A Track-Ready Wago

By Derek Price
There’s a smug satisfaction that comes from driving a car that you know is special but other people don’t.
And this car is definitely something special.
It’s the Mercedes-Benz AMG E63 S Wagon, a monumentally expensive car that feels like it’s powered by Greek gods but — to oblivious people who don’t know any better — looks harmless and almost ordinary.
That’s because it’s a station wagon, perhaps the lest-fashionable style of car for sale today.
If you’re looking for a sleeper, something that can win every stoplight race without drawing unwanted attention, a station wagon with a supercar-like 603-horsepower engine is a perfect place to start.
This isn’t a car that will earn a fortune for Mercedes. I can’t imagine more than a handful of people ponying up $108,850 to buy one. That’s before you add options, like $1,200 carbon-fiber mirrors, nearly $9,000 ceramic brakes and $1,320 massaging seats.
Fortunately, my very favorite options are available at no charge. You can tell Mercedes to delete the gaudy badges on the liftgate and front fenders to make this the ultimate “I’m secure enough to not need attention” performance machine.
From the driver’s seat, there’s no denying what a remarkable vehicle this is. It accelerates from a standstill to 60 mph in 3.4 seconds, Mercedes claims, which plants it firmly in exotic-car territory.
A 4.0-liter, twin-turbocharged V8 engine delivers even more torque than it does horsepower — 627 pound-feet — while routing it all through a brilliantly designed transmission. Mercedes calls it “Multi Clutch Technology,” mixing a nine-speed sport transmission with a wet clutch to enable a tasty combination of lightning-fast shifts at the track and creamy smoothness in the neighborhood.

The Mercedes-Benz AMG E63 S Wagon looks like an unassuming station wagon but packs a 603-horsepower punch.

The sensations feel exotic, too. While AMG’s Dynamic Select system lets you choose a relatively sedate Comfort mode for around-town driving, the Sport+ mode unbridles its exhaust note, tightens its air-sprung suspension and adds heft to its steering to give it a more beastly, intimidating demeanor.
It roars. It snarls. It screams. It does everything a wagon shouldn’t.
Yet it also exists when, logically speaking, it shouldn’t. It’s completely irrational, which makes me love it all the more.
The only sensible thing about this AMG product is the spacious, practical, family-friendly layout, something that leaves plenty of room for road trips. Not only is it cavernous on the inside, with the kind of practicality and cargo space people usually associate with SUVs these days, but it coddles its lucky passengers in a cocoon of silence, softness and opulence.
Digital screens in front of the driver should be measured in acres, not inches. The screen leaves plenty of space to operate the seemingly endless array of features available in a modern Mercedes, from constantly changing mood lighting in the cabin to collecting racing data from track-day jaunts.
It’s both functional and beautiful. Mercedes’ digital designers are some of the best in the industry, delivering a carefully thought-out user experience that’s as stunning in appearance as it is in ease of use.
If anything, the E63 validates a long-held but apparently unpopular opinion of mine: station wagons are fantastic, and more people should drive them.

While the E63’s body is understated, the interior is more unrestrained. Circular vents give it a classic look to contrast with the ultra-modern digital screens and futuristic lines.

While crossovers and SUVs are the ubiquitous family haulers of contemporary America, wagons — while temporarily out of fashion, for reasons that escape me — are vastly better.
They have a lower center of gravity, making their handling inherently more planted and stable. They’re as practical and voluminous on the inside as most crossovers. They get better gas mileage, assuming you don’t fit them with AMG engines that sound like thunderstorms. And they look better, with a lower, sleeker, more timeless profile than the bulbous vehicles that are inexplicably popular in 2019.
If there is a more perfect vehicle for well-heeled contrarians, I can’t think of it.

At A Glance
What was tested? 2019 Mercedes-Benz AMG E63 Wagon ($108,850). Options: Exterior lighting package ($800), AMG exterior carbon fiber package ($2,950), AMG carbon fiber mirror covers ($1,200) AMG performance front seats ($2,500), acoustic comfort package ($1,100), head-up display ($990), driver assistance package ($2,250), ceramic brakes ($8,950), carbon fiber engine cover ($1,500), AMG performance exhaust system ($1,250). Price as tested (including $995 destination charge): $137,885
Wheelbase: 115.7 in.
Length: 197.1 in.
Width: 81.3 in.
Height: 58 in.
Engine: 4.0-liter biturbo V8 (603 hp, 627 ft. lbs.)
Transmission: 9-speed multi-clutch automatic
Fuel economy: 16 city, 22 highway

Style: 10
Performance: 10
Price: 8
Handling: 9
Ride: 8
Comfort: 7
Quality: 9
Overall: 10

Why buy it? 
There’s nothing else quite like it, a station wagon that’s as fast as some exotic supercars. Its comical mixture of speed and sensibility is the best kind of crazy.

Posted in Mercedes-Benz

Exotic, Yet Familiar

By Derek Price

Never before have I driven a car that mixes two extremes — wildly exotic, yet comfortably familiar — as well as this one.
It’s the Acura NSX, the modern-day pinnacle of what Honda engineers are capable of creating when they decide to crossbreed supercar performance with the levelheaded logic of an Accord.
So much about this car screams “exotic,” from the spaceship styling to the jet-like whirr of its twin-turbocharged V6 that is shoehorned, like any proper exotic car, behind the driver’s back.
Its performance is as heart-stopping as its price, starting at $157,500.
It feels like a bargain, though, if you compare its braking, max cornering G-forces and acceleration to the Audi R8 V10, Porsche 911 Turbo or McLaren 570S, all of which carry higher starting prices.
But enough about bargain hunting. What’s it like to drive?
Stepping up to an NSX is intimidating, especially if you know the numbers this machine is capable of achieving. It accelerates from a standstill to 60 mph in a neck-snapping 2.9 seconds, for example, thanks to the powerful V6 and electric motors working in harmony.

The Acura NSX puts a twin-turbocharged engine behind the driver’s back, then adds two electric motors for more speed.

Actually doing that — mashing the gas pedal to the floor and seeing what happens — makes the whole world feel different.
What seems impossible in normal cars becomes not just possible, but effortless, in an NSX as the outside world flashes by in a blur. Your brain has to recalibrate the physics of driving.
If its straight-line speed blows your mind, just wait ’till you see what it does in a corner.
With all-wheel drive, true torque vectoring that can route power to each of the four wheels as needed, and a low-slung, mid-engined design that somehow makes it seem as if all this car’s weight is buried underground, it feels unbelievably quick and sticky in turns.
It’s the closest I’ve ever come to experiencing “if you think it, you can do it.” The NSX responds faster than my mind can process.
Still, as intimidating as it is to slide into this machine, it took only a few minutes of driving before I felt perfectly at home behind the wheel. That’s in sharp contrast to most high-performance cars that leave me feeling sheepish and terrified even after significant seat time.
By supercar standards, the NSX is a friendly labrador puppy.

For a car that looks and drives like an exotic supercar, the NSX’s interior is comfortable and familiar. While the seats are much lower to the ground than most, it has the recognizable driving position and controls from more common Honda products.

Part of that is by design, with the stability of AWD traction, fantastic forward visibility and plenty of electronic guardian angels in place to prevent — or at least discourage — dumb mistakes.
Part of it is also because the NSX makes heavy use of the Honda parts bin. Its perfectly designed ergonomic layout, easy-to-use switches and even its infotainment system, although not Honda’s latest version, are all things you’d recognize from a morning commute in a Civic or Accord.
From a design perspective, that’s brilliant. There’s no need to mess with cabin layouts when Honda and Acura cars have them dialed in so perfectly after many years of refinement.
From the perspective of wanting to drive something special that justifies the price, it’s not as smart. It doesn’t feel as bespoke and finely handcrafted as it could.
Overall, though, the NSX accomplishes its mission in a first-rate way. Just like the original, it’s a supercar that you can drive every day.
And after spending a few days with it, it makes me wish I could wake up with one in my driveway all the time.

At A Glance

What was tested? 2019 Acura NSX ($157,500). Options: Premium paint ($700), carbon fiber exterior sport package ($12,600), carbon fiber roof ($6,000), carbon fiber deckled spoiler ($3,000), carbon-ceramic rotors with silver brake calipers ($10,600), interior carbon fiber sport package ($3,800), satellite radio ($500). Price as tested (including $1,800 destination charge): $194.700
Wheelbase: 103.5 in.
Length: 176 in.
Width: 87.3 in.
Height: 47.8 in.
Powertrain: Twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter V6 and two hybrid electric motors (combined 573 hp, 476 ft. lbs.)
Transmission: Nine-speed dual clutch
Fuel economy: 21 city, 22 highway

Style: 10
Performance: 10
Price: 10
Handling: 10
Ride: 8
Comfort: 7
Quality: 8
Overall: 9

Why buy it?
The NSX offers supercar speed with the comfort and confidence of a daily driver. It’s an extremely high-performance car you can live with, if you can afford it.

Posted in Acura

Kicking Things Up

By Derek Price

The Kicks — a new vehicle with a goofy name — has gone from non-existent to Nissan’s hottest seller in just a year.
What is it about this small crossover that’s resonating with buyers?
I spent a week asking that question while driving a 2019 Kicks, and the answers aren’t entirely clear. It doesn’t feel as solid and is far less fun to drive than the vehicle it replaced last year in Nissan’s lineup, the spunky Juke.
Despite being one of my favorite cars in the segment, the Juke never caught on with buyers, probably because it looked like an angry amphibian. When the Kicks replaced it in 2018, buyers seemed less upset that the horsepower dropped from 188 to a wheezy 122 and more elated that they wouldn’t have to drive a something that looks like a scowling Kermit the Frog.
That’s unfortunate, because the Juke was rewarding to drive in a way that the Kicks just isn’t.
The Kicks’ formula is working in the showroom, though. It eschews oddball styling in favor of a look that’s much more conventional, with just a sprinkle of interesting touches thrown in — including an optional contrasting roof and wide, rising C-pillar in back — to keep it from being boring.

The Kicks, currently Nissan’s fastest-selling vehicle, uses smart interior packaging to feel spacious. Pricing starts at $18,540.

It’s also much more functional for everyday life than the Juke ever was. Smart interior packaging makes it feel reasonably roomy, even in the back seat, and generous cargo space beats many of its subcompact competitors.
With the back seat folded flat, it offers 32.3 cubic feet of cargo space. No, that’s not as sexy as horsepower, but it’s more meaningful when you need to haul stuff.
Another selling point is its cabin, which seems to cater to young, tech-savvy buyers.
A 7-inch display supports Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, something that worked flawlessly with my iPhone in my SR-grade tester.
Optional Bose Personal Plus Audio puts speakers in the headrests to deliver a rich, full sound in a small car. Three USB ports and an available 7-inch display behind the steering wheel add to the tech appeal.

A 7-inch display on the center stack can run Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Three USB ports add to the Kicks’ smartphone-friendly appeal.

Power comes from a 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine paired with a continuously variable transmission. It produces better fuel economy than it does excitement, rated for an impressive 31 mpg in the city and 36 on the highway.
Like most contemporary cars, the Kicks offers a suite of safety features designed to boost the driver’s confidence, including standard Automatic Emergency Braking. Blind spot warning sensors and rear cross-traffic alert are both optional.
Perhaps the biggest key to the Kicks’ sales success is its aggressive pricing. It starts at $18,540, which puts it within $1,000 of the small Nissan Sentra sedan, yet offers trendier crossover styling and the feel of a more voluminous, cargo-friendly cabin.
Pricing tops out at $20,870, before options, for the SR trim.

At A Glance

What was tested? 2019 Nissan Kicks SR CVT ($20,870). Options: Premium paint ($200), carpeted floor mats and cargo mat ($215), SR Premium Package ($1,000). Price as tested (including $1,045 destination charge): $23,330
Wheelbase: 103.1 in.
Length: 169.1 in.
Width: 69.3 in.
Height: 62.4 in.
Engine: 1.6-liter four cylinder (122 hp, 114 ft. lbs.)
Transmission: Continuously variable
Fuel economy: 31 city, 36 highway

Style: 7
Performance: 5
Price: 8
Handling: 5
Ride: 5
Comfort: 6
Quality: 7
Overall: 7

Why buy it? 
For its class, it’s spacious, efficient and packed with technology. Its blend of practicality and style in a small package is making it a hot seller for Nissan.

Posted in Nissan