Category Archives: Toys, Technology. Electronics, Software

Road tripping in a Mini JCW Hatch: Lisbon to London in 24 hours

In a break from our usual programming, Nick and I went on something of a road trip in the old Mini JCW hatchback. It’s a truly great
car — fun, fast and good looking — but is it suitable for a 1,000 mile drive in less than 24 hours? We found out.

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Pioneer AppRadio 3 still the best choice for app fanatics

Now in its third generation, the Pioneer AppRadio continues to grow. It’s got even more smartphone connectivity options for its neat app-mirroring trick, now boasting simplified compatibility with MirrorLink phones. Listening to our pleas after the AppRadio 2’s launch, Pioneer has finally unlocked Bluetooth audio streaming. (USB playback of MP3s is, sadly, still missing.) Its catalog of compatible apps has also been growing slowly, but steadily. This new generation also holds a new DVD/CD drive, an odd but welcome addition to a line of receivers so focused on being a hub for smartphone connectivity.

The box
Looking at the receiver’s chassis, there are only two physical differences between the AppRadio 3 SPH-DA210 and the AppRadio 2 SPH-DA100 that I’ve previously reviewed. On the back end, there’s a new, fixed USB pigtail with 5V/1A power output, making it useful for charging MHL, HDMI, and MirrorLink devices while in use.

The rest of the rear ports are unchanged for this generation. You’ll find an HDMI connection, two RCA audio outputs, a video input for a rear camera, a radio antenna port, and the standard wire harness connection. The proprietary port for Pioneer’s USB/iPod cable is also still there, but the cable that plugs in there is no longer included in the box.

Like earlier AppRadio models, the AppRadio 3 ships with an external GPS antenna in the box that supplements and feeds more precise positioning data to AppRadio-compatible apps that make use of location data (such location sharing or turn-by-turn navigation apps). There’s also an external microphone for use with the Bluetooth hands-free calling functionality, wich can be positioned closer to your head and aimed at your face for better call quality on the road. Connections for these external sensors can be found on the rear panel, as well.

Pioneer AppRadio 3 SPH-DA210

AppRadio 3 SPH-DA210 features a hidden DVD player behind its motorized face.

Antuan Goodwin/CNET)

On the receiver’s front face, the third-generation AppRadio makes use of the same 7-inch capacitive screen that was found on the second-generation model. The resolution is still 800×480 WVGA. The screen is big, but the resolution and slightly washed-out colors left a bit to be desired, particularly when compared with the latest 5-plus inch smartphones and 7-inch tablets.

Below that screen, on a protruding lip, there are the physical controls. Joining the volume, home, menu, and back buttons is a new eject button. Tapping it reveals the other new feature for this generation of AppRadio: an optical drive behind the motorized screen for DVD/CD playback. Previous AppRadio models were completely mech-free with no moving parts, but this one lets you slide the screen aside, pop in a DVD, and watch a movie or TV show while parked.

Pioneer AppRadio 3 SPH-DA210

The AppRadio 2 (top) and AppRadio 3 (below) are nearly identical where the rear connections are concerned.

Antuan Goodwin/CNET)

What you can’t see by poking at the chassis is the AppRadio 3’s additions of MirrorLink compatibility to the available smartphone connection methods and Bluetooth audio streaming to the list of available audio sources.

The connections
The previous AppRadio models shipped with Pioneer’s proprietary USB cable and a USB-to-30-pin-cable in the box, so it worked with dock-connector Apple products out of the box. The AppRadio 3 no longer ships with those cables, which means that people wanting to make use of this connection method will have to purchase the $60 CD-IU201N cables separately. This minor annoyance for users of the iPhone 4 or 4S is good news for users of every other compatible phone, since it means that they won’t be paying for cables that they don’t need and can’t use.

Owners of the iPhone 5, 5C, or 5S will need to plug the AppRadio 3 into their phone’s Lightning port, which requires quite a few extra parts. You’ll need Apple’s $50 Lightning Digital AV adapter and a $20 Lightning-to-USB cable, which you’ll need to supply yourself. You’ll also need Pioneer’s proprietary USB cable and an HDMI cable, which can be had as part of the $50 CD-IH202 Cable Kit bundle. All in, it’ll cost you an additional $120 to connect your iPhone 5 to the AppRadio 3.

I tested the AppRadio 3 with this connection method using an iPhone 5C, which worked perfectly. Out of curiosity, I attempted to plug in my iPad Mini (which isn’t listed as compatible on Pioneer’s Web site) and found that the tablet’s resolution doesn’t scale, so the AppRadio is only able to mirror a small portion of the interface, with a significant portion bleeding out of the boundaries of the screen.

AppRadio 3 connection options

iPhone 5 users will need to bring their own Lightning Digital AV adapter (left). Android users will need Pioneer’s MHL or HDMI adapters.

Antuan Goodwin/CNET)

Android users with compatible phones will plug in using the CD-AH200C Cable Kit, which includes an HDMI cable, an HDMI-to-Micro-HDMI cable adapter, and an MHL adapter. The kit also includes a USB power supply and cable, which you won’t need with the AppRadio 3 thanks to its 1A-powered USB port. Depending on your phone’s method of connection (MHL or Micro-HDMI) you’ll also end up not needing one of the video cables included in the box. At $60, this kit is expensive, but its price has dropped significantly from the old asking price of $119.99 at the AppRadio 2’s launch.

I tested the MHL adapter with the HTC One and found that it performed as Pioneer advertised, mirroring the handset’s screen on the larger 7-inch display when using AppRadio-compatible apps.

Previously, I speculated that Android users could get around purchasing Pioneer’s expensive CD-AH200C kit by using a cheaper third-party MHL adapter. To test this theory, I plugged in a LG Nexus 5 (an unsupported phone according to Pioneer’s literature) using a $30 SlimPort adapter and an HDMI cable that I had lying around. I was surprised to find that the Nexus 5 worked as well as the officially supported HTC One and the first-party cable kit. However, I was not able to duplicate the results with the LG Nexus 4, which is also SlimPort-compatible. This means that third-party MHL and HDMI adapters may work for officially and unofficially supported phones, but — as with all unofficial hacks — you can’t count on it.

Of course, the cheapest method of connection to the AppRadio 3 is via a MirrorLink-compatible Android smartphone, such as the Samsung Galaxy S4, S3, and Note II phones. For these devices, all that you’ll need is a long enough USB-to-Micro-USB cable to reach the AppRadio’s powered USB port — no expensive adapters required.

The setup
Before you plug in your compatible smartphone, you’ll need to install a few helper apps to enable your phone to communicate with the AppRadio hardware.

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Power steering shifts to electric

Porsche 911 steering wheel

When Porsche implemented electric power steering on the latest 911, it received criticism for a numb steering feel.

Josh Miller/CNET)

If you buy a
car today, it will likely have a major difference in the power steering than cars from 10 or even just 5 years ago: The steering system will rely on an electric motor instead of a hydraulic piston for power boost. The majority of new cars sold today use electric power steering.

I’ve seen — and felt — this change in cars ranging from Toyotas to Porsches over the years. My own car, a 1999 BMW, is firmly in the hydraulic boost camp. But I’ve grown to appreciate the precise response and linear boost in modern sport cars, which has improved dramatically as engineers learn how to program these steering systems.

Not everyone feels this way. The switch to electric power-assisted steering (EPAS) met its detractors among driving enthusiasts, often citing a lack of road-feel in newer cars. Jeremy Clarkson of BBC’s “Top Gear” said, in a review of the Ford Focus ST, that cars with electric power steering tended to understeer, a claim that doesn’t make much sense when you compare the architecture of the competing systems.

Given the backlash, why have automakers adopted electric power steering almost across the board?

Fuel economy has been one of the major drivers of the switch to electric power steering systems. In its press materials, German auto parts maker ZF Lenksysteme notes that its electric power steering system uses 90 percent less energy than hydraulic power steering. TRW, another auto parts manufacturer, points out that its electric power steering systems result in a 4 percent fuel savings in cars.

Pressure or electricity
To understand why electric power steering offers better fuel economy, we have to look at how these systems work. Hydraulic power steering, used on the majority of cars from the last century, relies on pistons in the steering rack with pressurized fluid. A pump, turned by the car’s engine, maintains hydraulic fluid pressure.

EPAS does away with the hydraulic pistons and pump, instead using a simple motor to help push the steering rack as you turn the steering wheel. Some systems have a column-mounted motor, while others use a motor on the rack itself, enhancing your own effort when turning the steering wheel.

TRW belt drive electric power steering

TRW offers an electric power steering system with a motor on the rack, assisting driver input.


The problem with a hydraulic system is that the pump is always sapping energy from the engine, whether you are turning the wheel or not. EPAS uses electricity generated by the engine, but it only needs that energy when you are turning the wheel.

Some cars use a hybrid of both hydraulic and electric power steering. These cars still have hydraulic pistons in the steering rack, but maintain pressure using an electric motor rather than a pump attached to the engine.

The advantage of using an electric pump solves one problem of purely hydraulic systems: uneven pressure. The engine speed, which varies from 1,200 to 6,500rpm in a typical car, affects the hydraulic pump speed. A car driven at low speed that’s put through many turning maneuvers, such as in a parking lot, can lose boost pressure, making the wheel difficult to turn. An electric pump won’t vary its pressure based on engine speed.

As for reliability, the complexity of hydraulic steering makes it more prone to failure than EPAS. Hoses and belts need replacement, while seals in the pistons and pump will eventually age and leak. The electric motor and chip controlling an EPAS system is going to be much more age tolerant.

Matt List, Vehicle Dynamics supervisor for Ford, told me in an interview that equipping cars with EPAS systems required upgrading the alternators and electrical systems, which seems a small price to pay for getting rid of the hydraulic plumbing.

List has many reasons to appreciate EPAS. He said that, tuning hydraulic steering for a new car, his team required only a few tries to get it right. Adjusting the steering feel for a new car required varying the fluid flow selectively by adjusting valves. Tuning EPAS-equipped cars merely requires changing parameters in a digital file. The Dynamics team can quickly adjust these parameters, then try the car out on a test track.

List pointed out that, with hydraulic systems, they would sometimes have to use a different size pinion gear for the same car depending on the tire size. With EPAS, he can use a different program depending on the tires and wheels fitted to the car.

ZF Servoelectric power steering

ZF Lenksysteme makes this electric power steering system with the motor driving a second pinion gear to move the rack.

ZF Lenksysteme)

The ‘feel’
How different steering systems feel to drivers is a thorny and subjective issue. I’ve driven plenty of cars where the EPAS system was obvious through over-boosting, with no heft to the steering wheel and an accompanying whirring noise from the motor that I could hear in the cabin. Cars such as these have given EPAS a reputation for numb steering feel.

However, I also used to have a 1969 Dodge Coronet with heavily boosted hydraulic power steering. There wasn’t much heft to the wheel or road feel from that car, either.

Many of the complaints about EPAS systems come down to programming, as there isn’t a very significant difference in the architecture of the rack and pinion between these two type of systems. In fact, you could argue that removing the hydraulic pistons allows a more direct mechanical coupling between the rack and wheels. The minor differences between these systems certainly argues against claims of increased understeer.

One of the most extraordinary cars using EPAS is the new Corvette Stingray. The steering in this car couldn’t feel more natural. Chevy engineers tuned the system to allow precise control and just enough boost so the driver still feels heft when turning the steering wheel. I haven’t read a single complaint about numb steering in the Stingray.

Another car to use EPAS is the Bugatti Veyron. When I had the opportunity to drive one, I asked American LeMans race driver Butch Leitzinger, my appointed codriver, what he thought about EPAS versus hydraulic power steering. He was surprised to hear there was any controversy at all, concluding that road feel should be the same.

Leitzinger pointed out that the cars he races use EPAS, because hydraulics just don’t react fast enough for the number of quick steering adjustments made during high-speed cornering.

The future of steering
Given the advantages of EPAS, I expect more cars to convert to this system as they receive model updates. At the same time, engineers are going to get better at tuning these systems, figuring out which parameters to program to satisfy both casual drivers and enthusiasts.

But another technology waits in the wings, which would make for an even more radical change in how we control our cars. Drive-by-wire steering systems are currently undergoing development by automakers, and Infiniti has made a system based on this technology available in the 2014 Q50.

Infiniti Direct Adaptive Steering

Infiniti’s Direct Adaptive Steering transmits driver input to a steering actuator, but still has a mechanical backup.


Drive-by-wire means removing the mechanical linkage between steering wheel and a car’s front wheels. A computer rates the amount of turn input from the driver, then sends instructions to actuators at either a steering rack or the front wheel control rods.

Infiniti calls its system Direct Adaptive Steering and notes that it transmits driver inputs to the wheels faster than possible with a mechanical system. However, Infiniti includes a backup mechanical system, which takes over if the electronics fail. The proliferation of drive-by-wire steering is likely to stem directly from the success of the Q50’s system.

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Mercedes-Benz S-Class Coupe actively banks on corners

2015 Mercedes-Benz S-class coupe

A two-door version of the Mercedes-Benz S-class will be on display at the 2014 Geneva auto show.


Mercedes-Benz pushed the four-door coupe idea with its CLS-Class in 2004, but this year the company will introduce a true two-door coupe version of its S-Class flagship sedan. From early photos released by Mercedes-Benz, this new S-Class Coupe pulls out all the stop for gorgeous styling, and throws in some new cornering tech as well.

The 2015 S-Class Coupe is based on the Concept S-class Coupe that Mercedes-Benz showed off last year at the Geneva auto show. The new production model will be on display at this year’s Geneva show in March.

Rather than the imposing form of the S-Class sedan, the coupe model borrows from other areas of Mercedes-Benz’s styling toolbox. The pin-cushion grille is also seen on the new CLA250, while the single louver gets broader usage in Mercedes-Benz coupe and convertible models. The rear fenders blend liquidly into the body of the

Mercedes-Benz S-Class Coupe shows exquisite design (pictures)

As with the S-Class sedan, LEDs make up all the lighting, even in the headlamps. But Mercedes-Benz takes things into the luxury stratosphere by offering a special edition, called the Edition 1 S550, with 47 Swarovski crystals making up the turn indicators and daytime running lights in each headlight casing.

While that might sound like a recipe for a very expensive fender-bender, the S-class coupe also gets Mercedes-Benz’s excellent Distronic Plus feature. This radar-based system enables adaptive cruise control and includes a collision prevention system, which automatically hits the brakes. It can prevent a collision at speeds of 25 mph or below, and help mitigate crashes at higher speeds.

As another tech highlight, Mercedes-Benz introduces a new ride system, which it calls Active Curve Tilting. This system uses a camera and lateral accelerometer to analyze curves, causing the suspension to push up the side of the car on the outside of the turn. Mercedes-Benz describes the car as leaning into turns, similar to a motorcycle rider.

However, Mercedes-Benz notes that this system isn’t intended to make the car handle better in the turns, but to provide more comfort for the passengers. The tilting of the car will help keep a passenger’s mass pressed into the center of their seats as lateral forces build. This mechanism should prove more comfortable than active seat bolsters.

The version coming to the US this fall will be the S550 4Matic Coupe, meaning it will have all-wheel drive and a twin-turbocharged 4.7-liter V-8 engine producing 449 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque.

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Elon Musk talks Tesla Model X details, Model S upgrades, at Europe Q+A Sessions

Green Car Reports

Green Car Reports)

Tesla Motors is notoriously stingy with information about its
cars and future plans, to the great frustration of news-hungry Model S owners and fans.

But in a Q A session in Norway on February 1, Tesla CEO Elon Musk and the company’s CTO JB Straubel revealed several intriguing tidbits about the Model S, the upcoming Model X electric SUV, and the company’s planned mass-market Model E sedan.

Among the Model X highlights:

  • The Model X will have the same wheelbase as the Model S, and its length will be within 5 cm (about 2 inches). Width will be the same too. The Model X, of course, will be considerably taller than the Model S.
  • The Model X will actually have a lower drag coefficient than the super-slick Model S. But because of its increased frontal area, the total drag will be higher. Combined with a slightly heavier weight, the Model X will have an energy consumption about 10 percent higher than the Model S. (Musk did not say whether the Model X battery size would be increased in order to maintain the same range as the Model S.)
  • The production Model X will definitely have the eye-catching “falcon doors.” The double-hinged doors will be equipped with sensors that will adjust the opening sequence to avoid hitting any nearby objects. “If you can fit your Model X between two other cars, the doors will open,” said Musk.
  • All-wheel drive, using a separate electric drive motor for the front wheels, will be standard on the Model X.

2014 Tesla Model X all-electric crossover with Falcon Doors open

2014 Tesla Model X all-electric crossover with ‘Falcon Doors’ open

Green Car Reports)

The duo also discussed future upgrades to the current Model S sedan:

  • AWD will be an option on the Model S, but not until the Model X is in production in early 2015. According to JB Straubel, the AWD system in the Model S will be “an efficiency-neutral option.” In other words, it won’t reduce the car’s rated electric range. That’s never happened in a gas-powered car.
  • Upcoming software updates for the Model S will include a hill-hold function, as well as manual setting of the ride height over a much wider speed range. Farther down the road, Musk said the Model S would be equipped with guidance lines on the back-up camera and an adaptive cruise control.
  • The production Model S will soon come off the line with improved front seats. “The seats should be more comfortable,” said Musk. A modified spring force in the cushion will allow the driver to sink lower into the seat. The new seat is designed so it can be retrofitted to older cars. Musk also said that a second, more comprehensive seat upgrade is about a year away.

2013 Tesla Model S at Supercharger station on NY-to-FL road trip

2013 Tesla Model S at Supercharger station on NY-to-FL road trip

David Noland)

And they covered some more general topics as well:

  • Most Supercharger DC quick-charging stations will be upgraded from the current 90 or 120 kilowatts to 135 kW in the not-too-distant future.
  • Responding to questions about the carbon footprint of the electric-car manufacturing process–in particular, its lithium-ion battery cells–Tesla has done an internal study of that process for the Model S. According to Straubel, the results were surprisingly good: The Model S will essentially offset all the carbon emissions from its manufacture in less than 10,000 miles of driving–a far lower figure than some critics have claimed.
  • Tesla is shooting for a battery cost for the Model E of 30 to 40 percent less per kilowatt-hour than the Model S. This will help Tesla hit its price target of $30,000 to $40,000, competitive with the BMW 3-Series. Part of the cost reduction will presumably come from the huge “giga-factory” Tesla envisions to build Model E batteries.

You can watch the full video of the Q+A in Oslo above. Tesla Motors Club also published a full transcript of the Oslo session.

Musk and Straubel held a similar “town hall” session in Amsterdam the following night; that video can be viewed here.

[hat tip: Brian Henderson]

Source: David Noland for Green Car Reports

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Mercedes-Benz CLA250 includes top tech, but rides rough

When I got into the driver’s seat of the 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250, I found the luxury feel and quality materials I expected from this vaunted luxury brand, despite this new model sitting at the low end of the line-up. Perched on the dashboard was a 7-inch LCD showing Mercedes-Benz’s highly refined navigation system, and Harmon Kardon speakers around the cabin emitted crisp, distinct sound.

On the road, however, the CLA250 felt less like the Mercedes-Benz models to which I was accustomed. The ride, in particular, lacked the dreamy glide of the new S550, or even the competent comfort of the GLK250.

Mercedes-Benz CLA250 shows compact style (pictures)

The CLA250 marks a direction toward compact luxury for Mercedes-Benz, something it hasn’t previously explored in the US market. Luxury competitors have successfully marketed cars such as the Lexus CT 200h and the Audi A3, practically forcing Mercedes-Benz’s hand.

Rather than bring its existing A-class compact car to the US, Mercedes-Benz chose to maintain its brand identity here with the attractive CLA250. Although a four-door, Mercedes-Benz classifies it as a coupe, putting it out there as the baby brother of the CLS-Class. The CLA250 exhibits a similarly curved roofline as the CLS-Class.

Strong contour lines cut into the sides, and an overlarge Mercedes-Benz badge adorns the unique pin-cushion grille. That badge hides the radar enabling the car’s adaptive cruise control. The trailing edge of the CLA250 kicks up to reveal two rectangular exhaust ports, with fake vents on either side.

2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250

Mercedes-Benz applies styling it used on the CLS-class to the smaller CLA250.

Josh Miller/CNET)

Good-looking and unmistakably a Mercedes-Benz, the CLA250 comes in at a little over 15 feet long, while offering good legroom in front and decent headroom all around. The dashboard features five vents with Mercedes-Benz’s retro air flow guides. The gauges in particular show off classic Mercedes-Benz refinement.

Efficiency engineering
As Mercedes-Benz’s new economy leader, the CLA250 features a 2-liter four cylinder engine, with direct injection and a turbocharger. Output rates at 208 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. Mated to a seven-speed automatic transmission, the CLA250 earns EPA milage of 26 mpg city and 38 mpg highway. Those estimates proved realistic in my driving, as the car turned in an average of 28.9 mpg.

As in every Mercedes-Benz model I’ve driven over the past eight years, the CLA250’s shifter sat on the steering column, leaving the console free for cup holders and the minimal COMAND cabin tech interface controller. The COMAND system was present due to this model’s included Multimedia package. The car’s sticker also listed the Sport package, Premium package, and Driver Assistance package, running the total price up over $45,000 from the base $29,900.

2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250

The CLA250 shows sporty styling cues, but these rear side vents are fake.

Josh Miller/CNET)

A button on the center stack let me cycle the transmission between Eco, Sport, and Manual modes, while another button labeled Eco engaged the car’s idle-stop feature.

At the first stoplight I came to, the engine aggressively shut down in response to my braking, the tach needle jumping down to zero. Good, I thought, no gas wasted while I wait for the green. Lifting off the brake, the engine bucked the car as it cranked up, not exactly the smooth experience I expected from Mercedes-Benz.

The accelerator response also proved difficult to predict, as the engine was prone to surging when the turbo kicked up. With the transmission in Eco mode, flooring the accelerator for a passing maneuver resulted in a lengthy bit of hesitation before the car decided to wind itself up and go. The transmission, programmed to seek higher gears in this mode, spent a lot of time jockeying between gears in city driving, making it difficult to maintain steady speed.

In stop-and-go traffic or just a series of stop signs, the idle-stop feature proved so aggressive that I had to turn it off.

Jolting ride
Rough pavement also proved challenging for the CLA250’s suspension and my own comfort. Relatively minor gaps in the road lead to a hard jolt in the car, and the follow-up tended toward more gut-churning movement. On pavement with a gravelly surface, the car made me feel like I was being dragged over it rather than carried above the road, and all this was accompanied by a grinding noise.

It almost seemed like Mercedes-Benz was using this car to push me up the product line to something more expensive, with a better ride.

2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250

Even a compact Mercedes-Benz shouldn’t jar the passengers at every bump like the CLA250 did.

Josh Miller/CNET)

An air suspension isn’t available for the CLA250, and the base specs show that it uses wishbone suspension architecture both front and rear, as opposed to the multilink architecture on larger Mercedes-Benz models. Also, the Sport package on this model meant a more rigidly tuned suspension, and 18-inch AMG alloy wheels wrapped in low-profile run-flat tires. Run-flats have often been called out as culprits in poor ride quality.

However, the CLA250 showed more worth when I tested that Sport package on a winding road. Powering through a succession of turns, I was pleased with the car’s manners. The suspension kept the car feeling even and balanced, limiting understeer to a good degree. The electric power steering remained fairly numb and did not exhibit sharp turn-in, but it was easy to control and felt precise.

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