Scaling the ladder
Marc K. Stengel, Thu, 26 Jul 2007 08:00:00 PDT
Scalability seems so clever. You buy the iPod, the computer, even the houseaccording to what it can do for you at the time, and according to what youcan afford, of course. Then, when upgrades are available or your rich uncleplops that inheritance on you, you "scale up" with more memory, fasterchips, a solarium and pool in the back yard. Mo', bigga, betta: It's theScalable Way.
The automotive version of this tune sounds much the same. It starts with arelatively affordable "near-luxury" sedan, then as your proficiency playingmusical cars improves, you work your way up the scale towards real luxuryand elite status. The progression from Kia Amanti to Volvo S80 to BMW 535icouldn't be any more clear cut. And yet, as every virtuoso knows, it's justas easy to play an ascending scale as a descending one.
It boggles the mind to ponder what Kia hath wrought in scarcely more than adecade of selling cars in North America. In the mid-1990s, the only reasonto mention Kia in serious automotive conversation was to set up thepunchline for a joke. But the little nerd from Korea just kept pecking away,and now Amanti is the result.
Amanti is a roomy five-seater sedan with decent power and road manners for ajaw-dropping low price, which is burnished to an even brighter luster by a10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty. This is nothing short ofremarkable, considering how far Kia has come and how quickly it has learnedwhat U.S. drivers want.
For just over $25,000, an Amanti packages a 264-horsepower 3.8-liter V6 intoa front-wheel-drive sedan and tosses in a bundle of bells and whistles.There are six airbags; dual-zone, thermostat-controlled HVAC; power windowsand locks; and AM/FM/CD audio. Curiously, electronic stability control is a$500 option; and after adding the leather seating package ($2,500), premiumwheels and trim ($1,300) and a sunroof ($900), the as-tested sticker swellsto $31,375. But as will be apparent by the end of this review, Amanti isstill a lot of car for a paltry (relative) sum.
The car is Kia's flagship, and yet it also serves as an example of whatmight be called "upstart" luxury. Amanti's exterior styling, for example,looks like what only a party boss in Brezhnev's Soviet Union of the 1970smight call elite. And as for driving feel, there's not much. Sure, there aredisc brakes all round and four-wheel independent suspension; and, yes, theAmanti is agile and easy to drive. But it's not fun to drive, nor does itseduce. Except in terms of price, and money in the bank does have its charm.
When's the last time you actually heard a Volvo growl? Hard to believe, butthis V8-equipped S80 sedan actually growls, both at idle and underacceleration; and it's enough to transform the persona of this car. Because,to an enthusiast, a simple, guttural growl communicates in an instant whatVolvo's superior engineering hasn't managed to do for decades, namely, thatVolvo can make exceptional cars.
The 4.4-liter V8 in the S80 was jointly developed with Yamaha, and itdelivers 311 horsepower and 325-foot-pounds of mid-rpm torque. Accelerationis prompt and meaty, and mileage of 17 mpg/city, 25 mpg/highway (usingpremium) is respectable for this much performance.
With its wraparound, Nordic-flavored interior and logical controls, the S80creates a cocoon-space for driver and occupants. Suspension tuning can bemanipulated electronically from "Comfort" to "Sport" to "Advanced" settings;and all-wheel-drive handling is nicely balanced. Driving feel is never"razor's edge," however. The S80 excels as a grand cruiser, not a streetfighter.
What starts off at a $47,350 base price rises promptly to $56,025 as testedafter appearance and safety options. Notable is the new Blind SpotInformation System (BLIS, for $595) which flashes warnings when camerasdetect other vehicles or obstructions in right- and left-rear blind spots.Active headlamps can be switched from static illumination tosteering-directed operation while cornering. Ready Alert Brakes monitor theS80's proximity to a next car ahead and automatically boost hydraulicbraking pressure in the event a panic-stop is required.
Clearly, Volvo's engineering prowess and safety innovations represent thegristle in this many-featured, sleekly styled sedan. But it's the growl thatmakes the sale almost every time.
By most enthusiasts' accounts, BMW's 5-Series sedans represent a top rung ofthe status ladder, and this belief is hard to dispute. As a rule, BMWs arejewel-like in craftsmanship, uncompromising in their sporty behavior. Thenew-for-2008 535i is no exception. Whether that's a good thing or baddepends on how well you know yourself as a potential owner.
For starters, the 535i manages to extract 300 horsepower and 300 foot-poundsof torque from a brilliant little 3.0-liter inline-six withtwin-turbocharging. Because torque maxes out at an extremely low 1,400 rpm,acceleration is stunning; and clever electronics virtually eliminate anytime delay before the turbos kick in.
Steering, braking, handling, they're all delightful. Driving this roomyfive-seater is like scoring an Xacto knife through balsa wood. It's allforward progress and no wandering. Moreover, the interior is understatedelegance. It's in the realm of BMW's instrumentation philosophy, however,that BMW marches to a different drummer. Instruments, whether integratedinto the often-infuriating iDrive central controller or not, are BMW-esqueinsofar as nothing seems to work like it does in the rest of the automotiveworld. This is not to say that things don't work at all; they just workdifferently in a BMW. Driving one is like taking an exam, in which the caris the final arbiter.
That's BMW's heritage, after all: You might be able to afford BMW's new535i, but that's still no guarantee you measure up.