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

092514aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Selective Dampers enable careful tuning for just the right feel.

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

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

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

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


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

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

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

091114aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

090414aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 
Honda Jazzes Up Sporty Fit 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

071714a

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.

 

 

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