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

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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 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 21 August 2014 13:21

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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 PDF  | 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 PDF  | 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.

 

 
Wondering Where the Celica Went? PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 31 July 2014 14:22

073114aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

The Scion story goes back to the early part of the last decade. The problem was that young people weren’t considering Toyota’s small cars in what management believed to be sufficient numbers. The Corolla was a fine car, but lacked the cool factor. With its success in a premium brand above Toyota (Lexus), why not try something special below mainstream Toyota?

After experimenting with Project Genesis, in 2002 Toyota established Scion, and started selling two models in 2003. You could buy the Scion xB, a cute little box based on the Japanese market bB. It was hip to be square. The xA, a small hatchback wagon, was the other offering of the fledgling brand. Dealers set up a separate area of the Toyota showroom with computers and non-pesky sales personnel to let youthful shoppers browse at their own pace.

The brand hit its peak sales year in 2006, with 173,034 units finding happy homes. By 2013, sales had sunk to just 68,321. The second-generation xB, along with sidekick xD, are seven years old now — an eternity for trend-conscious shoppers.

For 2007, the tC arrived. Here was the return of the Celica, with a new name. A sporty, affordable two-door coupe, it is now the brand’s biggest seller.

The second-generation tC, based on the Toyota Avensis sedan sold in Europe, got a tougher, sharper look, which was further updated for 2014. The edgy, razor-sliced headlamps, bolder fenders, and more angular tail match with the latest Toyota offerings, and fit in with the  recently introduced FR-S, Scion’s first real sports car (but a niche player).

I got to test an Absolutely Red tC. Like the Celica, it has more engine power than the standard compact offerings — 179 horsepower and 172 lb.-ft. of torque from 2.5 liters, driven through a six-speed manual or automatic transmission. My tester had the automatic, which did a fine job during my commutes. I would order the manual for my own car, were I to buy one.

Small cars are often bought for their fuel economy. That’s where the tC separates itself from plain econocars. The EPA rates the 3,113-lb. tC at 23 mpg City, 31 Highway, 26 combined. (You can seek out a Toyota Yaris or one of Toyota’s hybrids for better mpg.)

The tC’s more powerful engine makes driving the car a whole lot more fun, though. The independent front strut suspension and double wishbone rear setup provide plenty of feedback without shaking your teeth loose. Green numbers are 5 for Smog and 7 for Greenhouse Gas.

073114a2The interior fittings, as on other Scion models, are attractive, but of obviously non-luxury origins. Textures are plain, not emulating “fine Corinthian leather,” and there’s plenty of hard plastic. But over my more than a week of driving the tC, I became more and more fond of it. The bucket seats hold you in place without gripping too hard. Although the window line is pretty high, I never felt claustrophobic. There’s a panoramic sunroof to let in lots of light. The leather steering wheel feels good in your hands, and the instrument panel is easy on the eyes.

Scion’s product planners know that it takes more than a sporty body and some bucket seats and silver-rimmed gauges to sell cars these days. My tester had a nice 300-watt audio system with 8 speakers. Six of them were stacked in the two doors, with two subwoofers in the rear panels. It was easy to listen to music off my iPod through Bluetooth, and that’s how I used my phone, too.

There are numerous other electronic options. The 6.1-inch audio display is not the largest or most elaborate in the industry, but was easy to access while driving. The only thing I missed was satellite radio, which is available, but was not present in my tester.

That omission could be forgiven considering the tC’s price. My tester, with the usual power windows, locks and mirrors; air conditioning; cruise control; keyless entry, and more, came to just $20,965, including shipping. That makes it one of the least expensive cars I’ve tested recently, and certainly one of the more fun ones. Select a six-speed manual transmission and take $1,100 off that price.

When Scion debuted, there was talk of having a quick turnover of product, perhaps even introducing all-new cars rather than redesigned versions, every few years. However, the world economic recession and natural disasters in 2009 slowed the development of new Scion models. Things are starting to move now, and a new vehicle is expected to be unveiled at the 2014 Los Angeles Auto Show in November.

Meanwhile, if you were wondering where the Toyota Celica went, go visit the Scion side of the Toyota showroom.

 

 
Toyota Upgrades 4Runner’s Suspension PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Wednesday, 23 July 2014 14:31

072414a3By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

While the trend in the industry is toward unibody-based, carlike crossovers, Toyota’s 4Runner sticks with rugged body-on-frame construction, and with a mighty V8 and nine or more inches of ground clearance, it’s ready to take you anywhere.

Three decades ago, the original 4Runner was little more than a Toyota pickup with a second-row seat and roof added over the bed. Now, in its fifth generation, it’s bespoke, although there surely remains some tough Tacoma pickup under there somewhere.

Even off-road enthusiasts have to drive on paved roads sometime, so Toyota has worked on the suspension to make the latest 4Runner very livable in town. A double-wishbone independent front suspension and four-link rear setup are combined with gas shocks at each wheel to provide control to the driver and mitigate on-road and off-road events.

While none of the Toyota trucks and crossovers is softly rendered, the 4Runner looks like it was styled with a chisel rather than a brush. The face is a brutal collection of angles, with glaring headlamps (now with projector beams in place of halogen bulbs), a snarling downturned grille and a jutting bumper for a chin. The sides wear defined fender lines to complete the look.

Choose from three levels. Opt for the well-equipped SR5 or the loaded Limited, with all of the goodies standard. The Trail model is set up more for serious off-roaders. The SR5 and Trail models offer a Premium level, which adds in some of the features you get standard on the Limited.

My test unit was a Limited, in blindingly bright Blizzard Pearl paint. The differences are many at the top of the 4Runner family, but think leather and chrome inside, as well as a bump from 17- to 20-inch wheels on the outside. Of course, it also has automatic climate control instead of the manually operated type on the other two.

The Limited also comes standard with an X-REAS suspension system. It improves performance, comfort and control by delivering flatter and smoother cornering and absorbing choppy pavement better. It automatically adjusts shock damping and uses a center control absorber to cross-link shocks on opposite corners of the car. This reduces pitch and yaw, for a more stable ride.

The Limited uses a full-time, four-wheel-drive system with a locking differential and a three-mode center-console-mounted switch. The SR5 and Trail 4x4 models get a two-speed, part-time four-wheel-drive system.

Every 4Runner comes with the A-TRAC traction control system. It automatically distributes driving force to any one wheel in contact with the ground, which works great for patches of ice or when negotiating tricky offroad trails. The Trail model enhances it with a locking rear differential.

There is just one engine offered in all 4Runners — a 4.0-liter V8. It churns out 270 horsepower and 276 lb.-ft. of torque, which brings the nearly two-and-a-half-ton vehicle to heel with a gentle tap on the accelerator. All 4Runners put that power through a five-speed automatic transmission.

Of course, economy at this scale suffers a bit, with posted ratings from the EPA at 17 City, 21 Highway (18 Combined). I averaged 17.7 mpg in my four-wheel-drive tester. Fueleconomy.gov gives the car a 5 for Smog and 4 for Greenhouse gas.

Although the 4Runner looks sharp and works well on public roads, it is a somewhat massive ride for darting around town. You do sit higher than many people, so you can feel like a big shot, but thanks to responsive steering and comfortable seats (leather in my Limited test vehicle), you can feel at home there.

072414a4The interior styling has the mass of what you expect in a truck, and the steering wheel is fat and industrial. Some extra attention was given to evocative styling. Placing the power window switches on the horizontal top of the door panels rather than flat along the sides is unique and makes the doors feel thick and strong.

Naturally, a vehicle as large as the 4Runner is great for schlepping cargo. The second-row seats fold flat, and if you have the optional third row, it does, too. You can fold the third row from the sides or the rear, which is handy if you’re standing there with the boxes. There’s also an optional pull-out cargo deck that can support up to 440 pounds.

Prices start at $33,680 for the SR5, runs to $36,545 for the Trail and up to my tester base-priced at $44,260. With “automatic running boards,” a leather-trimmed third-row seat and sliding second-row seat, and $395 for the sparkling paint, it added up to $47,520. All prices shown include $860 shipping charges.

From its humble origins as an upgraded compact pickup to today’s fully-featured all-weather, all-activity hauler, the 4Runner remains a leader in the midsize SUV segment.

 

 
Ford Fires Up a Fast Focus PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Wednesday, 16 July 2014 15:34

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The 2014 Ford Focus ST’s design adds aggression and aerodynamic stability compared to the base Focus models.

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

Around the world, Ford’s Focus is a small, five-passenger vehicle that’s priced within reach of most buyers. The ST, which stands for Sport Technologies in Ford’s world, transitions into a 154-mile-per-hour racer, thanks to a 2.0-liter twin-turbocharged EcoBoost engine. When you put your right foot on the sporty-looking metal-covered accelerator pedal, it’s generating 252 horsepower and 270 lb.-ft. of torque. That is about double what an ordinary compact hatchback delivers in its daily getting about town.

The Focus’ AdvanceTrac stability control system lets you choose from three settings: Standard for normal driving, Sport, when traction is controlled by the driver, and Off, which shuts the system down for track use.

The variable-rate rack-and-pinion electrically assisted steering delivers great feel in town and on the curving back roads, but I noticed that the turning radius was surprisingly large in parking garages.

There are plenty of ways to remind you that the ST is no ordinary Focus. Starting on the outside, available paint colors include Tangerine Scream and Performance Blue (my test car was the latter, and looked great). The grille is large and open, with slashes through it that make it appear more menacing. The lower body cladding, spoiler and exhaust ports below the bumper add to the hunkered-down look as well.

071714a2Inside, the first thing that stands out is the set of Recaro racing seats. They feature very deep bolsters, top and bottom, and wear the ST logo in the neck area. My tester’s seats were wrapped in stunning black and blue partial leather. The steering wheel wears a silver ST badge, and the handsome gearshift knob combines leather and a silvery top, with the traditional bag. The headliner and pillars are a sporty black.

The dash, already angular and edgy in any Focus, boasts an extra set of small gauges at the top, where you can monitor the boost pressure from the twin turbos, flanked by an oil temperature gauge on the left and an oil pressure gauge on the right. Garden variety models don’t get those.

Ford’s Sync system can be tricky to use, but the one in the Focus is pretty straightforward. The center screen on the dash provides a home page, with four quadrants of information. The upper left is for the Bluetooth phone connection; the upper right shows navigation; the lower left displays your entertainment selection; and the lower right your climate settings. Truly a dashboard within a dashboard, it gives you an eye on everything at once. Just touch the outside edge of any quadrant to open up the full screen, where you can make new selections.

The Focus does the same with the instrument panel. Besides displaying your speed and rpm (and fuel level), another quadrant setup shows you a timer, fuel economy, trip odometer and distance to empty all at once. Or, use a steering-wheel-mounted control to scroll through them. I liked having my eight little boxes showing at all times to keep a watch on everything. I tended to change the audio entertainment most often, and the little quadrant is large enough to provide six presets. Or, use the steering wheel button. You can also try voice commands, which are especially good for phone dialing and answering.

On the road, the ST sings a sporty exhaust note, thanks to a carefully designed “sound symposer.” It puts more roar into the engine note than a modest 2.0-liter four might have otherwise.

The six gears on the manual transmission (the only gearbox available in the ST) are designed with a nice low for quick startups and a long .94 overdrive in sixth for better fuel economy. The numbers are 23 City, 32 Highway, and 26 Combined per the EPA. I achieved 23.8 mpg in much too much bumper-to-bumper commuting. Green vehicle scores are 5 for Smog and 7 for Greenhouse Gas.

A small car need not be an unsafe place to ride. The 3,223-lb. Focus ST proudly displays an overall five-star Government Safety Rating — the top score — and earns “Good” in all of the IIHS crash ratings.

Basing a fun, sporty car on a common hatchback pays off in the pricing. The ST will set you back $24,910. My tester added an upgraded audio system and dual-zone automatic climate control in a package, some very trendy 18-inch Rado grey alloy wheels, and a reasonably priced navigation system. The total was $28,465. That’s competitive with the other hot hatches on the market.

Assembled in Michigan, the Focus ST is exhilarating to drive, stunning to look at, inside and out, won’t break the bank, and has above-average environmental ratings. You can carry 44.8 cubic feet of cargo when you must. It really does everything well.

 

 
Cadillac CTS Wins Rave Reviews PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 10 July 2014 14:46

071014aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

In the 21st century, American luxury brands have been working hard to reinvent themselves. While many upscale shoppers opt for German and British imports, Cadillac, with its Art & Science sharp-edged design and increasingly competitive products, has become a great alternative.

The midsize CTS has been a major factor of the brand’s rebirth. It competes against the BMW 5 Series, Audi A6, Mercedes-Benz E Class, and others.

Cadillacs used to boast large V8 engines to propel their massive bulk down the road, but those days are gone. The CTS offers two V6s and — believe it or not — a 2.0-liter turbo four. My Phantom Gray Metallic test car had the four, and with 272 horsepower and 295 lb.-ft. of torque running through a six-speed automatic to the rear wheels.

If you want more power, you can step up to the naturally aspirated 3.6-liter V6 with 321 horsepower and 275 lb.-ft. of torque through an eight-speed paddle-shift automatic. Still not enough for you? How about the twin-turbocharged 3.6-liter V6 with 420 horsepower and 430 lb.-ft. of torque? Now that’s a rocket ship.

The reason to put a 2.0-liter engine in a 3,600-pound Cadillac is better fuel economy. My tester was rated at 20 mpg City, 30 Highway and 23 Overall by the EPA. I achieved 21.9 mpg. The non-turbo V6 is rated just slightly lower, at 19/29. The twin-turbo drops to 17/25.

Green numbers for my tester were 6 for both Smog and Greenhouse Gas.

Driving the CTS was delightful. The car feels exceptionally stable, and the Sport Suspension is firm without being harsh. It uses magnetic ride control, which electronically analyzes road conditions and provides the perfect amount of damping and control in every situation. Brembo Performance front brakes bring you to a safe stop quickly. The electric power steering feels natural, not overassisted. The CTS, on its rear-wheel-drive chassis, has a 50/50 front/rear balance. You can order it with all-wheel drive, too.

The design of modern Cadillacs took a sharp turn in a new direction with the original CTS, which was stunningly angular. The third-generation 2014 model wears complex fluting of the hood, headlamps that stretch way back, and a real confidence in the design that makes it all hang together.

071014a2Inside, the leather that covers the seats isn’t relegated just to the “seating areas.” The dash panels are hand stitched. Panel fit is precise and the surface finish subtly luxurious. My car came with carbon-fiber trim, a much sportier look than real or artificial wood. The Cadillac logo on the steering wheel has a fine cloisonné look.

The Cadillac User Experience (CUE) electronic display has its critics, but I am not one of them. Other than having trouble figuring out how to do audio presets, my interaction with the car was easy and even fun. CUE presents a little light and sound show on engine startup and shutdown, and the haptic touch system notices your gesture and displays more selections as your hand approaches the center screen. The choices on that eight-inch panel are large and easy to activate, like an iPad, and the finger-sensitive bars below, which resemble silver jewelry, pulse when you touch them.

The instrument panel is a 12.3-inch flat screen on which are replicated three chrome-rimmed gauges. However, you can configure it from the steering wheel to present a variety of information inside each circle. There’s a head-up display, too, so you can monitor vital information without looking down from the road.

With the new, smaller ATS sedan positioned below it, the CTS grows slightly for 2014. It stretches five inches longer on a 1.2-inch-longer wheelbase, and the roofline and windshield cowl are about an inch lower. It’s a sweet spot in the sedan world where the impression is large but the driving is midsize.

The automatic seatbelt tightening system monitors the belts and makes sure they are in the right position at all times, so they provide maximum effectiveness in case of a collision. The belt always surprised me with a little tug as I drove off.

All this luxury and style comes at a price. My tester, a 2.0T Premium top-level model, stickered at $62,725, including shipping. The starting point for CTS ownership is $46,950 for the 2.0-liter engine in Standard Trim. You can step up to Luxury, Performance and Premium levels in approximately $5,000 increments. The non-turbo V6 model jumps $8,600 over the Standard CTS, with a further $5,300 premium on top of that for the big 3.6-liter turbo. Numerous options are available.

Motor Trend magazine awarded its prestigious “Car of the Year” award to the 2014 CTS. Car and Driver named it one of its “10 Best” vehicles. So it’s not just me who likes it.

 

 
GM Refines Best-selling Tahoe PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 03 July 2014 16:11

070314a

The exterior design of the 2015 Chevrolet Tahoe is more refined and precisely sculpted.

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

General Motors has a lot riding on the Chevrolet Tahoe. Along with the Suburban, its longer-wheelbase sibling, it generates tremendous revenue for the corporation’s 103-year-old mainstream brand. Periodically, it gets updated to keep its position as the leading full-size SUV in the market. For 2015, it’s that time again.

The new model doesn’t look that different, but every panel has been refined. The most obvious change is the new scalloped headlamps, which curve out and in dramatically. The doors are now inset into the body, rather than curving up into the roof, for a tighter seal, which helps keep things extra quiet. The rear window pillars, being more upright, allow for easier entry and exit for rear-seat passengers.

The Tahoe is designed for carrying big families or large loads of cargo, and towing your boat to the lake. It’s a very pleasant commuter, too, sailing high and steady above the flow of freeway traffic, but it’s not the most efficient one. Although the highway mileage is up nearly 10 percent over the previous engine, fuel economy, per the EPA, is a modest 16 City, 22 Highway, and 18 Combined for the four-wheel-drive model. I averaged 16.0 mpg. That does beat large SUVs of yesteryear, at least.

The Tahoe’s 5.3-liter Ecotec3 V8 engine sends its prodigious 355 horsepower and 383 lb.-ft. of torque through an electronic six-speed automatic. I was surprised at the low rpm showing on the tach at freeway speeds — just 1500 rpm at 65 mph, which is fuel and sound saving.

That V8, the only engine available, receives a Smog rating of 6 from the EPA, along with the Greenhouse Gas score of 4. Interestingly, the V8 shuts down half the cylinders, turning briefly into a four-cylinder, at certain opportune times when the computer decides to save fuel. You can’t really tell, except for the little V4/V8 display on the instrument panel.

The new Tahoe is one of GM’s Flex Fuel vehicles, so it drinks either regular gasoline or E85 ethanol. The latter fuel is not commonly found, but try a tankful if you can get it.

070314a2The interior is refreshed, and boasts the nicer materials that have proliferated at GM over the last several years. The driver’s seat is surprisingly firm and flat, but feels comfortable in extended driving. There’s a huge console between the front seats that looks like it could hold a week’s luggage. The instrument panel features a full gauge package, something of a rarity these days. There is stylish stitching for looks, but I noticed that some of it on the console was molded plastic.

Perfect for long trips, the Tahoe has quick-folding second- and third-row seats. From either the rear side doors or the rear hatch, you can pull a lever to drop the seats pronto. This was welcome when stashing my bass, but would do fine after a productive trip to Orchard Supply or Costco. Stepping into the third row is no problem with the relocated rear pillar.

Like most popular vehicles, the Tahoe comes in multiple levels, in this case, the typical Chevrolet badges: LS, LT and LTZ. My White Diamond Tricoat LTZ was loaded, and included $6,840 worth of options to boot. These included the “Sun, Entertainment, Destination” package, with power sunroof, MyLink Audio, and a rear-seat entertainment system with a screen that drops down from the tall ceiling. It also had adaptive cruise control, perfect for automatically keeping your distance on those long, monotonous interstate trips. The fancy paint itself cost five bucks short of a grand. The $500 Max Trailering Package makes sense for hauling, and the theft deterrent system keeps curious eyes from making off with your ride.

The LS gets cloth seats, but the LT gives you heated leather ones, with more folding and adjustment options. The LTZ heats and cools them, and makes the power folding second and third row standard. The LT and LTZ offer such amenities as keyless entry, a heated steering wheel, and a sliding cover on the cupholders; the LTZ standard, the LT optional. Like the Whopper, have it your way.

Cars today are rolling communication and entertainment centers. The Tahoe comes with OnStar with 4G LTE and its own built-in Wi-Fi hotspot. The controls are easy to use and the 8-inch screen is large enough to work without squinting or becoming too distracted.

Pricing starts at $46,885 for the LS with two-wheel drive. My four-wheel-drive LTZ base-priced at $62,000; with options, the tab was $69,335.

Built in Arlington, Texas, this American classic also contains 28 percent Mexican content, but the engine and transmission are from the U.S. Texans love (and can surely use) these big rides, so making them there is a smart plan.

RECALL NOTICE: General Motors is currently recalling the 2015 Chevrolet Tahoe SUV for possible tie-rod separation and loss of steering problems as well as several other issues, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Owners may contact General Motors customer service at 1-800-222-1020 for more information.


 
Cadillac Offers Electric Luxury PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 26 June 2014 13:49

062614aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

In 2010, General Motors introduced its 2011 Volt plug-in electric hybrid. Here was a vehicle that could run for up to 35 miles on pure electricity, and then keep going as a separate engine kicked in to generate electricity to feed that battery. Now, you can get the same range-anxiety-reducing, battery-powered driving experience in an upscale, exclusive two-door coupe — the Cadillac ELR.

My Crystal Red Tintcoat test car’s grille was huge, and the headlamps stretched back for what looks like yards. Vestigial fins in back hint at the 1950s, when Cadillacs were huge and revered. With 20-inch polished alloy wheels, the ELR still looks like the Converj show car it’s based on.

The compact ELR’s long doors swing open to reveal luxurious accommodations for front-seat passengers, but the rears are suitable for small folks only.

The CUE (Cadillac User Experience) media system greets you with a short video when you open the door. Turn the key and you get more, with the image dramatically migrating from the instrument panel to the center console screen.

Panels of smooth and suede leather, chrome, carbon fiber, wood, and matte black plastic all stretch over the various cabin surfaces. It’s as if the designers decided to give a sample of every material in the store. It all manages to hang together nicely, however.

The seats are firm and sporty — not like the old land yachts — and the suspension is muscular and well controlled, too.

There are four selectable driving modes: Normal, Sport, Mountain and Hold. The first two are self explanatory, but Mountain adds engine power if the battery needs it during a steep or extended climb. Hold allows you to delay the use of the pure electric mode until a later time.

062614a2The instrument panel is a mélange of shapes and feelings. The controls on the capacitive panels deliver a “haptic” vibration when you touch them, to let you know you’ve activated them. The Safety Alert Seat vibrates your hind quarters to warn of approaching cars, collisions or impending trouble.

The gauges are all generated images, so are configurable. Using steering wheel controls, you can view many different features of the car without looking away. With gesture control, the central display screen relaxes into a simpler view, but then reactivates all of its control spots when it detects your hand nearby. The cupholder cover is electrically activated.

I charged the car in my driveway overnight, on 110 household current, and was able to fill the battery to nearly 30 miles of range. When you plug it in, the car honks for a second and then illuminates its mirror turn signal lights.

I cruised silently along until about three quarters of the way to work, when the chargeable battery was drained and hybrid mode took over. The 1.4-liter Ecotec engine is pretty quiet, except for strong uphill acceleration, so you don’t really notice the change when it engages.

I used the Blink Network charger near my office. So, on a few days, I drove nearly all electric to and from my job. The level 2 (240 volt) plug-in charger filled the battery in just over 5 hours. The slow way at home takes about 16.

I went to a music event at a local community college. I checked ahead, and found there were two parking lots equipped with charging stations, and was able to use one. I got a nearly full battery, and the price was zero.

Electricity normally does cost something. The Blink Network charger was $1.00 per hour and it sent me an email and a text message informing me when it was done. You pay for the time your car sits, regardless of whether it’s charging, so it’s good if it’s close by so you can move your car promptly.

Cadillac claims a full driving range of 340 miles, combining electric motor and the range-extending generator engine. The EPA reports a 37-mile electric-only range. I saw 42 on the range gauge after one full charge, but range varies depending on driving conditions. EPA Fuel Economy is 82 MPGe (EV mode). Be aware, the gas tank holds only 9.3 gallons. If you drive only on gasoline, the number is a much lower 33 mpg. The EPA fuel Greenhouse Gas number is a perfect 10, and a 7 for Smog.

The ELR is built in Detroit, with 45 percent US/Canadian, 17 percent Japanese and 19 percent Korean content.

The ELR is not cheap. Before options, it’s $75,000. You could buy a pair of Volts for that.

As I returned the car, I decided that I did indeed like it a lot, and that it was much more than just a Volt in Cadillac finery. And the joy of electric motoring is profound.

 

 
Luxury-laden Sorento Sells Itself PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 19 June 2014 10:39

061914aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

In a world where the crossover SUV is gaining popularity, the Kia Sorento has the carlike ride, combined with the SUV height and hauling capacity, that makes buyers happy.

It offers two power plants — a 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder and a 3.3-liter V6. The smaller engine provides 191 horsepower and 181 lb.-ft. of torque, which sounds fine, but with the 3.3-liter, that jumps to 290 and 252 respectively, so it really moves.

That’s the engine that I tested. Both engines come mated to a six-speed automatic, the standard of the day.

With the larger engine, fuel economy is only OK, at 18 City, 24 Highway and 20 Combined. I averaged 18.7 mpg in mixed freeway, city and commute driving. The four-cylinder’s numbers are slightly better, at 20 City and 27 Highway. The Green scores at fueleconomy.gov are 5 for Greenhouse Gas and for Smog — smack dab in the middle.

The car is certainly a safe place to be. The Government 5-star Safety Ratings are all fives, except for Rollover, which is a 4. And all the necessary electronic safety features are incorporated and easy to use. There’s traction control and electronic stability control and the other high-tech devices that are part of any car that’s above the basic level today.

The car definitely gives the sensation of being built like a tank, but it does not drive like one. It boasts an independent front and rear suspension, and the electric motor driven power steering has enough feedback to keep you involved.

The Sorento doesn’t look like a tank, either, but it does hark back to some of the SUVs of yore, avoiding the rounded look of some of the latest competitors. Its forthright shape is a bit more angular, with a sharply pointed rear side window and a simple, curving crease along each side.

The front wears the gently smiling tiger-nose “face of Kia,” with the fog lamps turned vertical and pushed out to the corners of the front bumpers, looking like racy vents. On my SX Limited, 19-inch chrome alloy wheels sparkled against the Titanium Gray body.

061914a2The interior, where drivers and passengers spend most of their time, is typical of the quality Kia has given their products over the last decade of growth and refinement. Although the dash surfaces are all hard plastic, they have the right graining and matte finish to not look cheap. The black leather on the seats (front and second rows) features contrasting stitching. The overall proportions inside remind me of the subtle and sophisticated appearance of a Volkswagen, and contrast with the more exuberant curves found in sister brand Hyundai.

The nickel-look trim is subdued, and creates a set of parentheses to the sharp, easy-to-read gauges. The plastic wood on the dash is prominent, and about as well done as an artificial tree can be.

You can take home a Sorento in four levels: LX, EX, SX and SX Limited; my tester was an SX Limited. The LX starts at $24,995, and offers a choice of the four- or six-cylinder engine. The other levels have the V6 standard, but it’s a $1,800 option on the LX. You can also add all-wheel-drive as an $1,800 option to any model. It’s the stair steps of content you’d expect, with the EX gaining, besides the standard V6, pushbutton start and heated front seats.

The SX includes a power tailgate, a panoramic sunroof, and the UVO electronic system, with an easy-to-use eight-inch touch screen offering navigation and entertainment options at your fingertips. The SX Limited provides luscious leather on front and second rows and heats the rear ones and rides on the aforementioned chrome wheels. My SX Limited tester, with no options listed, came to $42,595.

Kia is Korean, but the Sorento is built in Kia’s West Point, Georgia plant. Nearly half of the parts are U.S. or Canadian made.

While my week with the Sorento was quite pleasant, the only issue was an especially balky and confusing navigation system, which simply would not find the location I was seeking one afternoon. I’m not sure what the problem was, but the audio part of the system worked fine, so it may have been an issue with this particular car. The UVO telematics, with rear camera display, have been good in other Kia and Hyundai test vehicles.

Kia has come a long way to offer this kind of luxury-laden family vehicle, with three rows for family hauling and all the entertainment and comfort you could want. With the $60,000 K900 and $35,000 Cadenza luxury sedans on sale now, the brand stretches from Rio and up. For a smaller crossover option, the Sportage — one of the very first compact crossovers — starts at $22,495.

 

 
Hyundai Equus Takes a Leap of Faith PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 12 June 2014 11:11

061214aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

If you want to compete with Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, Jaguar and the other premium brands, you have to be sure you have your “A” game on. Hyundai (and sister brand Kia) are proving they came to play with the new Kia K900 and Hyundai Equus sedans.

I just spent a very posh week piloting a White Satin Pearl Equus sedan. It took me to all the places I would usually go, and did everything I would do, except for one thing. Oddly enough, this large, full-size sedan could not fit my upright bass! Blame the front passenger seat, which doesn’t recline (electrically) far enough to accommodate the instrument.

You know that the wise Koreans studied every upscale sedan they could find to get the right look for the Equus. From the back, it looks like a Lexus, and the name sounds like one, too. The rear quarter panels have flowing creases that evoke the Bentley Continental. The proportions are Mercedes-Benz S Class. The grille has a Mercedes feel, too, unadorned but formidable.

There’s even an Equus logo, which would easily serve if Equus was a separate brand. But, there’s no separate facility or marketing plan in the way Lexus is divorced from its lesser Toyota siblings, Infiniti denies connection with the pedestrian Nissan brand, and Acura avoids Honda. When you visit the Hyundai dealership, you’ll see the Equus and you’ll notice the lowly Accent parked nearby. Hyundai wants to be a full-line brand, and so far, they are succeeding.

As befits a full-size flagship, the Equus boasts a 5.0-liter V8 with a bountiful 429 horsepower and 376 lb.-ft. of torque. It all runs through an 8-speed automatic — one of the new generation of transmissions with extra cogs. This means not just bragging rights but gives the car both quick starts and lazy cruising rpm. This particular engine propels the car rapidly and effortlessly down the interstate with a light touch of the accelerator. It’s practically silent, too. If you want a V6, Hyundai will gladly provide a Genesis for you.

EPA fuel economy ratings are 15 City, 23 Highway and 18 Combined. My week netted 18.5 mpg, not bad for a huge car. The Smog rating is 5 and the Greenhouse Gas number is 4, which is pretty decent for such a large engine. This is not a car for environmentalists, but it’s no better or worse than the models with which it competes.

Hyundai already offers the Genesis luxury sedan, so what do you get with an Equus? For 2014, it begins with new 19-inch alloys, a subtly tweaked grille, and the necessary presence you don’t get from a “regular” sedan.

061214a2Inside, there’s genuine wood on the dash, and sumptuous leather flows over not just the seats but the dash, too. Every possible electronic feature is present, from smart cruise control (to maintain a set distance automatically), an adaptive front lighting system with automatic leveling and cornering, blind-spot monitoring, three separate zones for the automatic climate control, and much more.

There is everything you’d expect inside, and more. The digital dash display “builds” when you touch the start button, putting on a little show accompanied by a six-tone chime. The rear side windows feature power shades, and there’s a rear shade controllable from the front seat. The back seat console is impressive in its features and sheer size. The Lexicon 7.1-Discrete Surround-Sound Audio uses 17 speakers to push out 598 watts of power through a 13-channel digital amplifier. Sweet!

You really have only a few choices when considering this loaded cruiser. Besides color, you can either get the Signature or the Ultimate. The Ultimate, like my tester, gives you 13 additional features for a $7,000 premium. These include a larger, more usable center console display, a heads-up display in the windshield, a rear seat entertainment system with dual 9.2-inch monitors on the front seat backs, power trunk lid and door closing, cooled rear seats with power lumbar, and more.

The camera technology in today’s cars is remarkable! This one gives you a bird’s-eye view, so you always know where you are during parking maneuvers, as well as the usual rear view.

Pricing is easy to explain. Drive home the Signature for $62,170 or the Ultimate for $69,420. That sounds like a lot of money, but the Equus is a lot of car. Prices include shipping.

If you aren’t attached to the idea of owning a Mercedes-Benz or a Lexus, you may be an Equus prospect. It takes a leap of faith to spend $70,000 on a new brand from a manufacturer that built its reputation on delivering more for less money. Actually, it’s possible that despite the eye-opening price, the Equus is just doing that very thing, upscaled.

 

 

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