While Mitsubishi and Subaru have done admirable jobs of leveraging their World Rally Car (WRC) efforts into products Americans can actually buy, the company that's shown the greatest long-term commitment to the racing series has been Ford. For 2006, they're back with yet another version of the Focus, aimed at claiming WRC supremacy and at least another four-year commitment to the series.
Ford put its new Focus RS WRC '06 on display at Italy's Bologna Motor Show last December and, of course, it's based on the latest version of Ford's most popular car worldwide. It's supposedly a derivative of the Focus ST, though the basic elements of the car have been so fundamentally twisted by Britain's M-Sport and chief engineer Christian Laoriaux that it could have been based on a loaf of Wonder Bread and still looked pretty much the same.
With the extensive use of exotic materials like titanium now banned, saving weight was a critical challenge in designing the new car. But the basic elements of a modern rally machine are in place. That includes a 2.0-liter, DOHC, 16-valve turbocharged four making around 300-horsepower while inhaling through the FIA mandated 34-millimeter inlet restrictor; full-time four-wheel drive with an active center differential; a Ricardo five-speed sequential gearbox; and really big Brembo brakes. Nothing you wouldn't expect from a serious rally competitor at the sport's highest level.
The team tested the car in competition at the Rally Australia in November and took two special stages and finished sixth overall. Not a bad shakedown run, and they got some great shots of the car in flight.
What's frustrating from an American perspective is that not only do we not get anything approaching the mechanical tastiness of the rally machine in the United States, we don't even get the second-generation Focus upon which the car is based. So the rest of the world can at least drive a Focus that looks like the ones Marcus Grnholm and Mikko Hirvonen get. What's up with that?
Meanwhile, despite the fact that it actually sells the all-wheel drive, turbocharged Lancer Evolution to us civilians, Team Mitsubishi Ralliart has pulled out of WRC competition. Mitsubishi's financial troubles are very public, so this can't be too much of a surprise. But general unhappiness with how FIA runs the series also led Citroen, Peugeot and Skoda to dump their factory efforts. That leaves Ford competing against just one other factory team during 2006: Subaru.
Ford and Subaru began fighting it out during the Rally of Monte Carlo in January. It should be a good, dirty battle.
Scirocco Redux?Back when VW introduced the first front-drive Golf in 1974, it introduced the Golf-based Scirocco sport coupe alongside it. More than 30 years later, there's still a hardcore cult of Scirocco-holics who haven't been able to buy a new version of the car since 1988. That cult is about to see the resurrection for which they've so long prayed.
Rumors abound that the Scirocco name is about to be revived on a new coupe based on the Jetta chassis. Styled to resemble the Concept R show car, the new Scirocco has been rumored to be both front and rear drive at different times. The most believable scenario has it emerging during 2007 in a base front-drive version with four-cylinder power and derivatives ranging up to V6-powered models with all-wheel drive. Whatever, it will give VW a car in a segment they practically invented - and abandoned - with the first two generations of Scirocco.
Or VW may call the new coupe "Rivo" and screw over all those Scirocco guys.
This computer illustration is rather speculative, but based on good intelligence. Details may vary.
GTI Translated Into AmericanDang near a year after it went on sale in Europe, the U.S. market version of VW's GTI was finally on display at the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show in January. And fortunately, it's not much different than the euro version. Except, of course, that it's assembled in Mexico.
Power for "our" GTI comes from VW's familiar 2.0-liter turbocharged four, rated at 200 bhp. A 6-speed manual transmission is standard with a 6-speed automatic optional. ABS is standard on all four disc brakes, the suspension is by struts up front and a torsion beam in the back. The 17-inch wheels are inside P225/45R-17 summer-spec tires.
The GTI has been a great car for more than 30 years. When this one goes on sale this spring, we'll know whether that tradition continues.
Audi To Chug Through Le MansAudi has won the 24 Hours of Le Mans so often and so convincingly with its R8 prototype racer, the only challenge they have left is making it more difficult. So in 2006, they'll attack Le Mans with the new R10 prototype equipped with a 5.5-liter, twin-turbocharged V12 powerplant fueled by diesel oil. That's right, Audi has decided to race a diesel.
Making 650 bhp and nearly 1500 pound-feet of peak torque, the R10's powerplant is actually more powerful than the 3.6-liter, twin-turbo, gasoline-fired V8 used in the R8 (which made between 520 and 625 bhp during its career from 2001 to 2005). But the new car drives completely differently, with most of the power concentrated in a narrow band between 3000 and 5000 rpm. And Audi claims the massive torque curve allows the driver to shift far less often during a typical lap of the Le Mans circuit.
The R10 has a longer wheelbase than the R8 and particularly wide front tires to contend with the massive engine's heft and output. But otherwise, the carbon fiber monocoque chassis is relatively conventional racecar stuff. The special gearbox to handle the engine, however, is something completely new.
America will get its first look at the R10 during the 12 Hours of Sebring in March. That's three months before Audi storms Le Mans.
Finally! The Chevy Aveo For Which You've Been Waiting!Chevrolet showed it's all-new 2007 version of the tiny Aveo sedan at the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show and it's a surprisingly tidy and pleasing package. And like the Aveo before it, it's built by Daewoo in Korea and sold worldwide under different names.
No, there's nothing earth-shaking about the Aveo. It's a front-drive sedan powered by a 103-horsepower, DOHC 16-valve four with either a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic transmission. It will go on sale this summer with prices starting at $10K.
What's interesting is how this market segment has suddenly come alive with the Aveo, Toyota's new Yaris, Honda's new Fit, Nissan's new Versa and all those Kias and Hyundais competing for attention and buyers. If you like good, cheap small cars, you're in the golden age.
Thunderhill Succumbs To Civic ActionAfter displaying the race version of the Civic Si at the SEMA show in November, Honda went to California's 25 Hours of Thunderhill and kicked ass with it in December. Really, it was hardly surprising.
In the new Civic Si's first sanctioned motorsports event (there has to have been at least a few, ahem, "unsanctioned" events before that) Honda campaigned two identically prepared near-stock machines and wound up first and second in their class. Driving the winning car was Kim Wolfkill of Road & Track (who, despite his employer, is pretty quick), and Honda employees Lee Niffenegger, Chad Gilsinger and Matthew Staal. The second place car had Tony Swan of Car and Driver, and Honda associates Sage Marie, Rich Hays and John Sherk behind the wheel. The Civics placed fourth and sixth overall in a total field of 58 cars, completing 645 and 641 laps, respectively, over the 25 hours.
The two cars, entered in the E1 class, were prepped by Engineers from Honda R&D Americas in Ohio and were essentially stock except for a custom AEM intake, DC Sports exhaust, H&R springs, and Michelin Pilot Sport Cup competition tires on lightweight Rays wheels. A carbon fiber-front splitter and adjustable rear spoiler constituted the sole aerodynamic modifications. "These results certainly validate the performance credentials of the new Civic Si," said John Mendel, senior vice president of American Honda. "This effort is also an expression of the passion and racing spirit existing within the many Honda associates involved in designing, and building the Civic."
Sema JettaWe skipped over VW's display during last month's SEMA fiesta, so consider this a make up.
The company brought three "R GT" machines with them to the show in Las Vegas, and this is the Jetta R GT (we'll skip over the Touareg, and the Passat is below). Most of the pieces on it come straight from the Genuine Volkswagen Accessories catalog, including the body kit and lowering springs. The car looked good but the drivetrain was untouched 2.0T - turbocharged 2.0-liter.
Rumors & Lies* The city of Burlingame, California is considering a law that would make it illegal to be a spectator at "sideshows" where people gather to spin their cars and act generally goofy with them in otherwise empty parking lots and industrial areas. According to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle the proposed ordinance would target spectators within 200-feet of such an exhibition.
* According to a report by WOAI in San Antonio, Texas, teenager Robert Hernandez loves his 2001 Integra enough to withstand a beating for it. Hernandez had just gotten into his car at a local convenience store when would-be thieves wielding a pipe rushed up to grab it from him. Hernandez was beaten with the pipe but wouldn't give up his ride. They wound up doing about $2,000 damage to the car, including breaking the windshield, and Hernandez was left bruised and swollen. But he kept his car. By his standards, things could be worse. "Somebody else could be taking it apart," he told the TV station, "not me."
* According to reports, VW has established "Project Malibu" which has 23 employees living in or near Malibu, California in order to get a better feel for the lives and markets of America. Hey, a tanned and relaxed VW may be a better VW.
* DaimlerChrysler has sold its 12.4-percent stake in Mitsubishi Motors and resigned its seats on its corporate board. The companies will continue to collaborate on various vehicle projects.
* Audi will build a mid-engine street-going version of its R8 Le Mans racecar starting some time in 2007. The car is based on the Lamborghini Gallardo and is powered by the same V-10 as the Italian exotic. Oh yeah, Audi owns Lamborghini.
Nissan VersaViceAt the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Nissan showed off two new production vehicles: the all-new Sentra and this, the new sub-Sentra sized Versa. And the Versa is pretty obviously a co-production with Renault which sells the spookily similar Clio in Europe.
No surprise, the Versa is a front drive with a 120-horsepower, 1.8-liter four in its nose and a choice of three transmissions - a standard six-speed manual, a four-speed automatic or Nissan's continuously variable automatic. The front suspension is struts, the rear a torsion beam. The four-door hatchback is only 169.1 inches long while the four-door sedan stretches out 175.9 inches, but both ride on the same 102.1-inch wheelbase.
This is a small car, so 120-bhp ought to be enough to keep it entertaining. And at about a $12,000 base price when it goes on sale this summer, it will be cheap.
Bareheaded Civic?Rumors abound that Honda is considering a drop-top version of the new 2006 Civic coupe. The car would be a full four-seater and incorporate a conventional canvas top. No prototypes have been spotted, so count this right now as little more than informed speculation. But here's a computer rendering of how such a machine might look.
If Honda decides to go forward with a convertible Civic, don't expect it before mid-2007 at the earliest.
Sema PassatEverything that goes for the Jetta R GT at SEMA goes for the Passat R GT. Good looking, too.
The most believable scenario has it emerging during 2007 in a base front-drive version with four-cylinder power.