On the Road Review: Winter Rallye 2015

Yes, the calendar says spring. Yet very recently, members of the New England Motor Press Association finally got to take part in our annual Winter Rallye review of the latest AWD/4WD offerings from the auto industry. From the cars made available, it is very clear that all-wheel-drive vehicles are becoming more prevalent in the marketplace. Some highlights follow.

On a cold, dreary, rainy March Saturday, first up for me was the new BMW X4, starting at $48,000 with X-drive AWD. A close descendent of the popular X3 compact crossover, the X4 looks closer to the 3-series sedan’s Gran Touring model, with its fast sloping rear deck and hatchback body. This compromises overall cargo carrying, yet the car is sleek looking and sportier than either a 3-series wagon or the X3. Available with either the 2.0-liter turbo-four, 240 hp, or, as sampled, with the sweet 3.0-liter turbo-six, 335 hp, the X4 is a charming driver with an obvious slant to the more structured road responses created by a firmer chassis. An eight-speed dual-clutch automatic is the only transmission, while EPA mileage estimates are 19/27 mpg. As shown, with the usual plethora of BMW high-priced options, our bright red sample listed for over $61,000.

Next up was a pre-production version of the latest Nissan Murano crossover. Wearing more attractive styling, with many subtle details, the Murano retains its 3.5-liter V-6 engine and CVT transmission — both refined — while embracing an entirely redesigned interior. The whitewashed wood accents flowing through the cabin are an acquired taste, yet revised controls and more features content are meant to help the Murano return to the sales levels it held when introduced in 2003. Fuel economy is supposed to be improved, too, but it seems odd that Nissan did not decide to bestow a different, more innovative powertrain in this model as the brand seeks to expand U.S. sales. Pricing has not yet (as of this writing) been revealed, but should start around $30K. With a new Ford Edge also coming, plus a revised Kia Sorento, the Murano has more midsize SUV competition than it did 12-years ago.

Mercedes is making a big small-market push with its latest CLA/GLA compact offerings. The CLA is the entry level (affordable) small car aimed at the BMW 2/3-series as well as the Audi A3. The GLA is the crossover variant looking at the same customers. We had two to sample; the base GLA-250 five-door, 2.0-liter four with 208 hp, plus the high performance GLA45 with a 355-hp version of the same engine. 4Matic four-wheel drive is available with both, but the sampled GLA45 features a growling, snorting AMG-designed powertrain that seems tuned within an inch of its life. Think Subaru WRX/STI and you’ll have at least a mental image of what the GLA45’s mission is. Automatic stop/start Eco mode is included along with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic — the apparent transmission of choice for the Germans now. The car is fleeting, no doubt, yet the interior is very intimate, the ride is a little choppy over broken Massachusetts pavement, and the back seat is suitable for kids. At $60,705, the GLA45 is also a very premium small crossover.

Comparing these cars back-to-back, on the same winter-stricken streets, at the same relative speeds, gives a driver more perspective that traveling from dealer to dealer and driving over pristine spring/summer roads.

From these rides, it remains obvious that the German automakers produce a firmer driving dynamic than do the Asian automakers. The German cars — and crossovers — have tauter feel; the steering, the brakes, and the chassis responses are tighter, quicker. In addition, the German engines and transmissions are geared for sportier driving too.

This is not to say that the Asian premium automakers don’t know what they are doing, as they certainly do, and their sales suggest that they are reaching the customers that appreciate their respective attributes.

Yet, from a real driver’s outlook, the European/German engineered cars are more rewarding to drive — with or without AWD.

This impression is further cemented by the cars that no one sought out to drive on a day when the lot was jammed with various auto companies’ hardware. The Chrysler 200, the Lexus IS350 and the Volvo S60 sat all day, with no one giving them a second look. Same for the Subaru Impreza and the Honda CR-V; cars we like and buyers buy, but hey, when given the choice between a Jaguar and a Porsche and a CR-V, what would you choose to drive?

Up next was the new BMW 228i with X-drive. This is BMW’s latest compact car offering, the coupe/convertible series that replaces the 1-series in the States. Slightly smaller than a 3-series or the 4-series, the 2-series still uses the same engines; 2.0-turbo four with 240-hp and a 3.0-liter in-line six with 320 hp. New for 2015 is the addition of X-drive all-wheel drive. At $33,900, the 228i is an appealing small coupe. The 2.0-liter turbo engine delivers plenty of forward thrust, yet achieves an EPA estimate of 23/35 mpg via the standard eight-speed automatic transmission — and that’s with the X-drive hardware. The multi-adjustable manual seat is excellent; the car’s styling is attractive, while the compact dimensions give the car a decidedly personal feel. Be careful at the BMW options buffet; simple, expected features pad the list price quickly and can turn this ‘affordable’ sports car into an overpriced rocket.

A Jaguar has not made the trip north in a long time, so I slipped behind the wheel of the elegant looking Italian Racing Red XF sedan in the corner of the lot. Packing a 3.0-liter Supercharged V-6 with 340-hp and Instinctive AWD, the XF oozes luxury in its leather interior. Slide into the plush sport seat and finger the push-button ignition to life; the rotary shift knob rises from the console, while the doors of the dash vents power open too. All very pretentious but very cool. Pricing starts at $60,000 — an all too familiar number today — yet no one will quibble over the Jaguar’s power, styling and drivability.

The Audi S4 has long been a favorite here. Packing a smooth, powerful 333-hp supercharged 3.0-liter V-6 engine, and equipped with Quattro AWD, the Audi reigns supreme in its premium sedan class. The steering feel, the balanced chassis and the grip of this car surpasses all rivals — even the vaunted BMWs. The Audi is nimble, quick, and transmits more information to the driver while producing precise responses when you apply the pedals. The interior is still a notch above, the flat-rimmed sport wheel remains fetching, and the ergonomics are sound. At $50,000 to start, the sportier S4 has become more expensive (the base A4 starts at under $36,000), however the best of anything is rarely inexpensive anymore. The S4 distinguished itself on this day as the AWD premium sedan that mere mortals can afford — and enjoy.

A Winter Rallye would not be complete however without a romp in the latest package from Porsche. Having been quite fortunate through the years to sample several stupendous Porsche 911’s, and avoid official detection while savoring these delicious cars, I was immediately attracted to the raspy exhaust note of a 911-flat six engine upon the car’s arrival. The Silver Targa, with the removable roof panel, marks the return of one of Porsche’s most iconic models. Equipped with the familiar 400-hp 3.8-liter boxer engine from other 911-models, the Targa is also teamed with a dual-clutch automatic with paddle shifters and AWD. According to the Gospel of Porsche, this is how an all-wheel-drive system should be utilized — and enjoyed.

Even in the driving rain, the Porsche acquitted itself handsomely, handling the elements, the broken tarmac and my iron-fisted attempts at exacting more pleasure from a seductress that only wants to please. Hold your chest; base price is $116,000. Featuring several precious Porsche options, as only Porsche can price them, and swathed in luscious red leather — virtually every interior surface — for an additional $5,200, the Targa listed for a heart-stopping $150,815. Thank God the performance makes you forget all about the price.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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