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Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Continental: Driving an Old Ferrari and a New Lambo, VW’s R Plans, and Looking Forward to Tokyo

The Continental

Each week, our German correspondent slices and dices the latest rumblings, news, and quick-hit driving impressions from the other side of the pond. His byline may say Jens Meiners, but we simply call him . . . the Continental.

I was invited by supplier Schaeffler to participate in the Kitzbühel Rallye in Austria, now in its 24th year, in a 1976 Ferrari Dino 208 GT4. Co-pilot was my colleague Ruben Danisch of MTZ (Motortechnische Zeitschrift). This Bertone-styled Ferrari is powered by a 2.0-liter mid-engine V-8, “downsized” to comply with the draconian tax regulation in Italy at the time, which gravely penalized vehicles with displacement above 2.0 liters. By today’s standards, the 208 GT4 still handles well, and despite the lack of power steering, it can be driven with remarkable ease. With a mere 170 hp, the 208 isn’t fast, but it sounds like it’s got at least twice as much power. Don’t look up my placement in the race; the alternator died, we lost two hours on the second day, and finished pretty much at the end of the pack . . .

Schaeffler is the mind behind the MultiAir (a.k.a. UniAir) electro-hydraulic intake-valve control system used in several Fiat and Alfa engines. The supplier will be building a new generation of turbochargers developed by its partner company Continental shortly; and there actually is strong enthusiasm for the electrification of the car. A few prototypes are on the road, and R&D executive Peter Gutzmer (who drove a Porsche 356 at the rally) strongly believes in the dynamic advantages of an auxiliary electric motor. A former Porsche engineer, he says his dream car would be a rear-engined, turbocharged sports car with an electric motor on the front axle for additional traction and power.

Aventador Impressions

On Sunday morning, right out of the historic Ferrari, I had the chance to step into the future: I took the Lamborghini Aventador LP 700-4 for a rapid drive over some virtually abandoned mountain passes. While the country folk in the peaceful Tyrolean mountain villages flocked to church, I celebrated my personal cult of speed behind the wheel of this ferocious supercar. The steep walls of the valley reflected the roar of the naturally aspirated 6.5-liter V-12 revving up to almost 9000 rpm, the Graziano single-clutch transmission lashed out with ultra-dry high-rpm upshifts, and the menacing crackle when coasting created an otherworldly experience—and it is reflected in the futuristic styling, an exercise in unparalleled aggressiveness. The only issue with the Aventador: Drive it as it is meant to, and be prepared for a helicopter above or a roadblock ahead. I returned inviolated. It was an experience to remember.

Some VW R Insights

I spoke with a VW source about the company’s thoughts on taking the “R” line further. A Polo R is pretty much a sure thing, and it might actually be powered not by a 2.0-liter TSI, but by a 1.4 twincharger, tuned to produce over 200 hp. Will there be a Passat R? That’s not decided; but it is pretty clear that neither the Golf nor the Passat will receive a variation of the turbocharged 2.5-liter five which powers Audi’s RS3 and TT RS. “Five cylinders are seen as an Audi, not a VW trademark,” says my source—the naturally aspirated five of U.S. Golf, Beetle, Jetta, and Passat fame is not sold in Europe. But the third-generation EA888 engine will gradually replace the EA113 even in the high-powered models, and it will produce close to 300 hp in its most powerful iterations, which will be the next Golf R and possibly a Passat R. The Touareg will likely get an R model at the top, a V-8 TDI. Will the VR6 survive in the long run? Not likely, as it will be complicated to get it emissions-legal for Euro 6. But internally, some engineers are still toying with the idea of a turbocharged VR6.

Tokyo Will Happen

The Tokyo auto show will take place this year, from December 3 to 11. Some European carmakers had pulled out in 2009, and a 2011 edition of the show was in limbo after the earthquake and tsunami catastrophe with the subsequent nuclear accident. But it would be in rather poor taste not to be present this year; the Japanese manufacturer’s association JAMA is already counting 175 exhibitors from 11 countries. Good. The Tokyo auto show was always one of the most interesting, and it was a shame that the 2009 show received such poor attendance from German manufacturers.

A Quick Fiesta

While we are still waiting for a Ford Fiesta ST with 180 hp or so, Ford is launching a Fiesta S with a 132-hp, 1.6-liter four—and a 94-hp turbo-diesel. A step in the right direction.

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