• Rolls-Royce reveals ‘Project Cullinan’ all-terrain prototype

    April 8, 2015
    Rolls-Royce has revealed a prototype platform, known as Project Cullinan, that serves as a testbed for the company’s upcoming ultra-luxury SUV.
    The engineering mule is based on a shortened Phantom Series II body, hinting at the size of a future model, however the production vehicle promises to introduce an entirely different styling.

    The British automaker has avoided calling the vehicle an SUV, instead labeling it a “high-sided, all-terrain motor car.”

    Project Cullinan is currently focused on development of an all-wheel-drive system and new suspension technology, which faces the unique challenge of maintaining Rolls-Royce’s plush “magic-carpet” ride both on and off paved roads. Engineers will first assess the high-riding vehicle’s stability and suspension throw in on-road trials, including challenging surfaces such as cobblestones and Belgian block, before moving to off-road development.

    “Project Cullinan engineering mules will spend equal amounts of time testing on-road and off-road to ensure that the customer will experience the same unrivalled ride quality on loose surfaces and challenging terrain as they do on the road today,” the company notes.

    Rejecting rumors of a BMW-sourced platform, the company recently outlined plans to build the new SUV on its own aluminum spaceframe with an aluminum body. The engine choice remains a mystery, with speculation split between a traditional V12 or a downsized twin-turbocharged V8.

    The as-yet-unnamed SUV is expected to arrive on the market in 2018 or later.

  • Tanner Foust shows 900-hp VW Passat drift machine

    April 8, 2015
    Tanner Foust has revealed his latest Formula Drift machine, based on the Volkswagen Passat.
    The stripped-down sedan does not have much in common with its road-going counterpart, as a 450-cubic-inch V8 engine has been installed in place of VW’s 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder mill or 3.6-liter VR6 powerplant.

    The larger engine is claimed to produce 700 horsepower before the nitrous-oxide kicks in another 200 ponies, providing plenty of power to burn the Nitto NT05 sticky rubber via a beefy four-speed G-Force GSR transmission.

    The tuners haven’t gone too crazy with the exterior, adding an APR Performance wing and wide five-spoke KMC wheels. Yellow and black Rockstar Energy Drink graphics complete the look.

    Foust last year teamed with Porsche tuners RAUH-Welt Begriff to create an extensively customized VW Beetle for SEMA, taking inspiration from RWB’s Porsche builds.

    The Passat will make its debut at the Formula Drift season opener, Streets of Long Beach, on April 10 and 11.

  • Audi confirms RS 3 sedan for US market

    April 8, 2015
    Audi has confirmed plans to launch an RS 3 in the US market.
    The European model is only available as a hatchback, with Audi’s most powerful five-cylinder engine producing 362 horsepower and 343 lb-ft of torque. It can sprint to 62 mph in 4.3 seconds, topping out at 174 mph.

    Speaking to Automotive News, Audi of America chief Scott Keogh has confirmed that the company will build a RS 3 sedan for US customers, rather than importing the Euro-spec Sportback.

    The sedan will be a “great positioning car, a great halo car,” Keogh boasts. “I’m very confident we’ll see that car in the market.”

    The executive did not divulge further details of the US-bound RS 3. It is unclear if the adaptation will be offered with an optional six-speed manual gearbox, which is available to European buyers, or sell exclusively with the company’s seven-speed S-tronic transmission.

    At the other end of the spectrum, US buyers will also be treated to the Q8 range-topping SUV, due by 2020. The company considers its upcoming Q1 compact crossover to be too small for American tastes, however.

  • Daimler and Renault-Nissan confirm pickup development

    April 8, 2015
    Confirming recent rumors, Daimler and Renault-Nissan have announced plans to co-develop a pickup truck.
    The trio will be working on a one-ton pickup for the Mercedes-Benz brand, sharing architecture with the new Nissan NP300, sold as the Frontier in the US market. It will feature a double cab, targeting both personal and commercial buyers.

    Recent unofficial reports pointed to a possible launch in the US market, but the companies claim the luxury pickup will instead be aimed at buyers in Europe, Australia, South Africa and Latin America. It is unclear if a launch in the world’s largest pickup market is being quietly considered.

    “Entering the rapidly growing segment of midsize pickups is an important step in continuing our global growth path,” said Mercedes-Benz Cars head Dr. Dieter Zetsche. “Thanks to our well-established partnership with the Renault-Nissan Alliance, we are able to drastically reduce the time and cost to enter this key segment.”

    The NP300 will also serve as the foundation for a new Renault pickup for Latin America. The three trucks will be built in either Cordoba, Argentina, or at the Nissan plant in Barcelona, Spain.

    The pickup is part of the current five-year strategic alliance between Renault-Nissan and Daimler, suggesting it will arrive on the market within the next few years.

  • First drive: 2015 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 4×4 [Review]

    April 8, 2015
    A million copies sold of anything generally qualify as a resounding success. Take a million record albums, er, discs. A million cars. McDonalds and its billions and billions of hamburgers sold. And so on. Mercedes-Benz finds itself in that enviable position of having sold, over the last twenty years, more than 2.8-million copies of its Sprinter series of vans worldwide. For 2015, they are taking nothing for granted.
    Instead, they went 4×4 and took us to the land of lumberjacks, flannel shirts, moose, deer and the wishful custodian of Lord Stanley’s Cup, British Columbia, Canada. (Wishful in the sense that the Vancouver Canucks have never won the Stanley Cup although the previous Vancouver Millionaires did, 100 years ago.) Hope springs eternal.

    Around the block before getting here
    The Sprinter 4×4 takes a rather circuitous route on its way to American roads. Due to an outdated and bizarre humdinger of a U.S. law known as the Chicken Tax (Google it), Sprinters are totally constructed in their Düsseldorf factory only for the trucks to be relieved of their running gear, which is shipped over to Charleston, South Carolina, for reassembly. And just so they can’t cheat and reassemble them while en route, the drivetrains travel on one ship while the bodies travel on another.

    But not for long. Construction will soon start at the South Carolina plant where Mercedes-Benz will spend $500-million to build a complete factory instead of the reassembly center that now exists. There, 1,300 employees will build the Sprinters from the ground up. Who are you calling chicken now?

    One engine, many varieties
    Although the base engine in the Sprinter, available both as a Mercedes-Benz and Freightliner-badged Diesel vehicle, is the 161 horsepower, 2.1-liter four-cylinder engine, the 4×4 is equipped exclusively with the 188 horsepower, 3.0-liter BlueTEC V6 that produces 325 lb-ft of torque. A derivative of the engine also found in other models throughout the brand, including E, S, GLE and others, it is mated to a five-speed automatic transmission with manual shift control. The addition of the 4×4 system will set you back another $6,500 over the price of a conventional rear-drive Sprinter.

    The Sprinter vans join the bulk of the M-B diesel lineup in using the now familiar Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF) additive system, which for more than ten years, has helped to reduce the nitrogen oxide emissions that result from a non-additive diesel, with the end result being an engine that burns almost as clean as a regular gasoline powerplant.

    Four by four on demand
    Available in 144- and 170-inch wheelbases, both models can be ordered with the Sprinter’s new-for-2015 four-wheel-drive system with its on-demand capabilities. When needed, the driver can engage it by the push of a button just under the van’s ignition switch. Each version of the 4×4 chassis can be configured by one of M-B’s preferred network of “upfitters,” who can modify one of the passenger, crew or cargo vans to haul around everything from the NBA’s finest to hauling the mail or in this case Fed-Ex. They are available in Low and High roofline models, the latter, which is ideal for carrying passengers, as well as cargo.

    Even Mercedes-Benz itself cops to the fact the Sprinter 4×4 is not considered an off-roader, but it’s still mighty capable for use at construction sites, muddy fields and in inclement weather. The system engages when the driver pushes a dashboard-mounted button, which in turn activates a torque ratio of 35:65, from front to rear axles. The Sprinter’s Electronic Traction System (4ETS) is responsible at that point for keeping the four wheels spinning…or not.

    It can also be equipped with an available ($300) low-power range gear for tougher terrain that shortens the gearing by 42-percent, as well as a dually rear wheel configuration.

    The Sprinter 4×4 has received such a massaging that it now rides 4.3-inches higher in front and 3.1-inches higher in the rear. As a result, the Sprinter 4×4 boasts a 20-percent increase in angle of attack over its two-wheel drive counterpart. Overall, the 4×4 comes in at a relatively guilt-free 265-pounds more than the standard model.

    The Sprinter competes in a segment that was once the exclusive domain of the Ford Econoline, Chevrolet Express and the GMC Savana. Now gaining in popularity, the segment includes thoroughly modern vans like the Ford Transit, Nissan NV, Ram Promaster and, of course, the Sprinter.

    Restyled in 2014, the Sprinter received a facelift that left it with a more chevron-like grille. It will also be available as a Freightliner, which is a darling of fleet buyers. It is identical in construction except for its new face.

    Safety assists are all on-board and include Prevention Assist, Blind Spot Assist, Highbeam Assist, Lane Keep Assist and new for 2015, Crosswind Assist, which uses sensors to brake vector its way to stability when it encounters side microbursts of wind. More rocket science than science fiction, we have experienced it. It works.

    Specially-prepared Sprinter van examples are currently running in an off-road race in Morocco. Already available for several years in the European market, the 4×4′s legend has preceded it to these shores: 4×4 availability is currently sold out until September 2015.

    To the test
    The Sprinter is a stable driving, all-wheel-drive ultra-utility-vehicle that manages to talk softly but pack a big wallop. With its on-demand 4×4 drivetrain, it can deal with mud and ruts as we saw on Canadian logging roads, and smooth highways with equal confidence. Sure it’s a truck, but one that doesn’t make you feel as though you went 12-rounds with it over the period of a workday.

    Ruddering the electric power assist rack and pinion system saw its handling go light and easy through rougher surfaces, such as our off-road excursions, while it firmed up on paved roads. Acceleration was good for a truck that is geared to hauling parts, packages and people rather than hauling ass. We did think the gearing was high enough that passing required a heavy stab of the accelerator to really get under way when passing some of the ultra big-rigs we encountered on the logging highways.

    Under various configurations, the Sprinter van can appear a touch top-heavy when equipped with the tall roof option, for example. Still, it managed to handle like a low-slung sport machine on the TransCanada highway.

    What impressed us further was the quietness that came from the ultra-refined 3.0L diesel. The balance shaft-aided smoothness and lack of diesel clatter allowed for normal conversations with our drive partner that did not require anything other than our “inside voices.”

    Leftlane’s bottom line
    Mercedes-Benz’s commercial vehicle division continues on a tear with the introduction of the 4×4 versions of their popular Sprinter van lineup. Not exactly the right vehicle for everyone, it manages to open itself up to an infinite range of buyers who just might need off-road high-traction capabilities in an already capable van.

    2015 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 2500 4×4 Standard Roof Van base price, $43,601.
    2015 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 3500 4×4 High Roof Van base price, $49,231.

    Photos by Mark Elias.