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2:07 AM

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Back in the Saddle: Saleen is poised for a comeback with a potent Mustang

Rafay Ansar

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Saleen traditionally has been about speed--specifically, frenetic Mustangs. But lately, it's been more about controversy. And lawsuits. And piles of other stuff, none of which translates well to fast cars.

But now that it has been absorbed by a group of Michigan-based auto-parts companies, Saleen Performance Vehicles is trying to shift the conversation back to sheetmetal. It's rolling out a new, souped-up 'Stang with more power and some subtle styling cues that should help put the speed shop back on enthusiasts' radars--for the right reasons.

We recently tested Saleen's new creation, the 435S, in the backwoods of Michigan, and it's an enjoyable, fairly minimalistic take on the iconic Ford Mustang, with some pure sports-car ethos.

The most significant modification is under the hood, where the Saleen Series VI supercharger boosts output to 435 hp and 425 lb-ft of torque. The pull is strong, particularly as the revs build, and the short-throw five-speed manual gearbox returns quick, proficient shifts.

The 435S is fitted with a Racecraft suspension, and ride height is lowered about an inch and a quarter. The car feels fast in corners, definitely sporty when you push it, but it's comfortable enough not to be abusive over gravelly roads or choppy pavement.

There are relatively few cosmetic changes inside and out. The exterior is dressed up with hood and windshield graphics, chevrons, an optional rear spoiler, a blacked-out Saleen panel in the back and, of course, badging. The cockpit gets some minor stitching on the headrests and slightly modified gauges. Our test cars wore 19-inch, five-spoke wheels; optional 20-inchers and the base 18s also are available. Otherwise, it's a stock Ford Mustang GT, though even at a glance, there's obviously something special about this steed.

Saleen is looking to sell a modest 300 units of the 435S for the 2010 model year, and it's really the entry-level model in Saleen's new lineup. The S281, revealed at the SEMA show, offers even more power, gaudier styling and perhaps a return to the lofty “American exotic” status Saleen once strived for.

Steve Saleen is gone; his new speed shop actually competes with his former company. But if the 435S and the S281 can conjure the emotions and visceral appeal of their forerunners, this new (old) Saleen might pull off an improbable comeback.

2010 Saleen 435S Ford Mustang

ON SALE: Now

BASE PRICE: $39,940

DRIVETRAIN: 4.6-liter, 435-hp, 425 lb-ft supercharged V8; RWD, five-speed manual

CURB WEIGHT: 3,535 lb

0-60 MPH: 4.6 sec (mfr)

FUEL ECONOMY: 17 mpg (mfr)



1:14 AM

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Make like a tree and Leaf: We drive Nissan's coming electric vehicle

Rafay Ansar

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From behind the wheel, the production version of the Nissan Leaf electric car is smooth, silent, feels nearly friction free and offers all the prodigious torque inherent in an electric car. That's what we found after a short drive around Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles on Friday.

The body you see in the photo is a Versa. But the platform on which it rode was a "modified B," modified to hold 24 kWh worth of laminate lithium ion batteries and still take a side-impact as per U.S. government crash test standards. The rest of the drivetrain of the car we piloted was all production Leaf.

The Leaf was remarkably quiet--no gear whine, no electric motor whine. No clunks from the suspension and no squeaks from the interior panels. The driving sensation was just one of smooth, silent torque powering the front wheels. Acceleration was electric-quick, with 100 percent of torque available from zero rpm. And the rest of the componentry--steering, regenerative braking, ride--felt even a little more refined than the production Versa. Range for the Leaf will be 100 miles when run on the EPA City cycle.

If all goes according to plan the Leaf will be the most affordable, most practical and most mass-production electric vehicle on the market when it rolls into showrooms in 2012. Both fleet and some private sales will start next year. Nissan has said that pricing will be between $25,000 and $33,000 for the Leaf. To get your name on the list, go to www.nissanusa.com/leaf-electric-car.
the Nissan Leaf electric vehicle.
A picture of the Nissan Leaf electric vehicle.

MARK VAUGHN



The production version of the Nissan Leaf will look like this.

Our drive was the first stop of the 22-city Nissan Leaf Zero-Emission Tour. The tour will go to 22 cities across the country and will make a stop in Vancouver. At the Los Angeles stop CEO Carlos Ghosn spoke.

"This has to happen," said Ghosn, sounding almost like he was running for office instead of running a car company. "When you look at what's happening in the world, when you extrapolate that, it leads to absurd results."

The price of oil is not going to go below $60 or $70 a barrel, Ghosn said. An alternative to gasoline is inevitable.

"This is not about the electric car, this is about saving the planet," Ghosn said.

The next electric vehicles coming for the planet from Nissan: the e-LCV, based on NV200 commercial vehicle; an Infiniti compact, high-performance 4-seater; and an unnamed new concept. No dates were released on those.






1:31 AM

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Ford to introduce inflatable seatbelts

Rafay Ansar

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When the 2011 Ford Explorer hits showrooms, its move to a unibody platform won't be the only major change. Ford will use the next-generation Explorer to introduce inflatable seatbelts for rear passengers.

According to Ford, the inflatable seatbelt will help distribute crash forces across five times more body area, compared with traditional seatbelts. The combination of airbag technology and a seatbelt is expected to reduce head, neck and chest injuries, especially in children and older occupants.

In event of a crash, the seatbelt airbag takes just 40 milliseconds to inflate across the passenger's torso and shoulder. Instead of using a heat-generating chemical reaction common on front- and side-airbag systems, the seatbelts are inflated with cold-compressed gas stored in a cylinder beneath the seats.

At all other times, the inflatable seatbelts can be used just like a normal seatbelt. They are compatible with infant safety and booster seats and were found to be more comfortable to 90 percent of the test subjects Ford polled because of the softer and padded feel. The added comfort may go a long way toward increasing rear seatbelt usage in the United States, which stands at 61 percent, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The inflatable seatbelts will be offered as an option on the 2011 Explorer, but Ford plans to eventually offer them on vehicles around the world.





4:51 AM

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2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG: An Carz-Arena flash drive

Rafay Ansar

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The Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG is good enough to stand next to supercars from Ferrari and Porsche.

What is it?

The distinctive new coupe with gullwing doors goes on sale in North America in February, at a price that AMG boss Volker Mornhinweg says should come in slightly below $200,000.

Developed from the ground up by AMG at its headquarters in Affalterbach, Germany, the two-seater aims to put Mercedes-Benz back into the thick of the supercar ranks following the disappointment of the considerably more expensive SLR. It also sets out to resurrect the spirit of one of the most revered sports cars of all time--the classic 1954 300 SL, or Gullwing as it is known to generations of car lovers.

From the first glance the connection between the two is clear. The retro-inspired styling of the SLS AMG bears the obvious stamp of its forebearer--that long hood, upright windshield, long wheelbase, short cabin and stubby rear end all recall the 300SL.

Opened by an automatically retractable handle at knee height, the doors arc upward to an overall height of 76.7 inches in dramatic fashion to give the new car a unique appearance.

This is a menacing looking car: low, wide and tremendously well planted. At 182.6 inches long, 76.3 inches wide and 49.3 inches tall, it's slightly longer and wider and sits 1.8 inches lower than the SL63 AMG.

But it is what lurks underneath the body that should have every dyed-in-the-wool enthusiast salivating. This is not a dressed up SL seeking supercar glory. The SLS AMG has its own aluminum space frame and rear-drive platform. AMG development boss Tobias Moers says: “It is the car we’ve always dreamed of producing. There are no compromises caused by having to share parts with existing Mercedes-Benz models."

Housed under the long hood is a revised version of Mercedes-Benz’s M156 engine--the 6.2-liter V8 engine found in all but a handful of AMG models these days. But the modifications are so significant that the four-valve-per-cylinder unit has been given a new codename: M159.

Sporting dry sump lubrication, it is mounted low in the engine bay and positioned way back and hard against the front bulkhead to concentrate its weight within the SLS’s 105.5-inch wheelbase.

With 563 hp at 6,800 rpm and 479 lb-ft at 4,750 rpm, the SLS AMG out grunts the already potent SL63 AMG to the tune of 46 hp and 14 lb-ft. But while the SL63 AMG weighs 4,178 pounds at the curb, the SLS AMG tips the scales at 3,572 pounds, giving it a weight-to-power ratio of 6.3 pounds per horsepower.

The SLS AMG receives a state-of-the-art seven-speed double clutch gearbox from German transmission specialist Getrag. And no, it’s not directly mated to the engine. AMG has placed it out back in a classic transaxle arrangement, integrated into the rear axle. It is connected to the engine via an aluminum torque tube, through which runs a 67.3-inch long carbon composite driveshaft weighing 8.8 pounds. It’s a layout that helps provide a 47:53 percent front-to-rear weight distribution.

How's it drive?

Brilliantly. This car is so well developed it is going to give Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche a big fright. This is the first time we’ve had a chance to put the SLS AMG through its paces on public roads and already it is quite clear that it is better than the McLaren-built SLR.

Still, with massive sills and the gullwing doors it is not an easy car to get into. The best procedure seems to be to sit on the high sill then swivel your legs down into driver’s footwell and pull the overhead hinged door down as lower yourself into the thinly padded but generously adjustable driver’s seat You don’t want to simply slide down and buckle up because you’ll then be forced to unbuckle and climb halfway out of the car again in a bid to close the overhead door, which is mounted on a sturdy gas strut.

You sit low, lower than in any other current Mercedes-Benz model, and you’re greeted by a thick-grip, flat-bottom steering wheel that's electronically adjustable for tilt and telescope. Behind it is a high-mounted dashboard housing two large dials--on the left a speedometer marked up to 240 mph, and on the right a tachometer redlined at 7,200 rpm.

The upper part of the dashboard is simple in style, carrying just the monitor for the entertainment system and satellite navigation. All controls are concentrated along the wide center console. Some of the switchgear is from other Mercedes-Benz models, but there are also unique details such as the air vents. It’s a luxurious driving environment, full of leather and aluminum. Carbon fiber trim is optional. A safety highlight: the doors have pyrotechnic elements that separate them from the body in the case of a rollover.

Depress the starter button down and the 6.2-liter V8 bursts to life.

The SLS AMG pulls away lustily and handles low-speed running without any apparent slack within the driveline. It feels incredibly solid at around-town speeds. There’s already 369 lb-ft of torque available at 2,000 rpm, and you can sense it in the way it rips through the lower part of the rev range the moment you give the command with your right foot.

There’s tremendous urgency through the mid-range. The engine develops peak torque at 4,750 rpm and Mercedes says the SLS AMG will hit 60 mph in just 3.7 seconds and 124 mph in less than 12 seconds--times that make it as fast in a straight line as the more powerful SLR. Make no mistake, the SLS AMG is mightily quick. It also possesses tremendous high speed stability, thanks in part to a retractable rear spoiler that deploys from the trunk lid at 75 mph to increase downforce. Find the right road and it’ll haul to a top speed of 197 mph.

Using the performance is no hardship, either, as the seven-speed double-clutch gearbox shifts precisely, smoothly and rapidly. Its also automatically introduces a blip on downshifts to match engine speed with the selected gear. A knob on the console allows you to alter the mode of the gearbox, from comfort through sport, sport plus to a fully manual mode. If you’re feeling really aggressive, there’s also a race-start function. There’s tremendous traction from the rear end, so much so that even during full bore getaways there’s no unruly wheelspin as the electronics and locking differential apportion the drive--just relentless acceleration and the tremendous sound of the exhaust note.

The SLS AMG can scythe into one corner and then into the next with the sort of fluidity and accuracy that makes it a proper rival to the likes of the Ferrari F599 Fiorano. It feels secure and planted in a way no other series production Mercedes-Benz does over challenging stretches of blacktop. There’s no unruly weight transfer, no nervousness being telegraphed back through the steering wheel.

Given the serious reserves lurking under your right foot, unsettling the rear end is not as easy as you might imagine, allowing you to confidently come off the power late into corners without any unnecessary interruption from the electronic stability program. The electronic safety net has been set up to operate in one of three modes--ESP on, ESP sport and, for those who just can’t get enough sideways action, ESP off.

The brakes--optional 15.4-inch front and 14.2-inch rear carbon ceramic rotors on our test car--offer terrific feel and fade free characteristics. You can lean on them time and time again right up to the point where the anti-lock kicks in without detecting any fade.

Still, there’s more to the SLS AMG than its awesome pace, engaging agility and determined stopping power. It’s also a terrific long distance cruiser. Slotting the gearbox into comfort mode sees it eats up the miles with ease. It’ll haul 75 mph in seventh gear at just 2,500 rpm.

The ride is well sorted with superb levels of rebound damping. You can attack undulating roads with great confidence, knowing the SLS AMG will be quick to settle over crests and track faithfully through depressions. Nasty ruts and ridges are met with a decisive action of the double wishbone suspension, which does without any electronic trickery. The springing isolates bumps with an ability that is going to leave the supercar competition searching for answers.

The new Gullwing is a practical proposition for long distance road trips, too, thanks to a trunk that offers up to 6.2 cubic feet of luggage capacity. Throw in a full armada of luxury features and you’ve got an everyday supercar with few peers.

With a claimed combined cycle fuel consumption of 17.8 mpg, the SLS AMG possess a theoretical range of 400 miles on its 22.7-gallon tank--theoretical, because with some spirited driving consumption drops dramatically, as the 10.7 mpg showing on the instant readout after our outing at Laguna Seca revealed.

Do I want it?

You bet! The SLS AMG is with a doubt the most engaging series production car to ever wear the three pointed star. By way of comparison, it makes the SLR feels almost leaden in its actions. It sets new dynamic standards for the German carmaker and is a tribute to the engineering prowess of AMG. It’s not going to be cheap, but the $200,000 price tag in North America makes it look like a bargain. The bottom line is this: The Gullwing is back and suddenly Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche can count Mercedes-Benz among their most serious rivals.





1:21 AM

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GM's Volt engineer Weber moving to Opel

Rafay Ansar

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A picture of Chevy Volt
Frank Weber, the top Chevy VOlt engineer, is moving to Opel.
GM

Frank Weber, the German-born engineer in charge of the Chevrolet Volt, is moving back to Germany to take a senior management role at Opel.

He will be replaced by Doug Parks, who has been working at Opel since 2007 as chief engineer for GM's global compact cars, which include the Opel Astra and Chevrolet Cruze.

General Motors Co. spokesman Dave Roman said today that Weber's title has not been announced. Roman said Weber will help manage Opel product development once GM closes a deal to sell a controlling stake in Opel to Magna International Inc. and a Russian investor, Sberbank.

The move, Roman said, was planned. He said Weber's assignment in the United States is ending now that the Volt development is nearly complete and the car is ready for production.

“Coincidentally, the move timed pretty well for the development team. The Volt is now in execution mode,” Roman said. “Frank's done a great job leading the team.”

Weber, 43, led the powertrain and electronics engineers as they designed and tuned the Volt's gasoline-electric powertrain.

Unlike other hybrids, the Volt's gasoline engine does not drive the wheels. Only an electric motor does. On the Volt, the gasoline engine is connected to a generator that creates power for the electric motor after the car has traveled 40 miles on batteries.

Opel will have its own version of the Volt, called the Ampera, in late 2011, one year after the launch of the Chevy version of the hybrid.

Weber's move is GM's second significant departure from the Volt team in the past month. In September, Bob Kruse, executive director of vehicle engineering for hybrids, electric vehicles and batteries, left to start a consulting firm. GM immediately named GM engineering veteran Micky Bly to replace Kruse.






6:42 AM

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Fisker Automotive: The road less traveled for hybrids--in style

Rafay Ansar

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Fisker Automotive is taking a reverse approach to hybrids.

Traditionally, green machines have been small fuel-sippers that hardly quicken the pulses of enthusiasts. Not so fast, says Henrik Fisker, CEO of the startup automaker and a designer who made his mark with eye-catching products at Aston Martin and BMW.

He visited AutoWeek on Wednesday, and his approach is clear-eyed and focused: “I want to make a car that is so sexy and so exciting you want to drive it.”

At first glance, he's pulled that off with the Karma sedan, a plug-in hybrid due on the market in June 2010. The head-turning car is taking aim at European luxury marques such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz, rather than traditional green cars such as the Toyota Prius, the Honda Insight and the soon-to-arrive Chevrolet Volt.

Part of that is the price. The Karma starts at $87,000 and has swoopy fenders and dramatic lines that evoke imposing luxury yachts of yesteryear. But Fisker also promises that it will be fun to drive--not a yawner like some fuel-sippers. Look for plenty of torque early on, and its one-gear automatic transmission should deliver smooth acceleration.

The appearance does matter, Fisker argues, and his car is a luxury sedan that's also a hybrid; it's not a green car without a soul.

In another break from tradition, Fisker say the engine is secondary, which is contrary to a century's worth of practices saying the motor is the soul of the car. The Karma uses a 2.0-liter Ecotec sourced from General Motors, and Fisker say that's probably a bit much for his product, which can run 50 miles on a single electrical charge and has a total range of 300 miles.

He envisions a future where hybrids will get their own niche powerplants, specially tuned to the need of alternative technologies. A hybrid for example, probably doesn't need to rev to 8,000 rpm.

Fisker considered a diesel for the Karma, and it's possible it could show up in a future product. The company has a hardtop convertible version, the Karma S (for Sunset), set to arrive in 2011, and a lower-cost, family-oriented luxury sedan set for 2012. The third car will sticker around $40,000, when factoring possible tax breaks.

Down the road, a premium vehicle priced at about $25,000 also is possible, Fisker said.

But make no mistake, the company will double-down on eco-technology. It's not the sole identity of Fisker, but it is an advantage considering the ute-laden lineups of most other luxury-car makers. He expects it will take several years to burnish a green shine, if Fisker products take hold in the market.

“We have three or four years to build this as a pure green brand,” he said.