curves and barely use the brakes at all. It felt like I was being shot out of the turns with the amount of handling and momentum that I had. The downhill experience was equally as gratifying and really helped test the quality of the brakes which never for a second made me doubt their braking power.
Alan: The 5 series isn’t this kind of “time attack” vehicle. This is still a car engineered for the autobahn, but it’s less about thrill but more about effortless transportation. German cars still carry a legacy from the 1970′s and 1980′s where the goal was to have a vehicle with enough performance and range to flee West Berlin should the Soviet Union decide to invade Western Europe. Driving from LA to San Francisco is an absolute blast in the 5 series. If you go on Highway 1, you get some of the twists and turns and then on the open road, you’ve got the ability to get better than 30 mpg in complete comfort. It?s not a boring drive by any stretch, but it?s also the car that?s designed for drivers who care more about the passengers in the car than him or herself. Everyone?s a safer driver when they worry about their passengers.
Anshel: Since then, I haven?t had many chances to do any kind of incredibly strenuous driving, but I have had multiple experiences where I have had to hit on the brakes VERY hard and was able to stop the vehicle well in advance of hitting the vehicle in front of me. I could easily count 2 or 3 instances where not having the braking power that I do in this car would have resulted in an accident. So, for that, I commend Cadillac.
Alan: Braking is solid on the 535i although it has smaller brakes than the 550i. When Motor Trend tested the 2012 535i, they got a 60-0 braking distance of 106 ft as compared 108 ft for the ATS. On their figure of 8 test, the 2012 535i did 25.9 sec at 0.69g as compared to 26.3 sec at 0.71g for the ATS. If you look at it that way, the 535i is sportier than the ATS and 328i by the numbers and importantly, the 2012 535i that Motor Trend tested was the older model before BMW retuned suspension for sportier performance. The strenuous drives I?ve taken on the BMW are the long-distance 8 hour treks between the Bay Area and southern California. Repairs, Service and Conclusion
Anshel: So, have you had any problems with your 535i since you got it? After all, this is a fairly long-term kind of review and we?ve both had our vehicles for a while. At first, I thought that my ATS was flawless, but then I brought it in for some bizarre radio behavior where it would lock up on a certain station and then I would have to switch bands or inputs to get it to go away. Eventually, I took it in for what I thought was a regularly scheduled maintenance (their automated system called me) and I ended up being without my car for 2 days while I was at the LA Auto Show as they replaced the entire CUE system. Since then, I also had issues with the USB ports not having any power but I took it in and the problem disappeared. I did notice that CUE looks a bit different since they fixed my problem and that the voice recognition seems better, so I think there may have been a silent major software or hardware upgrade.
Alan: My car was built in the first month of production for the refresh in 2014. I’ve had a glitch with a few things like a miscalibrated surround view camera and an inclusion defect in the windshield but BMW has been great about stepping up and taking care of the problems. In the grand scheme of things, that’s what I think is important. Problems are bound to happen — it’s how companies respond to them that make a difference.
Anshel: Interesting, we will definitely have to hear more if you have any more problems with your car or mine. So far, though, would you say you?re fairly satisfied with your vehicle?
Alan: Absolutely. The rose-tinted glasses may still be on, but it does everything I wanted it to do. I don?t feel that I?m lacking in performance or handling when it comes to real-world driving in the city and highways. Between the LED lights, the 8 speed ZF transmission, the new 2014 suspension and the torque-y engine, I have full confidence in the handling. If I track a car, it?s going to be in something like an Ariel Atom or a 911, not my daily driver. The trunk space is absurdly huge and usable and it gets ridiculous mileage for the kind of performance and weight it has. What I?ve been most impressed with is the service that BMW?s given me both on the sales and service side.
Anshel: I?m beyond happy with the ATS, but I?m curious to hear what others have to say about their experiences with it or a BMW. We welcome you all to leave your comments about your most recent car buying adventure or if you have had any great stories about your car. I think for our next article we also need to look at what the market has to offer and help a few friends find the perfect cars in DIFFERENT price ranges. What do you think?
Alan: That sounds fantastic, I?ll volunteer to do the long-term supercar road tests.