Auto Show In Motion
February 1, 2005
By Scott Lewis
I went to GM's Auto Show In Motion back in November. This is a traveling test drive for GM products. However, they also supply some of their competitor's cars to compare to their own. Basically this was a chance for me to drive the new 2005 Corvette.
The Competition (In My Mind)
I wanted to take a serious approach to the ASIM, so I made a list of all the cars on the market that are not GM products that I would be at least remotely interested in for my next car.
I have said before I like the Mini Cooper. I also find myself being pulled hard toward the Infiniti G35 Coupe. Since the last time I looked at new cars the Chrysler 300 C with a 340 horsepower HEMI has come on the market.
I needed a list, so I could maximize my time at the show. Here are the cars I could think of as possibilities for my next new car:
Mini Cooper S
Ford Mustang GT
Infiniti G35 Coupe
BMW 330Ci Coupe
Chrysler 300 C Hemi
Dodge Charger (Hemi)
Lexus 300is (next generation, coupe?)
Mercedes 350 SLK
Mazdaspeed Miata (turbo)
Before we head to the ASIM let's look at what I think GM has to offer against these cars.
Mini Cooper - This car stands alone. GM doesn't have anything that is a cute, small car with a massive retro design. Besides, GM can't build a small car worth a damn anyway.
Mustang GT - Clearly GM needs to bring back the Camaro to compete. I understand that GM promised the Canadian Government and Union they would build all Camaros and Firebirds at the St. Theresa plant in Canada until 2017. Since they shut down that plant with the demise of the Camaro/Firebird they might have a tough time bringing the cars back without getting into a lot of trouble. Oops. Maybe they could use a different name.
That leaves the GTO as competition for the Mustang GT. I think the GTO is overpriced at $33K. It is far less refined than the G35 coupe, and is only a little faster than my 93 Camaro. The GTO won't hold a candle to the BWM either. GM needs to get on the ball in this area. The bland styling of the GTO also doesn't bode well for its performance nature. I do look forward to the next generation GTO that will be built in America.
While we are dogging GM... I find it annoying that GM complains they don't have a good rear wheel drive platform. What about the chassis under the Cadillac CTS. This car has a base price of $32,545. That is in a luxury car. Strip it of luxury and sell it as a Pontiac or Chevrolet. We already know it can take the small block Chevy engine, since they put it into the CTS-V. Keep the top of the line Corvette's 400 horsepower engine, but give us something. How about the 350 hp version of the 5.7 V-8 in the $33K GTO. How hard would it be to build this platform with two or four doors. That means GTOs with two doors and LeMans with four doors. Chevelles with four doors and Chevelle SSs with two doors. How hard can this be?
G35 Coupe & BMW 330Ci - If I really want to put the BMW 330Ci up against something at GM I could compare it to the Saab 9-3, at least in convertible format. GM really doesn't have any decent coupes to compare with these sporty machines. I wouldn't mind driving one of the new 9-3 convertibles to see if the structure as firmed up since the last generation. I wonder if they will let me take the Saab convertible out on the SUV trail to test its rigidity? Probably not.
300 C, Charger & 300IS - I think the CTS is going to be the main competition for the Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger and Lexus' replacement for the 300IS. This is the best rear wheel drive sedan GM makes that is close in price. Against the Lexus it should be a fair fight, but to get a V-8 means spending $50K instead of the low to mid $30K range for the Pentastar vehicles. Personally I would like to see the Charger make its debut with the Hemi at the Magnum R/T price. Now that's a car. I still have high hopes for the CTS. I just want to drive one with a manual transmission. That may be my biggest problem with the Chrysler cars, they come only with an automatic.
Mercedes 350 SLK - This is clearly a car that competes on price with the Corvette. Clearly the 268 horsepower Merc is going to be at a performance disadvantage to the 400 hp Vette. But the Benz may be a more luxurious car, and has a folding hard top for the same price as the Corvette in Coupe format. In fact it will cost about nine grand more to get a Corvette Convertible with a power top. That makes the 350 SLK look better. In fact, the SLK's 0-60 time of 5.4 seconds is fast enough to get me in plenty of trouble. I am seriously thinking about this car if my kids don't need a ride to school anymore.
Miata - I would only be interested in the Mazdaspeed Miata with the 178 hp turbo motor. Pontiac is coming out with the Solstice soon, and it should compete directly with the Miata. Too bad it won't be at the show.
I was hoping that being prepared would be an advantage. I was wrong. You were allowed to drive as many cars as you wanted, as many times as you wanted. Well, except for the Corvette, SSR & Hummer H2. You were allowed one drive in a Corvette or an SSR, but not both. You also had to drive a passenger car or luxury car before driving the Corvette. You were allowed one drive in a Hummer, but only after driving a truck or SUV.
I arrived a little before 8:00 AM (opening time). This was good, since it was not crowded. They had a different "course" for the different types of cars. The courses were pylons laid out in a very large parking lot. There were 7 courses. They included Luxury Cars, Passenger Cars, Corvette, SSR, Trucks, SUVs and Hummer.
The courses themselves did not give you much room to get these cars up to speed. They made a big deal about safety, and said that any unacceptable driving was grounds for ejection. Not wanting to get ejected I was very careful with the cars... for a while.
I headed off to the Luxury car section first, which was located right next to the Corvette section. Driving rather sedately I took the following cars through the course: Cadillac CTS, Cadillac STS, BMW 530i & BMW 325i. I will give you mini reviews of each car below. For the moment I just want to give you a feel for the event. I was distracted because I was intimidated by how much I could get away with the cars... and by the noise coming from the Corvette course near by. I left the luxury section and headed over to see the new Corvette. I regret that I did not drive the Acura TL... for a reason that will become apparent later.
I checked out the Corvette on display outside the course area. Then I headed inside. Since you only get one drive I had to pick between a manual and automatic equipped Corvette. I choose the manual even though I am rusty at driving a manual. I just couldn't resist. Of course I stalled the Vette pulling up to the "starting line." When you drive the Vette, SSR or H2 you have to drive with a "host." This is a GM employee that rides along with you. BTW... all other cars you ride all by yourself. I asked the host how hard I was allowed to push the car before getting in trouble. He said I could go as fast as I wanted as long as I did not spin the tires or slide the rear end out. Cool!
I revved it up and launched it as hard as I thought I could without spinning the tires. I ran through first and second. Up comes the first turn, so I drop it back to first. I went pretty fast. Let's put it this way, I went as fast as I could without knowing the course better. I was in second a couple of times when first gear would have been better. Two more laps and I could have hustled through the course a lot better. It was not the rules that slowed me down, but the lack of familiarity with the car and the lack of knowledge of the course.
Since it was early, and there were no lines yet for the Vette (I just had to wait for one to come back from the course to get my drive), they were giving rides in a Vette with a professional driver. This was worth the price of admission (did I mention this entire event was completely free). Even if I had to pay to get in it was still worth it. The driver did everything I was not allowed to do. He spun the tires on take off, and he hung the tail out on at least three corners. He went so fast through the course I was in love with the Corvette. I definitely need to see if it's possible to save up for one of these.
Next I headed off to the passenger car section, which is where I spent most of my time. In the passenger section I was mostly interested in the GTO, but wanted to try some other cars. I was still foolish enough to think a practical approach would mean more than just jumping from car to car. Oh well.
The people working there were encouraging you to drive as many cars as possible, and to compare the GM cars to the competition. So I started doing that. I drove the following cars: Chevrolet Malibu Maxx, Honda Accord, Pontiac Bonneville GXP, Pontiac Grand Prix, the new Pontiac G6, Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS and the GTO... in both automatic and manual versions.
Here are a few interesting points. 1) The GTOs were 2004 models with the 350 horsepower engine, not the new 2005 which I understand will get 400 hp. 2) There was no competition for the GTO. No Mustangs, no G35s, nothing. 3) Likewise there was no real competition for the Bonneville GXP or the Monte Carlo SS. In fact, there was not one single two door car from a manufacturer other than GM.
Eventually I made my way over to the truck section to "earn" the privilege to drive a H2. Not that I even care about the H2, but I cared about the course. The course for the H2 had hills and bumps to show off its capabilities, including a hill that had an incline/decline of about 45 - 60 degrees. Whatever the exact amount it was better than driving through San Francisco.
So, how were the cars. Well, by the time I reached the passenger car section, I was over my intimidation, and pushed these "passenger cars" through their course as hard as I could. Let's see what I found out about all the cars. So in no particular order here are my findings.
BMW 325i - This car seemed too firm when I first jumped in. The seats and interior items that you touch were all quite firm. It took longer than I thought necessary to get comfortable. But I did get comfortable, and enjoyed the drive. I love the precession of the steering in the 325i. I drove a convertible once, and this car didn't change my mind. Adequate acceleration is the best this car has. The engine is so smooth it really is like butter, but it needs a good deal more power. I would have preferred they had a 330i there. I will tell you this more than once in this article, the competition was carefully picked, and in this case the 330i would have made the CTS look bad. As it was the CTS felt peppy compared to the 325i. Of the luxury cars this one had the best stereo, which I did not listen to. As a practice, I always turn off the stereo when checking out a car. In the luxury cars I could easily turn off the stereo in the 325i. The other three cars required a degree from MIT just to turn off. The 325i had the best steering of all the luxury cars, and possibly the best of the day. I didn't go back to the luxury section after the passenger section to verify this. My mistake.
Cadillac CTS - I found the seating to be better than the 325i, but not better than the 530i (more later). Power in the CTS was better than the 325i, but not better than the 530i. This means a 330i would kick its butt. I was disappointed in the dash of the CTS. It was to bland. The materials did have a slightly cheap feeling (compared to the Bimmers), but it was the stark appearance that put me off. The engine seemed fine by normal driving conditions. I didn't autocross it through the cones, and I should have gone back and done so. The CTS seemed a little heavy compared to the 325i, but not compared to the 530i. The CTS and the 325i had the quietest engines. I was a little surprised that the 530i was noisier than the CTS, but the STS was clearly the worst. Overall I like the CTS. I would still consider it if I was in the sport/luxury sedan market. With a new 330i coming in 2006 (I believe) with more horsepower the CTS will have its hands full.
BMW 530i - I was really interested in this car because I have heard more bad than good about its new active steering. Alas, I could not tell anything during my short time behind the wheel. However, it's what I can tell you that matters. This car had the best seats of any car at the entire show. I was never so comfortable so fast as I was in the 530i. It would have been the perfect interior if it was not for the dreaded iDrive. When I got in the 530i and started it the stereo was on pretty load and on a station with music I don't like. I looked around for a power or volume control, but could not find one. I stared at the iDrive for a few seconds and then noticed volume controls on the steering wheel. I turn the stereo down all the way. During the drive the car felt excellent. I can see why there is such an attraction. I liked the dash, but was put off by the iDrive. If this car had regular controls in the dash it would have been my favorite interior for the entire day (wait till you read which did have my favorite below). The steering on the 530i was a little numb, but not near as numb as the two Caddies.
Cadillac STS - I was routing for this car. I like the commercials, and loved the interior in car magazines. However, this was my least favorite car in the luxury section. The stereo was a nightmare. It was equipped with XM Satellite Radio and it was playing some nasty gangster rap with lots of swear words. I tried to change the station, but the stereo was too difficult. I settled for turning the volume down. The steering in this car was very numb and the car felt heavy. It was like the typical heavy GM cars of the past. I assume this is deliberate so as not to alienate older buyers. I think they should have gone the extra mile and gave it better steering feel, and a lighter feeling overall. At least it is not the floating barges of the old Cadillac days. I was also put off by the dash. I can't put my finger on it now, but I remember it being stark, and cheap feeling. I should have drove this car before the Bimmers, but alas that did not happen and probably effected my opinion for the worse. Sorry GM.
Corvette - I already mentioned the Vette. I loved it. However, there is nothing to say bad about a sports car without getting it on real roads. I really want to know how comfortable this car is on the highway. I drive 75-85 miles a day. Will I enjoy that in a Vette or will it feel harsh. I can't tell this from a parking lot ride. This is also something that plagued all the cars. I need to get this car out in traffic and put a couple hundred miles on it to get a better feel fro its comfort. Performance is definitely not an issue. And this is coming from a guy that has a 911 Cabriolet at home and has driven 440 powered beasts.
Honda Accord - Without a doubt, this car had the best overall interior of any car present. That is saying a lot considering the luxury cars. I loved the dash, and the seats were immediately comfortable. The car had a tilt & telescoping steering wheel that made finding a perfect seating position easy. I really enjoyed sitting in this car. I am pretty sure the Accord had a 4 cylinder engine. It was lacking in power. I think this was deliberate. The Malibu Maxx which they wanted to compare to the Accord was equipped with a V-6. Like I said, the competition was carefully picked. I found that even though the Accord was lacking in power it was still just as adequate as the V-6 Malibu. Oops! I was also impressed with how effortlessly this car could be hustled through the cones. Steering feel was nice, if a little soft. I just plain loved this car. In fact, I really want to test drive an Accord Coupe V-6 with a manual transmission now. The Accord has just risen on my list of cars to consider. If an Accord Coupe with leather, V-6 and manual tanny are at least as nice as this I will put it up against a lot of other car.
Chevrolet Malibu Maxx - This car needs a lot of work. The steering on this car was the lightest I have ever felt. And I have driven a fair number of 70s GM cars when over assisted steering was all the rage. There is absolutely no steering feel. You might as well be using a remote control. The gas pedal was just as bad. It was the lightest pedal to the touch that I have ever pressed. What's worse is that it took a lot of pedal travel to get the car moving. That much pedal travel (light or not) is not appropriate for any car. Basically I walked away from the Malibu Maxx thinking GM has a lot of work to do. Better luck next time.
Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS - I was interested in this car because it has a supercharged V-6 engine. I believe it has 240 horsepower. This car came the closest to matching my Camaro for comfort and seating. I felt like I was in a newer version of my Camaro. I could rest my arm on the window sill almost exactly the same as I always do. This car is a cruiser. It feels a bit heavy, and pushes back when you try to push it too hard. But it does move well. I was impressed by the performance. This engine really does have more than enough power for most people, and even adequate power for me. I drove the Monte a second time after driving the Bonneville. Following the Bonnie this car feels down right light on its feet in the corners. However, the GTO went through the turns better than this, and had a lot more power. I don't think I would ever consider the Monte, but my opinion of it has been risen more than a few points. Too bad it has the exact same one touch power window as my 11 year old Camaro. Meaning one touch down for the driver only, and no one touch up. Overall this car seems like GM did a nice job. Just make it rear wheel drive and update it some more.
Pontiac Grand Prix - This car was the worst car I drove. It handled like crap and felt cheap. I just couldn't wait to get out of it. I would like to provide constructive criticism, but that would imply that it could be improved. It can't. This car desperately needs a redesign.
Pontiac Bonneville GXP - This is a heavy car, and you feel every pound of it going around corners. It plows into turns worse than any other car at the event. The steering is as numb as it gets. The exact opposite of the Malibu Maxx, but with about the same amount of feedback... none. At low speeds it was a competent sedan. The faster you drove it the harder you had to work the car. Since this is supposed to be the closest thing GM is offering to compete against the 300 C with a Hemi, I find this car to be a throw back to another time. The Northstar V-8 under the hood was definitely smooth and reasonably powerful, but that can not make up for its weight and sluggish suspension. One thing I noticed... this car has the exact same window sill position as my Camaro. Even better than the Monte at allowing the point of my elbow to rest comfortably while driving with one hand. However, the seats in the Bonnie lacked lateral support at all to the point that you had to hold onto the steering wheel to keep from sliding around. Yikes!
Pontiac GTO - This is the car to drive at this event. Mainly because you can drive it as many times as you want. They had 4 GTOs there. Two were equipped with automatics and two with the 6 speed manual. I was generally impressed by the GTO. It had the best seats of any car except the BMW 530i. They really were very comfortable and supportive. The power of the GTO felt a lot like my Camaro when it was new. I don't doubt that the GTO can beat my Camaro, but I read in Car and Driver's review of the new Mustang that it was faster to 60 mph and in the quarter mile than the GTO... even with 50 LESS horsepower. I have since read that the 05 GTO with 400 hp is slightly quicker than the 05 Mustang with 300 hp. I really think the GTO should spank the Mustang with 400 hp. Hmmm. I really enjoyed running through the gears of the manual GTO... although that was just rowing through the first two gears. I also drove the automatic and found it to suck... pretty badly. On two turns I floored the automatic GTO and it would not downshift. That's bad. I had to hold the transmission in second manually and then manually put it in first as I slowed for a corner so I could apply proper power coming out of the turn. Overall the GTO ran through the course very nicely. It is not as low to the ground as my Camaro, which at 40 years old I am now willing to appreciate. Overall I like the GTO a lot. I would consider buying the upcoming 400 hp version. If only it looked a little more stylish. One thing that was a serious throw-back. The GTO didn't have any kind of one touch power windows. That is so 1975! I look forward to seeing what GM will do when the GTO gets on an American platform, which I understand is supposed to happen for the 2007 model year. We'll see. The Aussie platform is just to far out of date for the American market, especially with the all new Mustang and the G35 coupe out there. Again, noticeably absent was anything that could be compared to the GTO from outside GM.
Pontiac G6 - This was the surprise car of the day. I almost completely forgot about it. In fact I went back to the passenger car area to check out the "Oprah" give-a-way car after driving a couple of trucks. I wanted to see if this car was worth all the hype. In a word... Yes. That is not to say that the G6 is a great car. I see it as a pretty good car, but with a LOT of potential. The G6 is built on the same platform as the Malibu Maxx, but you would never know it driving them. This really is an excellent example how two cars with the same platform can be so different. The steering feel on the G6 was a little heavy and a little numb. However, this was a huge improvement over the steering in the Malibu Maxx. Power was adequate in the G6 and the engine didn't have a chance to seem rough in the limited driving I could do, but I know better. I really liked the interior of the G6. It has a tilt and telescopic steering wheel and even adjustable pedals. I actually like the multi-pane sunroof. It works very well. Unfortunately this is wasted on me as I generally don't care for sun roofs. Get a convertible if you want sun, otherwise give me the structural integrity and quite interior of a solid roof. I also liked the chrome trimmed instrument cluster. It was still fairly early when I drove the G6 and the sun was low enough in the sky I would have thought I would be able to catch some glare off the chrome. None. It looked very nice. I liked the interior of this car as well as any GM product. With a little refinement, some better steering feel and a smoother and more powerful engine this car could compete for my money. I understand that a 240 hp engine is coming (the G6 GT I drove had a 200 hp V-6) is coming in the GXP version of the G6. That will help, but I would prefer they put the 255 hp V-6 from the Cadillac CTS in this car. The G6 is also coming out in a coupe and convertible version. The convertible will be a retractable hard top. I saw a couple of pictures from the LA Auto Show (the non-driving kind of show). It looks good. I am very interested in how much this car will cost with a retractable hard top. Overall, I was impressed enough with this first try that I believe GM has a real chance with this car. Let's hope they don't blow it, but they are on track to do that with the current engine line-up. This car has the most promise of all the GM passenger cars. I would love to compare an Accord V-6 coupe to a G6 Coupe with the GXP treatment. Car and Driver, are you listening?
That covers it. Yes, I drove a couple of trucks, but just to drive the Hummer over that really steep hill. The Colorado seems like a nice pickup for its size. I couldn't tell it had a odd-ball 5 cylinder engine.
I highly recommend this event to anyone remotely interesting in getting a new car. You can drive so many cars from different manufacturers that it can be extremely helpful in narrowing down your choices. There really was no pressure from the GM people.
I would have liked more time in the GTO, but the line to drive one of the manual cars was growing too long, so I went home. Knowing how much I liked the Accord I should have also gone back to the luxury section and tested the Acura TL. I wasn't thinking at that point.
Maybe next time.