Automotive
Kia Electrifies Soul Crossover | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 11 December 2014 15:21

121114aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

Kia’s youth-oriented Soul has taken over leadership of the micro-crossover market pioneered by the Scion xB in the U.S. about a decade ago. Now, for 2015, it’s also Kia’s first mass-market electric vehicle.

Styling was thoroughly updated last year. The main differences to the eye for the electric version are a “floating” roof paint appearance and special alloy wheels. Also, the grille is replaced with a solid panel, with a little door that pops open to expose the two charging ports.

The Kia offers two kinds of ports. You can use the first with standard 120 volt household current (Level 1) or the much faster 240 volt (Level 2), at home or at a public charging station. Alternatively, the 480-volt DC Quick Charge system gives you about 80 percent charge in about half an hour. Otherwise, it takes a glacial 24 hours to fill an empty battery on Level 1, about 4 to 5 hours on Level 2.

The Soul EV features a 109-horsepower electric motor that twists out a generous 210 lb.-ft. of torque. You can take off like a scalded cat with that amount of torque, but you’ll pay in the prominently displayed range number on the instrument panel.

The Soul EV is rated by the EPA using the MPGe standard (for electrics and plug-in hybrids) at 120 MPGe city, 92 Highway, and 105 combined. Official range is 93 miles, and from what I can tell, that’s pretty accurate. Use these figures to compare with other electric vehicles.

One way to extend range is by regenerating power. The Soul EV does this unobtrusively. However, you can set the transmission lever to “B” and it brakes more assertively to gain charge. Also, there is an Active Eco setting that encourages more sedate driving. Turning it off gives the car a livelier personality.

Using the radio and navigation doesn’t affect your charge level, but using the heater does. The Soul EV offers a unique choice — Driver only — that provides a little heat when you need it with less range impact.

The Soul EV is roomier than some of its tiny competitors, such as the Fiat 500e and Chevrolet Spark. It accommodates five passengers, but at 3,289 pounds, is still not a big, heavy car. The 360-volt, 192-cell lithium ion polymer batteries are in the floor, so they don’t take up much room. You have plenty of cargo space — 18.8 cubic feet with the rear seats up and 49.5 cubic feet with them folded.

121114a2Kia has improved their vehicles with each generation, and the perceived quality today is very high. The EV gets white panels on the dash, console and doors that give it an iPhone hip style, and the Plus-level model, like my Clear White over Caribbean Blue tester, sported comfortable and attractive leather seats.

The interior surfaces are smoothly rendered, the pieces match perfectly, and the doors and hatch slam with a noticeable sound of quality.

There are several bio-based organic materials inside. The headliner in particular looks cheap, but no more so than the dash panels in the much more expensive BMW i3 EV. Expect more of this in alternative-fuel models to come.

Driving the Soul EV feels completely normal. When you push the start button on the floor console, a little tune plays, and then you hear nothing. A Pedestrian Warning System tone sounds when the car is moving below 12 mph or in reverse. Besides some muted tire noise, it’s a very quiet ride. The battery weight keeps the handling very stable. Steering feels natural and the car stays level on turns and quick stops.

Electric cars are a small market, and the Soul makes its debut with 17 participating dealers in California only. Each dealer has multiple Level 2 chargers and one DC Quick Charger on site, which enhances the charging network. The standard UVO EV app provides lots of useful information for locating available chargers and keeping you aware of your car’s state of charge.

The basic dash information is what you really use. The high-efficiency Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) display gives the basics: speed, range, and your driving activity — charging (during coasting and braking), driving efficiently (ECO) or not so efficiently (Power). The range number is an estimate, and a thoughtful driving style can help to extend it.

Electric vehicles are not cheap yet. The Soul EV is $34,500 for the base car or $36,500 for the Plus, including an $800 destination charge. However, there are federal and state rebates, and some surprisingly good lease deals. I recommend leasing, if the distance you need to drive fits into the plan. In three years, longer-range EVs should be on the market.

Meanwhile, if it fits your lifestyle, this new Kia should be on your shopping list.

 

 
Go Gas-free in Fiat 500e | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 04 December 2014 09:07

120414aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

The 500e joins several other pure-electric cars on the road. Being a Fiat 500, though, it still has the cute, fun-to-drive qualities that have endeared it to aficionados of mini-compact European-designed cars (although U.S-bound cars are built in Toluca, Mexico).

The little electric motor comes to life silently with the turn of an old-fashioned key. The transmission is a simple stack of four dots. Press “D” and you’re off. The 111 horsepower from the motor is enhanced by 147 lb.-ft. of torque, so the 2,980-pound car squirts off the line pretty quickly. Of course, for maximum battery charge, you need to take it easy.

Range is the biggest issue with all-electrics, and this car gets an EPA rating of 87 miles. Fiat claims you can achieve more than 100 miles in pure city driving. I found that in city or stop-and-go driving, the range meter would barely budge for miles at a time. The brakes are good regenerators, and don’t have any of the drag that some other electrics exhibit. If you don’t use the heater, you can increase your range by about 8 miles.

120414a2The simple round instrument panel helps you maximize mileage. In the center is an image of your car — in white. At the top is your digital speed. At the bottom is the current range. To the left, a bright green curving band represents percentage of remaining charge. There’s a small digital percentage displayed too. On the right, the charge bar’s line ranges from blue at the bottom (charging) to green (eco — smart driving) to red at the top (power — active driving). You learn quickly to stay in the blue and green areas.

The Fiat 500 is fun to look at, inside and out, and has the bouncy personality of Hello Kitty. In the 500e, the steam (white) interior has the ambiance of an iPhone, and makes the cabin feel extra airy. There’s a mixture of retro touches from the original 1950’s design (chrome rings, etc.) and today’s TFT (thin-film transistor) instrument panel graphics.

A standard Tom Tom model plugs into the top of the dash. It supplies not only navigation but details about the performance of the electric drive train. It even helps you locate charging stations.

To help counter range anxiety, the 500e comes with Fiat ePass for the first three years of ownership or lease. The plan includes up to 12 days of free use of a gasoline-powered rental car for longer trips. You can pay to upgrade to a minivan or truck. This should ease concerns of prospective buyers.

My tester wore optional Electric Orange Tri-coat Pearl paint, and with its orange door panels and stripe on the white leather seat, felt festive (Halloween?). It’s certainly safer to drive a small car in a bright color.

Being a hatchback, the 500e can carry lots of gear when you drop the rear seats. Two average-sized adults can squeeze into the rear seats, but they might not want to stay any longer than the battery range allows.

Charging is easy. You get a sturdy cable with a gas-filler-shaped plug on one end and a box that plugs into the wall on the other. Plug it into the wall of your garage and stick the other end into the charger socket located behind what would be the gas filler door. Four little orange lights on the dashboard indicate the charger is working. Depending on percent of charge, it shows one, two, three or four bars, and the lights turn off when it’s done.

I got more than 100 miles of charging range, but sadly, household 120-volt current takes up to 24 hours to fill the car from empty. If you own or lease a 500e, you need to set up a level-2 240-volt charger at home. It can fill the “tank” in less than 4 hours. The 500e does not come with a larger “quick-charge” plug, so 20-minute, 80-percent charges are not available.

My tester’s price tag was $33,495, including $500 for the orange paint and $395 for the white interior accents. Look into one of the low-cost lease deals that are offered on these cars if you plan to keep your mileage below 10,000 miles a year.

Electricity is not free, of course, but it is significantly less expensive than gasoline. You just can’t carry a spare can of it with you. The sticker says “You save $9,000 in fuel costs over 5 years compared to the average new vehicle.”

The electric vehicle segment is still a very tiny part of the overall car market, but it’s one part of our motoring future. If you can handle the range issues, today’s small electrics are smooth, quiet, clean — and if they’re a Fiat — fun.

 

 
Nissan Versa Goes the Distance | Print |  E-mail
Wednesday, 26 November 2014 12:28

112714aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

The Versa is the entry point to Nissan ownership. The Versa Note model is a five-door hatchback that is very different from the four-door Versa sedan. Available in five levels, it provides surprisingly strong and enjoyable performance, along with affordability and fuel economy.

Normally, I drive my test cars back and forth to work and around town, but my Red Brick 2015 Versa Note test car took me from the San Francisco Bay Area to San Juan Capistrano — below Los Angeles — and back. It was a surprisingly pleasant ride, and never let me down.

My tester was the new SR model, which, along with the feature-loaded SL, debuts for 2015. Sharing the drive train with the other Notes, its calling card is its style. You get more aggressive front and rear fascias, dark headlamp treatment, body-color side sills, a nicely integrated rear spoiler, and little turn-signal lamps in the “Euro” design rearview mirrors. The hip-looking 16-inch alloy wheels are a big step up from the standard 15-inch steel wheels and covers.

Inside, black suede bucket seats with a bright orange accent stripe and a leather-wrapped steering wheel make it look like a Nissan much higher on the food chain.

With modest vehicles like the Versa, you tend to set your expectation meter pretty low. I was pleased with how much more the car delivered, particularly in full-day 400-mile jaunts.

112714a2The seats sit high and are supportive enough that my back and bottom didn’t get sore. The interior, although it’s all hard plastic — even the door armrests — is pleasant to the eye and looks more upscale than you might expect.  And with a decent SiriusXM satellite radio, we didn’t get bored. The four speakers are not pro audio quality, but with low vehicle noise, we were well entertained.

Every Versa Note, whether it’s the entry-level S, S Plus, SV, SR or SL (in ascending order), uses the same 1.6-liter, 109-horsepower engine, with 107 lb.-ft. of torque. The S is the only one where you can shift for yourself, with a five-speed manual. The other models all come with Nissan’s Xtronic Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) standard.

Widely used in Nissan vehicles, a CVT is really the way to go these days, both for better fuel economy and ease of driving. You’d think the SR (sporty) model would offer a six-speed manual, but the target buyer is likely young and much less enthusiastic about manuals than older folks, so it would probably be a small group of takers.

There are some serious grades between San Francisco and the Los Angeles area, including the famous Grapevine. The Note, with two passengers, sprinted up that road with no problem, although the tachometer read over 4,000 at times. Moving 2,523 pounds of car is apparently no problem for the 109 horses. On the long flat sections of Interstate 5, I set the cruise control at 75 and the car flew along with just a slight hum emanating from below its sloped nose.

The Note sits on a 102.4-inch wheelbase, so there is a surprising amount of rear legroom, and as a hatchback, it accommodates a lot of gear. The EPA considers it a compact, not a subcompact, and that means you don’t feel claustrophobic in it, even for day-long trips. The large, long, minivan-like windshield and high roofline help too.

The EPA awards the automatic-equipped Versa Note scores of 31 City, 40 Highway, 35 combined. I averaged 34.8 mpg, much of that earned on the Interstate. The green ratings are 5 for Smog and a fine score of 8 for Greenhouse Gas.

The Note is assembled in Aguascalientes, Mexico, which helps keep costs down. There was no sign of cost-cutting in the car itself, however. Recognizing its job as Nissan’s price-leader, the car simply did not feel cheap to me. You can take an S home (as long as you know how to drive a stick) for $10 shy of $15,000 — a real bargain. The S Plus, SV, SR and SL add features as you move up the line.

My SR, with the SR Convenience Package and floor and cargo area mats, came to $19,180. The top-level SL gets the most high-tech features, and handy items like keyless entry and heated seats. It still tops out under $20K.

When I scheduled the Versa Note, I didn’t realize that it would be the car that would take me and my wife on a long weekend jaunt, but it really came through. I expect it would be a fine daily driver, as well.

So many entry-level cars are chosen for cost and efficiency, so it’s great to find one that delivers more than basic transportation. And, if a machine can have a personality, this one seemed to enjoy the drive.

 

 
Ford Focus Descends from ’60s’ Falcon | Print |  E-mail
Friday, 21 November 2014 15:59

112014a

The 2014 Ford Focus four-door sedan and hatchback models share Ford’s kinetic styling, which emphasizes the car’s athletic stance.

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

The compact car is an American concept. As full-size cars grew ever longer, lower and wider in the 1950’s post-war boom, the brave Rambler offered them. For 1960, Ford, GM and Chrysler responded with the Falcon, Corvair and Valiant. Since then, when you talk about a brand, you know there are going to be choices, not only in configuration or feature level, but in size.

The Ford Focus is a distant descendant of the extremely successful Ford Falcon of the 1960s. Large enough for four or five, with an efficient and modern engine, the Focus is perfect for almost anyone who doesn’t need more passenger or cargo space. More than 10 million Foci have found homes since the nameplate debuted in 1998 (and as a 2000 model in the U.S.).

I’ve driven the sporty ST hatchback recently, but this week, I tested the Titanium sedan model. As always, you have choices, and for the American version of the Focus, that means sedan or hatchback, manual 5-speed or automatic 6-speed transmission, and equipment level. All Focus models other than the ST share a non-turbo 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, which sends out 160 horsepower and 146 lb.-ft. of torque through the front wheels.

As manual-transmission options fade away in the marketplace, you can still get one here, even in the top-level Titanium model. My Ruby Red Tinted Clearcoat tester had the six-speed PowerShift automatic, which ran smoothly and quietly.

Combined with the 2.0-liter, the EPA awards EPA numbers of 27 City, 37 Highway, 31 combined. I averaged 26.2 mpg. The manual-equipped model is rated at 2 mpg lower, which means the auto box upshifts sooner than you do. EPA green scores are a laudable 7 for Smog and 8 for Greenhouse Gas.

Compact cars mostly are bread-and-butter transportation units, and many buyers really opt for them because they are affordable and economical, not exciting. However, the Euro-derived Focus platform has received favorable reviews from the car magazines over the years, and this current model delivers a bit more driving enjoyment and road feel than you might expect.

During several freeway and local trips, I felt the drivetrain in a good way through the steering wheel, the engine made pleasant sounds, and the 160 horsepower felt like plenty. There is no barebones, bottom-of-the-line price leader. Even the least expensive S sedan gets the same 160-horsepower engine.

112014a2Ford’s “kinetic” styling is derived from its European studios, and manifests itself in other Fords, like the Fusion sedan and Escape crossover. It can translate into a little bit of “frenetic” inside the car. The dash and doors have lots of “interesting” lines and curves and folds, and there is a dizzying mix of textures.

For example, the hood over the instrument panel has two prominent folds in it that you see as you’re driving. In the Titanium, there’s a little more of an upscale feeling, perhaps from the subdued gray metallic trim, and the leather-wrapped bucket seats are firm and attractively stitched together in a German luxury sedan way.

Ford’s SYNC system connects your devices and gives you a nice home page at dash center. It’s an electronic “dashboard” with four quadrants for audio, climate, navigation and Bluetooth phone connection. Touch the outer corner and a more detailed screen for that function displays. In the instrument panel, you can view a succession of screens for fuel economy, distance to empty, average speed and other information — or keep it at a quartered rectangle, like the center-dash one, only with that information displayed all in one view.

Steering-wheel-mounted controls, a common feature today, make audio selections and phone use easy while you keep your eyes on the road.

The basic S comes as a sedan only, but the SE, SE Sport and Titanium also offer the hatchback model. The tail ends are different, but the interior and front halves are the same, in Ford’s current look. My 2014 tester’s look changes with the 2015 models to the “open mouth” grille of the newest Fords, such as the larger Fusion.

Prices start at $17,105 for the S, and move up to the Titanium. My tester base-priced at $23,515, and with $1,190 worth of options, including premium paint color and navigation system, it came to $25,510. Both prices include a $795 destination charge.

There is plenty of tech for your Focus. Get Active Park Assist, which helps you parallel park automatically with the touch of a button if the right size space is available. There are active grille shutters for slightly better fuel economy.

The compact car is still with us, but a lot has changed since the 1960s. Today’s Focus serves the needs of the vast majority of drivers, providing some driving enjoyment, reasonable fuel economy, and European design, too.

 

 
Ford Offers Hybrid Alternative | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 13 November 2014 15:39

111314aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

Despite the recent drop in gas prices, there is still a push for more choices in alternative vehicles. With the C-MAX, Ford is hoping to establish a new nameplate that’s indentified completely with the green driving experience.

While the C-MAX is available with a conventional internal combustion engine only in Europe, its original home, you can only get two versions — a gas/electric hybrid like my White Platinum Metallic test car, or the plug-in hybrid C-MAX Energi — in the U.S.

Hybrid vehicles automatically combine multiple propulsion methods, normally a gasoline engine with an electric motor, to increase fuel economy and raise environmental green-car scores. Their performance is enhanced with the driver’s care in avoiding extremes of acceleration or braking.

A plug-in hybrid like the Energi comes with a jack and a cord, so you can add electricity to drive without gas at all, like a pure electric vehicle. The C-MAX Energi I tested last year gave me about 21 fuel-free miles.

Compared to the Toyota Prius, the biggest selling hybrid, the C-MAX is arguably better looking, and is certainly more fun to drive. The Toyota is still the mileage king, but the C-MAX has a kind of eagerness and tautness on the road that the Prius lacks. The tall proportions actually resemble the Prius V wagon more than the standard Prius hatchback, with more than 50 cubic feet of storage behind the front seats when the second row is folded. With the rear seat’s 60/40 split, you can gain a lot of cargo space and still leave room for a rear passenger.

My tester was rated at 45 City, 40 Highway, and 43 Overall. I earned 40.5 mpg, which is about as good as it gets, short of the Prius and perhaps the new Honda Accord Hybrid sedan, which I recently tested at 42.8 mpg. The green scores for the C-MAX Hybrid are 7 for Smog and a top-level 10 for Greenhouse Gas.

The C-MAX blends a 2.0-liter gasoline engine with an electric motor to generate a total of 188 horsepower. The car runs in full electric “EV” mode part of the time, especially on level streets in town, but can still run in pure battery mode up to 62 miles per hour. It all flows through an electric continuously variable transmission (CVT). CVTs search for the best ratio for the current conditions, using belts rather than gears, so they sound a bit different.

You can see where the power is originating when you look at the customizable instrument panel’s left side. There, SmartGauge with EcoGuide is configurable in several different views. I liked the Engage view, which shows a bar graph for gasoline and electric usage, and indicates with an “EV” when the car is functioning as a full electric. You can see when regenerative braking is charging the battery, too. I tried to fill the battery with my careful road habits. On the right side, you can watch Efficiency Leaves fill in or fall depending on your driving behavior.

The C-MAX is quiet, but especially so when cruising on battery power. The car uses lithium-ion batteries, which are 20 to 30 percent smaller and 50 percent lighter than the traditional nickel-metal-hydride type. Batteries still need a lot more development to become much lighter and smaller.

111314a2Ford’s SYNC system lets you connect your phone and music devices using Bluetooth. My phone was easy to use on-the-go, with voice commands working properly from the first time. SYNC can be confusing for some consumers, but kudos to Ford for trying something new. Once you get used to the new tools, it becomes as easy as using a cell phone app.

In the Hybrid, you can choose from the SE or SEL model. My SE tester had a base price of $25,995, including destination charges. The SEL costs $2,000 more, and includes leather seating and satellite radio. My tester also came with Equipment Group 203A, with power liftgate and rear parking aid (a distance warning system rather than a rear camera), as well as ambient interior lighting, SYNC and Ford MyTouch — the configurable instrument panel. It also charged me $595 for the special paint color. Interestingly, the 2015 SE model is listed online at $1,000 less than my 2014 model. That may be Ford’s attempt to make it more attractive to buyers, as sales have been slow.

Built in Wayne, Michigan but with stylish European roots, the C-MAX is an appealing alternative to other hybrids, but is no longer the latest model out there. During my test week, it felt completely comfortable and did everything I asked of it. Roomy, but maneuverable in town, smooth and quiet on the highway, it will save you money at the gas pump and, in today’s market, is a good deal.

 

 
Jeep Cherokee Forges a New Path | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 06 November 2014 15:35

110614a

The all-new 2014 Jeep Cherokee provides a choice of three innovative 4x4 systems.

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

The Jeep Cherokee is a look at the future of the Jeep brand. Jeep is nearly 75 years old — dating back to the indestructible little WWII combat units. The CJ (Civilian Jeep?) kept things going postwar, eventually becoming today’s Wrangler. However, the other stream of Jeep, from the family-oriented Wagoneer to today’s Grand Cherokee, is oriented to serving the needs of families, some of whom may want to go off road — or not.

The Cherokee replaced the Liberty, which served as Jeep’s midsize contender from 2002 to 2013. The Liberty itself replaced the original Cherokee, which ran for two decades. A two-box, no-nonsense product, the original Cherokee became obsolescent, but certainly looked like a Jeep. The Liberty was a bit softer, especially the first generation. The 2014 Cherokee is completely new, although the familiar styling cues are there — updated for the 21st century.

The new Cherokee is based on a platform from parent Fiat. Aimed at being the leader in the 2-million-cars-a-year midsize SUV/crossover segment, it is a very appealing and versatile package. As usual, you can equip it basic or fill it with comfort or serious off-road features.

Choose from two new engines: the standard 2.4 MultiAir four-cylinder or the 3.2-liter Pentastar V6. The 2.4 generates 184 horsepower and 171 lb.-ft. of torque, and is about 45 percent more efficient than the base Liberty engine it replaces. The V6 ups that substantially, to 271 and 239 respectively.

Both engines run through a nine-speed automatic — the only transmission available — and the first use of the nine-speed in the midsize SUV segment. Benefits of this gearbox are more aggressive launches, smoother power delivery, and greater fuel economy.

It wouldn’t be a Jeep without the availability of four-wheel drive, but as has been the case for a long time, you can also get two-wheel drive if you don’t need off-road ability. There are three levels of 4WD, including Active Drive I, Active Drive II and Active Drive Lock. Active Drive I has a single power transfer unit, and works without driver intervention, as needed. This is handy for improved traction in normal driving. Active Drive II adds a driver-selectable low gear, which locks the axles for low-speed power and towing, as well as enhanced climbing ability. Active Drive Lock adds a locking rear differential.

Choose from four ascending levels: Sport, Latitude, Limited, and Trailhawk. My tester was a Latitude model, in Granite Crystal Metallic Clear Coat paint, with the optional V6 and Active Drive II. It also contained upgraded interior electronics and a rear-view backup camera. The Sport is your entry point, starting at $23,990, while the Limited offers more luxurious accommodations. My Latitude started at $27,490, but with options came to $31,020. All prices include delivery charges.

The Trailhawk is the Cherokee for serious off-roaders — it’s even Trail Rated, and gets Active Drive Lock standard. It wears unique styling, with improved approach and departure angles, an extra inch of height, skid plates and tow hooks. This is the one for the Rubicon Trail.

My two-ton test Cherokee had the optional 3.2-liter V6, which made driving effortless and quick. It’s the first use of this smaller V6 based on Chrysler’s award-winning 3.6-liter V6. I averaged 21.1 mpg, which matches the EPA’s 21 Combined rating (19 City, 26 Highway). The 2.4-liter four with two-wheel-drive earns 22 City, 31 Highway and 25 Overall. EPA green numbers are 6 for Smog and 5 for Greenhouse Gas.

My tester had the Selec-Terrain system — a console-mounted dial where you can decide how you want the car to behave on different surfaces. Choose from Snow, Sport or Sand/Mud — or leave it in Auto and let the car decide. There is also a button for engaging the 4WD low gear, and hill descent control — useful when climbing down a hill using that low gear.

110614a2The inside of the new Cherokee blends some traditional elements with a softly contoured, high-quality design that feels substantial but is very pleasant to look at. It integrates the Fiat Chrysler Auto touch screen which, with the upgraded UConnect 8.4 inch display, makes it easy to control entertainment, climate and other features with large, colorful buttons and easy-to-read displays.

Offroading, like war, is a serious business, but today, Jeep delivers luxury too. Enjoy its Limited models for pleasant daily motoring, or go for serious off-roading with the rugged Cherokee Trailhawk.

There’s even some whimsy too, such as the “easter egg” design features. Along the black windshield trim edge, dash center, is a tiny silhouette of a classic Jeep CJ climbing a hill. It, along with the “Since 1941” embossed into the lower steering wheel spoke, reminds you of where Jeep has been, while the fresh Cherokee design and technology tells you where Jeep is going.

 

 
MINI Makes Driving Fun | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 30 October 2014 14:52

103014aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

MINI has introduced a new, third-generation Cooper hardtop for 2014. If you don’t notice the changes at a glance, that’s understandable, but it is a thorough reworking of the original premium subcompact.

All of the MINI characteristics are still there, from the upright windshield, big oval headlamps, vertical taillamps (although they get wider with each generation), and short front and rear overhangs. This car is actually larger: 4.5 inches longer, 1.7 inches wider, and even .3 inches taller. Passengers get a little more room and there is three cubic feet of additional cargo space. A 1.1 inch longer wheelbase and slightly wider track add stability to an already great-handling package.

There are two new engines, both running through your choice of a six-speed manual or automatic transmission. My Deep Blue Metallic test car was a Cooper — the lower level model — so it had the new 1.5-liter turbocharged three-cylinder. Yes, only a three, but it generates 13 more horsepower than the previous four, and with the turbo, it scoots from 0-60 in 7.3 seconds.

The Cooper S gets a new turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder that sends 189 horsepower and 207 lb.-ft. of torque to the front wheels. That’s good for a 6.4-second 0-60 time.

The regular Cooper doesn’t feel at all wimpy, and has a respectable EPA fuel economy rating of 29 City, 41 Highway, and 34 Combined. I averaged 30.1 mpg, but (too) much of my driving time was spent commuting.

I would order a manual transmission in my own car, but this automatic does the job, and you can select your own gears by pulling the lever to the left and rowing it back and forth. Steering wheel paddles are also available. The automatic includes a stop-start mode; the car shuts off at stoplights. It’s unnerving if you’re not expecting it, but it saves gas, and the car starts up the minute you lift your foot off the brake. You can disable this feature if it bothers you.

I drove my tester on about 60 miles of fine winding roads through the trees of coastal Northern California on the weekend. MINIs are some of the best handling, fun-to-drive cars out there, with quick reflexes, cornering stability, instant-response steering and an overall sense of road-going well being.

You get sports car handling but still can take your stuff with you. On my aforementioned trip, I was the second car in a two-MINI convoy carrying musical gear to a blues band gig. In front, the gray Clubman carried guitars, mike stands, speakers, amplifiers, and two band members. I brought all my own gear in my little hatchback. For the entire trip I could see the little double-door Clubman’s back right above my MINI dashboard.

103014a2With this third generation, owner BMW has upped the quality and materials of the interior, and made some substantial design changes. For one, the giant central speedometer is now the home of the information screen — a necessity in today’s driving. It’s controlled by a BMW-style dial between the front seats. The speedometer is now relocated to its natural spot behind the steering wheel, but it’s still a separate gauge binnacle, motorcycle style. Also, the window and lock controls move from the center stack to the doors. The entire presentation is more upscale while still retaining the MINI appearance.

The center dash circle has a new color ring that changes depending on your actions. The most significant is when you select from the three driving modes available with the automatic: Green, Mid and Sport. Green shows you green, Mid, blue, and Sport, red. Mid, the “standard” setting, is where I lived most of the time, but I switched to Green on freeway commutes. It lowers your energy use for the A/C, upshifts sooner, and actually shows you how many extra miles you get from driving that way (I got it over to 8). I tested the Sport mode briefly — it would be perfect for the racetrack.

As with MINIs since the beginning in 2001, you can equip your car to suit you. My car began as a basic Cooper at $19,950 (plus $795 shipping), but ended up at $33,095, with the presence of many extras. The Premium Package added a panoramic moonroof, automatic climate control and premium sound. The Sport Package contributed 17-inch alloy wheels, sport seats, LED headlamps and white turn signals. The automatic transmission cost $1,250, and the list goes on. The MINI Yours interior, with “Cottonwood” dash trim ($350) was handsome and unusual. Visit miniusa.com to configure yours.

Coming soon is a new four-door version of the MINI Cooper hardtop, essentially replacing the Clubman wagon. MINI is always changing and improving, but still retains the stylish, economical and fun-to-drive character that makes it unique.

 

 
Challenger Brings Back the ’70s | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 23 October 2014 14:24

102314aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

Despite the growing popularity of fuel-economizing hybrid and electric cars, there is still a segment of the population that wants to drive fun, powerful cars. In 2014, you can buy a new Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro and a Dodge Challenger — three of the original muscle cars.

The Challenger was Chrysler’s response to the 1965 Mustang and 1967 Camaro. Although late to the party, it offered another kind of experience, including the famous Hemi V8 engine. The car, however, didn’t last past the early 1970s. The latter-day version is based on Chrysler’s 300/Dodge Charger, which itself started life on the old Mercedes-Benz E-Class platform.

Using a larger platform gives the Challenger more room inside, and that means it will carry a bass in the front passenger seat. If you can find an old Challenger, park it next to the new one and you’ll be astounded not only by how much bigger the 21st-century version is, but also, by how the stylists translated much of the beloved shape onto the modern platform.

My tester arrived in Sublime paint, with emphasis on the “lime.” As a further retro touch, while the recent Challenger has been modeled after the 1970 model, the 2015 version is updated to the 1971 styling, so you get a split grille and taillamps — just the kind of  annual model change that distinguished cars of the 1950s and 1960s.

The 2015 receives an all-new, and much nicer, interior. Apparently the stylists kept an actual 1971 dash available; much of its trapezoidal shape is referenced in today’s materials and requirements. The gauges are beautiful dials, while in the center of the dash is an eight-inch touch-screen display for selecting entertainment choices and vehicle configurations. The genuine stamped-aluminum trim and nicely assembled components provide an upscale, retro ambiance.

There is a new Hellcat 701-horsepower version of the Challenger out, but it’s a very special and expensive reputation enhancer for the brand. Most folks will choose from the three more common levels, defined by their powertrains. My tester was the R/T Scat Pack, with a 6.4-liter V8 that sent 485 horsepower and 475 lb.-ft. of torque to the rear wheels. It’s good for zero-to-60 runs in the mid four-second range, and the quarter-mile in the low 12-second area. Top speed is 182 mph.

EPA environmental numbers for the 6.4-liter V8 engine are 5 for Smog and 4 for Greenhouse gas. The fuel economy numbers are 15 City, 25 Highway and 18 Overall with the automatic, and 1 mpg lower with the stick. I averaged 15.4 mpg.

Below the 6.4 is the 5.7-liter V8, with “only” 375 horsepower and 410 lb.-ft. of torque. The “entry-level” Challenger has a 3.6-liter V6 with 305 horsepower and 268 lb.-ft. of torque.

I had to feather the accelerator so I didn’t leave patches of rubber at every stoplight. Checking the Super Track Pack screen, I discovered that I had been driving in “Sport” mode the whole time. Dialing back to “Normal” moderated some of the car’s urge to leap forward at every opportunity.

With the two larger engines, you can order either a six-speed manual or a remarkable eight-speed automatic. My tester had the latter. You can let it work or use the small steering wheel paddles to choose your own gear.

102314a2The Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep/Fiat user interface is one of the easiest to learn and use. The colorful eight-inch center screen is sensibly laid out. It was easy to connect my phone for calls and music streaming. The climate adjustments are intuitive, and the audio system sounds nice. My favorite, though, is the back-of-the-steering-wheel adjustments for the audio system; switch from satellite radio to FM or Bluetooth with the push of a button, and select stations and modulate volume easily, too.

The Challenger contains all the safety features you could want. These include adaptive cruise control, blind-spot warning light/buzzer, and Forward Collision Warning. My tester also boasted more than $10,000 worth of upgrades, including leather/altantara seating, the eight-speed transmission, and upgraded sound. The Scat Pack appearance package adds heritage bumble bee striping on the tail and 2014-style 20-inch black alloy wheels with low profile rubber.

Pricing for my Scat Pack with the automatic and the extra equipment came to $47,860, including $995 for destination charges. A plain V6 SXT model begins at $27,990, and will deliver much of the looks and still provide an exciting driving experience.

Built in Brampton, Ontario, Canada, the thoroughly updated 2015 Dodge Challenger offers all the fun of a traditional muscle car, updated for today. This segment of the car market is predicted to grow, and as long as it does, you will be able to relive some of the excitement of days gone by.

 

 
Ford Gives Fiesta an EcoBoost | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 16 October 2014 15:02

101614a

The redesigned exterior of the 2014 Ford Fiesta boasts a sporty new grille that reflects the new face of Ford.

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

Today, hybrid and electric cars are the poster children for fuel saving, but they are not volume sellers. Another way to improve fuel economy is to make cars — and their engines — smaller, lighter and more efficient.

Ford is addressing this with its EcoBoost engines. By improving the energy efficiency of a smaller-displacement engine, it can, for example, substitute a turbocharged four-cylinder for a V6, and put a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine into a midsize Fusion sedan. In the case of Ford’s European Fiesta, the smallest car it sells in the U.S.,  it means replacing an already compact Brazilian 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine with a Romanian-built 1.0-liter three-cylinder.

Don’t confuse this high-tech mighty mite with the pokey 1.0-liter engine in the unlamented Geo Metro from years ago. As it sits tidily under the stylish hood of the Fiesta, it puts out 123 horsepower and 148 lb.-ft. of torque, versus the 1.6-liter’s 120 and 112 respectively. Fuel economy is rated at 31 City, 43 Highway and 36 overall for the EcoBoost engine against 28 City, 38 Highway and 32 Overall for the 1.6. I averaged 33.4 mpg during my test week. EPA Green numbers for the EcoBoost are 6 for Smog and 9 for Greenhouse Gas.

Even though it’s a turbo, the baby of the EcoBoost family uses regular gas. It is, as you might expect, no rocket. If you want that kind of performance, opt for the Fiesta ST. This SFE version has a few quirks. You really can’t start from a stop in second because without the turbo spooling, it sounds like it could stall. The three doesn’t sound quite like a four-cylinder, either, but it’s not annoying, and there is no noticeable vibration, thanks to some careful shaping of the moving parts to maintain balance.

Fiestas come with a five-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission, but the SFE with EcoBoost is manual-only. It helps to have the manual gears to goose the little powerplant along, but it also means it will not be the volume seller here, because Americans like automatic transmissions. So, you get a true European driving experience with this car.

We may not realize it, but small four-door hatchbacks like the Fiesta are family cars in much of the world. This little runabout accommodated adults in the rear seat, and with the back seat folded, passed the bass-carrying test easily.

101614a2The Fiesta was reintroduced to the American market just a few years ago. The ones in the U.S. are built in Mexico, but the design is definitely Continental. The body wears creases and curves from the European design studio, and the interior does, too. Oblong gauges poke out of the dash surface, and the central controls are angled in like the keyboard buttons on an old cell phone. The doors and lower dash are hard plastic, but the upper surfaces are padded and wear a random raw silk pattern. It’s mostly black and silver inside the Fiesta, but that balances off the profusion of angles and shapes. At night, the footwells and a slice of the passenger side of the dash are illuminated, and the cupholders flaunt lit rings.

For the full-European experience, opt for the hatchback. In America, Fiesta shoppers can select a slightly longer sedan version that offers a private trunk, but no other advantage, and loses the utility of the spacious hatch.

The Fiesta may be small, but it has all the basic safety technology you need. There is AdvanceTrac, anti-lock brakes, a full complement of airbags, and the rest. My tester, at the bottom of the market, did not have blind-spot monitoring or some of the high-end electronic nannies, but it did score high enough in the IIHS tests (all Good ratings — their top score) to be a Top Safety Pick Award Winner. Although it’s compact, it doesn’t induce claustrophobia.

Pricing for 2015 models starts at $15,190 for the Fiesta S hatchback. The absolute cheapest is the Fiesta S sedan, at $500 less. The SE hatchback starts at $16,420. My 2014 SFE tester, in Race Red, came to $18,190, including the EcoBoost engine ($995) and Comfort Package ($290 for heated front seats, power heated outside mirrors and automatic climate control).

If you’re shopping at the bottom of the market, you can bring home a nice car for less than $20,000 today. The Ford Fiesta is fun to drive, big enough to take care of nearly any task for four people (five in a pinch), and offers its remarkable, tiny little engine. Yes, some motorcycles have more power, but they don’t offer the utility! And while development of alternate auto technology speeds along, there’s no reason not to maximize existing engine technology. That’s what EcoBoost does, from the bottom up.

 

 
Fiat 500 Pops Like a Peep | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 09 October 2014 14:22

100914aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

Is there a cuter new car on the road today than the Fiat 500? My 2014 yellow (Giallo) test unit stood out in traffic like a large, motorized marshmallow Peep. Boasting a five-speed manual transmission with black cue-ball shifter, it was loads of fun, too.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is a huge European automotive corporation that sells cars around the world. Fiat bailed on the American automotive market decades ago, unable to compete with higher-quality Japanese cars. The brand’s return came in spring 2011 with the 2012 500.

The 500 is closely modeled on the original 1950’s version, which was to Italy what the VW Beetle was to Germany and the Mini was to the U.K. — personal and affordable transportation. All three of those cars are now available on American roads in updated forms.

Although the driving experience of narrow European centuries-old roadways is not much like a California interstate freeway, my little tester cruised along, even with three people in it, with no problem.

Acceleration from the 1.4-liter MultiAir engine, with its modest 101-horsepower and 97 lb.-ft. of torque, was leisurely, particularly on uphill grades. However, the tight reflexes, small dimensions, and immediacy of the driving experience made it amusing to zip about in this modern-day city car.

When you buy a Fiat 500, you had better like the body color, because it is spread across the dashboard and upper door frames as well. I realized at one point that one reason I liked this car so much was that it reminded me of the original Honda Civic from the 1970s, a car I coveted… in yellow.

The 500 is small, but you can fit two average-sized adults in the back seat. Pop the rear hatch and the car will swallow an upright bass, or other sizeable objects, so despite being less than 12 feet long, the 500 is practical. And with EPA fuel economy numbers of 31 City, 40 Highway, and 34 overall, it’s economical, too. I averaged 31.7 mpg in mixed driving. The EPA rates Smog as 5 and Greenhouse Gas at 8.

100914a2The retro look on the outside, complete with “whiskers and logo” front and fastback tail, carries over to the interior. Besides the swath of yellow plastic that replicates the 1950’s metal dash, are control panels of “ivory,” with old-style but modern-function climate and audio knobs. A few chrome “buttons” on the dash emulate the old-school look. The shifter sprouts out of an extension of the dash panel, with a short lever wrapped in a vinyl bag for a traditional look and feel.

The single round instrument panel has concentric speedometer and tachometer, with the fuel and temperature gauges simple red LED bands. A leather-wrapped steering wheel is standard in all 500s. The combination of yellow and the ivory trim brightens the cabin; the doors and dash are dark.

Despite its retro look, the 500 is modern, with appropriate electronics, including BLUE&ME Bluetooth connections, a USB port, steering wheel audio controls, vehicle information in the center of the instrument panel, a full set of airbags, and more. My Pop entry-level tester did not have SiriusXM satellite radio, but you could order it.

Step up to the Sport model for an enhanced suspension and some styling upgrades. You get unique 16-inch alloy wheels, too, and a manual transmission is also offered at this level. The top-level Lounge model comes only with the six-speed automatic transmission and has some extra styling flair.

If you want more power, you can opt for the Turbo, which bumps horsepower up to 135 and torque to 150. That may not sound like a lot, but the Turbo model weighs only 2,500 pounds (just 2,366 for the non-turbo), so that moves you along more aggressively.

The 500 starts at just $16,995 for the Pop with manual transmission. My tester also included an $1,100 power sunroof (with translucent shade) and sparkling $500 15-inch alloys, bringing the grand total to $18,595. The Sport and Lounge models of the hatchback move up in small steps, at $18,300 and $19,300 respectively. The Cabrio, with its roll-back cloth top, starts at $20,745 for the Pop version, and $23,300 for the Lounge model.

For extra fun, check out the 1957 Edition, with retro trim and styling elements, which tops out at $21,200. Adding options makes those numbers larger, but pricing still comes in under the MINI Cooper and VW Beetle, its most obvious competition. All prices shown include an $800 destination charge.

Fiat is back, and in my Northern California stomping grounds, the little cars seem to be everywhere. The new 2015 500s have minimal changes, and the larger, but less cute 500L is still around. For fun on a budget, the Fiat 500 is fantastico.

 

 
Honda Accord Houses Earth Dreams Engine | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 02 October 2014 18:18

100214a

Extensive use of under-covers improve the aerodynamics of the Honda Accord for increased fuel efficiency.

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

The automotive industry offers hundreds of choices every model year, but there are some certified hits. The Honda Accord is one of them.

Currently the best-selling midsize car in the marketplace (retail registrations), this perennial favorite has been around for 11 generations, spanning nearly 40 years. For decades, Americans have bought Accords built in the Marysville, Ohio factory by American workers. Like the Ford Model T, 1960s Chevrolet Impala, and 1970s Oldsmobile Cutlass, the Accord is today’s car to own.

I recently tested the Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid versions of this latest generation Accord, but this week, I had a “regular” model, with the Earth Dreams 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine under the hood, connected to a continuously variable automatic transmission. This is the version most people will buy.

The original 1976 Accord had a tiny four-cylinder engine, enough for a quite small car. This new four-cylinder puts out a generous 185 horsepower and 181 lb.-ft. of torque, and drives like a six, despite its four-cylinder sound. Official fuel economy numbers are 27 City, 36 Highway and 30 Overall. I averaged 26.3 mpg in my usual mix of freeway commuting and in-town errands. The EPA Smog score is a mid-pack 5 but the Greenhouse Gas number is an excellent 8.

The newest Accord sedan is a 3,536-pound midsizer, so front and rear legroom, as well as trunk space, is generous. With a BMW-derived look outside and an upgrade in style and materials inside, this current version is in its third year, as a 2015 model now arriving in showrooms.

My 2014 Basque Red Pearl test vehicle was an EX-L with navigation, at the top of a range of choices. Start with the LX, move up to the Sport, then the EX. EX-L connotes leather on the seats, and it’s soft and great-looking. My tester’s tan interior made the car feel airy. The bottom edge of the windows feels a little lower than in some current vehicles, and the dash has more flow, so it feels a little more spacious.

100214a2Honda’s previous generation Accord, like the Civic, felt a little low-rent, so this latest model has those little touches in the interior that create a feeling of high quality. Plastics are nicely grained, and the satin-finish trim gleams. Oddly, the shiny trim around the transmission lever and cupholders is mirror-like chrome, unlike the rest of the interior. The dash panel features a dark pseudometallic strip that was subtle but a bit mysterious.

The steering wheel offers luxurious leather around the rim and a center panel that evokes the older, traditional Accords — surely intentional. The original 1970s and 1980s Honda interiors always felt like they were higher quality than you would expect at the price, and this feels like a return to those virtues.

Driving the Accord is just as you would hope. It’s smooth and quiet most of the time, although I detected some road noise on rough surfaces, and the four-cylinder engine, with the CVT, can whine a little during strong acceleration. The doors slam with a nicely damped thud, the switchgear feels substantial, and the seats are supportive. I took my family for a drive along curving roads to scenic Half Moon Bay, and the handling, while not as taut as a sports car, had immediacy and was moderately entertaining. Nobody got carsick.

One of my favorite things about the Accord is the LaneWatch display. Many cars have rear-facing cameras for when you’re backing up, but the Accord uses it to provide a view of what’s on your right side whenever you flip on the right turn signal. It keeps you from pulling over to turn when someone’s in your blind spot. My tester also had an approach warning light and buzzer in the dash to alert the driver of slowing or stopped cars ahead. The downside was that on a curving road, it sometimes mistook parked cars for obstructions, but as a commuter, I truly valued the warning.

Pricing, as always, starts low and moves up. My EX-L top-of-the-line sedan came to $30,835, including the $790 destination and handling charge. You can pick up an LX with a six speed manual transmission starting at $22,895. That manual six-speed is available in the LX, Sport, and EX models, but the EX-Ls are automatic-only. I’m guessing that Accords with clutch pedals are in the minority, but having that choice is a bonus.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Accords are coming home to happy families every year. My friend Jerry, who keeps and maintains his cars carefully and for a long time, recently replaced an aging Saturn with a modestly equipped LX sedan. It was the obvious choice — affordable, economical and attractive. And, with hybrid versions, it’s a good choice for the environment, too.

 

 
Meet the Hyundai Azera | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 25 September 2014 21:37

092514aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

Have you met the Hyundai Azera? It’s likely you haven’t, and that’s understandable. There are a lot of brands out there, and the name Azera doesn’t connote much. In Hyundai’s ascending steps of sedans, it’s the fourth of six.

Count with me from small and inexpensive to large and pricey: One — Accent; Two — Elantra; Three — Sonata; Four — Azera; Five — Genesis; Six — Equus. Another way is to take the very popular Toyota Camry and compare the premium step up — Avalon — to the Azera. Hey, maybe that’s where the name that starts with “A” comes from.

In any case, spending a week with a Silver Frost Metallic Azera Limited was a very pleasant time. If your concept of a Hyundai is basic transportation, think again. Even the base Azera has standard leather seating, and there is class-leading legroom up front and room to stretch out in back.

Positioned one level below luxury, this premium auto has evocative styling inside and out. The shape, especially as it rises over the rear wheels, is bold and always in motion. Hyundai calls it “fluidic sculpture.” This flow manifests in the cabin, where the curves over the dash and around and through the door panels convey motion and elegance. As befits the Azera’s role, it’s covered in soft, padded, matte-finish high-grade plastic, leather and trim.

092514a2The electroluminescent dash, while not as fanciful as some animated ones found in high-level luxury models, is clean, colorful and easy to decipher. The cabin employs ambient lighting to create a subtle mood, including light emitting from the trim under the doors and dash.

Perhaps the greatest luxury item is the piano tune that welcomes you in and sends you on your way when you press the start/stop button. I’m not sure, but I think that cars sold in Asian countries are expected to make this kind of ceremonial greeting. Make fun of it if you must, but you get used to it and even expect it after a few days.

The Limited model includes some extras that justify its price boost, but the overall goodness is the same for all Azeras. All are powered by a 3.3-liter gasoline-direct-injection engine. Direct injection allows Hyundai engineers to spec out a smaller engine than the competition yet deliver top level horsepower, in this case, 293 horsepower and 255 lb.-ft. of torque. As the 3,605-pound car is lighter than some competitors by as much as 300 to 400 pounds, this adds efficiency in a car that is by no means compact.

The engine delivers EPA ratings of 19 City, 29 Highway, and 23 Combined. My mileage varied, and the gauge reset with each fill up, so I got 18.6 mpg on the first tank, 22.1 on the second, and 20.1 on the third. I’d say I averaged about 20 mpg — a good but not great number. The Green scores are 6 for both Smog and Greenhouse Gas — a little above average.

Hyundai has given this larger than average car a lightness and ease of control that you might not expect. This year, they improved the steering feel, and the front MacPherson struts use coil springs and a 24mm front stabilizer bar; there’s a multi-link independent suspension in back, and Sachs Amplitude

Selective Dampers enable careful tuning for just the right feel.

Like GM’s Onstar system and other electronic connections, Hyundai’s Blue Link telematics program is packed with features to make life easier and safer. Assurance Connected Care includes automatic collision notification, enhanced roadside assistance, automatic diagnostics of the electronics system, and much more. The Blue Link system makes it easy to hook up your cell phone and music player without a wired connection to explore and communicate with the outside world as you motor along.

Prices start at $31,895 for the standard Azera; it’s hardly standard with its high level of equipment. The Limited jumps to $34,645, and includes numerous extras, such as the 550-watt Infinity Logic 7 Surround Sound audio system. It helped shorten the inevitable daily slog of commuting.

If you want more, order the Premium Package ($2,150). That adds a bump to 19-inch instead of 18-inch silver-alloy wheels, a huge panoramic sunroof with split shade, a power rear sunshade, and manual rear window shades.

How can it be that Hyundai, the company that offered a basic $4,000 sedan in the mid 1980s, is competing with premium midsize sedans from the U.S, Japan and Europe? It comes down to making a commitment to continuous improvement and staying focused. The Azera is significantly nicer than the 2012 version I drove just a few years ago. Now, with Sonata’s growing popularity, there’s room for a little bit of a step up before climbing into luxury territory.


 

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