Kia Sedona Dismisses Minivan Stigma PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Wednesday, 30 September 2015 15:34

092415aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

Minivans have been around since the mid 1980s. Although their popularity is somewhat eclipsed today by the ubiquitous crossover SUV, you can still choose from an assortment of people carriers with power dual sliding side doors and room to carry a big family with ease.

The Kia Sedona is a new generation for 2015, and enjoys the style and ambiance you’d expect from the Hyundai/Kia head of design, former Audi design chief Peter Schreyer. Loaded up with features, the Sedona price tag can hit luxury car levels.

The interior is full of thoughtful convenience and style touches. There’s a rolltop cover over the cupholders, and the leather and “wood” steering wheel feels like something out of a Mercedes-Benz. The interaction with the electronic touch screen is one of the best in the industry. Hooking up Bluetooth for your smart phone takes seconds.

I used the Sedona successfully when I took out five colleagues for lunch (the company picked up the tab). My Titanium Brown tester featured the comfortable “First Class” lounge seating in the middle row, so it had a maximum capacity of seven (with a middle bench, it’s 8). I got folks into the third row without complaints.

Those “First Class” middle seats had fold-up leg supports, like a Barcalounger! Because they feature Slide-n-Stow, you can slide them way back to stretch out and enjoy those leg holders or move them far forward to increase cargo capacity.

This crew was a bunch of software user experience designers, so they had a sharp eye on the design details; overall, the Sedona passed muster. One designer thought that the long row of nine identical buttons across the center console for climate and audio was not as user friendly as it should be.

Carrying people is easy, and so is hauling cargo. The second-row seats fold flat, and the rear seat folds into the floor, so you can easily haul mass quantities of things like furniture, monthly Costco restockings, kids moving to the college dorm, etc.

The Sedona comes in five levels to suit your budget and style: L, LX, EX, SX and SX Limited. These sound like Honda nomenclature, and convey a decently equipped entry point, some extra features and, finally, with the SX Limited, like my test car, the ultimate in electronic safety and entertainment enhancements. There’s also some very attractive two-tone ultrasoft Nappa leather seating and trim.

All Sedonas employ Kia’s 3.3-liter V6, which puts out 276 horsepower and 248 lb.-ft. of torque. The car weighs about 4,700 pounds, depending on equipment level, so you need all of those ponies to make it work, and it does. All Sedonas employ a six-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission.

092415a2With substantial insulation throughout the car, you hear essentially nothing but the fine audio system when you cruise down the interstate. It actually does remind me of the Audi experience.

Checking, the V6 earns EPA ratings of 17 City, 22 Highway, and 19 Combined. I averaged 18.2 mpg during my test week — a reasonable figure for a large, heavy car, but not an efficient way for one person to commute. The range is 401 miles, so you can get from San Francisco to Los Angeles without stopping for gas, if you drive efficiently. The EPA Green ratings are 6 for Smog and 4 for Greenhouse Gas.

Over the 23 years of auto testing, I’ve seen the arrival of dozens (hundreds?) of electronic marvels, from the pleasantness of fine audio systems with Bluetooth connectivity to blind spot monitoring for safety and the Smart Power Liftgate, for convenience. For the Sedona’s liftgate, if you have the key fob, it’ll lift automatically after 3 seconds — and you can adjust how high you want it to go.

There is so much more technology in cars like the Sedona today. With its extra-rigid Iso-Structure design and numerous braking and monitoring features, it earns a top 5-Star safety rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Now that’s the kind of car you want to carry your family in.

Pricing starts at a reasonable $26,400 for the Sedona L, and moves up to $39,900 for the SX Limited. You can add several packages to further enhance the car. My SX Limited, with the $2,800 Tech Package, is well over $40,000, making it an investment you think about before signing the papers.

The minivan market, once dominated by Chrysler, the pioneer, is now led by Honda and Toyota. However, with handsome, well-equipped contenders like the updated Kia Sedona, the battle is heating up for those families whose primary goal is moving people, and who aren’t bothered by the stigma associated with minivans. After a week in the Sedona, you wonder why anyone feels that way anymore.


Acura MDX Emphasizes Safety for Seven PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 10 September 2015 14:38

091015aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

Acura’s MDX midsize crossover is the most successful three-row SUV of all time, and it looks like that’s not about to change.

Styling for 2016 is a more expressive rendering of the Acura brand’s busy design. Outside, the pointed nose remains, but all traces of the edgy beak of years past are gone. Inside, materials are tasteful and nicely assembled, but Acura’s designers seem to think that more is better, and perhaps they overindulged in too many lines going in too many directions. That being said, the overall ambiance is invigorating and feels like it’ll never break or wear out.

Acura has banished the transmission lever from the center console, since the mechanism is all electronic shift-by-wire anyway. To avoid any confusion and attendant lawsuits, the drive and park buttons are straightforward pushes, while Reverse is a pull back.

Under that lives a new nine-speed automatic, which despite its extra cogs, weighs 66 pounds less than the old six-speed. In the name of fuel efficiency, 6th through 9th gears are all overdrive!

The high-tech transmission connects to a hearty 290-horsepower direct-injection V6 with 267 lb.-ft. of torque, great for moving the 4,268-lb. vehicle down the road. EPA numbers give the popular Acura 19 City, 26 Highway, and 22 Combined. I averaged 21.5 mpg — pretty much on the money. EPA Green scores are both 5s out of 10.

My Lunar Silver Metallic test car was great for cruising up to see the grandkids. It’s mellow and smooth on the highway. You can use paddle shifters on the steering wheel to select your own gears, but why bother? My older granddaughter, Naomi (7) was thrilled to operate the middle seats and jump into the third row. It seemed roomy for someone her size, but it might feel confining for adults.

There is just one Acura MDX model, but it comes with various worthwhile packages. All models have an upgraded version of Acura’s SH-AWD — the Super Handling All-Wheel Drive system. It distributes torque not only front to rear, but side to side, too. You can monitor this on one of the numerous selectable instrument panel displays. If you are expecting bad weather, all-wheel drive is a great way to protect you and your loved ones.

My tester came loaded with a vast assortment of electronic goodies to keep the car on the road, in the correct lane, and warn you of impending collisions. There are too many electronic marvels to do more than list them. Known collectively as AcuraWatch, they include Collision Mitigation Braking System, Forward Collision Warning, Lane Keeping Assist System, Road Departure Mitigation, Blind Spot Information, Multi-View Rear Camera and Rear Cross Traffic Monitor. Whew.

Think of the MDX as a computer on wheels, where cameras and radar talk to sensors and actuators that can tell the brakes and engine to slow down or pull you back into a lane. You can tell when cars are approaching from the side as you’re backing out of your partially obscured driveway.

The Road Departure Mitigation system actually reads the lines on the road and controls the steering, and sometimes the brakes, to keep you aligned. It issues audible and tactile warnings, too, so you really have no excuse for ever having an accident!

091015a2The new third-generation 2016 Acura MDX includes many new features, such as a sleek frameless rearview mirror, Siri Voice Recognition, and even TPMS fill assist, which sounds an audible tone when you’re filling the tires that says, “when.”

My test car was the absolute top of the line, with the Tech, Advance and Entertainment packages. The latter provided a very wide 16.2-inch video system with wireless headphones for second and third-row passengers to enjoy movies and games.

The Tech Package brings with it much of the previously described high-tech safety goodies, along with a killer 12-speaker premium audio system and navigation. You get niceties like rain-sensing wipers and three-zone automatic climate control, too.

The Advance Package adds Collision Mitigating Braking, which will slow down the car instantly if it detects that you’re moving too quickly towards the car ahead. It uses the car’s Adaptive Cruise Control, which senses the car ahead and keeps you a safe and consistent distance behind.

With so many benefits coming from the three packages, it seems like the least equipped Acura MDX would be pretty plain, but a lot comes standard. Pricing for the MDX starts at $43,785, including shipping. My tester, with everything, came to an even $58,000.

Built in Lincoln, Alabama, with an American engine and transmission, the MDX is designed for the U.S., and boasts 65 percent local content. It’s the luxury station wagon of today, and sales numbers show that it’s what many folks with good livings want to drive.


Mitsubishi i-MiEV Gives Power to the People PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 03 September 2015 11:54


The 2016 Mitsubishi i-MiEV features a comprehensive vehicle warranty that includes a fully transferable 8-year/100,000-mile limited warranty for the lithium-ion main drive battery pack and a 5-year/60,000-mile powertrain limited warranty.

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

The Mitsubishi i-MiEV is the least expensive all-electric car you can buy in the U.S. Enticing lease programs on other electric cars have made that less of a value proposition these days, but the little battery-powered car has its own charms.

I recently spent a gasoline-free week with a 2016 i-MiEV, and it wasn’t much different from the 2012 model I tested years ago. It’s shaped like an egg, with no hood to speak of, a tall, rounded roofline, and a little hatchback in the rear. You could call it cute; it stands out on the road both from its looks and its rarity.

Driving any all-electric vehicle efficiently depends on your behavior. In a gasoline car, the speedometer and gas gauge are for information — you don’t worry about them. With an electric, especially with an estimated EPA range of just 62 miles, you watch your range gauge like a hawk. And you monitor your driving by keeping an eye on the meter that shows if you’re generating power from coasting and braking, or if you’re discharging the battery by accelerating. How hard you push each pedal makes a big difference.

Using the air conditioning impacts range, too, so I kept the windows open and the dial to “Off” much of the time. Switching the AC on took around 8 miles out of the range estimate, and I wanted to keep some reserve.

With an 18-mile commute in each direction, I had plenty of range with the i-MiEV, and for the first time ever, I work at a company with six charging stations right out front, so I charged up at work instead of at home. That’s good, not only for convenience, but because the at-work chargers are Level 2, meaning they are 240 volts and take about 7 hours for a full charge. I only needed a partial charge, so I was done by lunchtime, and moved aside to let someone else use the ChargePoint charger.

The i-MiEV has a second charging jack for the Level 3 CHAdeMO quick charger, which I didn’t use, but it can fill the battery to about 80 percent in just half an hour, if necessary. There are two different quick-charge plug configurations, though, so beware. Charging at home on standard household current (Level 1) takes a long time, so if you owned or leased one of these cars, you’d definitely want to install the 240-volt Level 2 charger in your garage.

090315a2The i-MiEV suffers somewhat in comparison to both electrified “regular” cars, like the Honda Fit and Ford Focus, and cars designed only as electrics, such as the Nissan Leaf. Its interior panels are all hard plastic, its aesthetic somewhat Spartan. The sunvisors are squishy and the steering wheel doesn’t adjust. There’s no keyless entry. A few controls are located in oddball spots, almost like afterthoughts, and the turn signals make a toy-car squeak.

But a funny thing happened to me when I drove my Aqua Marine Blue Metallic test car. It felt solid on the road, and although there was only 66 horsepower, there was a robust 145 lb.-ft. of torque on tap, and the little 2,579-pound bug zips up to freeway speeds in a jiffy. Credit this to the way electric motors deliver 100 percent of their torque at any speed. A one-speed transmission gets the job done, as in other electrics.

The silence and remarkably balanced handling are a pleasure to commute with, and the standard 100-watt, six-speaker audio system isn’t bad. Visibility is great from the big windows, and the windows drop towards the front of the car, so you can see the road well.

Unfortunately, this little electric car’s range isn’t enough to do much more than commute and run errands around town — and I did lots of that happily. However, even for a visit to San Jose — a normally no-brainer drive — I left the i-MiEV at home and took our gas-powered family car. Certainly a 160-mile round trip to visit the grandkids would be out of the question.

Curiously, the i-MiEV has a feature in the dash screen that shows you where the closest gas stations were — with prices (which turned out to be inaccurate). Of course, I never needed that information.

Priced at just $22,995, the i-MiEV undercuts the other electrics (except for the very expensive Tesla) by around $10,000. Figure in the $7,500 Federal Tax Credit, and the i-MiEV becomes a real bargain. I used around $2.00 worth of electricity a day to drive 36 miles. That would have been around $8.00 in a normal, 18-mpg gasoline car.

The Mitsubishi i-MiEV is not only different from ordinary cars — it looks and feels different from other electric cars, too. It’s a unique and very ecologically minded alternative.


Honda CR-V Sits in the Sweet Spot PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 27 August 2015 14:30

082715aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

The Honda CR-V is an extremely popular compact crossover vehicle that represents where the car market is heading. Introduced in 1997, it’s now in the middle of its fourth generation, and going strong. Buyers have been migrating from midsized sedans to crossovers (car-based sport utility vehicles) for years now so the CR-V is sitting in the sweet spot of the marketplace.

I had thought that the CR-V had grown a lot, but it just looks that way. It’s certainly heavier, up by more than 400 pounds now for the top-level Touring model over the basic 1997. Styling has evolved over the years, so there are more chrome garnishes and grille flourishes today than when the car debuted.

Sales numbers are way up. The first year, when the CR-V concept was new, the new model still netted 66,752 sales. That figure passed 100,000 in the second year. The sales total exceeded 200,000 the first time in 2007, just before the Great Recession decimated the car market. The 2014 numbers? 335,019. That’s success.

Honda has done a lot with four-cylinder engines, and this latest CR-V uses its 2.4-liter engine with Earth Dreams Technology in all four trim levels. It generates 185 horsepower and 181 lb.-ft. of torque. It’s matched with a continuously variable automatic transmission — no more manual option. The first generation had a 2.0-liter four that put out just 126 horsepower (121 lb.-ft. of torque), so performance, despite a bit of a weight gain, is much stronger, and thanks to the Earth Dreams Technology, cleaner, too.

The EPA numbers are 26 City, 33 Highway, and 28 Combined, although I averaged just 23.7 mpg. EPA Green numbers are an average 5 for Smog but a nice 7 for Greenhouse Gas.

You can order up four-wheel drive in the CR-V, and my tester did have it, since it was the most loaded configuration available. It works unobtrusively, providing extra traction when the road surface isn’t ideal.

While these “compact” crossovers aren’t really that small, they aren’t as big as the current crop of nearly full-size midsized sedans, and you sit up higher. Visibility is good all around. Cargo room is generous, with a rear hatch and folding rear seats, and Honda keeps improving the interior design, with more interesting layouts and nicer materials throughout.

The LX is the entry point, with steps up to the EX, EX-L (leather) and, at the top, the Touring model, like my Copper Sunset Pearl test car. The car’s unusual color provoked an enthusiastic compliment from a woman in my local Safeway parking lot.

082715a2The Touring model includes leather seats that are firm but have a layer of softer padding just under the surface, like a premium mattress. The dash continues Honda’s twin-screen design, so you can make adjustments to your audio program while perusing a map. The steering wheel controls use Honda’s intuitive thumb-operated circles for audio and cruise control.

The instrument panel offers Honda’s color-coded efficiency messaging. As you drive along gently, twin “parentheses” of light display in green. Step on the gas, and that color fades to blue, as a subtle reminder to drive carefully. Like other car companies, Honda manufactures speedometers with high top numbers — in this case, 140 mph, so the needle rarely passes the halfway point of the gauge.

The CR-V got a major mid-cycle update for the 2015 model year, including the enhanced Earth Dreams engine and transmission. There are also some improvements to the chassis and braking system. There’s also more sound insulation, for a quieter cabin. The interior gains a center console armrest, there are rear console air ducts, and the sunvisors finally slide to cover more of the side window. New convenience features include a power tailgate, 10-way power and heated driver’s seat, and LED daytime running lights.

For safety, you can order up the optional Honda Sensing suite, which includes Forward Collision Warning, the Collision Mitigation Braking System, Adaptive Cruise Control, Lane Keeping Assist, and Honda LaneWatch. These all use various computers within the car to monitor position and react in milliseconds to keep you out of trouble.

Honda LaneWatch is an interesting technology. When you activate the right turn signal, a camera on the right outside mirror uses the center dash display to show you what’s in the lane on your right. As long as you’re paying attention, it should help prevent right-turn collisions.

Pricing starts at $24,150 for an LX. My Touring tester, so complete that options weren’t necessary, came to $33,600, including destination and handling charges.

The CR-V has had many years of success, and is positioned to become Honda’s most popular car in the U.S., overtaking the perennial favorite, the midsize Honda Accord sedan. Honda continues to improve and update it regularly, making the 2015 the best one yet.


Elantra GT Gives Hyundai a Hand Up PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Wednesday, 19 August 2015 21:03


Everything about the 2016 Hyundai Elantra GT is aerodynamic — from the aggressive profile and low overall height, to the sleek side mirrors.

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

The car market is packed with compact sedans that deliver more than basic transportation. The Elantra, which, rated on interior capacity, actually sneaks into the midsize category, is one of the best. However, for more action and function, try the Elantra GT.

Based on a different Hyundai model than the other Elantras, this five-door gives you a handy hatch and rear seats that fold flat. This is a blessing, not only for us bass players but for CostCo shoppers and active travelers too.

You might not think of a five-door hatchback as the kind of sporty ride that the name “GT” implies, but this 2,904-pound car steps up with a 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engine that pushes out 173 horsepower and 154 lb.-ft. of torque versus the more modest engines in the sedan. Match it up with a six-speed transmission — manual or automatic — your choice.

The GT gets a tauter suspension than ordinary Elantras, and the Style Package ($1,975) tightens it up a bit more. You also get meatier tires on 17-inch rims (not the standard 16s). My 2016 Elantra GT tester, in Black Noir Pearl, came with the automatic transmission, and had the Style package, which enhanced the car a lot. Not testing the car with and without the package, it’s hard to compare directly, but my Elantra GT provided entertaining handling on the two-lane back roads but smooth, quiet performance in the commute lane, too.

Hyundai’s fuel economy meter resets with each fill up, so it’s hard to get an ongoing fuel economy number, but I did average 27 mpg, spot on with the EPA’s Combined figure (33 Highway, 24 City). That made it one of the most efficient cars I’ve driven over the last several months, without being a tiny fuel-sipper. In one run of nearly all freeway driving, I achieved 31.7 mpg, so the EPA’s numbers are pretty darned accurate. EPA Green Vehicle scores are a midrange 5 for Smog and 6 for Greenhouse Gas.

Part of Hyundai’s recent success is their Liquid Sculpture design, which is not only on all their vehicles, but is already in version 2 on a few of them, for example, the 2015 Sonata sedan. The 2016 Elantra GT wears a version-2 nose on its version-1 body, so the lines are curvier until you hit the more linear, intense face. They pulled it off now, but the next-generation Elantra is a year or two away.

082015a2The inside of the Elantra GT has a carved, energetic feeling (credit Liquid Sculpture 1), and the materials are first-rate. The matte-black finish with silver accents evokes a pleasing, substantial ambiance. A pass-through center console, a la Volvo, offers multiple storage locations but doesn’t feel massive. The ellipses on the front doors convey motion as they cut into the wide panel between the front and rear doors.

The GT gives you standard Driver Selectable Steering Mode, a feature normally found in much more upmarket vehicles. Using a console button, you can select Normal (a safe bet), Sport (for backroad blasts) or Comfort (think long, straight freeway runs).

The Elantra GT offers standard heated seats, leather in my tester, thanks to the Tech Package ($3,950). Those seats are also ventilated — a rare item in a car that’s priced way under $40,000. The package also provides an all-new navigation system, praised in the Sonata and Genesis further up the family tree. The seven-inch display is intuitive and easy to grasp without consulting the owner’s manual, and offers a split screen, so you can monitor a map and your audio selection at a glance.

Hyundais are designed to be very easy to interact with, and they offer lots of electronic extras. This car came with standard blind spot monitoring, for example, one of the best safety features of the last decade. The rearview camera, amusingly, peeks out from behind the rear logo, which rises only when needed.

Pricing begins at a mere $18,880 for a manual transmission car without packages. My tester, with the Style and Tech packages, totaled out at $26,675. It competes directly with cars like the Mazda3 and Volkswagen Golf, and, even with a few years on the design, does it with flair.

The base car is intriguing for its price, efficiency and practicality, but the Style and Tech packages really transform the GT into a vehicle that deserves its name. It makes a big difference when you apply some leather to the steering wheel, shifter and seats and add automatic climate control, Sirius XM Satellite Radio, automatic headlamps, and much more. It turns a good car into a great one. With the buying public once again embracing of five-door hatchbacks (even BMW sells them), the Elantra GT may be the ideal car for today!


Stylish Lexus RC F Turns Heads PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 13 August 2015 08:24

081315aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

Lexus has built a reputation for luxury and quality, but how about performance? With the F models, they’re attempting to do just that. F stands for Fuji — the mountain and the esteemed Fuji Speedway in Japan.

The first F model was on the compact IS platform — Lexus’ BMW 3 Series competitor. The latest F is a muscling up of the all-new RC sports coupe. Sharing a platform with the IS model and some pieces with the larger GS sedan, the RC flaunts the molten, scooped, aggressive look of the brand’s LFA supercar, and shares little but the badge with the sedate and elegant LS sedan.

The regular RC comes with a fine 306-horsepower V6, but the RC F gets a 467-horsepower V8 with 389 lb.-ft. of torque pushing the 3,958-pound rocket along. That engine got numerous clever enhancements, adding 51 horsepower to the previous V8. It’s Lexus’ most powerful V8 ever.

The RC is a head-turner, but the F package really singes your eyeballs. The front features a black mesh grille. Look closely and see the “F” pattern cleverly worked into the texture. The wheels are 19-inchers, but my Ultrasonic Blue Mica tester had the optional hand-polished 20-spoke rims. The rich, lustrous paint uses a five-coat, four-bake process (and costs an extra $595).

Lexus wants the driver and passengers to enjoy some of the V8’s sonorous song. So, they use Active Sound Control to pipe in selected frequencies from the intake and exhaust notes. If you want to enjoy this, however, you need to set the driving mode to SPORT S+ using the knob on the console.

There are four settings. For ordinary driving in town, NORMAL is fine, but SPORT and SPORT S+ give you progressively greater road feel and control. SPORT S engages G-sensor AI-Shift Control, which automatically grabs the optimal gear ratio in the eight-speed Sports Direct Shift transmission. SPORT S+, ideal for the racetrack, adds automatic downshift during hard braking and holds lower gears longer through a corner. The M setting (for manual) provides eight clutchless “gears” to choose from.

A Torsen limited-slip differential is part of the package, too. It keeps all that power of the potent V8 going to the best wheel for stability. To use downforce to plant the car firmly on the road or track, a rear spoiler automatically pops up at 50 miles per hour.

Despite its mightiness, the V8 received an EPA rating of 16 City, 25 Highway, and 19 Combined. I averaged 18.1 mpg, which isn’t that different from what a lot of rather ordinary cars have delivered in recent tests.

081315a2While earlier Lexus models have employed a joystick controller for the display screen (rather than a touch screen), the RC F has a touchpad with haptic feedback. It vibrates when you touch it, so you know it’s working without looking down at it. It takes a little getting used to, and was positioned a little far back for a natural drop of the right arm, but it worked fine.

As a powerful beast, the RC F is quite civilized, really. You sit down low, and the genuine carbon fiber trim and 200-mph speedometer is a step up from the IS 350. The interior fittings also borrow from the LFA supercar, and while the body is a writhing, molten fantasy of curves, angles and vents, the sweeping cockpit is more restful to the eye.

V8 engines delight in their ability to roar off the line at relatively low rpm and to settle down to a deep hum as they glide along the freeway. A long run on remote roads or a racetrack would bring out more of the RC F’s potential than the daily grind of commuting and grocery getting. This car is meant for a more interesting life than most of us are living. And perhaps that’s why cars like the RC F exist.

At $74,560, it’s not a Ferrari for the common man, but it certainly is more affordable than that Italian exotic. And Lexus doesn’t need to sell a boatload to generate a halo effect over its entire product line, either.


Acura RDX Challenges a Red Hot Market PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 06 August 2015 14:38

080615aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

The compact crossover segment is going like gangbusters, so it’s natural that Honda would want to give buyers lots of choices. Honda is the parent company of Acura, the upscale brand that’s been around since the last 1980s offering of a step up.

One of America’s favorite compact crossovers is the Honda CR-V, and the RDX has these good bones, although much of what you see and feel is different. Acura gives its customers more lines, angles and swashes on its skin and interior surfaces than pretty much anyone else (although Nissan/Infiniti are right in there, too).

Take the doors in my Basque Red Pearl RDX test vehicle, for example. When I looked to my right from the driver’s seat, my gaze took in a dizzying array of lines moving in different, sometimes contradictory directions, from the armrest to the storage bin to the grab handle and more. The interior of the significantly less expensive Honda CR-V I tested weeks later was gentler on the eyes.

The car that really got Americans excited about SUVs was the 1990 Ford Explorer. It was a huge success in the marketplace — a livable midsize truck that could serve well as a family station wagon. In fact, the family wagon as we know it began a swift decline around the same time. “Why not sit higher and have more cargo room?” thought millions of buyers.

The arrival of the crossover — meaning a tall wagon body using a unibody car platform instead of a truck chassis, was the second major revolution in this market, and even the latest Explorer is now on this platform.

The Honda CR-V was a pioneer in the compact crossover market, so the RDX, as a fancier sibling, is right there. A funny thing, though… What does “compact” mean today? Let’s compare some numbers.

The original four-door Explorer was on a 111.9-inch wheelbase versus 105.7 for the RDX, but look at these other stats. Length: The Ford was 184.3 inches long — the RDX? 184.4! How about width? The Explorer stretched 70.2 inches side to side. The RDX? 73.7 inches! How about weight? Well, the first Explorer was 4,012 pounds. Compare that to the fully loaded RDX I tested at 3,946 lbs.

So, the RDX is no little car. Luckily, it has a 3.5-liter V6 that puts out a strong 279 horsepower and 252 lb.-ft. of torque (Up 6 and 1 respectively from the 2015 model). The 1990 Explorer’s engine was larger — 4.0 liters — but managed only 155 horsepower. The fuel economy wasn’t near as good either. Ford: 15 City, 20 Highway, 16 Combined. Acura: 20 City, 29 Highway, 22 Combined (I averaged 20.7 mpg). The Acura’s green numbers are 5 for both Smog and Greenhouse Gas.

Both cars were available with some kind of four-wheel-drive system, although many people, even in 1990, knew they weren’t leaving the pavement and skipped it. The RDX I tested had it. It adds $1,200 to the price, 165 pounds to the weight and subtracts 1 mpg from the fuel economy, but would be welcome in inclement weather.

080615a2The RDX offers lots of things undreamed of way back in 1990. You can add three packages onto the base RDX (which is hardly stripped). My tester, with the Advance Package (“the works”) brought together the Tech Package and AcuraWatch Plus package, plus its own virtues. The Tech Package gives you a voice-recognition navigation system, a rear-view camera with multiple angles, real-time traffic alerts, a 10-speaker surround-sound system, blind-spot information system, and so much more.

AcuraWatch Plus brings in electronic safety features like Lane Keeping Assist (stay between the lines), Collision Mitigation Braking (yup, throws on the skids for you in an emergency), and Adaptive Cruise Control (preset the distance from the car in front, with automatic braking and acceleration to stay that way).

The Advance Package itself adds remote engine start (not sure why you need it), parking sensors (more useful), ventilated front seats (supplementing the heated ones), auto-dimming outside mirrors, fog lamps and rain-sensing wipers.

Once you load this not-so-compact five-passenger crossover with practically every conceivable comfort, convenience and safety feature, you get my test car, and you’ll pay $44,340 retail. Starting prices are $36,190. For more comparison, a mid-range, four-wheel-drive 1990 Explorer, as tested by Car and Driver magazine 26 years ago, sticker-priced at $22,115. With inflation, $22,115 in 1990 dollars comes to… $41,180 today. So, it means the size and the price are amazingly similar, but the performance, fuel economy, safety and entertainment features are much better today.

The Acura RDX competes with lots of other vehicles in a red-hot segment, and with its upgrades and content, should be successful. Now, when Acura introduces its version of Honda’s new HRV mini-crossover, call me.


Lexus IS 350 Stands Out from the Crowd PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Friday, 31 July 2015 10:52

073015aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

The IS is Lexus’ answer to the BMW 3 Series, along with other contenders in the compact luxury sports sedan field. It flaunts dramatic styling, with the official Lexus spindle grille up front. This is as dramatic and imposing as the 1958 Edsel’s vertical slit must have seemed, and it’s more stunning than beautiful. It juts out defiantly, and the rest of the car is hardly a shrinking violet either.

The side panels are sliced and worked like the clay models they used to use for auto designs — there’s even a line tracing along the lower body sides and right up into the sharply terminated taillamps. Someone was having a good time in the Lexus styling studios and their directive was surely, “No boring cars, please!”

All IS models have V6 engines. The IS 250, which I drove at the beginning of this year, comes with a solid 204-horsepower 2.5-liter mill. The IS 350, like my Ultra White test car, drops in the 306-horsepower 3.5-liter version, so it moves the same sized (but 132-pounds-heavier) car from zero to 60 mph more than two seconds faster (5.6 seconds).

The IS 250 and 350 come as rear-wheel-drive cars — like the 3 Series — and also offer all-wheel drive (AWD), which they call “all-weather drive.” This nomenclature helps you understand that it’s all for extra safety and not about going off road to your favorite campsite. The AWD system normally divides power equally between the front and rear, but can go as much as 30-70 when needed for better traction in bad weather.

When you select the brawnier IS 350 over the IS 250, you pay at the pump for it, but not as much as you might think. My IS 250 tester gave me 21.8 miles per gallon while the IS 350 delivered 18.8 mpg. That 3 mpg difference adds up over the years, but you’ll be having more fun for the entire length of the lease.

The IS 350 gets EPA Green Scores of 5 and 5 — decent for a relatively high performance car.

You can add the F Sport package for $3,740 to dress up your IS. Naturally, there’s all the leather covered stuff and electronic wizardry for entertainment and safety. The eight-inch display screen in my tester is controlled by the Remote Touch Interface (RTI) joystick on the console.

073015a2There’s a mind-boggling set of choices for entertainment and other options, especially if you order the Navigation system ($2,995), which comes with Mark Levinson super audio, with its 835 watts of power through 15 speakers.

2015 IS 350s have some nice little upgrades after the redone 2014s stretched the wheelbase three inches and delivered the bolder styling. One is the Siri Eyes Free, which leverages your phone’s brain to let you perform some functions hands-free as you’re driving. Other updates this year include gridlines in the rear-view backup monitor, and Lexus Enform Remote, which ties the already sophisticated electronics to a phone app (iPhone or Android), so you can do things like unlock the doors or start the climate control from your phone.

The IS comes with an alphabet soup of safety acronyms, such as ABS (anti-lock braking system), EBD (electronic brake distribution), TRAC (traction control), and VSC (vehicle stability control). It’s also equipped with electronic power steering, which lightens the car by removing the hydraulic steering pump from the engine, improves mileage a little too, and lets you choose how much or little power assist you’d like.

Then, there’s VGRS — Variable Gear Ratio Steering. Along with the Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS), VGRS lets you set up the IS 350 just the way you want it. We live in a world of mass production but endless customization. AVS gives you the choice, from a console-mounted dial, of selecting Eco, Normal, Sport and Sport +. You find the road and then select the appropriate setting.

On the way to a five-star (top) U.S. Government safety rating, other safety acronyms come into the picture, too, such as BSM (blind spot monitoring), LDA (lane departure alert), and much more. All of the electronic marvels of an IS 350 cannot be contained in one review.

My IS 350 test car, with the F Sport Package, Navigation/Audio upgrade, and a few other goodies, came to $48,725. My IS 250 tester from before, which looked much the same, totaled $40,870. You decide if the eight grand difference is worth it for the 2.1 seconds of speed and F Sport features.

The IS 350 is comfortable to ride in, fun to approach in the parking lot, and loads of fun to drive. It is not a BMW, but you could easily cross-shop it, and possibly choose it over the 3 Series, Mercedes-Benz C Class, or other compact sport sedans.

CAPTION 1: The Lexus IS features a host of upgrades for 2015, including new LED fog lights and numerous cabin enhancements.

CAPTION 2: The combination of a longer wheelbase and a special front seat design increases rear seat legroom by 1.6 inches in the 2015 Lexus IS 350.

Chevy Builds ’em Big in Texas PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Tuesday, 28 July 2015 08:59


The lightweight aluminum hood and liftgate panels of the 2015 Chevrolet Suburban enhance efficiency by reducing  its overall mass.

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

Chevrolet has sold the capacious Suburban for 80 years now. Today, they still build them, in Arlington, Texas, conveniently located where these big SUVs are bestsellers.

For 2015, the Suburban wears a brand-new suit of clothes. The new look is more slab-sided than before, with subtleties and a high window line contributing to a monumental look. Inlaid doors (GM’s terminology) are supposed to aid aerodynamics and reduce cabin noise.

The 5.3-liter EcoTec3 V8 engine is more powerful, with 355 horsepower and 383 lb.-ft. of torque pulling up to 5,896 pounds when you opt for four-wheel drive. This drivetrain earns EPA numbers of 15 City, 22 Highway and 18 overall. This reflects a nearly 10-percent improvement in the highway number.

This could be a result of a neat trick. The V8 engine turns into a V4 with cylinder shutoff when the car doesn’t need all eight. You can’t tell except by a little instrument panel graphic. Every little bit helps on those long, flat Texas interstates, for sure. I averaged 16.3 mpg in suburban (appropriately) and urban driving.

The EPA’s Green scores are 6 for Smog and 4 for Greenhouse Gas — average numbers for a larger-than-average ride.

072315a2GM interiors have enjoyed an upgrade in recent years. Compared to Chevy interiors of yore, plastics look and feel better, seams match, and aesthetics are way up. As in the new Impala, the center dash panel rises to provide a neat little cubby. You get the right mixture of matte plastics and metallic accents, and, of course, stitching. The center console bin is unbelievably roomy. It almost serves as a trunk for secure storage.

Besides all-new looks inside and out, 2015 brings more electrical and electronic marvels:  wireless phone charging (with a panel on top of the aforementioned cargo bin), a hands-free liftgate, updated MyLink system with Text Message Alerts and Siri Eyes Free, and a standard built-in Wi-Fi hotspot.

The Suburban is the largest vehicle I’ve driven in 23 years of testing, with the exception of the humungous Hummer H1 I tested in the mid 2000s (like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s). Driving it is not difficult, thanks to a comfortable cabin with easy-to-use and reach controls, but you really have to watch where you’re going. You do get a bird’s-eye view over everything except for the semi trucks out on the highway.

The Suburban is not an ideal car for the city. I had to drive into downtown San Francisco one day and was relieved that the car even fit into the underground parking garage. But, they charged me an extra $20 for being oversized!

That massive size, however, is very handy for carrying lots of people and cargo. Both the second and third rows fold down and provide a giant 121.1 cubic feet of cargo space. And those people in the Suburban will all have plenty of room to stretch out. At 80.5 inches wide, the Suburban is not much smaller than my first studio apartment (made from a one-car garage).

With that much metal moving down the road, it’s good to be aware of what’s around you. My test vehicle, a top-level LTZ with four-wheel drive in Tungsten Metallic (gray), had the safety of the vibrating Safety Alert Seat (!) that warns the driver in a way he or she can’t ignore when approaching another vehicle at a speed the computer thinks is risky. There are also audio warnings — some of them mysterious. My tester once told me “Caution — toll booth.” Hmmm.

Other available safety devices include Adaptive Cruise Control, which keeps a set distance between you and the car in front and includes Crash Imminent Braking. You can also order the Side Blind Zone Alert, Lane Change Alert, Rear Cross Traffic Alert, Forward Collision Alert and Lane Departure Warning. You can see that the self-driving car is evolving out of the human-driven one right before your eyes. Chevy is proud of its segment-first front-seat center airbag, too.

The Suburban comes in three levels, typical for Chevy vehicles — LS, LT and LTZ. All ride on a long 130-inch wheelbase and stretch 224.4 inches. That’s just a few inches under 19 feet long. Loaded up like my LTZ, the base price is $66,785, and by the time you add in $1,195 for shipping and the Sun, Entertainment, Destination package and a few other items, my tester hit $71,930. The LS starts at $51,390.

This is not a vehicle I personally would ever need, but, as Don Jose says in the Dos Equis commercial, if I did, the Suburban would be right up there on the list. Despite its 16 miles per gallon fuel efficiency and parking lot premium pricing, when you fill it with eight people, it begins to be an efficient way to travel.


GX 460 Features Full-time Four-wheel Drive PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 16 July 2015 14:36


The 2015 Lexus GX 460 easily performs family commuter duties during the week and can comfortably switch to more demanding 4x4 needs on the weekend.

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

Over the last two decades, the luxury SUV/crossover market has grown tremendously. Despite their large wheels, prominent fender bulges and towering proportions, most of these vehicles aren’t designed for any serious off-roading. With its traditional body-on-frame construction and full-featured four-wheel drive, the GX 460 is.

The GX 460, in regular or Luxury levels, recently received Lexus’ distinctive and polarizing spindle grille up front. It boasts bold styling along the sides and tail to match the luxury brand’s increasingly in-your-face look.

The 5,179-pound GX 460 carries a mighty 4.6-liter V8 under its prominent hood. It pushes out 301 horsepower and 329 lb.-ft. of torque, so you can tow up to 6,500 pounds. EPA fuel economy numbers are 15 City, 20 Highway, and 17 Combined. I averaged 15.6 mpg. EPA Green scores are 5 for Smog and 4 for Greenhouse Gas.

Standard full-time four-wheel drive with a Torsen limited slip differential keeps you safe on the highway, but you can also shift into low for slower going in rough country, and even lock the differential. Taking a $65,000 car into the dirt and rocks may not be everyone’s choice, but some folks do it with Range Rovers, and the GX 460 is happy to oblige.

Once you’ve climbed up into the tall cabin, driving the GX 460 is easy and quiet. The Adaptive Variable Suspension uses electronically controlled dampers to maintain calm by adjusting to varying road surfaces. Console switches let you choose the Normal, Comfort and Sport suspension settings, raise or lower the ride height, and choose the Low four-wheel-drive gear, as well. And with the rear air suspension, you’ll stay level when the car’s loaded up with your stuff or filled with six passengers plus the driver.

More complex is the Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System, which uses hydraulic cylinders to vary the stabilizer bars. This helps limit body lean in tricky situations.

Presuming you’ll be tackling serious off-road adventures, the GX460 also provides numerous electronic assists. The Downhill Assist Control helps on the way down and the Hill-Start Assist on the way up. Then, there’s Active Traction Control, to distribute torque automatically, Vehicle Stability Control — a worthwhile feature on any car — and something called Crawl Control, which is a boon in sand, snow and mud.

Crawl Control automatically modulates the throttle and brake, making it much easier to drive in treacherous terrain. It also engages the front and rear differentials to reduce tire slippage and optimize chassis behavior.

If you’re not going off road, you won’t feel deprived. The interior electronics in the multi-media system are thoroughly up to date. You can configure the layout of the generous eight-inch center screen into one, two or three panels. So, for example, you can monitor what’s going on with your audio, navigation, and even the weather, at the same time.

The Lexus Enform App Suite system provides a wealth of features, including Bing internet searches, OpenTable restaurant reservations, and access to audio services such as Pandora and iHeartRadio from your connected phone. For 2015, Siri Eyes Free Mode arrives, too. You will never be bored driving a GX 460, but you could become a bit overstimulated if you’re not careful.

071615a2The posh interior shows extra thought. The padded dash and door surfaces look like they’re laid over the metallic parts, so the panels don’t meet flush. This adds dimension and a sense of drama. There’s plenty of handsome stitching everywhere, going with the latest style trends for automotive interiors. The heated mahogany and leather steering wheel is a nice place to lay your hands, as is the leather shift knob.

The GX 460 boasts three-row seating. Open the rear door (to the side, like the front door of your house, not up like a tailgate) and you can flip down the second- and third-row seats by pressing buttons. You can also raise the third-row seats back up electronically from there, but you’ll need to walk to the side to lift the second-row chairs again. With both rows down, you can load up to 65 cubic feet of cargo onto an expanse of level, carpeted space.

My test car, in Silver Lining Metallic paint, was a Luxury model with the Driver Support Package (which includes the sensational Mark Levinson 17-speaker audio system). It priced out at $65,980, including shipping. This car comes loaded before you add on special options, but this package does provide numerous additional safety features besides the enhanced entertainment. The “standard” GX 460 starts at $50,410.

Most SUV and crossover buyers don’t need this much capability, and Lexus has other options for them. But if you want to take your luxury into inhospitable places, the GX 460 is more than willing and able to do it comfortably and safely.


Subaru Revs Up Rotation with Sporty BRZ PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 02 July 2015 10:59


Powered by a 200-horsepower 2.0-liter BOXER engine, the Subaru BRZ marks a return to the fundamentals of sports car design, emphasizing low vehicle weight, an ultra-low center of gravity and precision steering.

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

A few years ago, I never would have expected Subaru, longtime builders of sturdy four-wheel-drive wagons and sedans, to offer a real sports car. Heck, they practically invented the crossover vehicle, and have been respectable citizens since the 1970s in the U.S. But Subaru also markets the hot compact WRX, so they actually do know a lot about building a high-performance vehicle. The BRZ, which debuted a couple of years ago, offers low-slung, action-packed fun. It’s like a Mazda Miata with a hardtop.

I got to spend a week with a Crystal White Pearl example. While the BRZ normally arrives as a Premium or Limited model, mine was the special-for-2015 Series Blue limited edition. While all BRZs come with a 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engine and good old-fashioned rear-wheel drive, the Blue Series cars get lots of goodies to dress them up.

Subaru is importing just 1,000 Series Blue BRZs from Japan to the United States, half in white like my tester and the other half in WR Blue Pearl. Special black 17-inch alloy wheels wear 215/45 R17 Summer-Performance tires. With only 2,764 pounds sitting on that rubber, acceleration is brisk and with an extremely low center of gravity, stability is superb.

You can pick from either a manual or automatic six-speed transmission with the garden-variety models, but the Series Blue comes only with a manual, and I’m very happy about that. When you’re competing with a Miata you’d better have a good shifter, and Subaru came through. The satisfying feeling of metal working through the gears with short throws is delightful. Fifth gear is an exact 1.0 direct drive, while sixth is your freeway cruising gear. The engineers pipe a little engine sound into the cabin for that exciting sports car ambiance.

The 2.0-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine, with 151 lb.-ft. of torque, earns fuel economy numbers of 22 City, 30 Highway, and 25 Overall with the manual. I averaged 27.4 mpg. Just to show how much smarter (and less prone to feelings of exhilaration) computers are, the electronically controlled automatic transmission boosts those numbers substantially to 25, 34 and 28 respectively. The EPA Green scores are 5 for Smog and 6 for Greenhouse Gas.

The BRZ is snug and low, just like it’s supposed to be, but the vestigial rear seats, which are good only for a sweater or a grocery bag or two, fold. So, I was able to schlep my music equipment to a Blues band gig in the little car, making it a much more practical ride than I had expected.

The real joy, though, with a car like this is the handling and performance. All BRZs receive revised suspension damping this year, but the Blue Series gets the lower body kit, including an underbody panel, to increase downforce. You may be looking out the BRZ’s side window at the wheels of the SUV next to you, but you can scoot out of there in a flash.

070215a2The Premium level comes well equipped, but the Limited adds a few extras, like automatic climate control and illuminated vanity mirrors. All models receive new, larger stainless-steel exhaust tips, a shark fin roof antenna, and simulated carbon-fiber dash panel.

The Series Blue Package, at $1,795 after a discount, brings in a leather- and alcantara-trimmed interior in blue and black, with a nice silver BRZ logo on the seats and mats. The steering wheel wears special black and blue leather, too. Outside, you can identify the special edition by its black painted alloy wheels with red brake calipers peeking through and the STI markings, and front and side lower body spoilers.

It’s good to know that the BRZ, as a small car, is an IIHS Top Safety Pick, thanks in part to Subaru’s Ring-shaped Reinforcement Frame safety structure.

The BRZ isn’t a family car — Subaru makes plenty of those — but neither is it an exotic. Prices start at just $26,490, including shipping, for the Premium model. The Limited begins at $28,490. My Series Blue tester topped out at $30,285.

Subaru supplies a virtually identical vehicle to Toyota, which they market as the Scion FR-S. Other than a different front clip and badging variations, there’s not much difference, but Subaru did the lion’s share of the design and development, so getting a BRZ puts you closer to the source.

Subaru has been on a roll over the last several years, and was about the only brand to improve their sales performance during the Great Recession. They offer value and quality, and now, with the BRZ, some more performance and sex appeal, too. The little sports car won’t sell in large quantities, but it’s an affordable halo car for the brand (although it’s the only Subaru without standard all-wheel drive).


Ford Builds F-150 Leaner, Lighter PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Monday, 29 June 2015 08:34

062515aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

Ford doesn’t change their F-150 very often, and why should they? It’s been America’s bestselling full-size pickup for 37 years, and for 32 of those years, the bestselling vehicle, period. But the 2015 version is all-new.

The biggest news is the aluminum body. A first for a pickup, this “high-strength, military-grade” aluminum alloy, along with a much greater use of high-strength steel in other areas, saves up to 700 pounds. That means Ford can now offer smaller, lighter EcoBoost engines to increase performance and fuel economy.

There are four engines on the menu for 2015, which all run through an automatic six-speed transmission. The base powerplant is a 3.5-liter V6, and there’s an EcoBoost version of it as well. The smallest and most efficient choice is the 2.7-liter EcoBoost V6, which employs start/stop technology to quit when you’re sitting at a traffic light to save gas. And, you can still order the mighty 5.0-liter V8.

Why pick one engine over the other?

It depends what you want to do. The 2.7-liter V6 earns the best fuel economy and EPA Green numbers, the 3.5-liter EcoBoost offers the highest towing capacity, and the 5.0-liter V8 carries the biggest payload. The base 3.5-liter V6 has the lowest numbers for horsepower, torque, towing capacity and payload, but is still capable of performing the tasks most people buy a pickup to do. You can add four-wheel drive to any engine.

How many people do you need to carry? There are three configurations — Regular, SuperCab and SuperCrew. The Regular provides a single bench seat that holds three across. The SuperCab has a second row, but the back doors open only if the front doors are open, and are hinged at the rear. This is inconvenient in parking lots when you’re parked near another vehicle. The SuperCrew boasts four full doors.

How much stuff do you need to haul? All three configurations come with a 6.5-foot bed length, but the Regular and SuperCab also offer an 8-foot long bed; the SuperCrew will give you a 5.5-foot short bed, to help make turning and parking a bit easier.

You can buy a basic truck at the XL grade, and it’s up from there to the XLT, Lariat, King Ranch and Platinum, with ascending sets of standard equipment to match. The top two levels are quite posh — like taller luxury cars with more hauling capacity.

My test truck was a Ruby Red Metallic Tinted Clearcoat SuperCab with the 2.7-liter EcoBoost engine and four-wheel drive. Among its options, it had the XLT package, with a rear window defroster, Sirius XM Satellite Radio, and a rear-view camera. The XLT Chrome Appearance Package ($1,695) gave the truck a more upscale look. The spray-in bedliner ($475) was handsome and looked durable. My tester’s price rang up to $43,480.

A Regular-cab, two-wheel-drive XL with the base 3.5-liter engine will set you back $26,995, while the two-wheel-drive Platinum SuperCrew starts at an eye-opening $52,545. All prices shown include $1,195 shipping.

What’s it like to drive a big, classic Ford pickup? From the inside, it’s smooth and quiet, and you have a panoramic view of traffic, which looks like swarming pesky flies from your comfortable perch. The width imparts great spaciousness, and the handsome dash is bedecked in matte finishes, with chrome trim. The enormous center bin will hold your laptop, and probably a week’s worth of groceries, too.

062515a2The soft, padded steering wheel is covered with buttons for audio, phone and cruise control. The instrument panel features a 120-mph speedometer and a tachometer, and full set of auxiliary gauges with fat blue needles. I was surprised that my test truck lacked automatic climate control and an illuminated visor mirror.

The outside is typical big truck — tall, tough and angular, but with interesting little accents, including a small spoiler on the top of the tailgate. The grille is suitably massive, and is flanked by (unique for a truck) LED headlamps.

Downsides? I averaged just 17.8 miles per gallon, which means you’ll be filling the 23-gallon tank often. Maneuvering the truck in city traffic is challenging, but folks normally give you a wide berth when they see you coming.

If you need a pickup truck, you will surely find one that will do the job in the vast world of Ford F-150 pickups.




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