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


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


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.

Kia K900 Hits the Big Leagues | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 18 September 2014 14:08


The 2015 Kia K900 comes with a three-year, 37,500-mile complimentary scheduled maintenance program at participating Kia dealerships.

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

The brand-new Kia K900 is a full-size, rear-wheel-drive luxury sedan that plays in the big leagues, going grille-to-grille with the likes of the Mercedes-Benz S Class and BMW 7 Series, and Lexus LS models. It does a great job of matching the class leaders right out of the gate.

The K900 is quite attractive, borrowing the expected proportions and styling cues of its competitors, while still looking original. While it’s a real challenge to replicate the instant recognition of a BMW twin-kidney or Mercedes-Benz radiator grille, the Kia tiger nose shape, here decidedly upright and rounded, is beginning to express some identity.

The headlamps stretch way back on the front fenders, as is today’s style, and 16 LEDs stare out from under clear covers. There’s a chrome vent ahead of the front doors, like on a Jaguar. The taillamps curve around the sides as on most cars today. There is some side definition, but it’s not too sharply drawn, just nice.

091814a2Inside is where the K900 really impresses. It is not a handmade car, but the quality of the leather, walnut, metallic trim, switchgear, seats and headliner seems inspired by Rolls-Royce or Bentley. The leather and wood steering wheel is heated. The door surfaces above the armrests are all padded and stitched and look like leather, even if they are matching vinyl. The wood gleams, and the 12.3-inch instrument panel screen creates a totally faux set of handsome chrome-rimmed gauges, much like in a Jaguar.

These gauges work fine, but the best part is how they are “assembled” when you turn on the car. Two plain circles enter from stage left and stage right, bounce off each other, and then receive their markings. With this system, of course, anything can be shown, so it’s possible that you could at some point be able to configure the screen exactly the way you want it.

The center screen is used for the climate, navigation, and the fabulous 900-watt, 17-speaker Lexicon premium audio system. It is not a touch screen, but works with the Driver Information System (DIS), through a center-console-mounted dial, as in a BMW or Audi. This takes a little getting used to, but it eliminates a lot of looking and reaching.

Once I learned how to program audio presets I was happy using the system. Notable are the subtle little bar controls on the steering wheel spokes for the Bluetooth phone. When you hear the ring, just nudge it up slightly and you’re talking. The hands-free voice commands that I used went smoothly.

The car is blissfully quiet and smooth, as you’d expect. I spent a lot of time on the freeway, but it is just as friendly in town. I had a chance to drive on a narrow, curving highway for a while and the K900 handled like a smaller car, feeling more agile than its 4,555 pounds. Steering has some feedback and feels natural.

You can select a 3.8-liter V6 or 5.0-liter V8 model. My tester had Kia’s first V8, putting out 420 horsepower and 376 lb-ft. of torque, making for effortless acceleration with near silence inside the cabin. The downside is fuel economy, with EPA numbers showing 15 City, 23 Highway, 18 Combined for the V8. I averaged about 17 mpg in mixed driving, but some wide open freeway driving on the weekend got it up to nearly 23 mpg. The V6 delivers a 3 mpg improvement. Green vehicle numbers are 6 for Smog and 4 for Greenhouse Gas, pretty good for a large engine.

Naturally, as a top-level model, the K900 has everything imaginable for electronic safety. There is Blind Spot Monitoring, Lane Departure Warning System and Rear Cross Traffic Alert. These all help you know where you are when moving in traffic and especially in a crowded parking lot. The system knows when you’re approaching the car in front too quickly and warns you.

The V8-powered K900 starts at $59,950. My tester had the $6,000 VIP package, which adds a plethora of niceties, including extra coddling for rear-seat passengers, including the ability to recline. The driver’s seat becomes much more adjustable. There’s Surround View Monitor, which shows you various views of the car and its surroundings. Advanced Smart Cruise Control and Advanced Vehicle Safety Management add more electronic assistance.

The real issue here is whether buyers of large luxury sedans are too brand conscious to buy a Kia. By moving steadily upward from the modest 1994 Sephia through 21st-century Optimas and Cadenzas, the Kia has been educating and enticing a wider and wider swath of the marketplace. Now, with the K900, Kia is going for the top, while adding a premium cachet to the entire lineup.


Genesis Leaves a Lasting Impression | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 11 September 2014 11:41

091114aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

Since they began selling cars in the U.S. in the mid 1980s, Hyundai’s mission has been to offer competitive products for a better price. Although the initial Excel wasn’t competitive with contemporary Toyotas, the company worked diligently to bring the products up to speed, and with each generation of every model, quality, styling and features have been steadily upgraded.

In 2009, the Genesis arrived, as a midsize luxury sedan and a compact sport coupe. The sedan was aimed boldly at Mercedes E-Class, BMW 5-series, Audi A6, and Lexus, Infiniti, and the others. For 2015, Hyundai has once again upped its game.

Hyundai has chosen not to offer a separate channel for its luxury models, which include the even larger Equus. This not only saves a lot of investment in separate showroom and marketing, but some of the greatness of the highline models can rub off on the Accent, Tucson, and other bread-and-butter models. There is a handsome winged Genesis logo on all surfaces except the trunk lid, which displays a chrome Hyundai H.

The new sedan is a very handsome car. The Fluidic Sculpture design, which created distinctive, swooping lines on the Sonata, Elantra and SUVs, has been tamed a bit; the original Genesis preceded this development. Fluidic Sculpture 2.0 is balanced and attractive in the way Mercedes-Benz and Audi design used to be, before it became so expressive. Park the Genesis next to an E-Class and you won’t feel in any way lesser.

Today’s trend toward higher front ends is also manifesting in more edgy grilles, and the massive hexagon on the nose of the Genesis makes a bold statement. The LED taillamps, at night, show beautiful internal forms. The car is a pleasure to approach from any angle in the parking lot.

My Casablanca White test car was the upper of the two models, and featured a 420-horsepower 5.0-liter V8 engine, running through an eight-speed automatic with paddle shifting. There’s a 3.8-liter V6 offered, too. This matches up closely with the competition. The V8 is satin smooth, and with generous sound insulation, you really can’t hear it at all. The Genesis is a classic rear-wheel-drive sedan, but all-wheel-drive is available with the V6.

Fuel economy numbers for the V8 are 15 City, 23 Highway, and 18 Overall. I averaged 16.9 mpg. The V6 betters the Overall number by 4 mpg. Per, the Smog number is 5 and the Greenhouse Gas is 4.

091114a2The inside of any car is where owners spend most of their time, and Hyundai has really gotten it right. While some cars overwhelm with too much detail, the Genesis is supremely elegant, with simple, but not plain design. The dash bows out towards the driver and passenger, as in a BMW, with padded surfaces and low-gloss wood trim with a visible grain. I thought it must be artificial at first, but it’s not.

Hyundai is on a mission to create bright, glare-free interiors, so every surface gleams, but there is no shiny chrome — all of it is a matte finish. Every plastic button wears a soft coating, and the overall arrangement is easy to use.

As a high-end car, the Genesis is loaded with premium electronic safety features, too many to list here, but you will know if there’s someone in your blind spot, if you’re approaching the car in front too quickly, if there’s someone approaching from the side as you’re backing out, and much more.

The car is packed with every conceivable extra, from window shades to sophisticated climate control to sublimely comfortable, yet firm, seats. If you really want the works, add the Ultimate Package. For $3,250, you get heads-up display, a premium navigation system, a Lexicon 17-speaker super-audio system, power trunk lid, continuous damping control system, and a CO2 sensing system that keeps the level high enough to keep the driver alert (really). The trunk, by the way, opens automatically if you stand in front of it for three seconds with the key in your pocket.

The heads-up display shows not only your speed but the posted speed limit (a tiny sign) and the blind spot warning; the navigation system worked flawlessly; the audio was sublime; the damping control system kept the car stable, delivered firm control, yet was always comfortable.

The rear-wheel-drive V6 model starts at $38,950; the V8 at $52,450. My tester, with the Ultimate Package, came to $55,700.

If the specific badge on your car is important to you, you’ll probably stick with the German, British and Japanese offerings. But look at the extensive list of content and drive the Genesis — you’ll come away impressed. The only thing I could find to criticize was the industrial rubber/plastic aroma in the trunk. But otherwise… what a ride.


Accord Hybrid Wins Many Accolades | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 04 September 2014 11:57

090414aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

The Honda Accord Hybrid is the latest model in Honda’s popular midsize sedan line-up. The gas/electric-powered car is based on the substantially redone 2013 ninth-generation model.

Despite Honda’s overall fuel efficiency as a brand, Toyota has always been ahead with its hybrid technology, particularly the Prius. Now, the Accord offers nearly the same efficiency, at 50 City, 45 Highway, 47 Overall EPA mileage numbers. And, the Accord is supremely comfortable, spacious, and, frankly, more attractive than a Prius.

I received my Obsidian Blue Pearl sample vehicle after a weeklong test of the brand-new Honda Fit subcompact. It was like stepping into a luxury car from an ordinary one, (realizing it’s nearly twice the price!), but it shows that Honda knows how to build both efficient, basic transportation and family-pleasing daily drivers.

090414a2The Accord has sometimes seemed too bland, despite its many fine qualities. This latest one, with its BMW-derived styling, may be the best yet. Like other new Hondas, it enjoys upgrades in perceived quality, with finer accommodations inside the car. The dash trim panels in mine were made of a mysterious pseudo metallic wood (?) pattern not found in nature, but the textures and panel fits were excellent otherwise. The leather in my top-level Touring model felt upscale, and the general flow of the shapes wasn’t busy or overstyled.

The standard Accord offers an inline 2.4-liter four-cylinder and a 3.5-liter V6 gasoline engine, while the Hybrid comes with the Two-Motor Hybrid Intelligent Multi-Mode Drive (i-MMD) System. It mates a new 2.0-liter 141-horsepower four with an efficient electric motor, and generates in total 196 horsepower. The 122 lb.-ft. of torque from the gas engine gets help from the electric motor’s instant torque, so despite sounding mousy during acceleration, the 3,600-pound sedan pulls out with authority when you step on the right-side pedal. It all flows through an electronic continuously variable automatic transmission.

As in any hybrid or electric car, you can continuously monitor your fuel and electricity use, and see when you’re consuming or generating power. The dash has a simple power/charge vertical gauge on the left and fuel/battery gauges on the right. You can monitor the flows either in mid-instrument panel or on the larger center console screen.

I sometimes could cruise down a level freeway at 67 miles per hour using only electricity. When in electric mode, the car is essentially silent; only under strong acceleration is the sound of the engine apparent. The CVT makes the usual groan under load, but helps to keep fuel economy numbers high by using the best ratio under all conditions.

I averaged 42.8 miles per gallon — a little off the EPA numbers, but it’s still a great number, and beat the smaller Fit by about 7 mpg.

When it came out in 1976, the Accord was just bigger than the original Civic, which was tiny by today’s standards. Today’s Accord is exactly in the heart of the midsize field, which is where most family sedan purchases are made. There’s plenty of room to stretch out in back, and I found out how useful the trunk is — even with the front section taken up by the hybrid battery, when we schlepped a load of family treasures that all fit.

Pick a base, EX-L or Touring version, starting at $29,945. My test car, with no options listed (or needed), came to $35,695. This is a bit higher than the price of a non-hybrid Accord, but on the window sticker, you’ll see, “You save $6,000 in fuel costs over 5 years compared to the average new vehicle.” And, the green scores are 7 for Smog and a perfect 10 for Greenhouse Gas — despite the presence of the gasoline engine. You can also opt for the Plug-In version of the Hybrid. I tested one last year, and besides getting up to 15 miles of pure electric driving, it averaged nearly 51 mpg. (EPA ratings, using the special MPGe ratings for electric vehicles, give it 124 City and 105 Highway, 115 Combined. EPA Green Vehicle ratings boost the Smog rating from 7 to 9.)

The new Accord Hybrid is built in Honda’s long-established American plant in Marysville, Ohio. It uses Honda’s “Earth Dreams Technology” powertrain architecture, which it shares with the Plug-In. Numerous other efficiencies are part of the package, including replacing some steel parts with aluminum to offset the additional weight of the electric batteries.

The new Accord Hybrid has received numerous accolades. Kelley Blue Book named it to their annual list of the 10 Best Green Cars. The entire Accord lineup is one of Automobile magazine’s All-Stars, the only midsize sedan to qualify. The biggest award, though, is in the high sales figures, which the Accord has achieved for nearly 40 years.


Honda Jazzes Up Sporty Fit | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 28 August 2014 14:05


The 2015 Honda Fit is the third generation of Honda’s versatile 5-door subcompact hatchback.

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

The Honda Fit is brand new for 2015 — and it’s about as redone as a car could be in its third generation. On a new platform, the famously capacious subcompact boasts nearly 100 cubic feet of space inside, on a longer wheelbase but with a shorter overall body. It’s recognizable as Honda’s entry vehicle, but is upgraded inside and out.

I’ve always liked the Fit because of its do-everything, lively personality. It’s affordable, has great fuel economy, and can carry four (and possibly five) people in comfort, and holds an upright bass with ease. Although it’s compact, it feels roomy, as proven on a couple of trips over the weekend of this test week.

Since its arrival on these shores in 2006 as a 2007 model, the Fit has garnered a lot of praise from the car buff magazines for being sporty, despite its entry-level mission. I was expecting this new model to feel like the older ones, and it does, but still, there’s just a touch less exuberance than before. Perhaps it’s the electrically assisted power steering, or the new platform or the more serious interior design. Could it be the sober gray paint? Or perhaps it’s the continuously variable transmission (CVT), which moaned on uphill climbs trying to move the 2,600-pound car.

I started with great anticipation, but was slightly let down at first by the reality of Honda’s attempt to avoid seeming cheap by over styling their base car. But over my eight-day loan, I warmed more and more to the little car. With mostly freeway travel, it delivered an impressively smooth ride and its firm suspension held things steady without much vibration. The handsome leather seats, the first to appear in a Fit, proved quite supportive. I noticed one day that the substantial, round speedometer directly in front of me boasted the cleanest, most traditional numbers you could ever want.

My tester was cloaked in a gray paint called Modern Steel Metallic that would have looked appropriate on a Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedan. The black interior flaunts plentiful silver accents, including some angular vents and C-shaped trim pieces scattered across the dash and doors. The body shaping is a preview of Honda’s new, more expressive design theme, with compound curves and edges and a deep rounded gouge carved along the side. Expect to see some of this on the next Civic. Today’s car designs are getting busier, and Honda is no exception.

The 1.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine, with its 130 horsepower and 114 lb.-ft. of torque, earns nice numbers indeed. The EPA fuel economy figures are 32 City, 38 Highway, and 35 Combined. I averaged 35.9 mpg, which is just about where Honda’s Insight Hybrid comes in. Very impressive. The Green numbers are a midpack 5 for Smog but a nice 8 for Greenhouse Gas.

The Fit has been built in Japan so far, but this new one is made in Mexico, and features an Indonesian transmission. Many vehicles sold in the U.S. are assembled south of the Border, and that has not hurt their widespread popularity, but it does save a lot on shipping costs. My tester still had a $790 Destination and Handling fee.

082814a2The total price for my top-level EX-L with Navigation system came to $21,590. That bought the leather and the rest of the stuff you expect in a car these days, from keyless entry to air conditioning to power mirrors and windows and locks. You also get a nice 7-inch touch screen in the dash center that was mostly easy to use. There are no knobs, however, but that is largely mitigated by easy-to-use “donut” controls at the thumb positions on the steering wheel. Pick a station, raise or lower the volume, or set the cruise control with just a touch.

The upgraded six-speaker stereo in the EX-L sounded fine, and streamed music through Bluetooth. There’s a USB port, too, down low on the center console, but it’s not hidden in the glovebox or console bin — always a favorite spot to stash an iPod.

The second-row Magic Seat gives you tall, wide space in mid-car or you can flip the back seats forward for a long, flat cargo floor. The latter setting was perfect for bass carrying.

I never got the Fit out onto the curvy back roads, and I regret that. Dressed as a conservative banker rather than a festive partygoer made my test car seem more sober than it might have been if it had been my Fit, attired in Mystic Yellow Pearl with a manual six-speed. The LX model with manual transmission starts at just $16,315, including shipping. At that price, it’s a compelling buy. And don’t forget — in Japan, the Fit is known as the Jazz.


New Technology Sparks New Behavior | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 21 August 2014 13:21


When fully charged, Spark EV features a combined city/highway EPA-estimated range of 82 miles and an EPA-estimated city/highway 119 MPGe fuel economy equivalent.

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

The Spark EV is General Motors’ entry in the growing all-electric car segment. These cars sell in small numbers and are not for everyone, but GM has taken its experience with the Volt plug-in hybrid and other hybrids it sells to bring a strong competitor to market.

The Spark is small — just over 12 feet nose-to-tail — but it has a second-row seat that accommodates two average-size adults (like me). Because the side windows drop down at the front, the feeling in this mini-car is surprisingly open and airy. The car is just over five feet wide, but a tall roofline and chair-height seats make the experience comfortable.

The Spark is also sold as an entry-level gas-powered model, so it’s naturally built to a budget, but the look and feel are more upscale than you might expect.

082114a2The Electric Blue trim in my tester brightened the gray interior considerably. Colorful electronic gauges fill a motorcycle-style binnacle behind the fat, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and the 7-inch center console screen supplies plenty of other useful information on entertainment, climate, phone and energy use.

Electric cars have the virtue of running virtually silently and consuming no gasoline, but their major downside is range. Other than the extremely expensive Tesla Model S, electric cars have a hard time getting past 80-100 miles on a charge. Charging times are long, too, depending on the type of charger. The Spark fills its lithium-ion battery pack from empty in 7 hours on a 240-volt level-2 charger, such as the public ones offered by Blink and ChargePoint in parking lots. At home, on standard household current, it can take 17 hours.

The Spark may be designed for efficiency, but it is actually fun to drive. At just under 3,000 pounds, it sits firmly on the road, and feels very stable while rolling along and during turning maneuvers. The big drawing card is the motor’s 400 lb.-ft. of torque that, along with 140 horsepower (105 kW), can zip it smoothly from 0 to 60 in under 8 seconds. It feels like flying. There’s also a Sport button that lets you launch even more quickly, but it drains the battery faster.

I received my Summit White tester with a little more than half a charge on it, enough to make the 30-mile trip home. I parked it in my driveway and immediately plugged it into the charger in my garage (the cord is nice and long). With the 17-hour fill time, the battery was not fully charged in the morning, but there was enough to get to work. I took the Spark to my closest charging station and topped it off (in about 4 hours). That night, I drove home, but still had plenty of charge left, so the next morning, it was full. The colorful range gauge said 96 miles (despite the EPA’s 82).

I was able to drive to work and home with plenty of extra charge. This means that if I had a 240 charger in my garage, the Spark would be a perfect commute vehicle, as long as I had another car available for longer trips.

The existence of these range limits can be frustrating, but it also changes your driving behavior. For one thing, using the displays in the car, you learn to drive more efficiently. You can monitor your acceleration and braking and keep them smooth.

The Spark is a very good regenerator, so you may actually add to your range as you’re driving, or see the number stay static for several miles. Stop-and-go traffic is a drag, but it’s great for electric cars.

The range limits forced me to make smart decisions. Instead of driving into the city to visit my mom, I took public transit and had her pick me up. That saved gasoline (and bridge fare) and I got to read my book. And, when I wanted to drive to a Jazz festival, I met my friend at his house and we carpooled. So — new technology creates new behavior.

Electric cars are not cheap, but with government tax breaks and attractive leases, it can be easy to own one. My test car was the 2LT upper model, with fancifully patterned leatherette seats and a nice leather wheel, and it came to $28,570, including destination charge. On the way to work, I saw a billboard with a $199/month two-year lease on Spark EVs. Considering the savings of home electric charging versus $4-a-gallon gasoline, that could mean you’re practically driving for free.

I have tested several small electric vehicles. All are enjoyable to drive for their quietness and the feeling of helping the planet. The Spark EV has been the most fun so far.


Nissan Rogue Defies Definition | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 14 August 2014 12:09

081414aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

What is a rogue? Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary says:

• VAGRANT, TRAMP. 2. a dishonest or worthless person: SCOUNDREL. 3. a mischievous person: SCAMP. 4. A horse inclined to shirk or misbehave.

That certainly seems like an unlikely name for a car, especially such a nice one. In fact, my Cayenne Red 2014 Nissan Rogue test car was the epitome of good behavior.

The Rogue debuted for the 2008 model year, designed to go head-to-head with Toyota’s popular RAV4, Honda’s perennial top-selling CR-V, and the growing group of compact to midsize crossover SUVs. The first generation was softer in form, much as other Nissans of the day; the 2014 gets bolder shapes and sharper edges, notably at the headlamps and taillamps, and looks a little more, well, scamp-like.

The new Rogue is available in three levels — S, SV and SL. The base S is pretty well stocked with features, but the SV gets upgrades such as 17-inch alloy wheels, dual-zone climate control, privacy glass, push-button start, power driver’s seat and satellite radio. The SL adds, as you might expect, leather on the seats, steering wheel and shift knob; a potent Bose audio system; and a navigation system.

You can upgrade any model with a variety of option packages for improved style, comfort, functionality or safety. My tester had the SL Premium Package, which brought an enormous panoramic sunroof, automatic-leveling LED headlamps, and a host of protective electronics known collectively as Safety Shield Technologies. That means blind spot warning, lane departure warning, forward collision warning, and moving object detection. With all of them activated, it seems like something was almost always beeping somewhere.

No matter which model you pick, the new Rogue has one engine, a 170-horsepower 2.5-liter inline 4-cylinder, with a class-leading 175 lb.-ft of torque. It’s mated to an Xtronic Continuously Variable automatic transmission, with a sport mode switch. You can get all-wheel drive on any model, if you feel you need it.

The EPA gives the Rogue a rating of 25 City, 32 Highway, and 28 Overall. I averaged an even 23.0 mpg, likely because of my many hours of stop-and-go commuting. The Green scores are 5 for Smog and an above-average 7 for Greenhouse Gas. That’s good.

My SL tester, with all-wheel drive, cruised down the road in near silence. It’s a friendly, if not exceptionally economical commuter. The seats are firm, but comfortable. The leather feels thick and strong, like that in a Mercedes-Benz; not cushy. The front bucket seats feature a special “zero gravity”-inspired design, as in the Altima sedan. The articulated seat shape provides continuous support from the pelvis to the chest, reducing fatigue during long drives.

081414a2Faulted several years ago for cheap-looking cabins, Nissan has turned the stylists and purchasing managers loose to make a significant upgrade, and they were very successful. The dash sweeps from left to right, with panels bulging out. They look formidable and padded but are actually hard plastic. My tester’s sparkly pseudo-carbon-fiber trim was attractive, and welcome in not mimicking wood. The tipped-back chrome gauge rings lend an elegant touch. Although the dash and doors are not heavily padded, the armrests are wonderfully soft and plush.

You can now order up a Rogue with an optional third-row seat. The car isn’t huge, so legroom could be at a premium, but it’s good to have the option in case you’re tasked with carrying the team to practice. In back, Nissan’s EZ Flex Seating System means every seat except the driver’s folds down easily, and the front passenger seat folds rearwards, so you can carry your surfboard or a ladder.

There’s also the Divide-N-Hide Cargo System, with 18 different configurations. I liked the way the rearward section opened for hidden storage or folded back to create a slim, supported place for grocery bags. You can obscure the cargo area or leave it wide open, without using a shade-style cover.

Nissan’s North American offices are in Franklin, Tennessee now, and the Rogue is built in Smyrna, Tennessee, at a long-time company plant.

Pricing starts at $23,650 for the two-wheel-drive S and heads upward to the SL with all-wheel drive, at $30,490. My SL AWD test car had a bottom-line of $32,615, including transportation and options.

The compact crossover market is booming, so the Rogue has to be good to sell, and all signs point to another success. It’s the fifth of five redesigned vehicles for the brand in 2013-14 alone. Wearing the new v-shaped grille and more than enough curves on its fresh new body, it is ready for action.

By the way, there was an American Motors Rogue in the mid 1960s and the Plymouth Scamp in the early 1970s. Something appealing about the image, I guess.


Sienna Offers All-wheel Drive | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 07 August 2014 12:23

080714aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

Minivans have been around for 30 years now, and they are the absolute best cars for personal mass transit. With dual power sliding doors on each side, a low step-in height, a high roof and lots of window area, they are great for in-town errands and long-distance trips.

In the case of my top-of-the-line Toyota Sienna tester, you get a huge 16.4-inch drop-down screen for the second- and third-row riders to enjoy for movies and games. Have two different sets of plans? Each side of the screen can be programmed separately, which keeps second-row folks happy, although it won’t be as easy to see from the third row.

Speaking of rows, in my test Sienna, the second-row captain’s chairs were mounted on 23-inch tracks, so you could pull them up close to the front row to keep kids nearby (and expand cargo room), or slide them way back for limo-like middle-row accommodations.

There are five levels of Sienna: L, LE, SE, XLE and Limited. My Predawn Gray Mica tester was a Limited, so it had leather seats and loads of delightful features. But you can buy the plain one and still have the same 3.5-liter, high-tech V6 engine, with 266 horsepower and 245 lb.-ft. of torque moving the 4,500- to 4,700-pound vehicle along. The model differences are too complex to elaborate here, but even the L arrives with cruise control, three-zone air conditioning, dual power sliding doors, power windows and locks, keyless entry, AM/FM/CD audio system, and more.

Besides the ascending levels of luxury, there is an SE model that actually offers some “sport” for this minivan. To make it stand out, it boasts a special bolder face and sits on larger 19-inch wheels. Throw in LED taillamps and, most important, a lowered, sport-tuned suspension. Inside, you get different instrumentation and unique colors. It could convince a partner who’s holding out for an SUV that it’s OK.

You can order your Sienna with all-wheel drive; at this writing it’s the only minivan that offers this safety feature. It adds a couple hundred pounds and drops fuel economy by 2 miles per gallon, but it could be a benefit if you live where it rains or snows frequently. My all-wheel-drive tester was rated at 16 City, 23 Highway, and 19 Combined. I averaged 17.7 mpg. The green vehicle numbers are 5 for Smog and 4 for Greenhouse Gas.

Although I drove the Sienna mostly by myself, it swallows passengers effortlessly. If you have to shuttle a big load, you can pack in up to 150 cubic feet with the middle-row seats removed. Fold them down and it’s still just less than 118 cubic feet. Even with all three rows full of riders, you have 39.1 cubic feet available.

The original minivans, developed by Chrysler in the 1980s, were all-American, and even though Toyota is a Japanese company, the Sienna is very American, too. Aimed at U.S. buyers, it was primarily designed at Toyota’s Calty Design Research in Newport Beach, California. Some development work was performed at Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. And, it’s assembled at Toyota Motor Manufacturing in Indiana.

080714a2The Sienna’s interior looks great, and with its light-gray plastic, feels open and airy. The dry, matte-finish surfaces do seem a little cheap, though, and none on the dash are padded. The artificial wood looks it, too. But there are so many handy spots to put things. The commodious center console between the front seats not only has a hidden drawer for storage, but rolls back to be used by middle-seat passengers for cupholding or cargo.

There’s a “conversation mirror” in the front ceiling that drops down and gives the driver a panoramic view of his or her passengers. This can help in assigning blame if siblings start squabbling when the videos begin to wear thin. At least the rear passengers can stay comfortable, with their own climate controls.

My Limited included a Convenience Package, with high intensity discharge (HID) headlamps and rain-sensitive variable windshield wipers, along with the Limited Premium Package. This latter collection is all about fancy electronics, from the mini-movie theater in back to upgraded navigation and audio up front. The audio system features 10 speakers and USB Bluetooth connection that’s expected in a thoroughly modern vehicle.

The price at the pinnacle of Sienna ownership is $47,895, including tax. You can order up an L with no extras starting at $27,780. Or, pick a model in between that’s just right for you.

With the features and usability offered in today’s minivans, they are still a great choice for families who need them and aren’t worried about being stigmatized by opting out of a crossover.




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