• Obama meets Honda’s ASIMO, receives soccer pass

    April 27, 2014

    Though President Barack Obama usually rides around in an armored Cadillac, during a recent state visit to Japan he had an encounter with a Honda. Specifically, the POTUS met ASIMO at Tokyo’s museum of science.

    The Honda ASIMO, which stands for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility, is a bipedal robot with an array of functions that mimic human movement. The meeting took place as the Commander-in-Chief stopped by Japan’s National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation.

    During the man-machine mini-summit, Honda demonstrated some of ASIMO’s key functions, including walking, running (defined as both feet leaving the ground simultaneously), and hopping on one foot. As part of the demonstration ASIMO kicked a ball to Obama, who skillfully stopped it with his foot, surely to go down in history as the world’s first President-automaton soccer pass.

    Obama described the robot as “a little scary,” “too lifelike,” and “amazing.”

    Introduced in 2000, Honda developed ASIMO to promote human-machine interaction. Potential uses for the robot include helping the handicapped or elderly with basic tasks. ASIMO can also communicate in American and Japanese sign language.

    Honda has been working on robotics since the 1980s. Most Japanese automakers, including Toyota, Nissan and Mitsubishi, have similar programs in place. Watch the video of the presidential soccer block below.

  • Toyota offers four variations of updated Vitz (Yaris)

    April 27, 2014

    As part of the launch for the updated Japanese-market Vitz, sold in North America and Europe as the Yaris, Toyota has released a slew of modified versions available in dealers throughout Japan.

    Issued under its Modellista brand of dealer-sold, factory-warrantied equipment, the Vitz Modellista (shown in yellow) adds a more aggressive nose with large grille similar to the European version that expands visually into a two-tone front spoiler. Driving lights that double as daytime running lights flank the opening. A new rear fascia is more squared off than the original, integrates reflectors on either side, and was designed to be used with the sport center exit muffler that also comes as part of the package. 17-inch Weds 10-spoke alloys provide are optional.

    The Vitz Modellista Cross Style (red) dresses up the hatch like a Subaru XV, complete with matte black and polished edge alloys and wheel arch guards that give it an off-road capable look. A two-tone matte silver and black front spoiler and matte silver rear molding add to a faux-ruggedness look. The Vitz Modellista Street Style (white) offers sportier front and rear lips, a sport muffler and 20mm lowering springs.

    Most interestingly, however, is the Vitz RS Racing, a stripped down version that expects to be modified. With a helical LSD, beefed up suspension bushings and motor mounts, standard 15-inch steelies and a roll-cage, it’s meant for track use in one of Japan’s many compact club racing leagues. A 5-speed manual is the only transmission available.

    Though none of these versions are expected to be offered in the US, the Vitz’s new look will likely show up as an updated Yaris in the near future.

  • Next VW Beetle to spawn retro-styled sub-lineup?

    April 27, 2014
    A report coming out of Germany finds the next Volkswagen Beetle will spawn a small sub-lineup of retro-styled cars. Volkswagen will be able to grow the Beetle lineup while keeping cost in check because the third front-engined Beetle will ride on the automaker’s modular MQB platform.

    One of the proposed models is a tall crossover that will be to the Beetle what the Audi TT offroad concept is to the third-gen TT. Similar in spirit to the Beetle Dune concept that bowed in Detroit, the crossover will feature a noticeable amount of Beetle-sourced design cues but it will look considerably more rugged than a stock Beetle hatchback and feature four doors. A raised ground clearance will help the Beetle crossover get over rough terrain with ease.

    Volkswagen insiders told German magazine Auto Bild that the Beetle family will also include a small, family-friendly people-mover whose design will be inspired by the Bulli concept that paid homage to the original Volkswagen Bus. The yet-unnamed van will be taller and slightly longer than a Beetle, and it will feature a spacious interior with room for up to five passengers.

    Finally, Volkswagen will launch a sporty version of the Beetle similar to the slow-selling MINI Coupe. Interestingly billed as a heir to the Karmann-Ghia, the car will pack up to 300 horsepower from a turbocharged four-cylinder engine that will spin all four wheels.

    The next Beetle is not expected to launch until 2019 at the very earliest, giving Volkswagen execsplenty of time to decide whether or not the Beetle should turn into a full-fledged lineup.

  • MINI apprentices build Paceman-based pickup

    April 27, 2014
    Young apprentices working at BMW’s Munich and Dingolfing factories have teamed up with their instructors to create a two-seater pickup based on the Paceman crossover.

    Called Paceman Adventure, the pickup is mostly identical to the regular Paceman from the tip of the front bumper to the B-pillar. Beyond that, the crossover’s steeply sloping roof has been chopped off and the passenger compartment has been replaced by a small bed protected by metal plates painted black. Cargo is loaded into the back of the Paceman via a functional tail gate.

    The apprentices tossed out the Paceman’s space-saver spare tire and replaced it with a more off-road-friendly full-sized unit mounted on the truck’s roof rack. The Paceman’s capacity to leave the beaten path has also been increased by a snorkel that climbs up the A-pillar on the driver’s side.

    The pickup truck is finished in Jungle Green Metallic paint job, a color that will be added to the Paceman lineup for the 2015 model year.

  • Review: 2014 BMW M235i

    April 27, 2014
    BMW’s redesigned entry-level coupe may wear a new 2-Series badge, but its mission in life hasn’t changed: to recapture the magic of the classic 2002 that essentially put the Bayerische Motoren Werke on the map in the United States.

    Formerly known as the 1-Series, this model was introduced to fill the void at the bottom of the BMW lineup after the follow-up to the 2002, the 3-Series, gradually grew from its compact roots to become almost a midsizer.

    The 2-Series range is anchored by the 228i, but it was the performance-minded M235i that really captured our attention. Can it deliver the experience of a modern-day 2002 Turbo? Join us as we find out.

    What is it?

    A two-door, four-passenger coupe, the M235i falls under the M Performance banner and is powered by a 3.0-liter TwinPower turbocharged inline six-cylinder engine that produces 320 horsepower between 5,800 and 6,000 rpm, and 330 lb-ft of torque at a barely-breathing 1,300-4,500 rpm. As such, BMW says it’s the most powerful vehicle in the M Performance subset, which is not to be confused with the pure M-cars like the M3 or M4.

    The engine sends power to the rear wheels through an eight-speed sport automatic transmission with steering wheel-mounted paddle shift levers. For those inclined to row it themselves, a six-speed manual transmission is offered as a no-charge option. Launch control software allows for a 0-60 time in 4.8-seconds, while the car is electronically limited to a 155-mph top speed.

    Our 2-Series tester rides on the adaptive M suspension and its electronically controlled shocks. On-the-fly adjustments are capable with this set up, which is standard on the M235i but an added-cost option on the 2.0-liter, 240-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder 228i model. Additionally, Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) and Dynamic Traction Control (DTC) are part of the standard M-performance kit, while a mechanical limited-slip differential can be had as an option.

    M-Sport braking and variable sport steering are also standard to assist with stopping and steering respectively, while a sport-tuned exhaust system keeps the natural audio track humming.

    The M235 is also equipped with standard BMW Assist eCall and its enhanced automatic collision notification and BMW Teleservice for 10 years. Additional functionality is available through BMW ConnectedDrive.

    What’s it up against?

    The M235i is pitted against the performance versions of the new entry-luxury models coming from BMW’s German rivals, including the Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG and Audi S3. Yes, we already know they both have four-doors, but they all compete on a similar playing field.

    How does it look?

    Truthfully? It looks like last year’s 1-Series model that it replaces. Featuring a similar long nose and short rear deck design, it would appear as business as usual unless these two were side by side. With that comparison, it becomes evident that the M235i is longer (2.8-inches), wider (1.3-inches), and with a wheelbase that now extends 1.3-inches more than its predecessor.

    The stylized kidney bean-shaped grill remains, but this time around it’s complimented by new cat-like headlamp assemblies and signature daylight LEDs that ring the traditional headlight lenses. Our tester did not include foglamps, as the aggressive look of the M235i under-bumper intake area makes use of that space as a scoop for the BMW efficient dynamics’ Air Curtains, which help to trim airflow around the front wheel wells.

    A swage line appears just forward of the A-pillar and carries rearward to the taillamps. A clever design element, its crease breaks up the expanse of sheetmetal and adds strength to the side panels as well. Black trim around the greenhouse makes the area look larger than it actually is, while bling is confined to the headlight surrounds and chrome trim pieces around the grill. A sharkfin antenna and rear decklid spoiler help to round out the list of pieces that make up this smallest BMW.

    We were jazzed to see that BMW is joining more manufacturers in the use of gunmetal finishes, as seen in the case of our 18-inch Michelin Pilot-shod alloy wheels. Brake dust? What brake dust? Exactly.

    And on the inside?

    The Ultimate Driving Machine just wouldn’t exist if the seating accommodations for driver and passengers weren’t up to snuff, and in this case our M235i didn’t disappoint. Well, for the most part, anyway. Our test model was equipped with the black Dakota leather seating package ($1,450) with adjustable sport seats and a cold-weather accessory group ($550) that included a heated steering wheel and seats as well as retractable headlight washers.

    While the cold weather group did nothing to improve our lot in Florida, the front seats offered good bolstering and support to keep us in place during an extended jaunt across the state. The rear seat is another matter though, with head- and shoulder room both at a premium.

    Our M235i was equipped with the basic connectivity package, which cheaped-out by dispensing with SiriusXM in favor of the (whatsitgoodfor)? HD radio that seems to be floundering in the marketplace. BMW would do well to follow in the footsteps of Hyundai and Kia by including satellite radio as standard. iDrive infotainment makes another appearance here – we’ve found that once you learn the infotainment system’s operation, it becomes second nature. It is paired with a rather basic 6.5-inch display screen. We say spend the extra coin for the available navigation system with its larger screen and touch controller.

    But does it go?

    The concept behind the M235i, and the 1-Series before it, is to get closer to the sporty heritage of the brand that brought it popularity in the first place. With lithe handling and nearly brute power from the 3.0-liter TwinPower turbo, this dynamo displayed a great deal of playfulness that encouraged us to approach the limits of sensibility more than once. We managed to duplicate the acceleration exercise using the on-board launch control to match the claimed 4.8 second clip to 60 mph.

    Sure, it’s fun to go fast, but we were more excited by the ease with which this 2′ managed to flow through the turns and twisties on certain rarely-traveled backroads. Firm, but not to the point of breaking loose your dental fillings, the M235i kept true to steering inputs without a trace of body roll. The chassis dynamic setup guys in Munich are certainly doing something right, based on the feedback we received from the M235i’s suspension while quickly whipping around on South Florida roads.

    The standard Drive Dynamics Control (DDC) system, which adjusts the dampers, steering effort, shift logic and throttle calibration, includes settings for Comfort, Sport, Sport+ and ECO Pro mode. Comfort might be just the ticket for around town excursions during stop and go traffic, while we preferred the Sport and Sport+ modes, which do their part to get the adrenaline flowing in a positive fashion. The ECO Pro system with its auto stop/start engine mode became rather tedious as it tends to operate in a rougher fashion than similar systems found in other manufacturer’s vehicles.

    The EPA says that this 3535-pounder should be able to get 22/32 city/highway mpg with 25 combined mpg. We didn’t even bother to look. We were having too much fun.

    Leftlane’s bottom line:

    The new M235i brought back memories of our first BMW experience. Eager to please in nearly every aspect, this coupe reminded us why we were originally so enamored with the brand.

    With its power, handling and refinement, we never wanted to leave the M235i’s driver seat. And if the pricing was too rich for our blood, we would be happy with the 228i instead.

    2014 BMW M235i base price, $43,100. As tested, $46,575.

    Melbourne Red Metallic paint, $550; Dakota Leather Package, $1,450; Cold Weather Package, $550; Destination, $925.

    Photos by Mark Elias.

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