Toyota Upgrades 4Runner’s Suspension | 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. 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 | Print |  E-mail
Wednesday, 16 July 2014 15:34


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 | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 10 July 2014 14:46

071014aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

062614aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

061914aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

061214aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Upgraded Honda Civic Fits the Bill | Print |  E-mail
Friday, 06 June 2014 11:25

060514aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

If there’s a car out there that more closely matches the needs and desires of the widest segment of the driving population than the Honda Civic, I haven’t driven it. In sedan or coupe form, this compact, yet roomy, vehicle has a more than 40-year history of efficiency, quality and value that’s hard to beat.

The first Civics arrived in America in the early 1970s, just when we were suffering our first two “gas crises.” The Middle East shut off the oil tap, and Americans suddenly were scrambling for economical gas sippers. Honda’s fresh little hatchback fit the bill, and the company’s reputation for economy and quality was established.

There have been many generations of Civic, the latest arriving in 2012. However, this time, Honda’s management predicted hard times, and they under-delivered. The styling was derivative, and the interiors were cheap looking and feeling. Meanwhile, the upstart Koreans — Hyundai and sister brand Kia — offered increasingly rich-looking and high-performing models.

Honda stopped in its tracks and upgraded the Civic sedan for 2013, inside and out, and that brought it closer to what it was before the austerity program. In 2014, the Coupe received the update, and Honda learned the lesson: customers have a certain level of expectation, and Honda had better meet it.

My tester this time was a Dyno Blue Pearl EX-L sedan with Navigation. Civics have always been offered in several flavors. The EX-L sedan is the top gas-only model. You also can buy an LX sedan at the bottom of the pecking order, or the sportier Si, the high-mileage Hybrid and even a CNG version powered by clean-burning natural gas.

The “L” in the name connotes the presence of leather on the seats, and it makes the already updated Civic feel more like a downsized Accord. The dash now boasts higher quality materials, more variety of surfaces, and, when all the screens are displaying information, looks impressive.

060514a2The standard instrument panel is split top and bottom, with the most important information close to the line of sight. So, the digital speedometer is at the top and the tachometer is in the bottom half. With navigation, you have a 7-inch screen in mid dash, and there is an additional, smaller one to the left of that. Especially at night, it puts on a colorful show.

The audio system in my tester was a little confusing and the touch-only volume control button on the knobless central panel was tricky to adjust. Good thing it was also on the left side of the steering wheel. Eventually, I figured out that the radio station presets were controlled by that same multi-purpose dial. Much like Microsoft Word, the Honda user interface is not always intuitive, but once you figure out where everything is, it gets easier.

Most cars let you simply set up the data screens to show your cumulative fuel economy. I never quite got the Civic to not reset for each trip, but I had some fine moments. A typical freeway jaunt could easily net around 39 miles per gallon, and a typical trip might be 34 mpg. The official EPA numbers of this perennial economy champ are 28 City, 36 Highway, and 31 Combined. You can do better with the HF model, which pushes it a little to 29/41/33. The Hybrid is good for a remarkable 44/47/45.

Of course the Civic is clean. The EPA gives the model I tested an 8 for Greenhouse Gas and the Smog score is either 6 or 9. I’m not sure which one my tester was, but it is still safely in the highly regarded “SmartWay” category.

Besides any of its environmental credentials, the Civic is taut and enjoyable to drive. It feels much bigger than my 1986 hatchback, and it is significantly larger than the original, but it holds real people front and rear, offers plenty of trunk space, and is stable and quiet on the freeway.

The 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine puts out 143 horsepower and 129 lb.-ft. of torque (standard 1986 models offered 60 horsepower). You really don’t need more than that in most situations.

Part of economy is a low price of entry. You can buy a Honda Civic LX sedan with a five-speed manual transmission for $18,980. My EX-L with Navigation came to $25,030.

The Civic is one of Honda’s perennial volume sellers, for good reasons. Now that it has regained its fine finish and feel, there is really no reason not to put it on your list of top contenders when seeking an economical and reliable sedan or coupe. And other than walking, biking or taking the train, it’s one of the most environmentally responsible ways to travel. A carpool would make it even better.


Mitsubishi Lancer Rallies Support | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 29 May 2014 12:56


With its rally-inspired driving dynamics, the Lancer compact sports sedan has long been one of Mitsubishi Motors’ best-selling vehicles.

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

Whenever I slide into a new test car, I ask myself, “Why would a customer buy this?” There’s a car for every shopper and a shopper for every car, right? So I asked myself why someone would buy a Mitsubishi Lancer. There are some pretty good reasons.

The Lancer is not as well known as its competition, which includes perennial favorites like the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sentra and Ford Focus. But, it is renowned among the cognoscenti of high-powered rally cars for the sensational Evolution, or “Evo” model. Bespoilered and blessed with a stunning 291 horsepower and 300 lb.-ft. of torque, delivered to all four wheels, the Evo is a cult favorite — and it’s based on the plain old Lancer sedan.

So, if you can get some of the looks and performance of the potent but expensive Evo for a lower price, why not? Step in to a compact with good fuel economy, room for four (or five), and the looks of a BMW from a few generations back, and it’s a win. Trim and sharply styled outside, with a large mouth that looks like it’s ready to eat the car in front of it, the Lancer is no shrinking violet on the road. It’s also mercifully lacking in some of the excessive swirls and convex/concave transitions of some of the latest cars.

052914a2Inside, the materials are decent if not top-drawer. My wife commented that the car felt a little cheap, but once you live with it a few days, you appreciate the straightforward instrumentation, the Alfa-like twin-cowl instrument panel, the firm, comfortable sport seats, and the solid feel of the doors and dash.

The 2014 is not significantly different inside or out from the ’13, but the piano black trim is an elegant touch, with its silvery accents helping avoid plainness. Chrome-plastic accents add some sparkle, too. The sunvisors are squishy and downmarket, but overall, it’s fine.

The base ES makes do with a 148-horsepower 2.0-liter four, which is sufficient, but the GT model I tested, the second highest Lancer, gets the more energetic 168-horsepower 2.4-liter  four with 167 lb.-ft. of torque. You can order it with a manual transmission — hooray! — but surprisingly, it’s a five-speed rather than a six-speed. My Wicked White tester had the more popular continuously variable automatic, which produced some non-sporty urgent sounds on extended grades, but worked fine.

EPA fuel economy with this combination is 23 City, 30 Highway, 26 combined. I got 26.3 mpg, so it’s pretty close. That is not the highest fuel economy of a compact sedan, but this is a 2.4-liter engine, not a 1.8, so you get (and pay for) the additional performance. The Green Vehicle numbers from are 5 for Smog and 7 for Greenhouse Gas.

The 3,000-pound GT has many features that push it above the ES, besides the huge maw in front borrowed from the top level Ralliart. Enjoy automatic climate control, a sport-tuned suspension, 18-inch alloy wheels, upgraded audio electronics, and keyless entry. My tester also included, as part of the Touring Package, some handsome leather seats and the roaring Rockford-Fosgate 710-watt, nine-speaker audio system, with lots of bass response, thanks to a 10-inch subwoofer in the trunk. It offers “DTS® Neural Surround and other premium settings that were fun to play with when I was stopped in traffic. The audio system could sell this car to the young buyers to whom it’s targeted.

As primarily a commute vehicle, the Lancer is the right size and is more interesting to drive than some other cars, with its feedback through the steering wheel, taut suspension and sharp reflexes. It’s easy to get in and out of, and has a surprisingly spacious trunk, despite the room taken by the subwoofer.

Pricing for the Lancer GT starts at $22,240, including shipping, but with options, my tester came to $27,390. Considering the long list of equipment, that’s probably fair. The ES starts at just $17.995. Prices include shipping.

The 10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty and 5-year, 60,000-mile new vehicle limited warranty protect you, and may reduce concerns about owning a less mainstream brand.

Mitsubishi is reinventing itself in the U.S. market, having lost its former bestsellers, such as the Montero SUV and Eclipse sports coupe. However, the brand now offers the Lancer (including the Evo supermodel), two attractive Outlander crossover SUVs, the charming new subcompact Mirage, and for die-hard EV fans, the reasonably priced i-MiEV full electric.

My favorite Mitsubishi actually is the Lancer Sportback, which has the same four doors as the sedan but features a large hatchback. Sadly, you can’t get it with a manual transmission, or I might be strongly tempted. Why buy a Mitsubishi? Maybe you want something a little special.


Accord Plug-in Hybrid Charges in 3 Hours | Print |  E-mail
Monday, 26 May 2014 15:33


In addition to being Honda’s first plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, the Accord Plug-In is the first production car in the U.S. to meet the new, more stringent LEV3/SULEV20 emissions standard, and also qualifies for single-occupant carpool-lane access in California.

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

The Honda Accord has been one of America’s top-selling midsize cars for decades. It was one of the first Japanese cars to be built in the U.S., starting 32 years (and more than 20 million cars) ago. It’s also an excellent choice for a hybrid.

Hybrid vehicles are powered by both gasoline and electricity, blended by the car’s computer, so you still have to visit the gas station on occasion, although infrequently. The non-plug-in Accord Hybrid is rated at 47 City and 46 Highway, or 46 mpg combined. But when you add a small door on the left front fender with a large electric socket behind it, the chargeable model gives you 13 miles of gasoline-free range. The EPA ratings are then calculated as MPGe, and the Accord Plug-in gets 124 City and 105 Highway.

Unlike a full electric car, the Accord Plug-in Hybrid takes only three hours to charge the battery to its full capacity on standard 110 household current (or 1 hour with 220, if you’ve got it). But, with a 30-mile commute each direction, that juice would take me only about halfway to work on a charge, and the rest of the way, along with the return, would be gas only, unless I could find a charger at the office.

Thanks to regenerative braking, even if you start out with a certain number of miles of EV (electric vehicle) range, you can get more. My first day, it showed 12.1 miles of EV range on the highly informative instrument panel, but by the time I got to the bottom of the hill near my house, it read 13.5. The EV light flickered out after 15 miles, and my trip into work, with half pure electric and half hybrid, earned me 50.8 miles per gallon.

On the trip home, operating only as a hybrid, the car delivered 42.1 miles per gallon. And that included climbing the hill that generated the extra electricity in the morning.

On the weekend, I was able to run all over town doing errands without using any gas at all, and that felt great.

The Accord Plug-in lets you save the electricity you fed it to use later. Just press the “HV” button on the console and you cruise as a regular hybrid. When would you use this? Perhaps you have a long freeway drive but you then plan to drive in town for a while. That way, you get more efficiency by reserving pure electric mode for lower-speed roads.

Besides the game of “how high can I get my fuel economy today,” driving an electric car is very smooth and quiet. The AC synchronous permanent magnet electric motor creates none of the vibration or noise that an internal combustion engine generates. It’s like flying down the road. And the Accord is amazingly silent. I felt disappointed when the battery power ran out, but in reality, the 141-horsepower 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engine is very quiet, too, so the difference isn’t that great.

052214a2The instrument panel is much like the regular Hybrid’s, but conveys more than the one in the standard gasoline Accord. On the left is an easy-to-read gauge that measures charge (green) and power (blue), so you can see if you’re using or charging the battery. This helps encourage efficient driving. You tend to accelerate gently and find opportunities to use braking to charge the battery.

If you have some Plug-in battery power left, you can add to it, but once it’s drained, you can’t refill it except with the power cord. You do, however, continue to use electricity intermittently as a hybrid, and with a range of 570 miles, you will not run out of fuel for a long time.

My Crystal Black Pearl tester had a light-tan interior, including the door panels and the cloth-covered seats. The instruments, controls and trim are all attractive and well finished, so the car is very pleasant to spend extended time in. The Plug-in is equipped as an upper-level Accord, except for the leather that comes in the EX-L model. And it had better be nice, because the price is $40,570. It saves on gas and uses cheaper electricity, so there is some savings every month to offset the payment, but it can still feel like a lot to pay for a non-luxury car.

The standard Accord, with the four-cylinder engine and automatic, averages 30 miles per gallon, so either the Hybrid or Plug-in Hybrid is much more efficient. However, with base prices for gas-only Accords ranging from $22,785 to $30,835, you will have to pay substantially for that efficiency. After testing a Hybrid, you may agree that the smaller carbon footprint is worth the extra cost.


Mazda CX-9 Checks All the Boxes | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 15 May 2014 13:56


Product upgrades for the 2014 Mazda CX-9 include new color options, a new 20-inch wheel design and the availability of Rear Cross Traffic Alert (RCTA).

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

If you’ve got multiple kids and their stuff, it’s possible that you’re shopping for a vehicle that can carry it all. Mazda hopes that while you’re selecting a midsize crossover SUV, you’ll hear “Zoom Zoom” in your head and remember those happy times in your top-down Miata or appreciate the economy and practicality (with a dash of sportiness) of that Mazda3 you owned.

The CX-9 has the right stuff. With seven-passenger, three-row seating capacity and more than 100 cubic feet of cargo space with second and third rows folded, you can check the hauling capacity box. A strong, 3.7-liter V6 engine provides 273 willing horsepower through a six-speed automatic in all three models — Sport, Touring and Grand Touring. Sorry, there’s no manual shifter in this 4,323-pound Mazda, although the automatic shifter lever and knob look and feel like a manual should.

Mazda offers its Active Torque All-Wheel-Drive system at all levels. The CX-9 is normally 100 percent front-wheel drive, but if traction slips, sophisticated electronics send up to 50 percent of the torque to the rear. If you anticipate any harsh conditions, it’s there when you need it and works automatically.

The EPA gives the front-wheel-drive CX-9 fuel economy numbers of 17 City, 24 Highway, and 19 Combined. The all-wheel-drive model is slightly lower (16/22). I averaged 18.1 mpg in my front-wheel-drive tester. Green numbers are 6 for Smog and 4 for Greenhouse Gas. The latter number is affected by engine size, and a 3.7-liter V6 is substantial.

The car looks great inside and out, fitting in with Mazda’s latest styling template, known as Kodo. While most recent Mazdas adopted a Joker-like grin up front, the new models, including the all-new Mazda3, Mazda6 and the CX-9, now sport a five-sided, chrome-bordered shield that is no longer a caricature. Squinting headlamps and purposefully flowing edges across the otherwise softly rounded body make for a more sophisticated, but still stylish, presentation. As a crossover, this car flaunts a very laid-back windshield, and has little in common with the classic 1990’s Ford Explorer that started the whole family SUV thing a quarter of a century ago.

051514a2Inside, the theme is: “Don’t distract the driver.” Dark, matte surfaces wear touches of silvery trim, but don’t glare at you. The black-and-white gauges are designed to be equally visible day or night. The overt curving bars that flow down the entire front door panels, echoed in the center console, impart polished ruggedness. Black suede door panels inside my Blue Reflex Mica test unit added to the elegant, subdued feeling.

Unlike most SUVs or crossovers you can buy in America, the CX-9 is built in Japan. Many Japanese-brand vehicles are assembled in the U.S. or Mexico today, so that is different. Whether it makes any real difference in the car is debatable.

Like nearly every car on the market, there are decisions to be made. Choose from the Sport, Touring or Grand Touring models. The Sport comes well equipped, but step up to the Touring, and you get leather seats, which complement the hides on the steering wheel and shift knob from the Sport. The driver enjoys eight-way power adjustment, too. For safety, you also get blind-spot monitoring, a very significant advance shared by many cars today. It warns you of vehicles beyond the reach of your outside mirrors, and squawks if you put on your turn signal when someone’s there. Also reassuring in a vehicle this size is the rear view camera and backup sensors. The Touring Technology package adds more electronic entertainment and safety features.

Go for the top-level Grand Touring and get the tech package standard, plus chrome door handles, 20-inch alloy wheels (replacing standard 18s), outside mirrors that turn in automatically when you park, seat position memory for the driver, and much more.

There are three packages to enhance your enjoyment and safety for the Grand Touring. My tester had the Grand Touring Technology package, which added a Bose 10-speaker Surround Sound system, Tom-Tom navigation and SiriusXM satellite radio. Go online or see your dealer to configure the car you want.

The Sport, with nothing extra, starts at $30,780. The Touring comes in at $33,275, while the Grand Touring begins at $35,830. My test car, with the optional Grand Touring Technology package and a $100 Towing Prep Package (which pushes towing capacity from 2,000 to 3,500 pounds), hit $38,515.

It’s hard to maintain sportiness when you scale a Miata up to a seven-passenger, 4,323-pound SUV. But when you turn the wheel or listen to the V6, there’s a little something in there that you won’t get anywhere else, and Mazda’s marketing and engineering staffs want to be sure that you never forget it.


Lexus Hybrid Still Packs a Punch | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 08 May 2014 12:12

050814aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

What makes a luxury car worth owning? You expect fine leather, real wood, dramatic styling, and loads of electronic comfort and safety features. But what if you can have high-tech energy efficiency too? The V6-and-motor-powered Lexus GS450h hybrid gives you the potency of a V8-powered cruiser with the fuel sipping of a four-cylinder economy car.

The GS isn’t the biggest or fanciest Lexus, but you wouldn’t know it by sitting in the sublimely comfortable and beautifully contoured, 10-way-adjustable, heated and cooled leather seats. The light matte-finish bamboo trim stood out in my Riviera Red tester. And, you can’t miss the handsome center-mounted analog clock.

My GS450h included the $5,255 “Luxury Package.” This brings in a moonroof, power folding external mirrors, a heated leather and wood steering wheel, bold 19-inch alloy wheels, and things you might not even think of, such as illuminated scuff plates and headlamp cleaners.

The real story is the hybrid powertrain. The GS’s cousin, the Toyota Prius, makes a virtue of efficiency with light weight, a practical hatchback with super low coefficient of drag (cd), and a modest four-cylinder engine. The GS450h, though, gives you a whopping 338 horsepower, good for a 5.6-second zero-to-60 time, while still delivering an EPA fuel economy rating of 29 City, 34 Highway and 31 Combined. I averaged 31.6 mpg during my test week. Green numbers, as expected, are great, with 7 for Smog and 8 for Greenhouse Gas.

You can dial in five different driving experiences with Lexus Drive Mode. Use Normal for general efficiency, or choose one of two ECO settings and two Sport settings. Each setting changes the character of the car, including the suspension and the electric power steering. On freeway commutes, high efficiency makes sense, but on a gently curving back road you can tighten up everything, controlling throttle response and giving the electronic transmission more “gears” for an exhilarating performance. The color of the instrument panel clues you into where you’re set, with blue for ECO and red for Sport.

There’s plenty going on to maintain the ultra efficiency, but the features you’ll touch most are related to the 12.3-inch center screen. You can see a map from the navigation system as well as your entertainment choices — both at the same time.

There is a set of apps available, too, from traffic to Siri Eyes Free, where the helpful voice of your iPhone can assist you while you’re driving. You can order movie tickets, make dinner reservations, and much more.

050814a2When you first turn on the car, you’ll see a dramatic display along the huge center screen. As a short-term driver, it was always kind of exciting to watch. The interior materials are so fine and the ride so quiet that you might think of this Lexus as a friendly, road-going companion. It’s easy to imagine settling in and not stepping out for hundreds of miles.

Part of the pleasure certainly comes from the exquisite Mark Levinson Premium Surround Sound Audio system, a $1,380 option. It boasts 17 speakers, and lots of other impressive numbers in its specifications. You can control it from the screen or with voice commands.

As a Lexus, the GS450h uses a special joystick controller on the center console that you can get pretty good at manipulating without looking down. The screen has a snap-to-it feature that once it’s found the rectangle representing what you want, for example, type of audio, it clicks into place without you needing to fuss with it.

You’re always safe and secure in this car, with innumerable electronic features, from copious airbags for protection, to the Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) system, which keeps your car where it belongs without any help from you. There are Whiplash Injury Lessening front seats, which move the headrest closer before impacts, as just part of the overall cocoon of safety and comfort within this full-featured ride.

If there is any downside to this car, it’s the reduced trunk capacity because of the nickel-metal hydride battery, but in this latest version, it’s roomier than last year’s model, thanks to a new, more efficient stacked battery design.

You’ll pay for the long list of goodies described here. My tester, before options, started at $59,600, and by the time the packages were added up, the sticker read $70,649. That figure included things like a power trunklid (nice, but unnecessary), Intuitive Park Assist (handy), and the aforementioned audio, luxury and electronic upgrades.

There are not a lot of cars in this segment that offer an upscale experience. The Lexus GS450h provides beauty (if you like the Lexus spindle grille), comfort, power, and on top of that, excellent Green Vehicle credentials. Perhaps a Tesla would be a worthy competitor, but those all-electrics are even pricier.




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