Volkswagen Updates Classic Golf GTI | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 26 March 2015 14:18

032615aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

The GTI is the sporty version of Volkswagen’s longtime mainstream model, the Golf. The original “hot hatch,” with a compact platform with lots of carrying space, arrived in the U.S. in 1983, and, through the years, has been the choice for drivers who wanted a little more interaction and involvement with their Golf.

This latest GTI, based on the new, 7th-generation Golf, is true to the tradition. It’s just slightly larger in every dimension except height; it’s about an inch lower to the ground. The revised proportions, along with unique body additions, give the new GTI a more hunkered-down appearance.

The first Golf, which arrived in the mid 1970s, was a revolution in edgy design, so taking on more angles in 2015 redeems the design from the softening it has acquired over the years. Standard 18-inch alloy wheels keep the planted look going, too.

032615a2You can order your GTI as a two- or four-door hatchback. The entry-level S model comes well equipped, with a standard six-speed manual transmission or optional six-speed DSG automatic. Inside, there’s a new 5.8-inch touch screen infotainment system; SiriusXM Satellite Radio; a Media Device Interface for your electronic music and other gadgets; leather on the steering wheel, brake lever and shifter; and more. You even get plaid sport cloth on the seats — a cool nod to the original 1980s models.

The midrange SE adds a sunroof, keyless entry, rearview camera, automatic headlamps, rain-sensing wipers, and rich-looking leather seats. It also includes VW’s 400-watt, eight-speaker Fender Premium Audio System, which sounds sharp and wears the iconic Fender logo. It’s like bringing your favorite guitar amp along.

The top GTI is the Autobahn, which comes only as a four-door, and provides a navigation system, 12-way adjustable driver’s seat, and full Climatronic automatic heat and air conditioning. The Performance Package, available on SE and Autobahn models, ups the ante with 10 more horsepower, limited-slip differential, and larger front and rear brakes.

The GTI’s engine is a 210-horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder. This fine powerplant produces 10 more horsepower and a remarkable 51 lb.-ft. more torque than its predecessor, all powering a car that starts in its most basic two-door, manual-transmission form at just 2,972 pounds.

Even better, fuel economy improves, too, to 25 City, 34 Highway (28 Combined). The old car was rated at 21 City, 31 Highway. Besides mechanical efficiency improvements, the car, despite being longer, wider and roomier inside, weighs less, thanks to more hot-formed, ultra-high-strength steel and careful manufacturing techniques.

The 2.0-liter engine earns excellent green credentials, despite its promise of vigorous motoring. My Tornado Red tester posted an excellent 9 for Smog and a 7 for Greenhouse Gas from the EPA.

If it’s 2015 there’s plenty of high tech in every car. The VW GTI gets the XDS+ Cross Differential System, which monitors slip in each wheel and applies braking automatically to wheels that retain grip to direct the car the way you intended. With the Performance package, you can opt for the DCC adaptive damping system, to improve the way the car performs by managing the details of the suspension individually.

The new Driving Mode Selection lets you choose from Normal, Sport and Individual. Normal and Sport have different amounts of steering and throttle feel; use Individual to set it the way you want it. With the automatic shifter, the car shifts more aggressively in Sport mode.

Despite all of these electronic marvels, the GTI’s real goodness is that it’s made for fun driving in its basic nature. The compact dimensions keep handling taut, while the hatchback proportions prevent claustrophobia, and let you use your car for all of your needs. Bring some friends along! Fold the back seats down and throw in your bicycle. You can raise the trunk floor by nearly four inches, so opt for more capacity or a flatter surface. The 52.7 cubic feet of cargo capacity is 15 percent larger than the last generation GTI.

The GTI remains affordable. The two-door S model with manual transmission starts at $25,605. My SE tester stickered at $28,215 with no extras. The Autobahn begins at $30,865. Plan on adding $600 for the convenience of the four-door S or SE version. All prices include delivery.

The new Golf comes in several flavors, including the regular Golf, the brand-new Golf SportWagen, extra-potent Golf R, and the eGolf electric variant. The GTI is the one for affordable performance. The new Golf is widely awarded: The entire lineup won the Motor Trend “Car of the Year,” the Golf and GTI made Car and Driver’s “10-Best List,” the GTI was singled out by Automobile magazine as a “2015 All Star,” and Autoweek named the GTI a “Best of the Best” winner. That’s some serious consensus, and I agree with them.


Volvo S60 Features Fuel-saving Functions | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 19 March 2015 15:15


The front end of the 2015 Volvo S60 was redesigned last year, sporting all-new exterior panels, including a new hood, front fenders and fascia.

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

Volvo is a Swedish brand, now owned by a Chinese corporation, whose origins go back 100 years, to when the company was founded as a subsidiary of a ball bearing manufacturer. The official founding date, however, is April 14, 1927, when Volvo built its first car in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Much of Volvo’s history placed substance over style, and stressed safety and durability to weather Sweden’s harsh climate. At about the turn of the 21st century, Volvos began receiving attractive, modern styling, so instead of looking like boxes, they blended in more with current design trends.

Volvos today present an interesting alternative to German, Japanese and Korean luxury products.

The S60’s front end was restyled last year, and wears a wide grille with the Ironmark (or male) symbol on a diagonal chrome sash across it. The block letters, V-O-L-V-O, march proudly across its carefully carved trunk lid.

031915a2The interior offers the expected level of comfort, convenience and beauty, in a spare, Volvo way. There’s the flowing center console, introduced a number of years ago, that provides storage behind it and reduces the sense of bulk. The gauges are clean and gleam like fine jewelry. The climate control knobs are arranged on a plain, flat panel, two on each side of the center control area, surrounding Volvo’s charming visual representation of a human to indicate where the air is flowing. Satin silver accents dress up the cabin, giving a heightened sense of plushness.

My tester’s center speedometer was entertaining, with no numbers on it, adding the necessary digits as needed. It pops open and splits out the auxiliary gauges in an amusing graphic at startup.

The S60 sedan offers multiple engines. Two new Drive-E engines employ turbocharging and supercharging to extract strong performance from just 2.0 liters of displacement. The T5 models get the turbo, with 240 horsepower and 258 lb.-ft. of torque. Step up to the T6 Drive-E, like my Bright Silver Metallic test car, and you’ll enjoy 302 horsepower and 295 lb.-ft. by adding a supercharger.

Drive-E includes the new ECO+ fuel-saving technology, which optimizes shift points, engine control and throttle response, for a gain of up to five percent in fuel economy. ECO+ has a stop/start function that turns the engine off when you stop at a stop sign or traffic light. ECO-coast lets the car coast, disconnecting the engine when you take your foot off the accelerator. ECO-climate disconnects the air conditioning compressor to save energy, too.

The T5 AWD (all-wheel-drive) model uses a 2.5-liter turbo five-cylinder engine to get 250 horsepower and 266 lb.-ft. Its Haldex AWD system supplies traction when you need it, sending power to the wheels with the best grip.

For the ultimate S60 power, the T6 R-Design comes with Volvo’s turbocharged 3.0-liter V6, with 325 horsepower and 354 lb.-ft. of torque. This powerhouse also has a standard Sport Chassis to help it compete with BMW and other sport sedan offerings.

The Drive-E engines use a new Geartronic eight-speed automatic, with paddle shifters on the steering column. This is the sportiest way to shift automatically these days. As in a race car, you can select a gear instantly, or let the car’s computer do the work for you.

Fuel economy numbers for the T6 Drive-E are 24 City, 35 Highway, and 28 Combined. In exclusively in-town driving, I averaged 25.5 mpg.

A tradition of safety goes way back in Volvo’s history. The company introduced shoulder belts as standard equipment, and invented the three-point belt system used by everyone today. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gave the S60 its highest award, the new Safety Pick +. It gets a best-level 5 in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) New Car Assessment Program, too.

Volvo’s program includes City Safety, which works at speeds of 31 mph or lower. It uses a closing velocity sensor to warn of an impending crash. It can set up the brakes or even use them to help avoid a rear-end crash.

The Volvo Sensus onboard information management system gives you in-car connectivity not only for entertainment but also for an on-screen owner’s manual, internet browser, and service booking. The Volvo On Call telematics system responds automatically to alert emergency service providers in case of an accident.

Pricing starts at $34,675 for the S60 T5 Drive-E. My S60 T6 Drive-E tester was $39,925. The top-level T6 AWD R-Design Platinum stickers at $47,875. All prices include destination charges.

With style, performance and safety, the Volvo S60 is a very appealing package. Its mission is to distinguish itself in a competitive entry-luxury marketplace — enough to attract not only traditional customers but new, younger buyers, who don’t have any memory of the safe, reliable boxes of the past.


Subaru Adds Luxury to Larger Legacy | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 05 March 2015 15:08

030515aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

The Legacy has been Subaru’s midsize sedan offering for decades, and the redesigned 2015 model is the most competitive one ever. It brims with the practical, efficient, and unpretentious design and features that have made Subaru’s range of sedans, wagons and crossovers so successful over the years.

The largest Legacy ever, it’s marginally more spacious inside than the competition, which includes the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. All of these cars have grown over the years to become the roomy family sedans of today. At 104.6 cubic feet, the Legacy feels cavernous, especially with its horizontally themed design.

Despite being brand new, there’s a sense of tradition and solidity to its no-nonsense interior. There’s more padding, stitching here and there, and nicely rendered accents that make it the most luxurious feeling Legacy ever.

As usual, you can choose a four- or six-cylinder engine, both of the boxer variety. That means they are flat, with horizontally opposed pistons and are in neither an inline nor a V configuration, like other cars. This gives them a slightly different sound, but otherwise, you’ll never know or care.

Both engines use Subaru’s Lineartronic continuously variable automatic transmission. I noticed that Drive sometimes took a second to engage after I backed out of my driveway, but it was otherwise unobtrusive. Power goes to the front wheels, but the standard Active Torque Split Symmetrical all-wheel-drive system routes power to the rear wheels when it detects slippage, for extra safety and security. Every Subaru, except for the rear-wheel-drive BRZ sports car (co-developed with Toyota) comes with all-wheel drive standard.

The 2.5-liter four-cylinder, as in my Twilight Blue Metallic 2.5i test car, puts out 175 horsepower and 174 lb.-ft. of torque, which seems sufficient for a 3,455-pound vehicle. The 3.6R model dishes out 256 horsepower and 247 lb.-ft. of torque. Drive both to see if you need the extra power, because the four-cylinder averages a significant 7 mpg better Combined fuel economy. The 2.5i rates 26 City, 36 Highway and 30 Combined per the EPA. I averaged 25.3 mpg. The 3.6R’s numbers are 20, 29 and 23 respectively.

The four-cylinder models come in plain 2.5i, 2.5i Premium, or 2.5i Limited. My tester was a 2.5i Premium model, with nice items like a 10-way power driver’s seat; dual-zone climate control; heated seats, mirrors and windshield de-icer; an upgraded audio system; air filtration; a leather-wrapped steering wheel; and fog lights.

030515a2The Limited model adds even more — in fact, it’s the fanciest Legacy ever. You get perforated leather seating with two-position driver’s seat memory, heated rear seats, rear air conditioning vents and a super Harman/kardon surround sound stereo system. The audio in my 2.5i Premium tester wasn’t bad either, although I found an odd quirk when I used the volume knob on the left, I sometimes bumped the smooth touch screen behind it and changed stations unintentionally.

As part of its overall upgrade for 2015, the Legacy gets better noise reduction and sound isolation. They added a new acoustic windshield, liquid-filled engine mounts, thicker panels in some locations, and more foam insulation and floor damping materials.

Subaru has always offered some things that no-one else thought to provide. There’s a PIN access (like an ATM) which lets you lock your keys in the car — intentionally — in cases where you want to, say, go out for a jog and not carry them along. And, as before, Subaru gives you its traditional hill holder, which keeps you from rolling back when stopped on a hill, and also Incline Start Assist.

New cars are filled with high-tech features for efficiency, enjoyment and safety. Subaru offers the EyeSight driver-assist system in Premium and Limited trims. It uses stereo camera technology to combine adaptive cruise control, pre-collision braking and vehicle lane departure warning systems. With EyeSight, you also get Steering-Responsive Fog Lights. When the headlamps are set to Auto and the fog lights are off, the car automatically switches on the left or right fog light when you’re turning at night, to illuminate the way.

With all of its content, the Legacy seems like a bargain, with pricing starting at $22,490 for the four-cylinder 2.5i model. The 2.5i Limited starts at $27,290, with the 3.6R Limited six-cylinder topping out at $30,390. All prices include delivery.

Subaru has had remarkable success, weathering the economic crisis better than other brands, and it continues to flourish today. Rather than dazzling car shoppers with flash and trendiness, Subaru does it with solid quality, stylish but not overwrought designs, comprehensive safety features, affordable pricing, and a consistent identity throughout its lineup. Built in Lafayette, Indiana, the new Legacy has traditional Japanese build quality (and engine/transmission), but a feel for American tastes and needs. Their advertising talks about love, and they are referring to long-term relationships, not infatuation.


Audi A3 Circles the Competition | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 19 February 2015 12:49


The 2015 Audi A3 was recently named “2015 Best Upscale Small Car for the Money” by U.S. News Best Cars. The Best Cars for the Money awards are determined by combining quality and value data into a composite score.

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

The A3 is Audi’s entry-level car in America. Its challenge is to deliver the style, feel and performance of the popular A4, as well as the larger and more expensive sedans, in a competitive package.

The larger A4 is a perfect compact sedan, but as it grows, there is room under it. The A3 has been offered only as a five door wagon in the U.S., but the new one comes as a four-door sedan or a handsome cabriolet (convertible). Audis still look like Audis, but the details have evolved, with more folds, lines and sharp delineation of surfaces.

The new A3 is actually the size, more or less, of the original A4 from the late 1990s. The interior is a little more straightforward and linear than the latest Audis, which have the swirling drama of today’s computer-driven design.

Circles are everywhere, from the prominent vents on the dash to the four-circle logo in the steering wheel, the buttons, speaker grilles, and the various knobs and buttons.

Also circular is the illuminated MMI controller knob, which sits on the center console between the front seats. Use it to make selections on the dash screen, which rises out of the center dash like toast from a toaster when you start up the car.

There are four engines, including three turbo-charged gasoline and one TDI Diesel. The base car has a 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine driving the front wheels. It puts out 170 horsepower and 200 lb.-ft. of torque. My Monsoon Gray Metallic tester, however, had the 2.0-liter turbo engine with Quattro all-wheel drive. That pushed horsepower and torque up to 220 and 258 respectively. The S3 puts out even more – 292 horsepower and 280 lb.-ft. I hope to spend time with one someday for another story.

The 1.8T delivers a 7.2 second 0-60 time; the 2.0T cuts it to 5.8 seconds, while the S3 drops to just 4.7 seconds. The TDI Diesel is slowest at 8.1 seconds, but delivers its benefits elsewhere.

Sadly, there’s no manual transmission option, at least in the U.S. I assume there isn’t enough demand for it, and it’s hard to fault Audi, whose sales have risen every month for years, for stocking their dealerships with what will sell.

My test car, using gasoline, rated 24 City, 33 Highway, and 27 combined; I averaged 23.6 mpg. Green numbers for the 2.0 turbo I tested run surprisingly good, at 9 for Smog and 7 for Greenhouse Gas. If fuel economy is your prime interest, the TDI Diesel claims EPA numbers of 31 City, 43 Highway and 36 Combined.

Performance is partly numbers and partly the visceral experience, and the A3 is long on the latter. It delivers more driving satisfaction than an ordinary car of its size. I drove it back-to-back with the worthy Lexus IS 250, and you can tell the German car from the Japanese one. In a world of ubiquitous technology, subtle differences are the ones that will motivate buyers.

021915a2Audis are renowned for having great looking and high-quality interiors. I found one misaligned edge by the driver’s side door’s speaker grille, but otherwise, even at this price point, the leather, trim and instrumentation were sharp. The fuel and temperature gauges were bands of light rather than needles, a modern but slightly budget-conscious choice.

The high tech really lives beneath the traditional surface of the instrument panel. The center screen has that level of complexity you expect from a modern luxury car, so best to do your learning in your driveway first. I found station selection to be a little tricky — Audi likes things that scroll — but there were the usual redundant steering wheel controls as well. The A3 gets illuminated strips on the doors, an amusing touch for evening driving, matched by the illuminated ring on the MMS controller. When you turn on the interior lighting, it’s a sharp, frosty blue-white, and the exposed bulb looks high tech.

The A3 may be the entry point, but it comes in three levels: Premium, Premium Plus and Prestige. My tester had the $8,450 Prestige package, with extra fancy 18-inch alloy wheels, heated front seats, auto-dimming headlamps, navigation system, parking assistance, an upgraded Bang & Olufsen audio system, and more. This also includes some style upgrades, including the S line exterior, with extra bright moldings and trim. With the Sport Package as well, the front seats get an upgrade and you can shift the automatic with steering-wheel-mounted paddles.

Somehow, this car, which starts at $30,795, arrived at $43,345 when equipped the way mine was. Much of what makes the car so delightful are those extra features, so it would be worth checking out a “base” model to see if that would be enough for you.


Toyota Yaris Appears Sharper, Smoother | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 12 February 2015 14:58

021215aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

Toyota built its reputation in the United States selling high quality small cars. Although they now offer a wide range, from the Avalon sedan to the Sienna minivan to the Tundra pickup, Toyota still makes small cars.

The original Corolla, way back in the late 1960s, was Toyota’s first volume small car. Today’s subcompact is the Yaris, which is probably a bit bigger than those old Corollas — and is certainly taller. It’s also much better equipped with creature comforts and safety systems.

The 2015 Yaris wears a brand-new face. The fierce façade receives projector beam headlamps with LED daytime running lamps and integrated fog lamps. My upper-level tester, in Blue Streak Metallic, wore a wide-mouthed black grille with Piano Black accents. A tasteful spoiler sprouted in back, and surprisingly sharp 16-inch machined-finish alloys rounded out the package.

The Yaris comes as a three- or five-door liftback in three levels: L, LE and SE. These levels arrive monospec, with no option packages, which simplifies decision-making for you and build variations for Toyota. Every Yaris comes with power windows and locks, air conditioning, sport-tuned power steering, and color-keyed folding mirrors. The LE adds power mirrors, cruise control, steering wheel audio controls and remote keyless entry. The SE even gets a leather-wrapped wheel and shift knob — not your usual starter car fare.

Every Yaris comes with a sound system. The Entune audio uses a 6.1-inch screen to control the AM/FM/CD and MP3 system. With six speakers, it’s a decent, if not concert hall sound, and you can use Bluetooth or an USB port to pump in your favorites from your personal device. You can even order up a navigation system for $899 extra.

Earlier small Toyotas, like my 1980 and my wife’s 1991 Tercels, were starkly basic, although well built. The Yaris is more posh, with an all-new interior for 2015, borrowing the design theme from its larger siblings. The main dash panel and doors are nicely padded, and the surfaces are complex in their variety of textures and relationships. I missed a telescoping steering column, but the Yaris is well equipped for its market segment.

The 106-horsepower, 1.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine, with 103 lb.-ft. of torque, seems well matched to the 2,335-pound Yaris. EPA ratings are 30 City, 36 Highway and 32 Combined; I averaged 30.2 mpg. The Green numbers are a so-so 5 for Smog but an impressive 8 for Greenhouse Gas.

My car came with a four-speed automatic transmission, a bit short of gears in a world where there are nine-speed automatics on sale. Ratio deprived, the car makes a bit of a racket climbing hills, but you won’t be left behind. A five-speed manual is offered in the L and SE grades. Impressively, my Yaris SE did have four-wheel disc brakes.

The Yaris has a single windshield wiper — something I last saw in Mercedes-Benz models in the 1990s. It does a fine job, though, and uses a wet-arm washer system with the sprayer mounted at the bottom of the wiper blade. Another nice touch is the automatic shutoff system for the interior lighting. After 20 minutes, any lights you left on go out by themselves, preserving your battery.

Is a small car safe? Well, the Yaris gets 4 stars overall from the Government 5-Star Safety Ratings, but some tests, like the side crash, earn the full 5 stars. There are nine airbags and Toyota’s Star Safety System, which includes vehicle stability control, antilock brakes, electronic brake-force distribution, traction control, and brake assist. There’s also something called Smart Stop technology, a brake override system.

021215a2Toyota took many steps to keep it peaceful inside the Yaris, including using acoustic glass in the windshield and installing sound-insulation materials all around the car.

Prices start at $15,310 for the L three-door with manual transmission, and work their way up from there. My SE, with the optional navigation system and $180 worth of carpeted floor and cargo area mats, came to $19,524. Both prices include shipping. My 1980 Toyota Tercel cost $4,350, out the door, in 1980 dollars; but, then again, it offered a fraction of the features and performance of today’s Yaris.

So, why isn’t Scion the entry point for Toyota? It seems that Toyota’s youth brand can’t do it all. It has its own problems staying fresh and relevant, and some people still want that Toyota name on their car. The Yaris does fine in that department, but there’s a lot of competition now from other brands, such as a new Mazda 2 and the continuously improving Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio. The Nissan Versa Note is compelling. But if you want to be sure you’re going to be OK in the long run, the Yaris will take you there.


Battery-powered BMW i3 Boasts 117 mpge | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 05 February 2015 15:42

020515aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

Electric cars are a small, but growing segment in the car business. While climate change may be the overarching reason for these vehicles’ existence, manufacturers are introducing their new electrics to meet much more stringent U.S. Government emissions standards.

BMW has just introduced its first two battery-powered cars. The i8 hybrid is a gorgeous, powerful supercar, but the i3 competes with the more mainstream offerings, although it is priced and equipped a bit higher than a Nissan Leaf or Chevrolet Volt.

The i3 comes as a pure battery-powered car or you can get it with a “range extender,” which turns on and charges the battery when it runs down. This is different from the Volt, which delivers about 38 miles of electricity before switching on the charge engine, and can go for hundreds of miles on that. The i3 with the range extender has a longer electric range — officially 72 miles — but a total range of just 150 miles. My personal numbers showed an estimated range of 78 miles for the battery and 60 miles for gas.

The EPA rates the i3 at 117 MPGe. Use this figure to compare with other electric vehicles. With gasoline only, it’s just 39 mpg. EPA Green numbers are 5 for Smog but a 10 for Greenhouse Gas.

The i3 is not pretty. Perhaps BMW doesn’t want anyone to confuse this new car with the familiar and beloved 3, 5 or 7 series sport sedans. Up front, there’s a twin kidney grille, but from there back, it’s a new world. The most unusual feature is the flow of the side windows, which start out “normal” in the front doors but bulge oddly in the rear-hinged “suicide doors” and then taper down to a narrow band in the rear pillar. The tail is flat, black and shiny, and the U-shaped taillamps sit flush against the surface, like icons on an iPad.

The i3 is just 157 inches long, but it stands 62.1 inches tall and is 69.9 inches wide, so you won’t feel claustrophobic inside. The interior stylists created a futuristic and fascinating dashboard that curls up at the ends. A pod reaches out from the right to hold one of two flat tablet-like screens. The doors feature a clever ribbon that wraps down to provide a grip and then folds on itself to create a spacious pocket.

020515a2The handsome wood grain dash top dips in the middle for storage. Behind it is a charcoal-colored panel that looks like the industrial surface you’d find on the back of a speaker cabinet. It’s partially recycled, as is 25 percent of the plastic in the car. The wool cloth and golden brown leather in my test car added a Danish Modern flavor to the “cars of the future” theme.

The i3 is no sports car, but its 170 horsepower electric motor, with 184 lb.-ft. of torque, pushes its 2,900 pounds ahead authoritatively (and silently). The 0-60 time is 7.2 seconds — unremarkable — but the 0-30 time of 3.5 seconds feels fast. Cruising at highway speeds is effortless and pleasant. Handling is BMW quick and the ride is firm and stable.

The i3 has some powerful brake regeneration. You can practically drive the car with your right foot. When you remove it from the accelerator pedal, the car slows down appreciably, like an invisible foot is pressing the brake for you. I got to where I could lift my foot and roll to a stop at a traffic light with only a light touch of the brake pedal at the end.

The i3 uses the standard SAE 1772 plug for charging at level 1 (120V, household current) or level 2 (240V, your dryer or a charging station). It also offers quick charging, but there’s a catch. Like the fight over movie cassette formats, there are multiple standards for DC quick chargers. BMW uses the SAE Combo system, but the charger I intended to use one Saturday afternoon had the more widely used CHAdeMO system, so I was out of luck.

The main issue with electrics is still range, even with extenders available. And, prices are a bit steep, but there are significant rebates available. The i3 without any extras or range extender retails at $42,300. For the range extender, add $3,850. My Capparis White tester, with some extras, including quite flashy 20-inch rims, came to $51,200 (all prices include shipping).

The i3 is different, and quite enjoyable to drive. It’s small, but as a hatchback, very practical. It may look odd, but it feels and drives like a BMW. One day, at a red light, a guy in a Chevy Tahoe told me, “Looks better than those other electric cars.” BMW can only hope other folks feel the same way.


Lexus IS 250 Offers All-wheel Drive | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 29 January 2015 13:21


Compared to its previous generation, the wheelbase of the 2015 Lexus IS 250 has increased by nearly three inches and width by nearly half an inch, for an aggressive stance.

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

As part of its broad reach across the luxury auto business, Lexus follows the same pattern as BMW or Mercedes-Benz. That means it provides a range of choices, and every range needs a good entry point.

The IS 250, along with the more powerful IS 350, is Lexus’ junior sedan, but it is by no means incomplete. It’s what Lexus does to distinguish itself from its Toyota parent that gives the brand its value.

Current Lexus styling is based on a supercar they introduced a few years ago — the LFA. So when you see that giant, almost cartoon-like spindle grille, you know it’s not a BMW or Mercedes-Benz or Toyota that’s headed your way.

The new look, which debuted on the third-generation IS last year, flaunts deep shoulders along the sides, with stunning creases that ascend from below the front door, across the rear wheel openings, and along the taillamps, through the line that separates the bumper panels from the body. The taillamps are carved out as if by a samurai sword.

Inside, the feel is more comfort-oriented than the radical sheet metal outside. The door armrests and center console flow down from the dash. Soft surfaces feel superior to Toyota fittings. The dash panel rolls back on itself in a reassuring feeling of solidity, and the silver-finish trim gleams against the matte black surfaces.

BMW has offered its iDrive controller dial on the center console for years, and Lexus has developed its own version — the Remote Touch Interface. Rest your wrist on the little pillow and move the joystick to select what you want on the higher screen. The selector snaps onto the images when you approach them, so you don’t have to worry about being too exact. It works well for channel selection, climate options and navigation choices, once you get used to it.

Practically every car has a start button now instead of a key, but Lexus places theirs up high on the instrument panel. Also different are the electrostatic temperature switches — vertical lines that you simply run your finger along to warm up or cool down the cabin.

The driving experience is brisk, regardless of which V6 engine you select. My Atomic Silver tester, an IS 250, featured the smaller, 2.5 liter engine with 204 horsepower and 185 horsepower. This is enough to move the 3,461-pound car along easily. The IS 350, with its 3.5-liter V6, puts out 306 horsepower and 277 lb.-ft of torque, and you tell the difference by its 0-60 time of 5.6 seconds versus 7.7 seconds for the IS 250.

You can order either model with all-wheel drive for extra safety on slippery surfaces. It works completely automatically. Doing the math, it adds 188 pounds and $2,535 to the car and subtracts 1-2 miles per gallon from the fuel economy. The IS 250 with rear-wheel drive earns EPA numbers of 21 City, 30 Highway, and 24 Overall. I got 21.8 mpg. The IS 350’s numbers are 2 mpg lower, or about 1 mpg per second to 60 mph.

Select from Eco, Normal or Sport settings with a console button. Normal is the default, but you can tighten up the steering and adjust the transmission settings with Sport and economize with Eco.

As a Lexus, the IS 250 is filled with high technology for entertainment, performance and safety. The Lexus Premium Audio system offers HD radio and Real-time traffic and weather, Gracenote Album art, USB and Bluetooth connection for music and phone. Bluetooth phone setup took mere seconds. Siri Eyes Free uses Apple technology to let you interface with the car hands-free. Lexus Enform is your electronic connection for safety, with automatic collision notification, enhanced roadside assistance, and some remote commands from an app.

The car comes with 10 airbags, and ways of preventing accidents, including the Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management system. It controls all of the electronic safety systems, including anti-lock brakes, Electronic Brake-force Distribution, traction control and vehicle stability control.

012915a2The F SPORT package is offered on either IS model. It sharpens up handling with 18-inch wheels and suspension tuning and some trim enhancements, including a more aggressive grille texture. It also uses a little trickery to give you a sportier engine note.

Pricing starts at $37,475 for the IS 250. My tester, with upgraded 18-inch wheels, a navigation system, parking assist, and a trunk mat, came to $40,870. Add all-wheel drive and $3,585 for the F Sport Package and you’re looking at $42,955.

I asked my 22-year-old son, who has grown up in these cars his whole life and understands the differences between brands, what he thought of the IS 250. Did it feel sporty and luxurious enough? Would he want to own one? “Yes,” he said.

CAPTION: Besides 18-inch wheels, the F SPORT package now includes heated/ventilated front seats.

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


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

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

010815aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

122514aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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