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Surprises come in all sizes

Posted by: Mark Bilek

Autobahn_Country_Club_MAMA1The Midwest Automotive Media Association's annual Fall Rally took place earlier this week at the impressive Autobahn Country Club just outside Joliet, Illinois. Attending were more than 50 Midwest-based automotive scribes and more than 70 brand-new vehicles supported by public relations and engineering personnel.

I have attended MAMA rallys and track events since the early 1990s and, even though I drive more than 75 new vehicles a year, I always come away with a few surprises. This year was no exception. Of course, the new Corvette Stingray was amazing, the SRT Viper unabashedly brazen, the Nissan GT-R mind warping. But that was expected. What wasn't expected were coil springs on the Ram 2500 HD pickup, the locomotive-like power of the Audi A6 TDI and technological wizardly of the new Infiniti Q50.

Still, a few vehicles really stood out as exceptions to the rule, "the more cars change the more they are the same."

2014 Cadillac CTS - After just a few minutes behind the wheel it's clear Caddy's new standard bearer is a no-excuses competitor to the BMW 5-Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class. It still packs the "take no prisoners" attitude of the previous CTS, but adds in considerable dollops of luxury, refinement and technology.

The '14 model that is on sale at Cadillac dealerships right now is five inches longer, one inch lower and 250 pounds lighter than the car it replaces. It comes with one of three engines. Standard is a turbocharged 2.0-liter four that makes 272 horsepower. Those wanting a little more pep can opt for the 321-horsepower 3.6-liter V6. Topping the line is an asphalt-tearing twin turbo V6 that makes a whopping 420 horsepower and a stump-pulling 430 pound-feet of torque. While the 2.0 and normally-aspirated V6 are available with rear- or all-wheel drive, the rockin' twin turbo engine comes only with rear drive.

Exterior and interior styling is all-new. Still channeling Cadillac's art-and-science mantra, the exterior features extensive use of LED lighting and sharp creases and curves. Inside, the sculpted interior coddles passengers with soft-touch surfaces, leather and brushed aluminum. Technology was wasn't overlooked either. Safety features include lane-departure warning, front-and-rear park assist, adaptive cruise control, auto braking, brake warning and parallel-park assist. Cadillac's Cue infotainment system comes along for the ride as well.

Styling aside, the new CTS shines most on the road. The suspension is so refined, the steering so natural and direct and the braking so very true that you'd have trouble finding something to complain about. And that power, oh, the power, the twin turbo V6 is outright bad when you mash your right foot to the floor.

If it sounds like I am gushing, I am - and you'll have to excuse me. The new CTS is truly a world-class automobile that deserves a place on any midsize luxury shopping list. Anyone who tells you different isn't being honest.

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2014 Fiat 500L - And now for something completely different, the Fiat 500L. Despite sharing name, similar styling and powertrain, the 500L does not ride the same chassis as the diminutive 500. If you thought the L was simply a four-door 500 (as did I) you'd be completely surprised by the size and stature of the 500L (as was I).

The L is two feet longer, six inches taller, four inches wider and 700 pounds heavier than the 500. Power comes from the same 160-horsepower 1.4-liter turbo that is offered 500 Turbo. It mates to either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic and drives the front wheels. Four models are offered: Pop, Easy, Trekking and Lounge with prices starting at $19,100 and ranging to $24,195.

Behind the wheel, you're immediately impressed with the commanding view of the road from the elevated driving position and airy greenhouse. The chair-like front seats offer good comfort and support. More importantly there is more leg room and plenty of head room. The rear seat could almost be called roomy. There's ample leg room for large adults and width allows three-abreast seating.

On the road, the 500L drives much like a compact crossover. There's some bumping and bouncing from the suspension, but overall the ride is composed and secure. The engine provides adequate power and the transmission does a decent job of smoothing shift shock.

The 500L compares favorably to the MINI Countryman and Nissan Versa Note while still maintaining its Italian flair. If you were tempted by the 500, but felt it was just too small, the 500L might be just right.

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2014 Volkswagen Beetle GSR - Volkswagen took the wraps off of the yellow-and-black Beetle GRS this past February at the 2014 Chicago Auto Show. It paid homage to a special edition Beetle called Gelb-Schwarzer Renner (yellow and black racer) that was introduced back in 1972. Today's GSR is on sale right now and is the most powerful and expensive model in the Beetle lineup.

Aping the original, the latest Beetle GSR dons a yellow and black paint scheme that carries over into the interior. Buyers find black leather trim on the seats and handbrake lever, which is contrasted by yellow stitching. Price starts at $29,900.

Power comes from a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that cranks out 210 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque. Transmission choices include a six-speed manual or six-speed dual-clutch automatic. All power goes through the front wheels. Volkswagen claims a 0-60 mph time of 6.6 seconds and electronically limited top speed of 130 mph.

Other features include 19-inch aluminum wheels, special gauges providing readouts for the clock, stopwatch and turbo boost pressure, sunroof, Fender audio system, xenon headlights, Bluetooth and push-button start. A steering-wheel-mounted badge is marked with the special-edition number. The car will also wear the Beetle's sporty R-Line bumper package and gets a unique rear spoiler.

Though the Beetle GRS's attention-grabbing exterior might attract buyers, the car's on-road performance hooks them. The engine has plenty of punch, but more importantly is refined and willing to rev. The DSG automatic offers the best of both worlds - smooth automatic operation and slick-shifting steering-wheel-mounted gear paddles that snick off gear changes with track-like precision. The suspension does a decent job of masking front-drive torque steer, but still provides a touch of that trademark VW inside-tire lift that makes it so much fun to drive. And that's the key, the GSR is a car that you can have fun in without putting your life in jeopardy. Think of it as a grown-up go kart with leather and a killer sound system.

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