Automotive
Buick Encore Leads Cute Ute Contest PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 22 January 2015 15:51

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The 2015 Encore’s sculpted styling identifies it as a contemporary Buick.

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

With climate change on people’s minds and higher government fuel economy measures on the horizon, the age of the mini crossover SUV is here. Buick’s Korean-built Encore is at the head of the pack, with little competition today. The Encore has been a remarkable success for a brand better known for its ostentatious land yachts. In fact, recent TV commercials have made light of this.

I spent a satisfying week behind the wheel of a Brilliant Blue Metallic Encore recently. Even that blue shade, which reads cheap on an econobox, looked impressive on the little Buick. Contrasting lower cladding and chrome accents help to distinguish the Encore as well. The nose carries the chrome Buick waterfall grille that ties it to its larger brethren.

The Encore comes as a four-door crossover only, in four ascending trim levels — Encore, Convenience, Leather and Premium. There is no barebones version. The Convenience level adds safety with the blind spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert, dual-zone climate control, remote start, and other goodies. The Leather level delivers hides on the seats and steering wheel, both of which are heated. Premium provides Rainsense automatic windshield wipers and the Bose audio system that’s optional at other levels. You also get more safety with forward collision alert and lane departure warning (which you can deactivate).

All models receive the same 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic, which puts out what sounds minimal — 138 horsepower and 148 lb.-ft. of torque. In real life, however, the car doesn’t leave you sitting at a green light and climbs long freeway grades just fine, thank you. The transmission will downshift to accomplish this, but you won’t hear much in the posh cabin.

That’s because Buick brought Quiet Tuning to its smallest vehicle. Quiet Tuning adds things like an acoustically treated headliner, windshield and side glass; various sound-absorbing materials throughout the cabin; specially designed tires; aerodynamic tweaks to mirrors; and foam tucked into places where sound could sneak in to disturb the serenity.

For the first time in a Buick, Quiet Tuning incorporates Bose Active Noise Cancellation. This high-tech feature stations microphones in the cabin to detect unwanted noise and then calculates and generates through the car’s audio speakers a countering sound wave to neutralize it. Pretty cool.

There are some things that read luxury, and Buick has shrunk its smooth, flowing contours and rich materials to fit its baby. Leather seats look and feel comfortable with high-density foam. I was surprised that the seat adjustments included a manual rake adjustment, and there was a key for the ignition rather than a push-button, but besides that, it’s high style and high tech all the way. The car even has its own Wi-Fi hot spot.

You can equip your Encore with front- or all-wheel drive (AWD). The latter adds $1,500 on top of whatever level you select, and also takes away a couple of miles per gallon. The EPA ratings for my Premium-level AWD tester were 23 City, 30 Highway and 26 Combined; I achieved 24.2 mpg.  EPA Green numbers are 6 for both Smog and Greenhouse Gas.

Knowing that the buyers of this Buick are likely much younger than the brand’s historic customer base, the audio system should be thoroughly satisfying to a millennial motorist. That means besides the Wi-Fi hot spot you get the IntelliLink system, to connect to up to 10 different devices such as iPhones and MP3 players, with Siri Eyes Free. A Bluetooth connection allows hands-free text messaging, if you simply can’t be disconnected from your friends for a minute. Built-in screen icons give fingertip access to Pandora and other apps, and you can add more as they’re released. The seven-inch touch screen is more intuitive than many others. Bose sound quality, combined with the peaceful surroundings, makes music sharp and clear.

Considering the demographic, pricing is reasonable. The plain front-wheel-drive Encore, with stability control, four-wheel disc brakes, cruise control, heated outside mirrors, leather-wrapped steering wheel and dual gloveboxes, starts at $25,915. My all-wheel-drive Premium, with an audio upgrade and handsome roof rails, came to $32,595.

The Encore will carry four easily and five cozily. You can fit 18.8 cubic feet of stuff behind the rear seat or drop it for 48.4 cubic feet. Fold down the front passenger seat to accommodate up to an eight-foot item — ladder, surfboard, you name it.

The battle for dominance in the new cute ute contest is just heating up. Today, besides the MINI Countryman and more expensive BMW X1, the Encore is on its own. But entries from Honda, Mazda, Fiat, and even GM sibling Chevrolet are coming. And the Germans are too, with the Mercedes GLA and Audi Q3. Buick will have to flaunt its unique style to retain its position.

 

 
All-new Acura TLX Features Both Beauty and Brains PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 15 January 2015 15:45

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Acura engineers created an all-new body design for the 2015 TLX utilizing advanced materials, including ultra-high-strength steels, aluminum and magnesium.

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

Acura’s TLX is a brand new sports sedan from Honda’s upscale division. It replaces both the same-size TL and the smaller TSX, simplifying and solidifying the brand’s sedan line-up.

The company spent a lot of time and energy on improving the body structure and technology, while aiming for a look that immediately identifies the car as an Acura. The nose still features a more streamlined shield grille with a bar, flanked by a string of energy-efficient Jewel Eye LED headlamps that evoke a giant eternity band.

Inside, the silver accents and surface flow makes the cabin feel in motion even when you’re sitting at a traffic light. The car is four inches shorter nose to tail than the TL it replaces, but the interior is about the same size, and feels roomy and luxurious.

011515a2The center of the dash contains two screens — one eight inches and the other seven inches — for you to control all aspects of the car. On the lower one, touch feedback gives your finger a little jolt when you make a selection. But it’s easy to choose seat cooling instead of heating by mistake, as my wife discovered on a 37-degree winter day.

Using a slew of technical processes too numerous to name, Acura made sure you won’t hear much of anything inside. Engineers employed many different materials, using a variety of methods, to seal out sound and keep vibration down to near zero. The suspension is also carefully set up to not only absorb large impacts but also to filter out subtle vibrations that could upset the blissful serenity.

The TLX comes as a four-door sedan only, with two engine choices. Base cars have a 2.4-liter four-cylinder that puts out 206 horsepower and 182 lb.-ft. of torque through an eight-speed automatic transmission. Upper level cars get the 3.5-liter V6 that ups the ante to 290 horsepower and 267 lb.-ft. of torque, connected to a nine-speed automatic with different ratios than the eight-speed.

EPA fuel economy numbers are 24 mpg City, 35 Highway, and 28 Overall for the 2.4-liter and 21/34/25 for the 3.5-liter V6. EPA Green scores for the V6 I tested were 5 for Smog and 6 for Greenhouse Gas.

My tester was an Obsidian Blue Pearl TLX 3.5 with SH-AWD (Super Handling All-Wheel Drive). SH-AWD, an Acura mainstay, distributes engine torque not only from front to rear wheels but side-to-side as well. You can set an indicator on the instrument panel to monitor it. The new TLX has an upgraded version, which is lighter and has greater control over the rear wheels than before. It does knock 3 mpg off of the highway EPA mileage number, however.

Like a Thanksgiving meal, the enjoyment of driving the TLX gives little clue to the elaborate preparation required to make it come off well. Many of the virtues of this extremely high-tech car are hidden. For example, the platform blends steel and aluminum, for lighter weight and a smoother ride. Amplitude Reactive Dampers (ARD), with two separate pistons, are tuned to deliver sporty handling and ride comfort. Motion-Adaptive Electric Power Steering (MA-EPS) makes steering feel more linear and precise, changing the amount of assist under different conditions. It also uses less power than traditional systems.

Precision All-Wheel Steer (P-AWS) continually monitors and controls the angles of the rear wheels, for a reduced turning radius, quicker steering response, and enhanced agility and nimbleness.

Acura also includes some features you don’t appreciate until you need them. While every car today has tire pressure monitoring, maintaining correct pressure involves locating and using a tire gauge or counting on the accuracy of the one at the gas station. With Fill Assist, the TLX makes a sound when you’re filling the tire to let you know it’s at the ideal pressure. Also, there’s no gas cap. Just open the door and insert the nozzle. No handling a greasy cap or having it clunk against the paint on your shiny new car.

Pricing starts at $30,995 for the regular TLX, grows to $35,220 for the 3.5 model and hits $44,700 for the 3.5 SH-AWD model with the Tech and Advance packages. Add $895 for shipping to those prices. My tester stickered at $45,595 — right in the heart of the midsize sports-luxury segment.

The Tech and Advance packages add a lot of entertainment, safety and convenience features that help a fully equipped TLX match well with European competitors. See www.acura.com for the details.

Although the RLX is the brand’s flagship large sedan, the TLX is where a lot of Acura’s business growth is going to be, along with its popular crossovers and the smaller ILX sedan. The company has filled this new model with everything it knows, and the result is so finely rendered that you’ll likely not notice.

 

 
Hyundai Elantra GT Checks all the Boxes PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 08 January 2015 16:45

010815aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

Hyundai’s Elantra comes in three shapes, but the GT model is special. Unlike the four-door sedan or two-door coupe, it’s a five-door hatchback, offers a larger, more powerful engine, and despite its compact dimensions, delivers tremendous flexibility and practicality.

Hyundai has built great success by comparing its cars to its competition. In this case, there are plenty of worthy challengers in the segment, including the Mazda3, Subaru Impreza, Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf. Without sporty intentions or a hatchback, cars like the Toyota Corolla are not part of this comparison. What Hyundai has done with the Elantra is bring styling and features that meet or exceed these more well known nameplates.

I drove a 2013 Elantra GT nearly two years ago and was impressed. The 2014 Black Noir Pearl tester I just sampled is significantly different, though. For one thing, it came with a smooth-shifting six-speed manual transmission instead of the automatic in my first tester. Compact hatchbacks are one segment where you can still pick your own gears, and the one in this car is fully competitive. Finished in leather with a silvery top, the lever moves precisely through the gears.

This manual is connected to a significantly more powerful engine for 2014, too. The 1.8-liter four has grown to 2.0 liters, and horsepower rises from 148 to 173 (torque from 131 to 154 lb.-ft.). That makes a significant difference on the road, and moves the 2,900-pound car along with noticeably more energy. Other than some road noise, the experience is smooth and quiet at speed, and handling feels precise and stable in town.

Hyundai enjoys pointing out how well they stack up in many ways vs. the other guys. Even in the coefficient of drag (CD) — how well it moves through the air — the Elantra GT does well against its peers, at least from the perspective of 2013. Only the Mazda3 has a lower CD than the Elantra’s .30.

There are cars with greater fuel-efficiency than the Elantra, but they are the 1.5-liter engine-equipped subcompacts, such as the Elantra’s little sibling, the Accent. The compact Elantra earns 24 City, 34 Highway, and 28 Combined. I averaged 27.3 mpg. Green numbers are 5 for Smog and 7 for Greenhouse Gas. Elantras traditionally have earned better than average ratings here.

As folks outside the U.S. have known for years (and some Americans have discovered), compact four-door hatchbacks are eminently practical. With a nice wide hatch (with privacy cover) and a folding second-row seat, the Elantra GT hauls lots of stuff, is configurable for long objects, and the split rear seat lets three passengers ride with more load space.

The GT replaces a more typical wagon model, the Elantra Touring, so it has to step in as both a hauler, people mover and performer of the Elantra family. Interior room is greater than any of the previously mentioned competitors.

Hyundai boasts about the beauty of its Fluidic Sculpture design, which features sweeping curves inside and out. This exuberance has been toned down a little in the very latest cars, such as the Sonata, but it is in full flower in the Elantra GT. High-quality black dash and door surfaces are formed and decorated with sweeps of silvery trim. The door-mounted window and mirror controls have subtly beveled edges, which help evoke a look and feel of substantiality.

010815a2The center stack offers easy access to what you need and want, and is flamboyantly stylish. It merges with the floor console with twin columns, opened at the sides to expose two handy storage areas. The front one is perfect for holding your phone or iPod when you plug it into the USB port above. The car comes with standard Bluetooth, too, so you may not even need the USB.

Pricing is competitive and affordable. The base model, with manual transmission, is just $18,750. My tester had two option packages that upgraded it — the Style Package ($2,550) and Tech Package ($3,250). Priced at $25,485, this is what makes the GT much more than basic transportation.

The Style package includes a sport-tuned suspension; 17-inch-alloy wheels (with chrome accents); leather seats, steering wheel and shift knob; aluminum pedals and much more. The Tech Package brings in an easy-to-use navigation system, dual automatic climate control, panoramic sunroof, and automatic headlamps. Thus equipped, the Elantra GT is a compelling package.

Despite the lowest fuel prices in years, people still want their cars to be reasonably efficient and to not break the bank to buy. The Elantra GT is a worthy compact car that not only looks great, but delivers the features most people want. The six-speed, for those who still enjoy shifting, is a bonus.

 

 
Mazda5 Offers Something Different PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Friday, 26 December 2014 14:14

122514aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

Minivans, the most useful of all vehicles, often get a bad rap. Although the latest models are more stylish, they aren’t as cool looking as SUVs. Soccer moms drive them. My son and daughter-in-law bought a crossover to avoid them.

Well, Mazda offers something a little different — the Mazda5. Unique in the marketplace, this 7/8-scale minivan offers six-passenger seating, sliding side doors, and all the hauling virtues of a bigger minivan, but in a more fun-to-drive and easy-to-park package.

Compare its 108.3-inch wheelbase, 180.5-inch length, and 68.9-inch height with the Honda Odyssey, at 118.1, 202.9, and 79.2 inches respectively. And, the Honda outweighs the Mazda by half a ton.

The second- and third-row seats fold in a snap to give you a long, wide, flat place to load your IKEA or Costco purchases. An upright bass slides in easily and still leaves one second-row seat up for a passenger.

Of course, being smaller than the other minivans, the Mazda5 is strictly two across, for a maximum of six riders, and those folks in the third row are not going to have much room to stretch out.

While big minivans like the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna offer V6 engines, such as the Odyssey’s 248-horsepower 3.5-liter, the Mazda5 gets a 2.5-liter four-cylinder that puts out 157 horsepower and 163 lb.-ft. of torque, moving 3,457 pounds. I averaged 19.6 mpg in mixed driving, against EPA numbers of 21 City, 28 Highway, and 24 Combined. Interestingly, when I tested a 2014 Odyssey nearly a year ago, it delivered a very similar 19.1 mpg.

EPA Green numbers are 5 for Smog and 6 for Greenhouse Gas — right in the middle. Fuel economy is in the middle too. The window sticker indicates, “You spend $0 more in fuel costs over 5 years,” which means that this vehicle is the exact average for the 2015 fleet.

The Mazda5 comes with a five-speed automatic transmission only, but when I tested a Sport model in 2011, it had a manual gearbox. Imagine that. But, besides the trimmer proportions, this people mover has more of what Mazda likes to call “Zoom-zoom.”

122514a2While the big minivans are cruisers, this one is a driver. You feel closer to the action, and that’s helped by the way it feels to sit in the driver’s seat. The dash is deep and wide, as befits a car in this segment, but feels more driver-centered, with the clean, clear instrument panel and ready controls found in cars like the Mazda3 and Mazda6. Of course, every Mazda has some Miata/MX-5 sports car DNA in it.

You can order up your Mazda5 in three levels: Sport, Touring and Grand Touring. My Liquid Silver Metallic tester was the Grand Touring, which gave it extras like leather seats, a power moonroof, heated front seats, rain-sensing wipers, and SiriusXM satellite radio. So equipped, the 5 felt fully stocked but not overly luxurious.

My tester did not have a navigation system — or, really, anywhere to put one. The dash has no large screen. So, when I tuned that satellite radio to my favorite stations, all I saw was a slim bar of red letters at eye level in a slash in the upper center dash. A SCRL (scroll) button let me read the entire song title and artist name, but a screen display would be nicer.

I drove the Mazda5 through a heavy rain storm and it felt well planted and safe. Typical for all cars, it has a full complement of airbags, anti-lock brakes, Electronic Brakeforce Distribution and Brake Assist. Add in Dynamic Stability Control, traction control, and a tire pressure monitoring system, and you have a pretty complete set of safety features.

My car did not offer blind-spot monitoring. The Mazda Certified Roadside Assistance Program comes standard, so you may be able to let your AAA card lapse.

Prices start at just $22,035 for the Sport model. My top-of-the-line Grand Touring came to $25,640. The aforementioned Honda Odyssey Touring Elite — its top model — will set you back $45,280.

The Mazda5, built in Japan, features the company’s “Nagare” design language, which accounts for the interesting waves along the sides and the big smile on its face. The latest Mazdas, such as the Mazda3 and CX-5, exhibit the newer “Kodo” design language, but the ripples on the 5’s door panels help break up the tall sides and add a hint of festivity to what could be a sober vehicle.

Mazda is not the biggest seller, but in each segment they’re in, they offer something special. In a couple of segments, such as two-seat sports cars and mini minivans, they have it all to themselves. If you don’t need to carry 7 or haul huge loads, the Mazda5 could be ideal.

 

 
Hyundai Refines Midsize Sonata Sedan PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 18 December 2014 13:57

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A larger, more refined grille with a wide air intake defines the face of the 2015 Sonata.

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

The Hyundai Sonata has improved and matured over the years, and is now fully competitive with its Japanese, American and European competitors. It may even be better, in some ways. Assembled in Montgomery, Alabama, it represents Hyundai’s commitment to success in North America.

The 2011 Sonata, with its new Fluidic Sculpture design inside and out, energized sales and enhanced the car’s overall reputation. That’s why it’s a little strange that the all-new 2015 model, while still attractive, looks a bit subdued compared to the previous generation. This is all the more surprising when the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, the midsize sedan leaders, are growing more exuberant. Hyundai’s leaders describe Fluidic Sculpture 2.0 as “refined.”

Refinement can mean many things, but in this case, it includes using more high-strength steel in the platform, adding more sound-absorbing materials, improving the driver interaction with the interior switches, and increasing performance. The company even went to its interior suppliers to coordinate the look and feel of the switchgear. These, happily, are evident when you drive the car. Everything works perfectly and is easy to find.

Despite competing in the midsize sedan segment, the Sonata is classified by the EPA as a “Large” car, based on its 106.1 cubic feet  of passenger room and 122.4 cu. ft. of total interior volume. Both numbers are about three cubic feet more than the second-largest competitor, the Honda Accord. You can really stretch out, front and rear. The trunk is deep and wide. A roomy glovebox is joined by a center console and capacious door pockets.

To distinguish it from the more upscale Genesis sedan, the company decreed only four-cylinder engines for the Sonata. The base engine uses its 2.4 liters to send 185 horsepower and 178 lb.-ft. of torque to the front wheels. That’s adequate for a 3,505 lb. sedan. The 2.0-liter turbo engine bumps up the juice to 245 horsepower and 260 lb.-ft. My Phantom Black Sport 2.0T model had that more potent powerplant under the newly configured hood and it felt more than up to the task. It doesn’t sound like a V6, of course, but I detected no turbo lag either.

The EPA rates the 2.0-liter engine at 23 City, 32 Highway, and 26 Combined. My mileage came to 20.0 mpg for the test week, which reflected a new, shorter commute and a few unfettered freeway jaunts. The Green numbers are 5 for Smog and 6 for Greenhouse Gas — about normal for a car this size.

Hyundai planners expect the Sport to be the most popular model. Outside, it’s distinguished by a more aggressive grille design and side extensions with bold chrome strips. Sports come with either engine. With the 2.0T, you get quad exhaust tips and 18-inch alloy wheels outside, and a specially designed steering wheel with paddle shifters for the six-speed automatic transmission and a “sport” instrument panel inside. The handsome leather seats with contrasting stitching were comfortable.

A revised multilink rear suspension isn’t something you’ll think about while driving, but it enhances stability and responsiveness. The car stays true as you drive it, with a taut, balanced feel. My Sport 2.0T tester had a new rack-mounted, dual-pinion electric power steering system that felt firm and natural. A sport-tuned suspension and larger brakes are two more good reasons to opt for the Sport level Sonata.

121814a2My tester included the Ultimate Package, which for $4,950, added a panoramic sunroof with shade, luxurious and traditional looking chrome window surrounds, smart cruise control that follows the car ahead automatically, and the safety of the forward collision and lane departure warning systems. It also brought in popular features like rear parking assistance, an easy-to-use navigation system, and an upgraded 400-watt audio system with a subwoofer and amplifier.

The list for this package goes on, including ventilated front seats and heated rear seats. At $34,460, my tester, especially with its more traditional look and feel, felt more like an entry-luxury Genesis than a midmarket price-checking Camry and Accord fighter. And that would go along with the Hyundai marketing philosophy: Give a little more for the money — and surprise customers with extra content they don’t expect.

You don’t need to go all-out with the Sonata. To move the metal, there’s an SE model starting at $21,960. The top model, the Limited 2.0T, has a base price of $34,335, and comes standard with what’s optional on the other models.

The new Sonata is quite impressive. However, despite its numerous improvements, with its more restrained lines and linear interior, it almost looks like the conservative alternate design to the revolutionary 2011 model rather than a successor. I expect sales to continue to be brisk. I couldn’t find a single thing not to like about this carefully planned, finely rendered vehicle.

 

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

121114aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

120414aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

112714aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

112014a

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

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

111314aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

110614a

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

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

103014aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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