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12:27 PM

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Formula One: Brawn GP sweeps front row in Australia

Rafay Ansar


The fairy tale came true for the new Brawn GP team in Australia as Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello filled the front row for the first race of the 2009 season. Meanwhile, defending world champion Lewis Hamilton will start last, in 20th place, after a terrible day for the McLaren team.

Nobody could match the pace of the Brawn GP cars in qualifying. Button beat his teammate to pole by more than 0.3 second as the two cars completed their final laps. It was the English driver’s fourth career pole.

The fight for third on the grid was much closer, with just 0.2 second covering the five drivers behind Barrichello. The expected domination by the teams equipped with the double diffuser did not quite materialise.

Quickest of those five was Sebastien Vettel, the young German having a great first outing for his new Red Bull team. Robert Kubica took fourth for BMW, while Nico Rosberg was disappointed with fifth after being higher up during most of the practice sessions.

Timo Glock underlined Toyota’s pace with sixth, while Felipe Massa did a good job to secure seventh after a difficult start to the weekend for Ferrari. He was also the fastest kinetic-energy recovery system-equipped car, as the new technology is only being used this weekend by Ferrari, Renault, McLaren and Nick Heidfeld’s BMW.

The top 10 was completed by Jarno Trulli, Kimi Raikkonen and Mark Webber. Heidfeld was 11th after just missing the cut for the third qualifying session. Fernando Alonso was 12th for Renault, after going off on his quick lap, and he lines up ahead of Kazuki Nakajima and Heikki Kovalainen.

The McLaren was just not quick enough. But to make matters worse, Hamilton suffered a gearbox failure after just scraping through to the second qualifying session in 15th, and was not able to take part in that session. A penalty for a change of gearbox drops him five places to 20th.

The 15th starting position thus goes to Toro Rosso rookie Sebastien Buemi, who is followed by Nelson Piquet, Giancarlo Fisichella and Sebastien Bourdais.

11:18 AM

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The 2009 Toyota Venza

Rafay Ansar

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What is the 2009 Toyota Venza?

Car classification has become an increasingly tricky game in the modern automotive landscape. The line between SUV’s, minivans and station wagons has been blurred to the point where even the term crossover has ceased to have any real meaning.

While this may cause headaches for those charged with marketing these diverse automobiles, it does provide buyers with a vast number of interesting options when it comes time to purchase a new vehicle.

The 2009 Toyota Venza is a fantastic example of how schizophrenic the situation has become for automakers. Ostensibly sold as a crossover, the Venza could easily be mistaken for a minivan if approached from the front thanks to its tall greenhouse and wide stance. However, the bulky wide grin of its multi-layered grille gives it away as more than just a standard people mover, as do its four-doors and beefy wheel arches.

Powered by either a 182 horsepower, 2.7 liter 4-cylinder engine or a 3.5 liter V6 putting out a lively 268 horsepower and 246 lb-ft of torque, the Venza has more than enough grunt to not only keep up with the pace of traffic but also make highway passing a breeze. With optional all-wheel drive and a 6-speed automatic transmission, this is one crossover that maintains a steady grip on the road even under hard acceleration.

The Venza also has direct ties to one of Toyota’s best sedans, sharing its basic platform with the popular Camry. This means that the crossover drives much better than any minivan could ever aspire to, despite its mid-size footprint and tall stance, and while it is certainly no sports car the vehicle acquits itself well through tight corners with little of the body movement associated with larger vans and SUV’s.

The 2009 Toyota Venza is designed to seat 5 passengers instead of 7, and the difference is much more interior room than most buyers might typically expect. Accommodations are comfortable, and the Venza comes loaded with a full complement of standard equipment: dual automatic climate controls, and MP3-capable stereo system, cruise control, and power everything. There are a few upgrades available, such as a leather package that adorns the seats and steering wheel with a tasteful cowhide. A backup camera and a towing package are also on the options list, although the maximum weight that can be pulled by the crossover tops out at around 3,500 lbs.

Most people aren’t buying the Venza in order to haul around a heavy load, however – they are interested in its good comfort, excellent power, and the available utility that will let them occasionally tow a small jet ski or camping trailer. In this respect, the Venza succeeds as a vehicle which provides drivers with the versatility and convenience they need with the fun to drive aspect that most crave. It has taken quite some time for so-called ‘lifestyle’ vehicles to actually reflect what many buyers are looking for, but the Venza appears to hit all of the right notes.

2:58 AM

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Chevrolet Camaro drive: V6 more than solid; V8 SS is a rush

Rafay Ansar

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After three years anticipating and two hours driving the 2010 Chevrolet Camaro, there's not much to be disappointed about. And, yet, a thought lingers: The 426-horsepower, LS3-powered Camaro SS is hot, but the V6-powered LS (and LT) are crucial.

Consider Camaro's longtime, more successful competitor. Over four decades, Ford's Mustang has run 60 percent six-cylinder production and never less than 50 percent sixes at a given time. And so it must be with the new-generation Camaro. The V6-powered cars will keep the Camaro plant in Oshawa, Ontario, stoked, and they will give rise to a next-generation, high-performance SS model, whatever that car might turn out to be.

Or not.

By Chevrolet's admission, the new Camaro must do more than compete with so-called pony cars--a.k.a Ford's Mustang and Dodge's Challenger. It must reach past aging muscle car enthusiasts to thrive. Chevrolet insists it will do that by chasing buyers who might otherwise choose a Honda Civic Si, a Scion tC or even a Hyundai Genesis Coupe. But most of that work must be done by the Camaro LS and LT.

Base car: 304 hp

The good news for Chevrolet is the Camaro LS might be the best base car among the current crop of ponies, at least if measured by its high-tech powertrain.

The LS gets GM's 3.6-liter four-cam, all-aluminum, direct-injection V6, tuned to 304 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque. That's 94 hp more than the iron-block, single overhead-cam 4.0-liter V6 in the Mustang, with an extra 34 lb-ft of torque (it's also a 54-hp and 23 lb-ft advantage on the heavier Dodge's 3.5-liter V6). The Camaro LS comes with either a six-speed manual or automatic trans, compared to five speeds in the Mustang and a four-speed auto in the Challenger. Chevrolet reports an impressive 0 to 60 mph time of 6.1 seconds for the Camaro LS, and despite its 3,769-pound curb weight (365 pounds more than Mustang), the V6 Camaro is certified by the EPA with a class-leading 18 mpg city/29 mpg highway with the automatic.

Factor in a nicely engineered, galvanized-steel unit body and the standard FE2 suspension, featuring coil-over struts in front and a fully independent multi-link arrangement in back, and the V6 Camaro makes a tidy coupe indeed.

There's not a rattle to be heard inside, even on poor road surfaces, where the Camaro seems to live up to Chevy's claim of best-in-class structural rigidity. Its lack of shake and flex is impressive, especially to anyone who remembers the last "F-Body" Camaro and Firebird in 2002.

No bucking from this pony car

The 3.6-liter DI V6 is very smooth, and lively. Torque comes evenly across the range, without a real surge point anywhere, and the engine pulls to its 7,000-rpm redline with no drop off. There's a nice snarl that exits from the exhaust tips. The manual shifter, complete with hardball-size knob, isn't sports car grade--not really even quick. Yet it's solid, without slop, and it makes it easy to find and recall gear positions.

The automatic trans works well, too, and not because it's given toward rapid manual shifting with the standard steering wheel paddles. It works reasonably well in manual mode, redirecting gears quickly and holding them even if the engine is bumping the limiter. Yet we like it more as an old-fashioned automatic--kicking down as it should, quickly and smoothly, and appropriately matching upshift points to applied throttle.

Most remarkable of all, perhaps, is the V6 Camaro's ride quality. Forget whatever connotations "pony car" might inspire. This coupe, thanks in part to the fully independent rear suspension, is as comfortable on bouncy pavement as some midsize sedans, and there's plenty of rubber with the base 18-inch wheels. Its steering is decent and direct; there's no dead spot on center, as was the case in the old days. If there is a problem it might be that the steering feels a tad too light, even for the casual cruise, and it contributes to whatever big-car feel the V6 Camaro has.

Overall, this Camaro is well sorted and well engineered in nearly every respect, even if it doesn't ooze visceral appeal beyond its look or design. We wonder how much pure driving appeal matters in the work-a-day world of V6 coupes. This entry Camaro is much better than the immediate competition.

V8 rush in SS

For enthusiast drivers, certainly, the Camaro SS is the good stuff, and perhaps more traditional fare.

The SS upgrades include the standard Corvette 6.2-liter LS3 aluminum V8, but only with the six-speed Tremec manual trans (with skip-shift feature). In the Camaro, the LS3 generates 426 hp at 5,900 rpm and 420 lb-ft of torque at 4,600 rpm--essentially the same as the 6.1-liter iron-block Hemi in the Challenger SRT10, but less than the line-topping, supercharged Mustang Shelby GT500. Chevy reports 0 to 60 mph at 4.7 seconds, with EPA ratings of 16 mpg city/24 mpg highway.

SS buyers who prefer the six-speed automatic will get another small-block variant designated L99. Peaks drop to 400 hp and 410 lb-ft, though the L99 is equipped with GM's Active Fuel Management cylinder deactivation technology and variable valve timing. That could improve mileage for drivers who can keep their foot out of it, but with the EPA it raises highway mileage by one to 25 mpg.

All SS models come with the sport-tuned FE3 suspension, limited-slip differential, four-piston, fixed aluminum caliper Brembo brakes, and 20-inch wheels with Z-rated Pirellis.

The SS's extra dose of horsepower is apparent immediately, with something much more like Corvette thrust. The LS3 is peaky as cam-in-block V8s go, with a low-torque zone between something like 2,000 and 3,000 rpm. It doesn't matter much, because from there it roars, breathing well and loving the revs, all the way to its 6,700-rpm limiter.

Handling is inspiring, too. Driven hard, the SS remains impressively planted on seriously bumpy roads. Divots that would send the old Camaro into the weeds hardly ruffle this one. There's grip galore, good balance with the anti-skid electronics off--it's agile for a pony car and it has reliable stability and composure. Again, the steering may be the weakest link in an otherwise formidable chain. Getting comfortable with the steering requires familiarity before it feels accurate, and that is aggravated in the SS thanks to high-grip Pirelli P Zeros that want to grab every pavement nook and cranny.

Interior recalls '69 Z28

The verdict on the new Camaro's interior? Its design and packaging is clearly inspired by the 1969 Z28, right down to the quad-rectangular gauges at the firewall end of the center console. The main gauges are up to date, with electro-luminescent backlighting. Knobs in the center-stack switch cluster are big and easy to manipulate. On the other hand, most of Chevy's test cars had dark, monotone doors and dashboards, and they gave the impression of acres of vinyl. The trunk is larger than expected (11.3 cubic feet), but the opening is relatively small.

Camaro production began this week, March 16, in Oshawa, Ontario. Cars will trickle into dealers in the second half of April, with full flow sometime in May.

At $22,995 with destination, the base LS price surpasses the 2010 Mustang by about $1,500, with standard 18-inch steel wheels (the Mustang comes with 17-inch aluminum). Still, the Camaro's powertrain is presumably more expensive to build, and it comes standard with a year-long XM radio and OnStar subscription.

The Camaro LT adds more stuff, including aluminum wheels; the 2LT is the leather-lined, loaded V6 ($29,500). The SS ($30,995) and 2SS ($34,000), with leather, complete the lineup.

All Camaros but the base LS will be available with an RS appearance package ($1,200-$1,700), which means 20-inch wheels and exact content specific to the trim level. On the SS, the RS package adds a wheel design and HID headlights specific to the model. The Camaro will not offer an onboard navigation system. The alternative is OnStar turn-by-turn navigation, with directions shown in the audio display.

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Mustang Exhaust.

2:58 AM

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Roush unveils new versions of high-performance Mustangs

Rafay Ansar

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Roush is synonymous with go-fast Mustangs, and on Wednesday, the company unveiled its latest--and potentially greatest--steeds, based on the 2010 Ford Mustang.

Roush will offer three versions at launch, topped by the 435-hp 427R Mustang. Prices will range from $34,847 for the Stage 1 model to a starting price of $43,051 for the 427R.

This is the fifth generation of Mustangs tuned by Roush. The first one launched in 1994. Since then, more than 15,000 have been produced. This year, Roush expects production to total about 2,000 units.

The 427R Mustang will have a 0-to-60-mph time in the low 4-second range and run the quarter-mile in the mid-12-second range. Braking from 60 mph to 0 is expected to take less than 115 feet. Lateral acceleration is expected to be at least 1.0 g on the skid pad.

Roush expects a reduction of tailpipe emissions of at least 38 percent and fuel economy will improve to about 22 mpg. The car does not qualify for the gas-guzzler tax despite the high performance, Roush officials happily pointed out.

Chairman Jack Roush said his 2010 model focused on capturing performance from previous cars but still included modern technologies.

“It needs to be respectful and have a linkage back to the Mustang’s history and pedigree,” Roush said.

12:27 PM

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2010 Chevrolet Camaro gets 29 mpg

The modern pony-car wars are heating up, and the 2010 Chevrolet Camaro has notched its first victory.

The new Chevy sports car has earned an EPA rating of 29 mpg on the highway--beating even General Motors’ estimates of 27 mpg. That’s for the V6 Camaro with an automatic, and it bests similarly outfitted Ford Mustangs and Dodge Challengers.

The V6 version of the Mustang gets 26 mpg in highway driving, and the Challenger is rated at 25 mpg.

But the real gap is in horsepower, where the Camaro gets 304 hp from a direct-injection, 3.6-liter V6. That’s far ahead of the Mustang’s 210-hp unit and the Challenger’s 250 hp.

Camaro production started today, and Chevy has 14,000 orders for the car, which will hit showrooms in April.

More Camaro mpg figures:

-- In the city, the V6 Camaro with an automatic gets 18 mpg. With a manual, it drops to 17 mpg.

-- The Camaro SS gets 16 city/25 highway with an automatic, and 16/24 with a manual.

12:11 PM

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More on the future Jaguar XE

Rafay Ansar

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We are really loving the news that comes out of Jaguar lately. Parent company CEO Ratan Tata really seems to get how to fight an economic slowdown. "I don’t believe we can afford to emerge from the recession as we are," he Autocar recently. "We need to emerge with something shiny and new, which is why we are re-prioritizing the roadster right now."

The new sports car is expected to be called the XE, and may be aimed as direct competitor for the Porsche 911. The car may not take too long to go from concept to production because Jaguar only has a limited supply of parts. That mean the XE will used a modified version of the platform already in use for the XF, XK and future XJ. The engine in use would also likely be either an naturally aspirated or supercharged version of the new 5.0-liter V8 that is in use throughout the Jaguar range (currently making between 385 and 510 hp). What will be exclusive to the new XE will be a new version of Jag’s sultry styling.

We haven’t gotten word yet on when we’ll see the new roadster from Jaguar. We do know that the new XJ is first in line, and that will likely be shown at Frankfurt in September.

2:26 AM

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Spied: Lincoln Mark LT lives for buyers in Mexico

Rafay Ansar

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No, your eyes are not playing tricks. That is a Lincoln grille on the front of a new Ford F-150 pickup.

Wait! Didn't the Lincoln Mark LT go away last year?

Sort of.

While the luxury version of Ford's full-size pickup was discontinued in the U.S. market, it continues to sell in Mexico. And Lincoln is readying a new Mark LT based on the 2009 F-150 Platinum edition.

In addition to the grille swap, there will be Mark LT badging on the front doors and the tailgate--although this prototype still hauls the F-150 Platinum tailgate.

According to the Lincoln Mexico Web site, a 2008 Mark LT crew cab had a price of $41,300 for rear-wheel drive and $46,000 for four-wheel drive.

Those prices are close to what Ford asks for a F-150 Platinum SuperCrew--$40,910 for rear drive and $44,105 for four-wheel drive.

What this really means is that if you crave the Lincoln look for your new F-150, there will be a part number for a grille to make your dream come true.

2:07 AM

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Geneva motor show: Lagonda reborn as SUV concept

Rafay Ansar

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Big, brash and bold, Aston Martin pulled the wraps off a super-luxury $210,000 Lagonda SUV at the Geneva motor show with plans to relaunch a brand dormant since the 1990s.

With styling that mixes a modern, BMW-look front end with a retro rear end based on a classic 1930s Lagonda, the 204.7-inch-long SUV possesses plenty of presence, but it can’t be described as beautiful.

The retro rear styling, in particular, doesn’t sit well with the SUV proportions and modern front end.

As yet there’s no commitment to production; 2012 is the earliest date Aston will consider.

“It’s far too early to talk about production, production numbers or future planning,” Aston chairman Dave Richards said.

Launching such an ostentatious model in the teeth of the worst recession in 60 years might also appear not to be the best timing.

“But we’re looking long-term here, 10 to 15 years,” sales director Bill Donnelly said. ”This recession will end and there’s still plenty of wealth in the world and will be in the future, too.”

The substance under the Lagonda is a Mercedes-Benz GL platform, offered up by Daimler as part of an ongoing discussion between the two companies about future cooperation.

Daimler is interested in Aston’s expertise in making luxury cars for the next Maybach, while Aston needs access to Mercedes-Benz powertrain technology.

It’s not hard to see the Lagonda concept as a tryout for that project.

In the meantime, Aston is talking about the Lagonda SUV as a niche for super-luxury cars in countries where road and weather conditions are tough and render conventional luxury sedans and sports cars unusable for many months of the year.

Russia, China, South America, India and the more remote parts of the United States are on Aston’s hit list.

Aston also sees the Lagonda as a way to extend the number of countries where it sells. Currently it sells in 33 countries around the world and reckons the Lagonda will extend that to 100.

The Mercedes underpinnings give the Lagonda strong engineering credentials. Aston, under design chief Marek Reichman, has kept key hard points the same--so the front axle, lower A- and B-pillars and firewall are in the same positions. The door hinges are carryover, too, although Reichman expects to tool new doors to ensure the styling suffers no compromises.

Under the hood is an Aston Martin V12, tilted up at the front to fit over the GL’s front axle.

The front overhang is extended to accommodate the longer Aston engine. The rear seat is moved back to a position halfway between the second and third rows of the GL’s layout, which boosts legroom.

Although the cabin has individual rear seats, both fold forward to turn the Lagonda’s cabin into a practical load bay, helped by access through a hatchback rear door.

Aston has yet to decide how to make the Lagonda, if the project ever gets the green light.

Reichman says the bodywork could be tooled in either steel or aluminum. The latter is Aston’s material of choice for its sports-car range, so the company has plenty of experience in forming aluminum panels.

Reichman says that despite the clean-looking body sides, the mix of soft curves and crisp edges in some panels will be a challenge to manufacture.

History of Lagonda

Lagonda was founded more than 100 years ago by Wilbur Gunn, an American who set up a workshop in England and built his first car in 1909, hence this year's anniversary. The name is a river near Gunn's hometown, Springfield, Ohio.

Gunn was successful in Czarist Russia after his 16/18 Tourer won a trial run to publicize Russia’s early road system.

Steady development made Lagonda a serious rival for Rolls-Royce and Bentley. The 1930s Lagonda open-top M45 tourer had a reputation as a very sporting sedan.

When Bentley went bust in the Great Depression and was taken over by Rolls-Royce, W. O. Bentley moved to Lagonda and designed the company’s iconic LG6 model, which Aston has taken as inspiration for the new SUV.

By 1947, Lagonda was struggling financially and it was bought by David Brown, the British tractor magnate, who had earlier taken control of Aston Martin.

Brown particularly wanted access to the Bentley-designed six-cylinder DOHC engine.

In the 1970s, Aston chief designer William Towns ripped up the rule book and created the V8, an incredible four-door sedan with wedgy, angular styling.

That was the company’s last production car. For the past couple of decades, the name lived on only in Aston’s official legal company title, Aston Martin Lagonda.