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2023 Toyota Camry First Drive: Potent family sedan shrugs off SUV onslaught
Is it hard to get excited about the all-new 2023 Toyota Camry? After all, this is a car that has been at the top of the mid-size sedan heap for decades, reaping handsomely the rewards having sown so much loyalty amongst families seeking affordable and above all reliable transportation. How much better can it get, really – and how noteworthy would an improvement actually be when it’s already such a dominant force in its class?
All things being equal it might have been possible for Toyota to coast into the latest generation of its flagship model, but times have changed dramatically since the Camry first went on sale in the early 80s. Parents with budding broods are more likely to consider an all-wheel drive SUV than park a four-door commuter car in the driveway, and even those without children to haul are increasingly turning away from the traditional mid-sizer that has been the industry’s bread and butter in favor of visiting crossover country.
This is bad news for Toyota, because while the company does offer a highly competitive line of sport-utilities, it’s fair to say that a dip in Camry numbers would be as catastrophic to the brand as a slowdown in F-150 pickup sales would be devastating to the Blue Oval. Toyota may be a lot of things, but above all else Toyota is Camry, which leaves little room for do-overs in a suddenly hostile-to-sedans environment.
One of the great things about being one of the largest automakers in the world, however, is the ability to hire and cultivate exactly the engineering and design talent required to ride out any trough in customer tastes. The 2023 Toyota Camry isn’t just more of the same expected excellence, it’s a new level of refinement and driving experience from a car that continues to elbow its way to the front of the pack.
As before, there are three distinct flavors of Camry drivetrain to sample at ordering time, salted with five trim levels split between them. The most affordable way to get into Toyota’s sedan is by way of the four-cylinder L model ($23,495), and while few will order this more stripped-down version of the car its new 2.5-liter, direct-injected engine is available all the way up to the top-tier XLE and XSE editions. With between 206 (XSE) and 203 (everything else) horsepower on tap, combined with as much as 186 lb-ft of torque and an eight-speed automatic transmission, the four-cylinder remains defiant in the face of mightier turbocharged options that have infiltrated the segment. Expect close to 40-mpg on the highway from the thrifty four, along with nearly 30-mpg in city driving.
Most Camrys will leave the factory with the four-banger between the front fenders, but more discerning mid-size shoppers – perhaps 20 percent in total – will order either the Toyota’s 3.5-liter V6 or four-cylinder hybrid setup. Despite offering the same 3.5-liters of displacement as it did in the previous model, the new six-cylinder Camry pairs direct injection with a host of other improvements that together make it a fresh design. Output jumps by roughly 20 ponies to 301 horsepower in total, while torque checks in at 267 lb-ft, and like the 2.5-liter Camry an eight-speed automatic is standard.
Driving all three powertrains back-to-back-to-back delivered both the expected and the unexpected in terms of character. The four-cylinder Camry is perfectly adequate for daily driving, if a bit noisy when pushed, while the V6 rolls out tire-chirping power that is most appreciated when passing at speed. The biggest surprise comes from the Hybrid, which provides ultra-smooth switching between all-electric and battery-assisted driving while at the same time feeling far more gutsy than its on-paper power rating would seem to indicate. This is particularly true when driven in Sport mode, which is available across the Camry line-up.
Toyota is making a big kafuffle about how much more engaging the 2023 Camry is from behind the wheel as compared to its predecessor, and it’s true that there are certain models of the car that carve a corner with greater confidence than one would predict given its milquetoast mission statement. All versions of the sedan have been significantly stiffened, and a new double-wishbone suspension at the rear improves stability even when deliberately trying to upset the car. Still, if you want to avoid as much body roll as possible in the corners, you’ll need to make sure your Camry has an ‘SE’ somewhere on the trunk lid, whether it’s preceded by an ‘X’ or not, as that grants you access to the sportiest shocks and springs that have ever been outfitted to Toyota’s mid-size champion.
With a drive that’s definitely not boring, the 2023 Toyota Camry has been given a styling makeover that suggests as much to the casual observer. Most of it works – the sleeker, more expressive body shape combines with an updated color palette and an unusual two-tone black roof / C-pillar option on certain models – but the mandolin front grille can look a little busy from certain angles, to say nothing of the SE / XSE editions’ quad exhaust tips (of which only one per side appeared to be functionally necessary).
Inside you can opt for your traditional light / dark pairing of leather and plastics, or go all-out and order the XSE’s available bright red cowhides and trim. Given that the cars I drove were pre-production ‘prototypes,’ it’s harder to knock some of the quality issues found throughout the cabin, including fairly low-rent buttons for the heated seats and 90s boombox-quality speaker covers on the doors. The cars available to us also displayed substantial door skin flex on closing, all of which will presumably be taken care of once the car hits the showroom. What did work according to spec was the improved Entune infotainment system, which can be had with either seven or eight inch touchscreens, and which brings Toyota closer to the status quo when it comes to graphics and menu design.
The 2023 Toyota Camry’s top-to-bottom redesign and laudable improvement in driving character speak to just how real the SUV threat is to the brand’s sedan business. Toyota feels that by building the best product it possibly can, it can help collectively buoy all mid-size boats on a (hopefully) rising tide of customer interest. In truth, there are so many great four-doors out there right now – including the Honda Accord, the Hyundai Sonata, the Kia Optima, and the Ford Fusion – that it’s not easy to see how the Camry alone will do much to stem the tide of crossover chaos that’s enveloped the entire auto business. That doesn’t take away from what Toyota has done here with this excellent edition of the Camry – but it might indicate that moving forward, fewer families will get the chance to find out just how good the car really is.[timeline]
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Cadillac Super Cruise First Drive: Trusting the machine
It was, conservatively, 90 seconds before I was satisfied Cadillac’s Super Cruise semi-autonomous driving system wasn’t going to kill me. By that point, a combination of cameras, super-accurate maps, and a fancier-than-usual GPS system were keeping me dead-center at 65 mph on California’s 280, headed north toward San Francisco. As the CT6 eased its way around the corners, I spent a few moments considering that the car of the future apparently communicates not with the voice of Mr Feeny from Boy Meets World, but with a glowing green steering wheel instead.
At times, it seems like every car company – and every company tangentially related to the auto industry – is working on autonomous vehicles. If you’re an car manufacturer, and you haven’t set up a swish geek-lab in the Valley, you’re almost guaranteed to get laughed out of whatever auto show you dare show your face at next. Self-driving cars, so the story goes, are the Next Big Thing. Your kids may as well ditch Drivers’ Ed, since they won’t need a license.
Problem is, while there’s no shortage of hype around self-driving vehicles, there are plenty of people who aren’t convinced that they’re anywhere near reaching the market. The most ambitious estimates suggest some sort of retail availability by 2023 – there are plenty of naysayers about that, and other companies estimating 2025 or even later – and even then they’re expected to be low-volume and limited-deployment. The tech may be getting better, but the laws and infrastructure have to catch up too.
That leaves us with semi-autonomous systems, for the most part effectively adaptive cruise control paired with active lane-keeping. Initially the preserve of expensive luxury sedans, they’ve begun trickling down into more affordable price brackets. Some of them – and I’ve tried most – are pretty darn good. That is, until they’re not.
Lane-keeping that suddenly loses the lane. Radar-controlled cruise control that hee-haws and lurches as traffic moves around it. Sudden deactivations and disengagements. The momentarily bowel-loosening experience of the car deciding to give up on driving itself, and unexpected throwing the reins back to you.
I’m a geek, and a believer in the potential of autonomous driving, but I have limited patience – and trust – for most driver-assistance technology out there today. Even when they work consistently, I find it’s oddly more stressful for me – my foot poised over the brake; one hand hovering near the wheel – than just driving on my own. That’s why the speed at which Cadillac’s system convinced me proved such a surprise.
Super Cruise won’t be commercially available until later in the year, but the automaker invited me down to Palo Alto to try out a pre-production version on public highways. It’s been a major point of investment over the past few years for Cadillac, atop an aggressive product roadmap that, starting from the end of 2023, will see a new product launched every quarter until 2023. Once a byword for classic luxury, Cadillac’s goal is to reinvent itself as “a more contemporary, progressive interpretation of luxury,” Johan de Nysschen, president of the GM marque, explained.
Technology like Super Cruise “resuscitates our reputation, our heritage for innovation,” de Nysschen argues. “I think that it’s going to capture peoples’ imagination. I think for many people, for whom Cadillac isn’t at the center of their radar screen, I think it’s going to open their mind as to what this brand is capable of.”
So just what is Cadillac capable of? Super Cruise starts from the existing adaptive cruise control, true, but it upgrades it to the point that the automaker – and their lawyers – are willing to describe it as “the first hands-free” system. While the adaptive cruise keeps pace with traffic ahead, Super Cruise handles the car’s lateral movement within the lane.
They call it the “Blue Line” and it’s basically the semi-autonomous equivalent of the groove a slot-car runs down. On the one hand, there are forward-facing cameras in the CT6 which track where the left and right lane markings are, and figure out an estimate of the center line and the car’s current heading. On the other, there’s a supercharged GPS sensor, 4-8x more accurate than what’s typically fitted to a vehicle; that works hand-in-hand with a high-accuracy map which has details of road curvature, the number of lanes, where on- and off-ramps are, and any other pertinent information Cadillac has baked in.
Such a map didn’t exist, and so Cadillac had to create it. In fact, it’s had all the divided, limited-access highways with defined on- and off-ramps in the US and Canada scanned with LIDAR laser scanners, 160,000 miles down to a resolution of under 4-inches. The GPS checks the map while the cameras check the road, and if the two agree then the CT6 clings to the “Blue Line” like a train on rails.
There’s an extra part to Super Cruise, though, and that’s the attention tracking system. At some point, in every car with driver-assistance aids, the vehicle is going to want to check that the person behind the wheel is still paying attention. How they verify that, exactly, varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, but they usually demand the application of some sort of torque to the wheel, or contact with pressure or capacitive sensors embedded into it.
The result is an odd cycle of hover-tap-tug, as you periodically reassure the car that you are, indeed, awake and aware. In contrast, Cadillac’s approach is completely hands-off. An IR camera mounted on the steering column watches the driver’s face, tracking in which direction they’re looking. Should you not pay sufficient attention to the road ahead, a light embedded into the upper portion of the steering wheel starts flashing. To reset that alert, all you need do is look back at the road.
“You and Super Cruise are partners,” Barry Walkup, chief engineer on the project, explains, and the light bar is the system’s primary method of communication. When you activate Super Cruise, it turns solid green. If you don’t pay enough attention – a length of time which varies according to how fast you’re going, so you get longer in stop-start traffic but less when you’re cruising at speed – it flashes at you until you look. Continue to ignore the situation, and you get red flashing and a choice of seat vibration or warning chimes; eventually, Super Cruise disengages and the car coasts, albeit with the lane-keeping still active.
Finally – and Cadillac suggests this is most likely because of a medical or other issue which has incapacitated the driver – there’s a loud, spoken “Please take control” warning and the brakes are applied. If you still don’t react, the onboard OnStar connects an operator and can even provide the emergency services with the car’s exact location.
Out on the road, nosing the not-inconsiderable CT6 onto Highway 280, I watch for the grey steering wheel icon in the digital instrumentation that means Super Cruise is available. It appears just as I’m pulling out of the slow lane, and when I press the Super Cruise button on the wheel, after a few seconds the light bar glows green. That’s my cue to let go of the controls altogether.
As the first corner approaches, I brace myself for the usual ping-ponging between the lines that I’m familiar with from rival semi-autonomous systems. Instead, the Cadillac simply sweeps imperiously around, dead-center in the lane. I look across to where one of Cadillac’s engineers is sitting, watching my reaction, then catch the green blink of the light bar and immediately glance back at the road. My first instinct is to grab the wheel, or nudge it to prove my presence, but to Super Cruise my eyes are enough.
Less than a mile later, and I’m testing the attention-tracking system. Turns out, at 65 mph you can look away for about 5 seconds before the car demands your gaze. Later on, with the adaptive cruise set to 75 mph, I get about 4 seconds. Super Cruise will operate at speeds up to 85 mph, and in stop-go traffic at the other extreme.
It’s also, Walkup says, where drivers report the most potential value is to be had. “Most customer benefit was going to be on the interstate system, particularly during their commutes,” Cadillac’s consumer research found. “You get some time back during your commute, and that’s what people told us they want.”
I can buy that. After the initial “the car is driving itself!” surprise, you quickly get used to the sensation, even blasé about it. I felt confident with Super Cruise in a way that I haven’t with any other semi-autonomous system I’ve tried, and that comes down to how the car communicates its status with you, and how hands-off you can be.
The light bar – which also includes IR emitters, to light your face at night so that the attention camera can still see you – leaves you in no uncertainty as to what’s going on. It’s conspicuous enough that you’re not searching through the instrumentation to find an icon or graphic. When you want to overtake, for instance, you take the wheel and turn; there’s a little opposing torque, just to make clear you’re assuming control, and the light bar turns blue. When you’re safely into the right lane, after a moment’s reacclimatization the bar goes green again, and you’re free to let go.
“The system was designed to be hands-free, so there are mechanisms in place to make you feel comfortable letting go of the wheel,” is how Pam Fletcher, Executive Chief Engineer of GM’s Global Electric & Autonomous Vehicles, describes it to me. “All of these confidence factors that are in there: knowing you’re on a road; knowing that this great system is capable of smooth, precise operation; knowing that if you’re not checking in at a great enough frequency, it doesn’t leave you to figure out ‘is this working okay, am I checking in okay?'”
It’s surprisingly liberating. During my miles on the 280, I only have one unexpected deactivation to deal with. The light bar goes red, and a warning message appears in the display notifying me I should resume control. There’s an urgency to it, yes, but it’s on the right side of panic. The CT6 didn’t drift out of the lane, or suddenly slow. Hands back on the wheel, I wait a moment for the grey icon to reappear, then tap the Super Cruise button and the car takes over again.
If there’s a system Super Cruise is reminiscent of – and will inevitably be compared to – it’s Tesla’s Autopilot. The two aren’t exact equals: Autopilot will change lanes for you with the tap of a stalk, and can be activated outside of just highways. Cadillac, meanwhile, brings its LIDAR maps to the party, unlike Tesla which uses a combination of regular mapping and onboard sensors.
Cadillac prefers not to mention its rivals by name, but get the team talking about its relatively slow roll-out of Super Cruise and it’s not hard to read between the lines. “You cannot even contemplate a scenario where you let your customers do your beta testing for you,” de Nysschen says, when asked about expanding the system beyond highways. “Time will come when we’re able to broaden it, but we’ll decide when that time comes.”
“GM is a titan in our industry. We’re not a small player. And what GM does has a profound impact on changing the landscape,” the Cadillac president argues. “If you are capable of changing the landscape, it also means you need to act in a responsible way. We are taking a very systematic, conservative approach to this technology. Because it’s not only a matter of wanting to claim the marketing credits for innovation, but also transforming the landscape that lies ahead for full autonomy at some point in the future. Because it’s not just a technological transformation, but a regulatory transformation.”
Even so, Cadillac is counting on Super Cruise being a significant differentiator between it and other luxury automakers. Comprehensive dealer training is underway, making sure salespeople know just how to explain what’s a fairly complex system, and the general feeling within the company is that Super Cruise is as important to the brand as a new engine might be. Meanwhile, how the technologies that enable it might also benefit GM’s ongoing fully-autonomous projects is also under consideration.
“We look at this as very much a core technology, we developed this all in-house, ourselves, for our products,” Fletcher points out. “With that, we continue to do what we think are the best, most intuitive systems that we can grow over time. We have a lot of autonomous projects going on.”
MORE: 2023 Cadillac CT6 Platinum AWD Review
Right now, one of the biggest questions remaining is just how much Super Cruise will cost. That’s not been decided: it’s looking likely that it’ll be an option on the model year 2023 CT6, though for how much and whether it’s part of an existing package are up in the air. The suggestion is that it will be well under the $5,000 that Tesla charges for Enhanced Autopilot, though, and while the CT6 is a niche model – Cadillac sold 1k of them in May 2023 – it’s expected that Super Cruise will see a high take-rate among buyers.
Switching to using electric vehicles may be a first step in reducing emissions, but it’s certainly not the last. The most polluting part of EVs is the battery. Each link in the supply chain that contributes to creating the hefty battery pack produces greenhouse emissions. As auto manufacturers recognize this issue, some are working to rectify it.
Toyota announced on Monday that it will build a new battery plant in North Carolina, the company’s first North American factory for car batteries. The $1.29 billion site will go up in the Greensboro Randolph Megasite, and is slated to go online in 2025. It’s expected to add 1,750 new jobs, with about a $62,000 yearly salary per employee on average. (The annual average salary in Liberty, North Carolina in 2023 was $37,350). The company will start with four initial production lines that will be capable of creating enough lithium-ion batteries for 200,000 EVs. However, Toyota plans to expand to at least six production lines that can build batteries for up to 1.2 million vehicles a year. A Toyota spokesperson said that the company aims for 70 percent of their car sales to be in electrified vehicles by 2030.
[Related: What to know before you buy an electric vehicle]
“The future of mobility is electrification, and the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite is the ideal location to make that future a reality,” Ted Ogawa, CEO of Toyota Motor North America, said in a press release. Part of why Toyota picked this site in Liberty, North Carolina is its “outstanding, diverse workforce,” renewable energy availability, and access to four international airports and two seaports.
Adding a battery plant in North America will ideally streamline the production process of Toyota EVs, so there will be less energy wasted on transporting materials from other countries.
What’s more, Toyota claims the plant will run on 100 percent renewable energy, which is part of the company’s commitment to carbon neutrality by 2050. While it’s still not certain which energy sources the plant will draw on, other Toyota sites run on solar and wind power (they have a solar array in Plano, Texas), setting a reliable precedent for this new plant.
The incentive to electrify the auto industry comes in large part from the Biden administration. EVs are more energy efficient than gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles; they’re able to convert more than 77 percent of energy they use to move. Gas-powered cars, however, lose a lot more energy in the process, and only 12 to 30 percent goes into powering the auto.
[Related: ‘Lithium Valley’ could save one of the most polluted areas in California]
Yet, experts are still debating the cumulative benefits of electric vehicles for the environment. For example, an area of contention is over whether the emissions from the battery manufacturing process can outweigh the benefits that come with an EV. In fact, just producing the battery pack can measure up to producing an entire combustion-powered vehicle. Furthermore, mining the metals that go into a lithium-ion battery pack—lithium, cobalt, nickel, and others—is also pollution and resource intensive.
Still, the future of sourcing lithium is changing, perhaps improving conditions along the way. Lithium Valley in California, for one, could help suppliers meet market demand, while creating jobs and de-metaling a polluted body of water.
2023 Kia Cadenza First Drive: Big car, small market
Lurking just below the surface of flashy ad campaigns and country club one-upmanship at the valet station there exists a world of comfortable, handsomely-styled automobiles that deliver 90 percent of the features found in traditional luxury cars almost completely under the radar. The 2023 Kia Cadenza is one such premium sleeper, joining the ranks of the Buick LaCrosse, the Toyota Avalon, and the Nissan Maxima as de facto upscale vehicles that ply the full-size sedan waters with silent dignity.
Redesigned for 2023, the master plan that has seen Kia claw its way up from the bargain aisle it occupied a mere 15 years ago is on full display in the Cadenza. This is a four-door that can go toe-to-toe with more established entries sitting in Lexus and Acura showrooms when it comes to features and build quality, and yet it doesn’t ask buyers to stretch their monthly payments quite as far in the process. Like most modern Kias, the Cadenza demonstrates how the democratization of technology has leveled the playing field to the point where you no longer have to go badge-hunting to bag a comfortable car.
The 2023 Kia Cadenza certainly fits in well with the current crop of large sedans, what with its revised creases and newly concave grille providing just enough differentiation from the previous model to stand out. More extensive use of LED lighting up front and at the rear also serve to highlight the car’s pleasing, if somewhat staid proportions and presence. Perhaps most importantly, the Cadenza moves farther away from the next-one-down Optima in terms of design, while maintaining a general family resemblance.
While the exterior of the Cadenza isn’t intended to wow, the passenger cabin gets high marks for its inspired interpretation of what family car shoppers are looking for in a premium car. This is particularly true of the top-tier SXL model, which features soft, perforated leather, the availability of heated and cooled seats, a well-organized dashboard and gauge cluster, and restrained use of interior metallic trim highlights. Back seat room is simply enormous, which is surprising given the Kia’s modest wheelbase, and the car’s infotainment system provides an easy-to-use menu system and compatibility with Android Auto and Apple Car Play.
Mechanically, Kia has invested in its familiar 3.3-liter V6 with a focus on boosting efficiency (albeit modestly). You’ll benefit from one more mile per gallon around town in the 2023 Kia Cadenza as compared to the model it replaces (20-mpg city, 28-mpg highway), at the cost of a few horsepower and a smattering of torque. It’s hard to imagine anyone noticing the ‘missing’ grunt, as the 290 ponies and 253 lb-ft of twist on offer from the six-cylinder unit is more than sufficient for motivating the sedan. A new eight-speed automatic transmission is on hand, too, and it makes power delivery as transparent as possible when the car is set to ‘Smart’ or ‘Eco’ driving modes.
Kia clearly hopes that a better Cadenza is also a more attractive Cadenza, but the fate of the car might be out of the company’s hands. Fewer people are shopping at the deep end of the sedan pool, preferring instead to devote their dollars to SUVs and crossovers, and while sales of the Maxima and the Avalon are strong in comparison to past Kia efforts in the class, they are absolutely dwarfed by Pathfinder and Highlander numbers. It’s nice to have a clear upgrade path available to Optima drivers in the form of a comfy Cadenza, but the real trade-up is most likely a Sorento, not a larger four-door.
2023 Subaru WRX First Drive: Heritage just isn’t enough
As the affordable sports car market enjoys a revival of its glory days, with revived classics (Integra, anyone?) and entirely new sport-line nameplates in the $30,000-ish price range popping up seemingly weekly, it’s made it all that more challenging for manufacturers that have never given up on everyman performance to distinguish their offerings in this newly-crowded market. And so Subaru’s all-new 2023 WRX, now entering its twentieth year of American production, has a tougher job to do than virtually any of its legendary predecessors. Not only does it need to make a compelling case for itself against the new kids on the block, it has to appeal to those wistfully recalling the glory days of McRae blasting a Group A monster through Scottish forests.
Subaru’s consistency with the WRX formula continues into this fifth-generation car, but with a few twists. The basic ingredients of the 2023 model will be very familiar to long-time WRX aficionados: a turbocharged boxer-four is nestled into the engine bay and it, as always, powers all four wheels in a 50:50 torque split (although the automatic transmission shifts a bit more power rearward, with a 45:55 torque split, front/rear). Look deeper, and there are more similarities: displacement is now bumped up 400ccs from the outgoing model, to 2.4L, but despite the engine size increase the power is virtually unchanged with 271 HP and 258 lb-ft of torque on tap.
Weight is also nearly identical, with the newest base model sedan only packing on three extra pounds over its older sibling, for a 3,297 lb curb weight. As with 2023’s WRX, a six-speed manual or Subaru’s Variable Torque Distribution CVT automatic direct power from the flat-four to all four corners. Pricing is still unannounced, but I would expect it to be similar to the outgoing model too, likely coming in at just a tad under $30,000 after destination fees for the base trim.
On the spec sheet, then, it sounds quite a bit like its older, retiring sibling. Laying eyes on it, however, makes it clear it’s a bolder step than the statistics might imply.
For the first time in the WRX’s two-decade-long lifespan, it no longer shares a single panel with the Impreza it was born from. Every crease in the sheet metal is solely etched for the sporty turbo sedan and, personally, I appreciate the freedom the designers felt with the newest car. It continues the grown-up sports-car feeling of the outgoing generation, without falling into either bland commuter territory (in the vein of the last generation) or adding too many boy-racer try-hard accoutrements (yes, I’m looking at you, Bugeye, as beloved as you are).
The wider flares leading into the understated, intricately textured taillights help give it 90s-era rally-box-flare character lines without looking comedically angry. The complete visual package works well together, especially in lighter colors that showcase the angular cladding more cleanly.
The interior is significantly revised over the fourth generation’s as well, with the traditional double-screen center console of Subaru’s older cars replaced with a single, portrait-oriented 11.6″ touchscreen embedded in the dash in trims above the base. Sadly, the lowest trim gets two vastly smaller touchscreens, clunkily slapped into the same dash design; the base model feels vastly cheaper inside as a result of losing the larger screen the console is clearly meant for. No matter which trim buyers opt for, however, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard.
In higher trims with the larger, vertical screen, it’s acceptably responsive and easy to use without feeling like the massive size is too distracting in motion. Subaru also offers the ability to use the large portrait display as a split screen, so that multiple features – navigation and radio, for example – can be seen simultaneously. Despite the centerpiece presentation of the massive screen, the WRX UI designers also made the smart decision to not hide key features deep in menus. The HVAC controls and basic radio functions still get physical knobs and switches.
But let’s be realistic: no one considering Subaru’s turbocharged sports sedan is going to be solely weighing it on the merits of screen size. World Rally Blue is still one of the most popular colors on offer – despite the company not having campaigned a World Rally Championship team since 2008 – and the take rate for manual transmissions on the last generation was a staggering 85% of total sales. The WRX is here to have fun, and so Subaru threw me the keys to a six-speed and aimed me at the mountain passes of Sonoma to give me a chance to see how much of a good time it truly is.
This is a great idea in theory, but as I wound through ensuing S-curves where the car should be communicating weight transfer or understeer or power slides, I simply felt nothing.
The response from the new rack is too robotically consistent, with no communication of what’s actually happening on the road underneath the front wheels. That linear response removes all of the extra steering heft that should accompany transitioning the relatively weighty mass of the WRX from left to right and back again. On the rare wide corners where I would approach anything resembling the WRX’s limits, it was definitely fast, and the relatively stiff suspension tuning – along with its 28% stiffer chassis – does help it carry a terrifying amount of speed through the turns.
Without the steering wheel talking me through my maneuvers and the road conditions beneath me, however, I never felt quite confident or clear on where its limits were, and it made my drive much less joyful.
At higher speeds, keeping the car pulling hard from third to fourth is basically impossible. Despite this frustrating power delivery, 80 mph still keeps the motor – which redlines at a relatively low 6,000 RPM – churning at 3,000 RPM, which makes me wonder what the oddly wide gear ratios were in service of if not high-speed poise or fuel economy.
To its credit, the 2.4L punches hard as it approaches that 6,000 RPM redline, with peak power not hitting until 5,600 RPM; the last digit of the tachometer in the WRX before the needle bounces is a righteously radical blur. But, despite maximum torque kicking in at 2,000 RPM, the Boxer felt like it couldn’t throw a punch below 3,000 RPM, and truthfully didn’t start to hit harder until close to 4,000 RPM. This unfortunate power delivery, in conjunction with the strangely-geared manual, made the power band frustratingly tricky to stay inside.
None of this is a knock against its daily-driver credentials. It’s a fine commuter; the cabin was agreeable; and I found even the base seats comfortable. Around town in sedate driving, it’s well-mannered. Subaru still clearly owns the sub-$30,000 sporty AWD sedan market outright, and if your criteria demand four driven wheels, a manual transmission, and a trunk, it’s a fine choice.
2023 Bentley Continental GT Convertible First Drive Review: Droptop Drama
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I’ll happily argue with you all day long that the new 2023 Bentley Continental GT Convertible is more of a looker than its coupe sibling. The grandest drop-top version of the Continental GT is still one of the most luxurious places to spend your time in. It also happens to be one of the best ways to spend $236,000 and change.
There’s no mistaking what you’re looking at. Indeed at first glance, it might seem like little has changed with the new Continental GT Convertible. Much as was the case with the coupe, though, you’d be entirely wrong for thinking that way. Like the hard-top, the Continental GT Convertible is entirely new inside and out. The familiar Bentley silhouette remains, but everything has been sharpened and dialed-up, to produce a more aggressive stance.
The gorgeous rear haunches are meatier and more pronounced, exuding a sense of forwarding motion. Shorter front and slightly longer rear overhangs emphasize that. The hood is now longer, while the cabin is pushed further back. No, the extent of the changes may not be instantly evident to the untrained eye, but – like the bigger front grille that squeezes in lower in the fascia – the sporting DNA of the new Continental GT Convertible is bursting at the seams.
Where the old GT Convertible had a ton of exterior embellishments, this new car is simpler and yet somehow grander with it. Bentley’s designers resisted the temptation to over-adorn the exterior with too many small details; indeed, perhaps the only semblance of bling is the crystal cut headlights, which were patterned after expensive glassware. The droptop wears them well, the beguiling glint of a Patek Phillipe paired with a bespoke suit.
The number 12 insignia behind the front wheels are finished in polished metal and are a reference to the number of cylinders lurking under that long hood. Other than that, though, the exterior of the new Continental GT Convertible is clean cut. Even the rear is tidier compared to the old model. It’s all intentional, of course, done so that the new car exudes a more youthful and exuberant vibe as it passes by at 180 mph. Bentley made it abundantly clear that it wants the new Continental GT Convertible and Coupe to catch the attention of younger affluent buyers. By redefining the athletic characteristics of the new Continental GT, in my humble opinion, the automaker is doing just that.
The 2023 Bentley Continental GT Convertible sits on the same Volkswagen Group MSB architecture as the coupe. This same platform is also responsible for the sharper and more agile driving dynamics of the new Porsche Panamera. Chopping the roof off the Bentley didn’t yield any weight savings for the GT Convertible, mind; in fact, the new convertible is 375 pounds heavier than the coupe. Still, the new GT Convertible is lighter than the previous-gen model, although a curb weight of 5,322 pounds is still a lot for a 2+2 convertible grand tourer.
To be quite honest, however, Bentley has achieved the seemingly impossible with the new GT Convertible. The new car is 20-percent lighter and 5-percent stiffer than the car it replaces, and this is despite being equipped with a monstrous 6.0-liter W12 motor. You might think a smaller and lighter turbocharged V8 motor would be the order of the day, Bentley facing the weight and frugality pressures of the auto industry like just about everybody else, but then what would you do if a Rolls Royce Dawn pulls up beside you at a stop light?
The W12 is the same mill that you’ll find in the Bentayga SUV, good for 626 horsepower and 664 pound-feet of torque. Those hefty figures are enough to catapult the GT Convertible from 0 to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds, courtesy of an 8-speed dual-clutch automatic with a dual-mass flywheel. Keep pushing on the gas pedal, and the car will deliver a strong and consistent wave of power and torque on to a top speed of 207 mph.
The 6.0-liter W12 engine is not new. It debuted in the Volkswagen Phaeton back in 2002, but over the years Bentley has modernized it, updating the internals and tuning the motor. Now it packs cylinder deactivation, spinning only six cylinders to save fuel when driving permits that. Even though fuel savings may not be your top priority when purchasing a new Bentley GT Convertible, it does help in reducing carbon emissions, too.
The 2023 Continental GT Convertible also comes with a new, electronically-controlled all-wheel-drive system with variable torque distribution. Where the old car had a fixed 40/60 split between the front and rear, this new system can distribute torque in greater variation between the front and rear axles for better handling.
Even the suspension in the GT Convertible is not spared from high-tech updates. As in the coupe, it comes with air springs and adaptive dampers to deliver the distinctive Bentley ride. The suspension also benefits from a 48-volt active anti-roll system, which utilizes actuators in the stabilizer bars to combat body lean during hard cornering. Don’t get me wrong. The Continental GT is not an agile sports car that flings effortlessly into corners; that’s really not the idea. However, all this stabilizing cleverness does an excellent job of removing any of the nervous feelings in the old car when you’re pushing harder.
Of course, you don’t drive the Bentley Continental GT Convertible as if your life depends on it. The interior alone encourages you to relax and enjoy the finer things in life, regardless of whether you’re a passenger or the lucky one behind the wheel. As expected from such an exquisite motor car, the interior is elegantly festooned in the finest wood, metal, and cowhide. It not only looks expensive, every single touch point feels like it as well.
Our test model was lathered with genuine wood veneer throughout the cabin, and Bentley’s options for customization are vast. Honestly, it didn’t feel like I was inside a car, but more like a million-dollar yacht. Not only do you have a choice of walnut, eucalyptus, American red gum, or genuine Hawaiian Koa wood, but there’s also a dual veneer design with luxurious chrome stripping.
It’s even more jaw-dropping when you consider that human hands, not machines, are responsible. Bentley says the new car has approximately 310,000 individual stitches in the leather interior, along with 10 square meters of the finest wood. The craftsmanship is expected, maybe, but the attention to detail is bewildering. The front seats come with integrated neck warmers so you can waft with the top down in chilly weather; they’re both faster to heat up and more effective in creating a cosy virtual scarf around your shoulders.
The crowning glory of the interior, though, is the unique rotating center display. Clearly inspired by James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5, the center console Rolodex can display a 12.3-inch touchscreen for audio and navigation, a trio of analog dials with chrome bezels (of course!), or a clean veneer panel. It’s the first time such a feature has made its way into a modern car, and from the look of it, this is more than just a novelty. Perhaps all new cars should be fitted with a rotating center display: it’s not only luxurious and high-tech, but it enhances functionality without eating up too much space.
Thankfully, Bentley resisted the urge to give the Continental GT Convertible a folding hardtop roof, which would have added more weight and complexity. Instead, there’s a fabric soft top with a new sealing system that reduces wind noise by three decibels, while still maintaining the classic profile of the coupe. The roof can raise or lower itself in only 19 seconds and will allow you to do so up to speeds of 30 mph. The fabric top can also be configured in traditional British tweed, befitting for a vehicle with such an illustrious history.
Behind the wheel, the Bentley Continental GT Convertible is clearly a world apart from your usual, everyday car. What stands out is just how clear in its focus the automaker has been, as it crafts a vision of the perfect grand tourer. It’s may not be designed to run with exotic sports cars and supercars, but no other car this side of a Rolls Royce can make you feel as special.
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