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Fried chicken, 30 cars, and an award

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh  February 10, 2009 11:55 AM

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NEMPA Winter Car Test(Zane Merva/AutoInsane.com)

If you've ever wondered how car awards get decided, allow me to explain with a time-honored New England recipe:

1. Throw two dozen journalists into a garage filled with chili, doughnuts, and fried chicken.
2. Allow for lively banter and mild indigestion.
3. Add 30 gleaming new cars, turn up the gas, and stir vigorously for six hours.
4. Relax and inhale the vapors.

That's what actually happened last Saturday when members of the New England Motor Press Association gathered for their annual winter vehicle test. Besides reverting to little boys with Matchbox toys, the goal was to rank the best in-class winter cars and name an overall winner that fits the needs of the average New England motorist. The above photo, shot by fellow blogger Zane Merva of AutoInsane, only shows one-third of the parking lot.

Car Talk technical advisor John Lawlor, the man behind this escapade, owns Lyndon B. Johnson's presidential limousine and built an exact replica of a 1950s general store in his garage, replete with ice cream freezers. Oh, there's also a diner on cement blocks out front.

Your scribe, along with local celebrity "car doctor" John Paul and Globe auto writer Bill Griffith, whipped through back roads in a multitude of fine machinery, from a $17,000 Suzuki SX4 to the $80,000 Range Rover. Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Volkswagen, and Toyota each sent at least three models, including the new Venza, Passat CC, Lincoln MKS, and Infiniti FX45. Two samplings each from Subaru, Suzuki, Land Rover, Chrysler, Kia, and Mercedes were also on hand.

Noticeably absent: Honda, Mitsubishi, Volvo, and Porsche. Next year, perhaps?

Some highlights, in no particular order:

  • The ML320 BlueTec doesn't feel, sound, or smell like a diesel. Hats off to Mercedes for building a luxury SUV around a more fuel-efficient and torque-laden engine.
  • BMW's X6, equipped with very wide 20-inch tires and a 400 horsepower V-8, still is very fast despite its hefty weight.
  • Cheap dash plastic mars an otherwise well-crafted interior of the Audi A5.
  • Ditto for the Dodge Durango Hybrid, which was canceled after less than a year. It's a shame that the penny-pinchers at Cerberus are throwing away hybrid technology that's just as capable as GM's two-mode system on the Escalade and Tahoe.
  • The spring-wound Subaru WRX is a car I'd never like to have in traffic or on a bumpy road (OK, I flubbed the clutch a few times).
  • Sitting in the back of the four-seater Passat CC feels just like a Mercedes CLS - for half the price. The brakes are fantastic as well.
  • Never failing to raise eyebrows was Automobile Magazine columnist Ezra Dyer, who did something rather devilish to the Mercedes G500. Keep guessing.

Read more about the group's winter testing at Automotive DesignLine and AutoInsane. Awards will be announced next month.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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26 comments so far...
  1. Really... what's the point?? 95% of drivers will not leave their heated garages unless they can drive on clear pavement.. "It's not me... it's all the other lousy drivers on the road" yeah right - bunch of chickens who know deep down inside they can't drive in snow if they were piloting a snow groomer from Loon Mountain. I drive a rear-wheel-drive lightweight sports car (Mazda RX-8) year round with all season tires and a short but steep hill in my driveway. Dedicated snow tires would help, but they are wicked expensive to buy and have mounted and demounted twice a year. I don't want nor need an SUV, truck, 4WD, AWD or whatever. I go pretty much anywhere I want whenever I want. There just aren't that many people who live in rural New Hampshire on an unplowed road down a mile long driveway who might actually have a good argument for a "winter" vehicle.

    Posted by WVW in Newton February 10, 09 04:36 PM
  1. You praise a considerably more expensive BMW X6, but have nothing to say about the Audi A5 except that the dash plastic looks cheap? Apples to oranges much? With that in mind, what is the point of a winter comparison when the vehicles aren't at all similar? Why not do a comfort comparison of a mo-ped against Menino's limo.

    Posted by AudiLova February 10, 09 05:46 PM
  1. I have to agree, a good winter car should be light and good tires. My civic is good in all weathers, only if you can keep the road clear of all the SUV(s) with extra tall tires that can't seem to stop due to their extra weight!
    Remember the conservation of momentum

    Posted by psc February 10, 09 05:57 PM
  1. This past summer I moved to the Boston area after living in DC for the first 25 years, Washington State the second 25 years, and then Scotland the last two years. The Christmas before I moved back to the US from the UK, my father-in-law-to-be gave me a prescient present: a snow shovel. That caught my attention.

    After lots of thinking and lots of single malt scotch to help said thinking, I decided to buy a used Audi A4 Quattro. It's an amazing winter car, with excellent grip, heated seats and even heated door locks! The windows get cleared wicked fast from so much hot air I think the car is connected by a direct conduit to Congress.

    Reliable, great steering and brakes, unafraid of snow; isn't this a viable choice for a winter car?

    Posted by J.D. Douglass February 10, 09 10:08 PM
  1. I have an '04 Audi S4 (quattro) with a snow tire/wheel pkg I bought via the Tire Rack. It was probably $1100 back then, but it was worth it. This car goes thru anything except deep drifts. Snow hasn't been that bad for the last few years, but in a bad storm, the snow tires could mean the difference between being stranded or worse. Sometimes you just can't stay home. I read an article comparing all season tires to having just one pair of shoes. That one pair is just not appropriate for all occasions. Many Europeans have few problems with snow because they use 4 snows in the winter. It's just not something we Americans want to do. I was driving around VT last weekend and Subaru wagons with awd seemed very popular. They were everywhere! They're reliable, carry a lot of stuff, and get decent gas mileage. I was surprised to see so many more Subaru wagons than small SUVs like the Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4.

    Posted by High_Taxes February 10, 09 10:12 PM
  1. The best winter car, without a doubt is the Subaru Forester or Outback with regular all-season tires. These cars love snow. They handle well through slush, ice, powder you name it. Unplowed roads with a foot of snow on the ground, mean absolutely nothing for these winter beasts. Now, if you dare put on special snow tires, well, now you can bring on any fancy german SUV 4x4 or any other Jap SUV for that matter and you'll see the Subarus will do circles around any of these cars in the Snow. Best Winter cars without a doubt. Don't get scammed into buying the fancy German crap.

    Posted by Jules February 10, 09 11:06 PM
  1. 4 good quality snow tires are all that is needed for 99% of the cars on the road to be a very competent winter car.

    AWD, FWD, RWD...tires are what makes the difference!

    Posted by Required Name February 11, 09 07:17 AM
  1. First I agree four winter tires are key on a true winter vehicle whether FWD, AWD, or RWD. That is if you want to be able to stop and turn. Stability control is standard across the board and is another key element for safety.

    However when it comes to AWD and this winter vehicle testing. Please take them in extreme conditions like an ice lake with some deeper snow . Current Toyota AWD and Honda AWD simply gets stuck in deep snow if the vehicle is starting from a standstill. These traction control systems that engage rear wheels as needed(too late) and traction control works against them. Subaru and Audi use full-time AWD and it works since they always have at least one front wheel and one rear wheel if not two(limited slip on my WRX) turning.

    Another place maybe run them up a ski slope and see how makes its the furthest. Audi/Subaru will be at the top :)


    Posted by andrew February 11, 09 09:44 AM
  1. I drive a Subaru Outback XT with all-weather shoes. It is close to unstoppable in rain, sleet, and snow (nothing performs well on ice). Best of all, it's like half the price of many of the cars mentioned in the article. Oh, did I mention it has over 240 hp and 240 lbs of torque! There's a reason why you see so many Subarus in VT and CO. Make mine Subaru.

    Posted by BrnHrnt February 11, 09 10:27 AM
  1. audilova - keep in mind, I love Audis too, but you said:

    "You praise a considerably more expensive BMW X6, but have nothing to say about the Audi A5 except that the dash plastic looks cheap? Apples to oranges much?"

    Actually, yes - A5 vs. X6 is completely apples to oranges. One is a sporty SUV; the other is a low-riding sports coupe.

    Posted by FJ February 11, 09 11:05 AM
  1. Required - agreed - I slipped in an E-class 4Matic this winter going slow with decent all seasons, and whacked another car via hydroplaning. Not fun. The snow tires will help you turn better and stop better.

    Get a set of dedicated rims with them so the mounting and demounting mentioned by WWW isn't as much of an issue. It might mean one more quick trip to the alignment shop each year but you should be aligning your car at least once a year anyway, so it's not too much of an issue for most.

    Posted by FJ February 11, 09 11:16 AM
  1. brn, i respect subaru as a brand, just not for me in terms of all around car. the AWD system they have is decent but there are better out there. the half price you mention also means it comes with half the features; some of us like to be coddled, I'll admit :)

    Posted by FJ February 11, 09 11:38 AM
  1. subaru!

    Posted by Anonymous February 11, 09 11:48 AM
  1. I'm glad to see a comparison of a variety of car that are not related. You canbbest judge from the car in the study if the one you got at home is going to perform similar. We don't all have SUV, and some of us don't want one either.

    I acutally bought a Riviera luxury sports coupe as my winter vehicle. I had owned one in the past and thought it would be best to have as a winter beater versus taking my new Crossfire everywhere.

    Before the first Riv, I had owned a Jeep Wagoneer (1986). And let me tell you, the Riv performs better in the winter than my AWD Jeep ever did. Go figure.

    Posted by Andy February 11, 09 11:57 AM
  1. I've owned 2 Subaru AWDs and now an A4 AWD for the past 4 years. It's the A4 hands-down.

    Posted by Buds February 11, 09 12:14 PM
  1. SUBARU! Recently after a snowstorm dumped well over a foot of snow and drifts, the person who plows my driveway came by, took the keys and said he would move the car out and plow, then put the car back. When he knocked on the door he, a person who drives a snowplow, sad he could not believe how well the Forester handled backing out of all that snow. Undoubtedly the best bang for the buck.

    Posted by A Dingo Ate My Baby February 11, 09 01:34 PM
  1. Toyota Tundra with Michelin LTX tires. They have sipes in them which gives them great traction in the snow and ice.
    Snow tires are a must if you live in NE. Buy a pre mounted set of 4 from tire rack and just have your local garage swap them for your summer tires in the late fall.

    Posted by Anonymous February 11, 09 03:01 PM
  1. How smart is it to test for the best winter car and announce the winner in March? Get a clue!

    Posted by geoff February 11, 09 03:49 PM
  1. An article like this will never convince anyone who loves their car to change brand loyalty. I've had many different kinds of cars over the last 25 years including 3 4x4 Chevy Blazers when I lived in Maine. I loved them, especially since I needed to tow a boat. I then went with an X3 when I moved back to Mass. and now drive a 328i . No all-wheel drive! I've never had a problem driving in nasty weather. In the winter I drive on 4 ice-gripper snow tires and they work like a charm. I commute a minimum of 70 miles a day...even in big snow storms. I love this car. Drive what you want, just don't drive like an idiot!

    Posted by bmwmatt February 12, 09 09:24 AM
  1. FJ,

    I hear what you're saying about luxury, but I'm not exactly roughing it with leather, heated seats, heated mirrors, heated wipers and stability control! All for under $30k.

    Posted by BrnHrnt February 12, 09 11:50 AM
  1. WRX ftw!

    Posted by jubjub February 12, 09 12:28 PM
  1. WRX ftw x2!

    This was my first winter with the Sub, and I pray for snow. I love driving in it. Quite the difference from a '97 Altima.

    Posted by Joansy February 12, 09 05:49 PM
  1. I'll put my 97 Caddy up against any four wheel drive!!!

    Posted by John February 12, 09 08:29 PM
  1. there is a reason all the winning rally cars are Subarus - they simply make the best handling, most balanced, and toughest cars out there. they are perfect for NE winters.

    the boxer engine design, found in Subarus and Porsches - and more expensive to produce, allows the motor to be mounted very low in the car, lowering the center of gravity. the "symmetrical" part is the fact that the drivetrain splits the engine right down the middle, so there are no uneven bars (that's what causes torque steer in FWDs).

    Subaru ONLY makes AWD - their drivetrain was set up that way from the start. BMW, Volvo, Infiniti AWD - for examples - are bolted on to existing FWD or RWD systems. they are afterthoughts, unlike Subaru and Audi.

    Subaru rules, but shhhh - keep it a secret so future Outback XTs (like I own) remain under 30K. and yeah, heated leather, HUGE moonroof, electro seats, etc... make the drive comfortable. and my tow package also allows me to tow my small trailer very easily.

    Posted by mikeybigboy February 14, 09 09:25 AM
  1. I have an 09' Subaru Forester with Winter tires! Like it was stated in a previous comment, it is basically UNSTOPPABLE in the snow, ice and all the nasty weather we get here in NE during the winter months! I've driven and owned SUV's with 4WD and 4MATIC in nasty conditions. I would take the Subaru Forester over any of them during the winter months.

    FJ, Subaru's AWD system is a lot more then just "decent". More like one of the best, along with Audi's Quattro system. Subaru has been making AWD cars since the late 60's early 70's.
    Toyotras are

    Posted by Symmetrical_AWD February 17, 09 01:03 PM
  1. I have seen it too often. Journalistic integrity always comes into question when you see the peoples comments on an automotive comparitive study. It becomes even more blatent when a Subaru is thrown into the mix and gets poor reviews. I would like to see a study of owner comments. I enjoy them far more than second-rate bias motoring journalism.

    Posted by DaBeast April 16, 09 05:28 PM
 

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee
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