• Volvo to launch wide-scale autonomous vehicle test

    December 2, 2013

    Volvo has announced a new program that will test the real-world viability of autonomous vehicles. Billed as the “world’s first large-scale autonomous driving pilot project”, the test program is scheduled to take place in Volvo’s hometown of Gothenburg, Sweden.

    Dubbed ‘Drive Me – Self-driving cars for sustainable mobility’, the project will feature 100 prototype vehicles driving autonomously around the city of Gothenburg. The real-world tests will be conducted on 50 kilometers of roads around the city that represent typical commuter arteries and areas that are prone to traffic jams.

    “Autonomous vehicles are an integrated part of Volvo Cars’ as well as the Swedish government’s vision of zero traffic fatalities. This public pilot represents an important step towards this goal,” says Hakan Samuelsson, President and CEO of Volvo Car Group. “It will give us an insight into the technological challenges at the same time as we get valuable feedback from real customers driving on public roads.”

    In addition to improving traffic efficiency, Volvo is hopeful that the Drive Me program will also highlight what infrastructure requirements might be necessary for an autonomous vehicle world. The study will also track customers’ confidence in autonomous vehicles and how surrounding motorists react to a self-driving car.

    Volvo, in conjunction with the Swedish Transport Administration, the Swedish Transport Agency, Lindholmen Science Park and the City of Gothenburg, will begin developing its autonomous test vehicles next year, with the rubber set to hit the road in 2017. The test vehicles will ride on Volvo’s latest SPA architecture. The vehicles will be defined as Highly Autonomous Cars by the Federal Highway Research Institute, which means they will be capable of driving completely on their own.

    In addition to self-driving, the test vehicle will also be capable of parking on their own. Volvo previewed its work in the area of self-parking earlier this year.

    Volvo’s next-generation XC90 crossover, which will launch next year, will be able to operate autonomously on a limited basis.

  • First Drive: 2014 Rolls-Royce Wraith

    December 2, 2013

    Like Cadillac in the 1990s, Rolls-Royce is battling an aging customer base.

    The Rolls-Royce Phantom brought the BMW-owned company back from the brink in 2003, but did so on the back of 50 and 60-year-old buyers. The smaller and more obtainable Ghost, which launched in late 2009, managed to trim a few years from Rolls’ average buyer age, but the world’s youngest millionaires and billionaires were still flocking to Bentley showrooms for the sexier Continental GT.

    Enter the Rolls-Royce Wraith.

    Riding on a modified Ghost platform, Wraith offers typical Rolls-Royce levels of luxury but in a much more stylish package. But is that enough to woo the world’s youngest jet-setters from their Bentleys? Come with us as we find out.

    New direction
    Rolls-Royce designers aren’t known for stepping outside of their three-box comfort zone, but that’s exactly where you’ll find Wraith. Although classic Rolls-Royce up front, the Wraith’s bodywork quickly tapers into a slinky silhouette that is more fast-back than traditional coupe.

    Wraith’s styling isn’t quite as graceful as the Bentley Continental GT‘s, but it has an undeniable presence. Adding to its visual drama, the Wraith stretches more than 17 feet in length and features Rolls’ signature power-operated coach doors. Wraith’s optional two-tone paint job is also quite striking.

    Step inside and you’ll be greeted by acres of only the finest leather and genuine wood. No two Wraiths are exactly the same, but each encompasses a sense of craftsmanship that is unrivaled in the automotive arena. Every Wraith is truly hand made by artisans; the Rolls-Royce factory doesn’t even have a motorized conveyor belt to move the car along during the production process.

    Although targeting a fresh demographic, the Wraith hasn’t lost Rolls-Royce’s old world charm. Wraith’s instrument cluster employs gauges that could pass for high-end watch faces, including a power reserve meter in place of a typical tachometer. Every switch and knob has a feel of weight and quality, with most finished in chrome. Rolls-Royce has even gone to the lengths to form most of the Wraith’s inner door panel out of solid wood.

    But the Wraith isn’t some relic from a bygone era. Thanks to corporate parent BMW, Rolls-Royce has access to some of the most advanced electronics on the market, including a GPS-assisted automatic transmission (more on this later). The Wraith also boasts a throughly modern infotainment system, although in true Rolls-Royce fashion, it can be covered with a slab of wood at the touch of a button.

    The Wraith comes standard with features like adaptive cruise control, collision prevention and lane departure warning, but blind spot monitoring is a glaring omission on the Wraith’s feature list, particularly for a vehicle of this price and size. Strangely, cooled seats are not standard on Wraith; now that they’re optional on a Kia Forte, we feel they should be included here.

    In the driver’s seat
    Many high-end vehicles, including Mercedes-Benz’ latest S-Class, are now using some form of autonomous driving, but the Wraith still leaves the driving to the carbon-based life form behind the wheel. This isn’t a matter of being stubborn, but listening to its clientele; Rolls-Royce says that its loyal buyers have overwhelmingly vetoed the idea of a self-driving car. And after spending a few hours behind the wheel of the Wraith, we can see why Rolls’ buyers insist on taking the wheel for themselves.

    Make no bones about it – Wraith is not a sporty car, despite what its rakish appearance might suggest. In fact, Rolls-Royce only uttered the word “sporty” when describing Wraith’s thicker steering wheel.

    What the Wraith is, however, is an extremely comfortable cruiser that soaks up the miles. The coupe’s suspension is optimized to smooth out any road imperfections and all of that leather and wood adds up to a vault-quiet interior. All sense of speed is lost in that silence, with 80 mph feeling more like 55.

    Wraith is truly a pleasure to drive, wafting you down the road in a cocoon of comfort and luxury like nothing else on the road.

    Rolls-Royce is famous for making drivetrains that are powerful yet don’t feel frenetic, and that tradition continues in the Wraith. With a 624 horsepower twin-turbocharged V12 under-hood, Wraith is the most powerful road-going Rolls-Royce ever built, but it delivers with restraint. No head-snapping acceleration here, just a wave of power that pushes you firmly into those supple leather thrones.

    On our test loop just outside of Phoenix, Arizona, we found Wraith’s GPS-aided eight-speed transmission to be smooth and seamless. By using information from its on-board navigation system, Wraith can select the optimal gear for the road ahead. Say, for instance, a hill is upcoming: Wraith can downshift to the correct gear to keep the engine in its power band. From behind the wheel the shifting in imperceptible, but promises instant power by eliminating “gear hunting”.

    On a side note, Rolls-Royce says the technology – which was developed by a couple of F1 engineers in their spare time – doesn’t require any extra hardware, so it’s possible we could see GPS transmissions trickle down to lesser vehicles in the coming years, with the BMW brand obviously being the first in line. In addition to the technology’s performance benefits, Rolls says the system also improves fuel economy.

    A step up
    The Conti GT and Wraith check many of the same boxes, but there is one major factor that set them apart – price.

    With a starting price around $290,000, the Wraith is more than $100,000 more expensive than the Bentley. That’s a pretty vast chasm for two vehicle that compete in the same general space, but a calculated move on Rolls-Royce’s part.

    Just like Lexus is positioned above Toyota, Rolls-Royce views the Wraith as a step up from the Continental GT. And rightfully so – while the Continental GT is certainly a luxurious vehicle, the Wraith trumps it in terms of all-out opulence.

    That classier image should also play a role in the Wraith’s sales. After all, who among the super wealthy would want to be stuck at a red light in their lowly Continental GT alongside the more prestigious Wraith?

    Leftlane’s bottom line
    Combining chiseled good looks with Rolls-Royce levels of luxury, Wraith is sure to be a winner. Although not a driver’s car like a Bentley, piloting the Wraith is rewarding in its own right.

    Chances are slim that we’ll even have the necessary bankroll to purchase a Wraith, but if we ever win the lottery, we’ll certainly consider the Roller over the now ubiquitous Continental GT.

    2014 Rolls-Royce Wraith base price, $289,000.

    Photos by Drew Johnson.

  • Ram confirms Fiat-based ProMaster City for 2015

    December 2, 2013

    Chrysler’s Ram truck division has confirmed plans to offer a smaller commercial van in the North American market. Set to slot beneath the larger ProMaster, Ram’s compact van offering will be branded as the ProMaster City

    “The Ram ProMaster City further expands the Ram Commercial truck lineup, which includes everything from vans to pickups to Class Four and Five trucks,” said Reid Bigland, President and CEO of the Ram division. “As Ram Commercial continues to gain share and grow sales in the market, we will be aggressive in our goal of expanding our commercial vehicle offerings.”

    The Ram ProMaster City will be based on the Fiat Doblo, which won International Van of the Year accolades in 2006 and 2011. More than 1.3 million units of the Doblo have been sold worldwide since its introduction in 2000.

    Ram didn’t release any other details or pictures of the ProMaster City, but promises the compact van will sport “Ram Truck styling cues and offer features and powertrains preferred by North American commercial customers.” The Doblo is offered in global markets with diesel powertrains, but Ram’s statement indicates the ProMaster City will be a gas-only offering on these shores.

    Ram also failed to mention a release date, but the PorMaster City will be tagged as a 2015 model.

    The Ram ProMaster City will compete against the Ford Transit Connect.

  • Saab restarts 9-3 production

    December 2, 2013

    Two and a half years after shuttering its factory in Trollhattan, Sweden, Saab has resumed series production of the 9-3 sedan under new owner National Electric Vehicle Sweden (NEVS).

    The first post-bankruptcy Saab model is motivated by a 220-horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder that pairs with the buyer’s choice of manual or automatic transmissions.

    Initial output is expected to total about 10 cars per week, with the majority of new 9-3s headed to the Chinese market. A small number of vehicles will also be offered to Swedish customers through NEVS’ website. Pricing will start at 279,000 kronor ($42,500).

    Over time, NEVS hopes to expand 9-3 availability to other markets, but no plans have been outlined for sales in the United States.

    “It is truly a complex mission to start a car production process which has been still for two and a half years,” said NEVS president Mattias Bergman. “It is very pleasing that we have embarked on a journey where we want to and will make a difference with our partners and customers.”

    NEVS, which purchased Saab out of bankruptcy in December 2011, intends to launch an electric variant of the 9-3 in China next spring. The company has said in the past that it is also working to develop new models based on the Phoenix architecture that Saab created prior to its financial difficulties.

  • Toyota to offer BMW diesel in Verso compact

    December 2, 2013

    The Euro-spec Verso 1.6 D-4D compact MPV will be the first-ever Toyota vehicle to use a BMW-sourced powerplant, the Japanese automaker has announced. The engine sharing deal is part of a wider-reaching corporate tie-up between Toyota and BMW.

    The Verso 1.6 D-4D will use a 1.6L diesel engine supplied by BMW. The oil burner is rated at 111 horsepower and 199 lb-ft of torque.

    Although Toyota will lean on BMW for the Verso’s 1.6L diesel engine, the mill will be hooked to a Toyota gearbox. Toyota will also use its own electronics.

    The Verso 1.6 D-4D will be the lone BMW-powered model in the range. The Verso 2.0 D-4D, 1.6 Valvematic and 1.8 Valvematic will use Toyota’s own engine technology.

    “At Toyota, we believe that tackling environmental challenges facing our industry will require more than one approach. Hybrid is at the core of our strategy towards sustainable mobility, but we also see a role for clean diesel in Europe,” Didier Leroy, CEO of Toyota Motor Europe, said. “Working together with an industry leader like the BMW Group allows us to benefit from economies of scale to reduce development costs as well as improve our time-to-market.”

    Production of the BMW-powered Verso is set to commence in January.

    Toyota and BMW are currently working together on several other projects, including the development of a new sports car platform and a production-viable fuel cell system.