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[NEWS] Cadillac Live: A new way for Canadians to shop for Cadillacs

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The US is Canada’s biggest trading partner, and conversely, Canada is the US’s second biggest trading partner (behind China). Sharing the world’s longest land border at 8,893 kms, both our countries are literally joined at the hip physically, economically, and often politically.

Generally speaking, Canadians have often taken the lead of our American friends when it comes to many matters. However when it comes to the next level of car shopping experience, GM Canada has chosen Canada, and specifically their Cadillac portfolio of luxury vehicles, to pilot an all new way to bring the showroom to consumers’ personal spaces where they can relax and ask questions in a low pressure situation.

What is it Cadillac Live?

Recent data from Google shows that most car buyers start their research online versus through a dealership visit. Moreover, in the retail sector, 74 per cent of people will likely switch brands if they find the purchasing process too complex. Additionally, 55 per cent of online shoppers will abandon a purchase if answers to their questions are too difficult to find.

So it all makes sense that Cadillac wants to bring the showroom to peoples’ devices, whether they’re at home, at play, or at the office. Now, this isn’t just a glorified pre-recorded 360 degree surround view experience. Those have been around for ages. While that browsing option is indeed available when the full Cadillac Live experience is offline, what Cadillac Canada presented this week to a select group of Canadian journalists was something that is a Canadian grown solution that has been in the works for about two years.

This is a first of a kind in North America, and for now anyway, exclusive to Canadian shoppers. Via the Cadillac.ca website, Cadillac Live allows you to interact with friendly and knowledgeable Live product experts across any mobile or desktop device, giving you real human answers to your car-buying questions no matter where you are or whether you’re in your PJs.

This is a fully immersive video and audio experience, as close as one can get to the dealership but without physically being there. The Live product experts are equipped with Bluetooth headsets, and iPhone Xs mounted on Osomo mobile gimbals (aka steadycams) for smooth but yet high quality video and audio. Amazingly, there are no apps to download, no annoying plugins to install.

It works right off your tablet, phone, or desktop internet browser. This low friction point makes it (what Cadillac Canada hopes anyway) very easy for consumers to test out and try for themselves.

The video is one-way only, meaning that the Cadillac Live product experts are able to hear but not see the customers. They can, however, see if customers are playing around with any of the online vehicle configurators while in session, and guide the session using this information.

Why Cadillac, and why Canada?

Why the Cadillac brand to showcase this technology you might ask? Well the brand has been reinventing itself over the last couple of years. With the introduction of many exciting new products, including the XT4 compact luxury SUV, the newly announced CT5 sports sedan, and the upcoming XT6 three row crossover SUV (coming this summer), the timing just seems to make sense. As part of the Cadillac Live experience, there are indeed 10 Cadillac vehicles on display, from the full-sized Cadillac Escalade SUV, to the CT6, to the XT4 crossover.

But why Canada as the test market? One could surmise that with Canada having about one-tenth the size of the population of the US, the risks are much smaller. Officially though, the word is that Canadians have shown to be more digitally savvy when it comes to the online shopping experience.

Cadillac saw that Canadians are not only ready for a new experience, but were expecting it, James Nava, Cadillac Canada’s Marketing and Communications Manager, says.

“Consumers in Canada are more digital-savvy than in the U.S. or other markets. So they’re looking for this kind of experience with a new perspective. They’re expecting this visual experience,” said Nava. “They are really craving that human interaction from an online perspective.”

Moreover, the Cadillac Live experience is actually a bespoke 10,000 sq ft film studio that has been modeled to Cadillac’s brand standards. The studio itself is located in Toronto, where not only are film studios are plenty, but good talent is also easy to come by. Some of these individuals, split roughly 50/50 between male and female live product experts, have also been hired off the auto show circuit and therefore were already familiar with how to interact with customers.

Nava mentioned that their team spent a tremendous amount of time teaching the live product experts how to hone in their skills when it comes to camera work. There are even markers that point out where to stand, and which camera angles look best to the end user on screen.

Can customers buy through a Live product expert?

The short answer is no. Due to differing provincial motor vehicle sales licensing regulations as well as different offers per market, the Live product experts are only there to educate customers, not to make a direct sale. End users can provide feedback to Cadillac about the expert’s performance via a rating and comment system similar to Uber or Google reviews.

The Live product expert can, however, pass on customer details to participating Cadillac dealerships should there be customer consent. This customer can then request a test drive of their Cadillac of choice. Cadillac Canada is taking this hand-off process between the online and offline world extremely seriously as that is likely the greatest point of failure. In order for a Cadillac dealer to even receive leads from the Cadillac Live team, they have to select two in-store champions who then undergo extra brand and customer training.

Will this be expanded to additional markets?

It’s still early days, with Cadillac Live only having been launched in mid-March 2019. However, the Cadillac Live has already reportedly received tremendous buy-in from the Canadian dealerships.

As the platform is highly scalable and all digital, the system can be adapted to fit other countries, markets, and languages.

How do I try it out for myself?

Cadillac Live can be accessed from the Cadillac homepage or directly from live.cadillaccanada.ca. There are four options upon your arrival: explore the lounge and check out some information about the vehicles, preview a session with an agent so that you can know what to expect, book a reservation, and start a session.

The virtual showroom can be accessed at any time from anywhere in Canada, and Live product experts are available Sunday to Thursday from 3:00 pm to 11:00 pm PST.

Andrew is a proud car and tech geek who has worked in Surrey for over the last 10 years. He comes from a communications/marketing background and has worked for automotive-related companies such as Edmunds.com, BenzWorld.org since 1999. From track driving, to rally driving to autocross, he has done it all! When he’s not reading about the latest automotive news, he can be found outdoors snapping pictures at various events around town.

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[REVIEW] 2021 Acura TLX A-Spec SH-AWD

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Honda and Acura fans can rejoice with the addition of the brand-spankin’-new 2021 Acura TLX. While everyone seems to be flocking to crossovers, SUVs, and trucks these days, Acura still seems to think that there are enough sport sedan buyers to warrant a brand new product. In fact, the company expects the TLX to account for about 20 per cent of its total sales volume despite its RDX and MDX crossovers.

Re-engineered from the ground up, the TLX is based on Acura’s Type S Concept which made its in-the-metal debut in Monterey California during CarWeek.

Acura’s current crop of A-Spec vehicles are designed to draw younger shoppers into their showrooms and like the RDX, the TLX is also offered with this sportier trim level, as optioned out on my test vehicle.

What’s new?

With a stiffer new structure, a new multi-link suspension setup front and rear, a longer, lower, and wider new body, the TLX is a looker especially with its A-Spec specific sportier trim bits such as the black mirror caps, trunk lid spoiler and larger 19-inch wheels.

The new TLX really has what it takes to grab your attention and does away with the controversial shield-like grille that was such a front-and-centre element just a couple of model years ago.

From the slim LED headlights and tailights to its lowered stance, the TLX is perhaps my favourite Acura design in its line-up. Despite being 3 inches longer, 2 inches wider, and half an inch lower than its predecessor, the 2021 Acura TLX still looks sleeker and more agile than its predecessor.

Compared to its main competitors, the BMW 3-Series, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class and the Audi A4, the Acura is a tad larger. Its front-wheel-drive architecture does mean that its snout isn’t quite as compact as its rear-wheel-drive based competitors (the BMW and Mercedes), but it is a solid fashion forward effort either way.

Under the hood is the familiar Honda/Acura 2.0-litre turbocharged inline four-cylinder engine also found under the hood of the RDX, with 272 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque. Front-wheel-drive is standard equipment, but my A-Spec tester was optioned out with Acura’s Super-Handling All-Wheel-Drive system which can vector torque between the rear wheels for more agile handling. Unfortunately, only a 10-speed automatic gearbox is available with no manual transmission offered.

How does it drive?

The previous generation TLX was criticized for its ride and handling that fell short against its European and Japanese rivals. While it was sound, it lacked the entertaining athleticism found in peers from Audi, BMW, and Mercedes. While the taut suspension resulted in stable and controlled dynamics, the TLX’s ride quality took a hit as a result.

For the 2021 all-new model, Acura did away with the less-sophisticated MacPherson strut setup from before and switched to a double-wishbone front and multilink rear suspension. This new combination has resulted in the greatest single improvement with the TLX, its ride quality and handling. The ride is mostly supple and nicely controlled, though well short of being plush.

While my A-Spec tester only fitted with the stock dampeners, the Advance trim-line and upcoming Type S model will receive more sophisticated adaptive dampers. As it stands though, the stock tune seems to be nicely sorted out and closer in terms of feel when compared to its rivals.

The TLX has an easy-to-drive character, with a lightness that is evident in the brand’s older and more celebrated products. The steering is quick but I found it to still lacks a bit of the direct, precise feedback that make the Euro rivals truly fun to drive.

One of Acura’s strong points has always been their powertrains and the TLX is no exception. The 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder feels energetic and revs easily, with a decent punch even at lower revs.

The 10-speed transmission is shifts smoothly, delivering quick, direct shifts. However, sometimes it almost feels like there are one too many gears. Part throttle kick-down sometimes requires a deliberate prod of the throttle pedal, but 0-100 km/hr dashes are class-competitive at around 6.6 seconds.

Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive

Acura’s Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive system has become a company staple. Able to vector the vehicle’s torque fore and aft, as well as side-to-side (up to 100 per cent at the rear), the system pairs well with the more performance-orientated image that once helped Honda’s luxury brand stand out.

As long as you’re on the throttle pedal, even in dry weather, you can feel the SH-AWD system proactively improve the TLX’s agility on twisty roads by funnelling more power to the outside rear wheel. This results in the Acura tracking ore aggressively towards the inside corner of the curve, maintaining the driver’s line even at higher cornering speeds. In case you are doubtful of the system at work, a display in the instrument cluster shows which wheels the torque was flowing to.

Needless to say, compared to the front-wheel-drive model, the SH-AWD models have increased grip when existing corners, and the TLX can be hustled more aggressively than you might expect. Switch to Sport mode and the system shuffles torque more aggressively for even more responsiveness.

What about the interior?

Like the exterior, the 2021 TLX’s interior is also sharply designed to match the car’s new exterior. The 2021 model shares a lot of its interior design with the RDX crossover, which is a good thing. Gone is the old clunky dual screen infotainment which was distracting and awkward with its mix of hard and virtual controls.

Acura’s new touchpad-based infotainment system still unintuitive at first until you figure out the logic behind it. Once you figure out that each quadrant on the touchpad corresponds to each corner of the infotainment screen, it quickly makes a lot more sense.

Unlike a computer touchpad which has a pointer, Acura’s system does not have a pointer and guesses what you’re trying to choose based on where you are pressing the pad.

Although I disliked the system initially, after a couple days of trial and error, I quickly got used to it. While there were still rather peculiar UX quirks, it became less of a dealbreaker. Nonetheless, I still find the touchscreen or touchscreen + controller wheel infotainment systems a lot easier to use.

Despite these UX issues, Acura has done a good job with the system’s crisp and modern looking graphics to match the TLX. I only wish that they had taken the opportunity to completely rework the system into a full digital display.

Infotainment-system aside, the TLX’s interior is a nice enough place to be with comfortable and roomy front seats, and even a thoughtful centre console cutout that accommodates drivers with longer legs. In the back, the rear seat is a bit tight on knee room but the rear seatback angle is comfortable enough.

One of the TLX’s “highlights” is the 24-colour ambient lighting system and its ability to set the cabin to an array of colours.

Despite improvements in cabin isolation, I still found the TLX’s cabin to be a bit noisier than the German competitors, with more wind and road noise punching through at highway speeds. At least the powerful ELS sound system is there to drown out some of this noise.

While there has been some criticism over Acura’s push-button electronic gear selector, I’ve never found it to be a problem on the Honda Odyssey, the Acura RDX, or the TLX.

On the safety front, all TLXs come with forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane departure warning, and lane keeping assistance. Getting blind spot warning and rear cross traffic warning require opting for the Technology and higher packages.

Final thoughts

The 2021 Acura TLX marks the second generation of this vehicle. To my eyes, Acura hit the exterior styling out of the park this time around, particularly on the A-Spec appearance package model with its 19-inch Shark Grey wheels, gloss accents, and more.

With a perky powertrain, a comfortable ride, available SH-AWD, the TLX is much improved over its predecessor. While it may not be as sporty as its competitors, its high level of tech content, competent handling and nicely-controlled ride, should appeal to those looking for something other than a Lexus or a European-branded compact sport sedan.

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[REVIEW] 2021 Polestar 2 EV – First impressions

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If you’re an avid Volvo fan and the Polestar 2 looks vaguely familiar to you, there is a reason why. Firstly, both Volvo and Polestar are owned by the same Chinese parent company, Geely. Secondly, the Polestar 2 was originally unveiled in Gothenburg as a concept, named the 40.2, alongside the brand’s XC40 crossover concept, called the 40.1.

Polestar’s chief designer, Maximilian Missoni, has acknowledged that the Polestar 2 was originally designed as a Volvo concept car intended to test the water for a compact sedan. But the car was so different from the rest of the Volvo family that he realised that his team hadn’t designed a Volvo at all, but inadvertently, a Polestar.

Despite the logo-less grille, there are some tell tail Volvo design cues such as the Thor’s Hammer LED daytime running lights as well as the fat taillamps.

Unlike the 40.2 concept car though, Polestar has created a full-width taillight with 288 ultra-bright LEDs to combine a vivid, dramatic, and unique design signature.

Who is Polestar?

Polestar once used to be Volvo’s racing skunkworks division which eventually became the performance-tuning arm of the Swedish automaker. Think of the relationship between AMG and Mercedes-Benz or the John Cooper Works division of MINI and you wouldn’t be too far off.

While Polestar is still up to its old tricks in tuning Volvos into powerhouses, parent company Geely’s masterplan is to transform it into an EV-focused brand.

As the Polestar 2’s name might suggest, this is second model to come from Volvo’s now completely separate performance brand. First launched was the uber expensive, limited-run plug-in Polestar 1 coupe, a stunningly attractive halo model. However, the all-electric Polestar 2 that I had a brief one day taster test drive in is more representative of the wares that the company hopes to attract the masses to.

What is the Polestar 2?

In short, the Polestar 2 is a compact high riding near luxury hatchback that is sized and priced to compete with the Tesla Model 3. Aside from the Model 3, the company also hopes that it will be able to temp Volvo owners, as well as people out of their Audis, BMWs, and Mercedes-Benzes.

As it rides on a modified CMA (Compact Modular Architecture) platform which underpins both Volvo’s smaller products, such as the XC40, and those of its Chinese parent company Geely, the 2 has tallish, chunky proportions that make it look quite different from anything else on the market.

If anything, the raised bodyline reminds me of the Subaru Outback Sport Utility Sedan. Officially, Polestar says that the vehicle’s proportions transfer the comfort and utility of an SUV or crossover but yet the looks inspire sport sedan imaginings.

Missoni says the Polestar 2 is “urban” and “robotic” with its straight and square glasshouse, quite the polar opposite to a curvy Tesla. Compared to the Model 3, it is 100 mm shorter and 100 mm wider. Although a grille is strictly not needed, the Polestar 2 does indeed have one and behind which will house even more safety equipment (radar sensors etc) in the future.

Starting at a base price of $69,900 (before government incentives), my press vehicle was a fully loaded Launch Edition model equipped with the optional Performance Pack. This is initially how all of the Polestar 2’s will be configured. However, in the future, many of the 2021 Polestar 2’s standard features will be grouped in separate Plus and Pilot Assist packages.

The Performance Package, priced at $6,000, adds adjustable Ohlins dampers, gold coloured four-piston Brembo front calipers, 20-inch lightweight forged aluminium wheels with Continental SportContact 6 tires, upgraded spring and stabilizer bar rates, as well as a high-gloss back roof and gold seatbelts and tire valve caps.

Other options include a Nappa leather interior for an extra $5,000 as well as a choice of three different wheel and tire packages, ranging up to $1,200.

The interior – environmentalists and techies rejoice

You sit up quite high in the Polestar 2 with a relatively commanding view of the road ahead. I loved the frameless door mirrors in which the whole mirror housing moves to adjust the view rather than just the mirror itself.

Due to its higher bodyline and high beltline, the 2 looks bigger than it is. The cabin is roughly the size of a BMW 3-series so it’s not actually hugely spacious. Nonetheless, four adults of average height should be comfortable enough. Despite not having a driveshaft, unlike the Model 3, there is a centre rear hump in the middle which eats into the rear legroom.

Thanks to the power hatchback design and flat and flush folding rear seats, there is a lot of versatility when it comes to cargo hauling thought the car is not overly cavernous. Cargo volume is 14 cubic feet plus another one cubic foot in the frunk.

Polestar grabbed some headlines during the Polestar 2’s launch due to their entirely vegan interior as fitted to the standard car. The company says that zero animal products are applied, and the vehicle represents the company’s aim to accelerate the change to more sustainable mobility.

If you skip the Nappa leather interior in my Launch vehicle, you get a Polestar 2 WeaveTech interior which utilizes a high quotient of recycled materials in its construction. WeaveTech is said to almost entirely eliminate plasticizers, substances which increases material flexibility, commonly found in automotive interior vinyl.

The 2’s interior is modern and minimalistic, but not in a Tesla barren way. Polestar calls it a “product of Scandinavian design ethos, minimalism and modernism”.

There are areas of high quality brightwork, around the vents, and a simplified version of the Volvo shift knob. The major trim pieces have textures that feel new and different versus cheap and unpleasant.

The illuminated Polestar logo, which reflects off the panoramic moonroof, is a nice branding touch and is also visible from the outside.

By and large, the 2’s quality seems to be on par with that of Volvos, not surprising since many parts (such as the turn signal and wiper stalks, window switches) are shared.

A simplified virtual instrument cluster is set up in a conventional hooded pod behind the steering wheel, and there is a portrait-orientated tablet-like touchscreen infotainment system. The latter is one of the crowning achievements of the Polestar 2 in that it is the world’s first implementation of an Android Automotive infotainment system.

Co-developed with Google, the operating system integrates Google Maps, Google Play, Google Assistant. It is fully compatible with Apple’s iPhones and can receive over-the-air updates but does not alas does not support Apple CarPlay.

If you own an Android phone or have even used Google apps, the look and feel of the system will be immediately familiar as there is a crisp, clean, and simple design thanks to the Polestar’s designers placing an emphasis on having an uncluttered interface with large touchscreen-friendly buttons. Google’s team developed all of the system’s functionalities and a basic design template, but Polestar’s designers customized the skin for their purposes.

While I only had a very limited amount of time to play with the system, the home screen consists of four customizable “cards” that categorize the main apps based on one of a few main themes chosen.

Android Automotive OS was designed to eliminate the extra step of looking up something on your phone before inputting it into your car. This does also mean that for much of this functionality to work, the Polestar 2 does need an active internet connection (it has an integrated one).

Perhaps the most visible and familiar aspect of the system is the integration of Google Maps into the system, including real-time traffic information, points of interests, and suggested destinations. Quick to respond and with high-resolution renderings on both the main touchscreen and the virtual cockpit gauge cluster, the Android Automotive OS’s version of Maps has also been specifically designed with electric vehicles in mind.

For example, much like Tesla’s system, the system can show the expect charge level when you arrive at a programmed destination. Charging stations can be shown along the way to help the driver plan on when to charge.

The Polestar 2 supports Google Assistant voice commands meaning that the familiar “OK, Google” keywords even supports climate control functionality and app features in addition to the requisite audio and navigation functions.

Range and charging

With a 78 kWh lithium-ion liquid cooled battery and a 11 kW on-board charger, the Polestar 2 supports up to 150 kW DC fast charging capability. The company claims that this capability will recharge an almost spent battery to 80 per cent in about 40 minutes.

Since Level 3 DC chargers may be few and far between compared the much more common Level 2, 240 volt stations, the latter will require about 7 to 8 hours of charging to get to the recommended 90 per cent level. Using the 120 volt travel charger and your typical home socket will require a painstakingly slow 22 hours of charging to get to that same level of charge.

The US EPA estimates that the 2 has a driving range of 233 miles (375 kilometres) which is less than a Tesla Model 3 standard range’s 300 plus-mile (482 kilometre) EPA range. But real world tests seem to indicate that Tesla’s range estimate is overly optimistic whereas the Polestar’s is the opposite.

How does it drive?

Aside from the fancy infotainment system, the Polestar 2 is a really fun all-wheel-drive car to drive. With one electric motor on each axle and a combined output of 408 horsepower and 487 lbs-ft of torque, the Polestar 2 sprints from 0-100 km/hr in 4.5 seconds with a top speed of 201 km/hr.

These are rather impressive numbers especially given its rather heavy 4,680 lbs curb weight. Tesla fans will note that the mid-level Tesla Model 3 Dual Motor is slightly faster, but the Polestar 2 is a great deal behind the top-spec (and more expensive) Model 3 Performance which has a sub-4 second 0-100 km/hr time.

There is no dedicated sport mode within the Polestar’s interface, but drivers can choose up to three levels of regenerative braking. On the most aggressive setting, the 2 feels close to the Nissan Leaf’s e-Pedal system which essentially allows for one-pedal driving. Unlike e-Pedal though, it does not automatically apply the brakes when the car is at a stop.

An ESP Sport mode loosens the reins on the nanny driver aids, allowing for more liberal throttle applications before the system intervenes. Aside from that, you can toggle the steering weight, but that’s about it. There isn’t even a start button as you climb in, step on the brake, and the car turns itself on by itself. You can also prod the Start/Pause button in the middle of the volume control knob to wake the 2 up.

The Performance Pack fitted to my car adds manually adjustable Ohlins dampers and stiffer suspension components. I suspect that most owners won’t be crawling under the car with an allen key to adjust the ride quality and will simply have their dealer set it and forget about it.

Riding on winter tires and adjust to the softest setting, the ride was still firm but comfortable. Despite only a short stint behind the wheel, the Polestar 2 feels like a properly developed car and not just a straight-line dragster.

The gold finished Brembo brakes look impressive, but the brake feel felt a little bit dead underfoot. I look forward to a longer driving experience in the future to see if my impressions change. At least you won’t have to touch the brake pedal that often if you use the most aggressive regen mode as I did.

How do I buy one?

Sales of the Polestar 2 follow an online retail model but supplemented with showrooms in strategic cities such as Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. From the press release, Polestar says that unlike conventional dealerships, Polestar’s unique retail “spaces” are staffed by non-commissioned staff and “designed to inform and educate visitors in a relaxed way”.

Customers will also be able to test drive cars and learn about the brand at these new Polestar Spaces.

Final thoughts

Polestar’s CEO, Thomas Ingenlath (an ex-Volvo design boss himself) hints that Polestar’s focus will not be on social media friendly 0-100 km/hr times. Instead, the company’s Unique Selling Propositions will be on the holistic ownership experience, the refinement of the vehicles, and the build quality of their cars.

The Polestar 2, in effect, is intended to play the role of both mass-market leader and rival disruptor to the Tesla Model 3.

On the design front, the 2 is a head turning vehicle in the flesh. It’s clean-cut, fresh, and surprisingly loaded in presence. While it looks related to the Volvo S60, it’s also distanced far enough from to look like a car that will age well in the years to come.

Time will tell as to whether Polestar will succeed in swaying any potential Tesla customers, or those looking at upcoming EV models from the other European manufacturers. If you’re in one of these camps, you might want to take the 2 for a test drive yourself.

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[REVIEW] 2021 BMW X5M

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Sports car purists hate the concept and automotive journalists often regard the category as pointless. However, there is no denying that mid-sized performance biased SUVs are here to stay, even more so than the four door coupe category.

Ever since its debut in 1999, the BMW X5 has been pushing boundaries, delivering a combination of practicality, performance, and technology. While you might dislike it, there’s no denying the practicality of an SUV and the sheer functional duality of a high-performance SUV as part sports car, part family luxury car.

The question is, does this latest 2021 X5M Competition still maintain a proper dual character for everyday commutes and track days? And how well can the latest advancements in drivetrain technology hide its Dr Bruce Banner versus Hulk personality? Keep reading to find out.

Hulk vs Dr Bruce Banner or Dr Bruce Banner vs Hulk

BMW sedans and coupes sporting the company’s vaunted M badge maintain the ability to make everyday commutes entertaining while being highly capable track day cars.

Initially, the Porsche Cayenne GTS or Turbo was arguably the only SUV which truly came close to bringing sports car performance to the segment. However, no longer does BMW keep its M badge reserved for its coupes and sedans. Even though the X5M isn’t new, this latest 2021 X5M Competition fully deserves the honour of wearing this coveted symbol of ultra performance given that it is wilder than ever.

While previous versions of the X5M looked rather more conventional, particularly from the side profile (aside for the 20-inch wheels), the front and rear of this latest 2021 X5M Competition shows its brute character even more explicitly than before.

Finished in this stunning Marina Bay Blue paint job, the aggressive front vents, blacked out kidney grilles showcase the vehicle’s brute character explicitly. Out back, quad pipes reside below the rear bumper, between the rear diffuser, confirming the authenticity of the X5M Competition’s M badge on the tailgate.

Pick your M modes

The monster of a powerplant living under the hood of every X5M is a 4.4-litre twin turbocharged V8 generating 600 horsepower and 553 lb-ft of torque from a low 1,800 rpms. My Competition package equipped X5M adds another 17 ponies, bumping it up to 617 hp, but the torque figure remains the same.

All X5Ms only come with an eight-speed automatic transmission and BMW’s X5M variable all-wheel-drive system. Adaptive dampers are standard equipment, and the Competition package adds staggered tires and 22-inch wheels. Non-Competition pack X5Ms get a set of 21-inch wheels as standard equipment.

Along with the additional 17 ponies, the “Competition” pack upgrade also brings with it a strut tower brace, blacked-out exterior trim, more leather trim, a throatier exhaust, and a Track setting to supplement the Comfort, Sport, and Sport Plus drive modes.

Toggle through the drive experience mode buttons next to the electronic gear shifter and you’ll find a plethora of permutations and combinations. There are quite a few more buttons and significantly more customizations (as expected) compared to the pedestrian X5 xDrive40i.

Like the M5, the X5M’s iDrive system lets you program either one of the steering wheel missile launcher red M1/M2 customizable buttons to suit your mood.

You can choose sport or normal settings for both the suspension and stability control, power or normal for the engine, and even set the head-up display to go to a special M view. In track mode, only available on the Competition model, you can also have the stability control fully disengaged all-wheel-drive set for extreme rear wheel drive-biased. Absolutely nothing has been watered down from the M5.

Yet, ignore all of these settings and the X5M Competition will still blow your mind in its standard configuration. You might not get the extra engine noises or the exhaust pops, but the X5M will still delight both your gut and your ears even in comfort mode.

Even at its most tame settings, the X5M Competition feels brawny. It manages to feel special, even at low speeds, rather than lazy.

Given the price of the vehicle and its intended use, BMW clearly knows that the well-to-do executives that are likely able to afford the X5M still need a quiet and comfort environment in which to take the kids to school or to complete their conference calls in. In this respect, this 2021 BMW X5M Competition is really more of a Dr Bruce Banner versus Hulk as the dominant character in control, versus the other way around.

Grip, Grip, and more Grip

While muscle-bound crossovers have been with us for a number of years, manufacturers have increasingly been working their magic to counteract the laws of physics to make these heavy beasts capable of acceleration, grip, and cornering numbers once reserved for the likes of Porsche 911s.

BMW continues to show no hesitancy in using technology to improve performance. Descriptors such as “sports car-like cornering” and “eye-ball flattening acceleration” come to mind when describing the 2021 BMW X5M Competition’s handling and performance. It’s truly akin to a freight-train-like amount of torque as the SAV chomps through its gears. Up-changes are practically instant and the X5M Comp feels like it goes harder as the speed climbs, rather than running out of steam.

Engage launch control and 0-100 km/hr runs can be had in 3.8 seconds. That’s nearly as quick as the Bentley Bentayga Speed and yet seats the same number of people in space and comfort but at a fraction of the price.

While it may share the same exterior as the pedestrian X5, very little of the standard SUV’s underpinnings remain. The X5M gets different/beefier engine mounts and suspension components, adaptive dampeners, race track-grade cooling and lubrication systems. Even the brake pedal feel can be adjusted via the iDrive system, should you want a different level of effort from the enormous brakes. There are also bigger wheels – 21 inch wheel are fitted up front, and 22s out back – on fatter tires and more camber, just as you’d expect from an M sedan or coupe.

The M interior

Inside, the X5 M treats its occupants to a LED-lit panoramic moonroof and a typically high-quality BMW interior. There are liberal applications of top grain leather around the X5 M’s cabin, on the seats and door insets, while the dashboard is all soft plastic, vinyl, or alcantara.

While some may protest, I quite liked the illuminated “M’ motifs in the practically infinitely adjustable leather seats.

The rest of interior of the X5 M is exquisitely appointed and outfitted with myriad desirable features. BMW has thrown every tech trick in the book and invented some new ones. A 12.3-inch fully digital gauge cluster rests behind its leather-wrapped steering wheel that also hosts a pair of paddle shifters and red “M” drive-mode buttons.

Ambient interior lighting, a large head-up display, a heated steering wheel, heated front armrests, and racy materials are all standard. Those who desire fancier leather upholstery can have it for extra coin.

As with all X5s, there’s no shortage of passenger space in the front and rear seats. The cargo area is big enough to hold 11 carry-on suitcases behind the back row. The powered cargo cover is cool but gimmicky and sure to break after some time, either from user error or otherwise.

Every X5M has a loaded infotainment system and countless connectivity features. There is even a built-in dashcam feature which utilizes the car’s surround view camera system to record any accidents.

The company’s latest iDrive software is displayed via a 12.3-inch touchscreen that can also be controlled by hand gestures, voice commands, and a rotary controller on the center console. While Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and a Harman/Kardon audio system are standard, a Bowers & Wilkins sound system is a standalone option.

A Super-SUV that commands respect

Technically stunning, the 2021 BMW X5M Competition continues to work well as a family car, a GT car, and a tall sports car. Its fuel economy might make the daily commute costly, but for those who only have a one or two car garage, the X5M continues to be one of the best performing SUVs on the road. It’s also likely the closest that BMW will tread to building a true M5 wagon.

The spicing of the drivetrain from BMW’s M5 super sedan, including the eight-speed auto gearbox and rear-focused all-wheel-drive system, comes on full display here but with all the benefits of the high driving position and convenience that the X5 offers. For those who want to have their cake and eat it too, the X5M may just be the place to be behind the steering wheel.

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[REVIEW] 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA45 4MATIC+

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The second-generation Mercedes-Benz CLA-class, launched in 2020, was a huge jump in terms of styling, quality, and refinement. While the original CLA45 made a bonkers 188 horsepower per litre, its scrappy attitude and raucous mechanical noises traded some of the typical Mercedes-Benz polish for boost pressure and exhaust blats.

With the CLA now in its second iteration, a whole host of significant updates transform what used to be a serious performer to one which also has the refinement that befits the Mercedes-AMG brand.

Let’s take a closer look at this Sun Yellow example of the full fat version of the CLA from the AMG internal-combustion madhouse in Affalterbach.

What’s new?

The boffins at Mercedes-AMG have managed to lower the CLA’s nose by taking the new hand-crafted M139 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine and rotating it 180 degrees so as to fit the exhaust manifold at the rear. This then feeds into a new BorgWarner twin-scroll turbocharger.

The result is one of the most power dense forced induction four-cylinders on the market, with 208.9 horsepower / litre for a total of 382 horsepower at 6,500 rpms and 354 lb-ft of torque from 3,000-4,000 rpms. Other markets outside the USA and Canada are able to get their hot little hands on the new 416 horsepower CLA45S model, but alas for now, we will only get the standard tuned version.


Paired up with this new engine is a standard dual-clutch automatic transmission, fitted with an extra gear. Now at eight speeds instead of seven, it feeds power to all four wheels via an updated 4MATIC+ all-wheel-drive system which gains a torque-vectoring rear differential that can help the CLA45 AMG carve around corners more easily.

Select the $3,500 optional AMG Track package, as fitted to my test vehicle, and not only will you get an AMG High-Performance Composite Braking system with enormous 13.8 inch front perforated and ventilated front discs and powerful six-piston fixed calipers plus 13.0 inch rear discs with single piston calipers.

You will also get a beautiful AMG performance steering wheel in DINAMICA microsuede and the much reported about AMG Race and Drift modes.

The RACE mode within AMG DYNAMIC SELECT is ideally suited for track driving by an experienced operator. It reprofiles the throttle, transmission, steering and suspension calibrations for more direct response. A special DRIFT mode utilizes innovative AMG TORQUE CONTROL to precisely send torque to each rear wheel, allowing a degree of handling expertise never before possible in a CLA.

My test vehicle was also fitted with the $3,700 AMG Driver’s package and the $1,900 Drive Package. The former includes 19-inch AMG forged cross-spoke lightweight wheels, the AMG Drive Unit set of controls on the AMG steering wheel, an AMG Track Pace system which lets you store performance data from your CLA45 in the MBUX infotainment system, AMG Real Performance sound (aka partially synthesised exhaust sounds), and arguably, the piece de resistance, the AMG Ride Control Sports suspension with 3-stage dampening.

How does it drive?

Have you been eyeing Audi’s RS3 but want something a bit more distinctive and more involving to drive? The CLA45 is certainly a worthy contender at tempting you away from Audi Sport’s five-cylinder rocket and into the most powerful 2.0-litre car currently on sale.

As James May would say, the CLA45 AMG goes like a stabbed rat. It’s brutally quick with 0-100 km/hr dashes completed in under 4 seconds.

AMG has applied much of its knowledge from its turbocharged V8s here. The expertise shows up in the form of a baffled sump for the engine, extra cooling for the turbo, and much more.

There is remarkably little turbo lag from the class-leading engine even during small throttle pedal loads. This force-fed four-banger engine positively howls as the virtual tachometer revs climb higher towards the redline.

Performance or techies will positively geek out at the many dozens of on-screen menus which can display various read-outs including boost pressure, horsepower, torque, and much more.

To add even more pantomime, the standard AMG exhaust system has a flap that automatically opens or closes, depending on the driving mode, for better noise. Or you can permanently invoke the “powerful” mode’s sound manually.

Whereas the CLA250 that I previously reviewed was more of a sheep in wolf’s clothing, the CLA45 AMG delivers on Mercedes’ dynamic selling pitch. With a ridiculous outright level of grip that will scare all but the most experienced drivers, the car is an absolute hoot to drive.

Part of this credit goes to the CLA45’s 4MATIC+ system, which uses a pair of multi-disc clutches that can variably apportion torque to each wheel as part of the new AMG Torque Control set-up at the rear differential.

The other part of the equation is the well-tuned three stage driver-selectable adaptive dampers which cushion on even the most challenging surfaces. Included as part of the AMG Driver’s package, this AMG Ride Control option includes AMG-developed springs and shocks as well as corresponding modes of AMG Dynamic Select which changes the steering feedback to match.

The ride is suitably firm without being too punishing. Unlike the CLA250, which I found to be most natural-feeling in its default Comfort mode of operation, the CLA45 shines at its more “cooking” modes.

Left in Auto mode, the eight-speed dual-clutch gearbox is intelligent enough to be in the correct gear most of the time. The extra cog is a welcomed addition in keeping noise level and fuel consumption levels down while cruising on the highway.

Click on the AMG’s driving mode selector and you’ll find adjustments of everything from power steering weight and power calibration to suit your preference, to exhaust sound and dampener stiffness settings. I do wish, like in BMW M division cars, there was the option of selecting the speed at which the transmission could shift or the steering feel (independent of other settings), but these are small asks and there is enough feel that can be dialed in for 99 per cent of the situations I encountered.

Like the CLA250, the CLA45 is a pretty comfortable car to live with as a daily driver, although there is a fairly insistent amount of background noise to the car’s ride on certain surfaces. Chalk it up partially to the sticky performance rubber I suppose.

For those who are larger in stature, be sure to test out the front seats before you sign on the sales paperwork’s dotted line. Despite many different adjustments available, the AMG Recarro-styled seats are one of the tightest fitting ones that I’ve experienced in a while, even at their most relaxed settings.

While I found it them to be rather comfortable, I’d expect that some may find the aggressive thigh and lateral bolstering to be confining. As they say, your mileage may vary.

Other techie bits and bobs

The CLA45 offers more semi-autonomous driver aid technology than most cars of its size, including the Audi RS3 and BMW M2.

My fully loaded CLA45 tester included the $1,900 Intelligent Drive Package which included a wack load of features too long to speak in detail in this review. If you’re going to buy this car, this (and the $3,700 Driver’s Package) is a no-brainer.

The Drive Package bundles no less than 13 features including:

  • Active Steering Assist
  • Evasive Steering Assist
  • Active Brake Assist with Cross-Traffic Function
  • Active Emergency Stop Assist
  • Active Speed Limit Assist
  • Active Lane Keeping Assist
  • Active Blind Spot Assist
  • Active Lane Change Assist
  • PRE-SAFE
  • PRE-SAFE PLUS
  • PRE-SAFE Sound
  • Enhanced Stop-and-Go
  • Route-based Speed Adaptation

As mentioned, the list is positively mind boggling. All you really need to know is that by checking off this box, you’ll get a car that can change lanes by itself on the highway (Active Steering Assist and Active Blind Spot Assist); can intervene with emergency braking if you’re about to make a left hand turn and there is an oncoming car; can even be configured to read speed limits and stick to them.

Folks, let me remind you that this is Mercedes-Benz S-class levels of technology in one of the company’s “entry-level” AMG cars!

Final thoughts

Overall, the 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA45 is a far better hornet’s nest of a sports car than its predecessor. It is prettier to look at, has a more adjustable and involving chassis, and the tech-laden interior is just far nicer to live with.

Crucially, the car has lost none of its raucous four-cylinder blat or its scrappy personality. Its rip-snorting exhaust note brought a smile to my face every time, and thanks to the ease of the MBUX system, it’s now possible to dial back much of the car’s rambunctiousness, something that made the first-generation CLA45 difficult to live with as a daily driver.

With over $14,000 in options added to my Sun Yellow (an extra $890) CLA45 test vehicle’s base price of $60,590, all of this play time doesn’t come cheap. In fact, the 45’s closest competitor is its little brother, the less powerful but cheaper CLA35 with 302 horsepower.

But skip a few of the optional appearance packages on the 45 and you’ll get a all-weather rocket of car that delivers oodles of fun even below maximum attack mode.

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[REVIEW] 2021 MINI Cooper S E hatch (Battery Electric Vehicle)

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It’s small, it’s nimble, it’s iconic, and it’s now available as an all-electric model. I’m talking of course, about the new 2021 MINI Cooper SE.

While MINI has dipped its toe into the pond that is “electrification”, courtesy of its plug-in hybrid MINI S E Countryman PHEV SUV, this new fully electrically powered MINI Cooper SE hatch is the company’s first full production Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV) that is sold globally.

Prior to this production model, over a decade ago, BMW built 600 previous generation electric MINI prototypes (known as the MINI E) for worldwide testing as e BMW Group’s first major electromobility field test.

However those cars had major compromises, such as a massive lithium ion battery pack which took the space where the rear seats would normally go, as well as massive variations in range, down to as low as 89 kms compared to the 193 kms that MINI had advertised the prototypes as being able to travel on a single charge.

An exciting new era for the iconic urban city car

In 2018, the MINI Cooper S E Countryman ALL4 made its debut as a plug-in hybrid model which combined MINI’s vision for an electric vehicle but with the help of a classic internal combustion engine.

Over a decade after its field test, the 2020 MINI Cooper SE three door hatch makes its debut, targeting urban performance with battery life better suited for urban/suburban driving versus long distance vacation treks. MINI says that this vehicle is designed to put the electrically powered driving experience in the city, where it can have a lasting impact at reducing exhaust emissions and noise in the urban environment.

The truth of the matter is that most people don’t need over 200 kilometres of range. At least that’s essentially the premise of the electric MINI hatch which advertises up to 177 kilometres of range per full charge from its 32.5 kWh lithium ion battery, as well as the ability to DC quick charge from to 80 per cent in about 35 mins.

Who should buy this car?

Assuming your daily commute is roughly around 100 kilometres round trip and you have the ability to charge at or close to home, the basic MINI elements (and associated benefits) are still there with this vehicle.

Surprisingly, I found that with careful driving, my real world combined electric range of city plus highway driving could be stretched to as far as 220+ kilometres.

The central design element of the MINI Cooper SE’s front fascia is a closed rounded-hexagon grille. The company says the electric motor needs very little cooling air, hence the modified design. The signature accent color is yellow, which you will find on the grille as well as the side-mirror caps. MINI’s excellent LED headlamps and foglamps are also provided as standard equipment.

With go-kart like handling, a small package, lower weight, the Cooper SE is a hoot to pilot around town. While the basic three-door hatchback body is based on a MINI design that dates back from 2014 and the 181 horsepower powertrain is sourced from the BMW i3, there Is still loads to like about this car.

The driving experience itself is pure MINI, with the car feeling very quick, particularly from a standing start. MINI Canada says that the 0-60 km/hr dash can be had in only 3.9 seconds (0-100 km/hr in 7.2 secs) but the electric motor’s instant torque makes it feel much faster than that.

The adjustable brake regeneration helps you to almost accomplish one-pedal driving, meaning that the moment you lift off the throttle, you’re effectively braking. Driving around town becomes a fun and novel experience, at least for the first few days behind the wheel.

Toss the Cooper SE, and you’ll feel some of the extra weight from the battery pack. However, the low position of the battery pack lowers the car’s centre of gravity by 30 mm (1.2 inches), resulting in handling that is very close to that of the petrol MINI Cooper S hatch.

Interior space isn’t really comprised either, since the battery pack has been cleverly situated down the spine of the car and beneath the back seats.

Pin the throttle to the floorboards on the highway and you’ll find a fair amount of shove still available even with 2 other adult passengers on board. Electric car acceleration always brings a smile to my face, and add to that a base platform that is already fun to drive in the first place and it’s truly a winning combination.

In addition to the adjustable regen modes, there are also Mid, Sport and Green driving modes. They seem to do little more than sharpen or soften that instant response slightly. There’s an extra Green + mode that softens many of the car’s features like the climate control, upping the range by way of a thank you.

How long does it take to charge?

Charging is possible from a 120 volt wall socket, but is painfully slow at around 12 hours. With a level 2 onboard charger rated at 7.4 kilowatts, home charging from empty to full at 240 volts takes around 5+ hours or so.

What rivals does the MINI Cooper S E have?

At a base price of $39,990 CAD, the Cooper S E qualifies for all the Canadian federal and provincial BEV incentive programs.

This pricing also places it less than the four door Hyundai Ioniq Electric (which starts at $41,499), and significantly less than the Nissan Leaf with the 40 kWh standard range battery (starting at $44,298). Both these cars are significantly less fun to drive, which means that MINI currently owns the budget-EV performance niche.

Interestingly, the MINI is only 3099 pounds, 486 pounds lighter than the Chevy Bolt. Despite its horsepower deficit when compared to the Chevy Bolt, the Nissan Leaf, or the Kia Niro EV, the MINI beats all of them in the sprint from 0-100 km/hr, proving that weight matters.

On the inside

My 2021 test vehicle was fitted with MINI Canada’s $8,000 Premier+ trim package. This generous package includes a laundry list of must-haves for me, including a panoramic moonroof, leather-wrapped sports seats with Union Jacks embossed into the headrests, heated mirrors, a heads-up display, as well as an upgraded GPS navigation system, an 8.8 inch iDrive-like touchscreen with Apple CarPlay support, and a great Harmon/Kardon sound system.

Oddly, despite the high spec of my test vehicle, adaptive cruise control wasn’t included even though collision mitigation auto braking was standard equipment.

As in the conventional MINI 2 door hardtop, the luggage volume under the tailgate is 7.5 cubic feet, expanding to about 26 cubic feet with the rear seats folded down.

The rear seats are usable for shorter adults, but I wouldn’t recommend spending too much time back if you’re over 5’9” for anything but short trips around town.

Final thoughts

It seems like a marriage made in heaven doesn’t it? Pair up a proven all-electric powerplant with low running costs, instant acceleration, tremendous torque and silent running, together with one of the UK’s iconic cars that is small, nimble, and fun-to-drive.

Nothing quite prepares you for that instant shove back into the seat from the 181 horsepower electric motor, and I had as much fun behind the wheel of the Cooper SE as in the many fast MINIs that I’ve had the privilege of driving before. And yet, the MINI SE Cooper hatch still remains almost as chuckable as ever.

If you’re looking to get into the EV car game, the 2021 MINI Cooper SE hatch is an unexpected fun-to-drive bargain so long as you can live with its lower advertised EV range and its three door hatchback design.

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