LaCrosse Lures Luxury Buyers | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 17 April 2014 14:00


The 2014 Buick LaCrosse offers new interior and exterior design cues, advanced safety technologies and enhanced in-vehicle connectivity.

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

In 2014, the LaCrosse is Buick’s largest sedan — a full-size car by today’s standards. Its ancestor, the LeSabre, was a land yacht. The LaCrosse sits on a foot-shorter wheelbase, stretches nearly 30 inches less from nose to tail, is 6.8 inches narrower, stands 5.9 inches taller, and at 3,896 pounds, weighs 400 pounds less than a 1976 LeSabre — the last year of full-size GM cars before downsizing.

Buick is one of only four General Motors brands to survive the 2009 bankruptcy. Now, the century-old nameplate is fighting to regain relevancy with today’s luxury car buyer. Buick is recruiting the new “older people” — baby boomers — and is even angling for some younger buyers, with its range of cars and crossovers.

I tested the top level LaCrosse Premium. It contained all of the usual features you expect from the full-size luxury sedan segment, plus a long list of high-tech apps and upgrades.

The Driver Confidence Packages I and II add electronic accident-preventing alerts, including Forward Collision Alert, Rear Cross Traffic Alert, and Side Blind Zone Alert with Lane Departure Warning. It informs you if you’re closing in too quickly on the car in front, if someone is approaching along the street behind or is in your blind spot. The packages also give you a head-up display on the windshield, front fog lamps, adaptive cruise control and automatic collision preparation (as a last resort).

The new Safety Alert Seat vibrates under you to warn of impending trouble. It buzzes the left or right side to warn from which direction the hazard is approaching. This new form of alert bypasses the head and goes right to the body. GM claims its research shows it gets a quicker response. It certainly is hard to ignore.

The Ultra Luxury Package, at $2,495, upgrades the leather on the seats and steering wheel; mounts real wood on the instrument panel, doors and console; and adds leather to the center console and door armrests while installing snazzy suede on the headliner, pillars and visors. A slightly misaligned wood section on the left edge of the dash was a minor distraction, and the real wood is so shiny that it looks artificial, but overall, the effect is opulent and pleasing.

My tester wore a shimmering coat of White Diamond Tricoat paint ($995), set off by 20-inch rims, a first for the LaCrosse. Body styling borrows from the Buick history book, with swooping vestigial fender lines along the side and a large, toothy “waterfall” grille up front.

041714a2The dash center features an ornate Art Nouveau metallic surround that is the most purely decorative object in the car. It looks like something that might play well in China, a major LaCrosse market. The lower corners of this panel contain touch-sensitive areas for easy personal climate adjustments. The eight-inch full-color touch screen in the center of the display is easy to use, and voice commands are available as well.

Two engines are offered. My tester had the larger 3.6-liter V6, which puts out a generous 304 horsepower and 364 lb.-ft. of torque while earning EPA numbers of 18 City, 28 Highway, and 21 Combined. I averaged 18.6 mpg during my test period, which included significant freeway driving. Those figures are probably twice the number of the 1976 model. EPA Green Vehicle numbers are 7 for Smog and 5 for Greenhouse Gas. The 1976 model wasn’t rated for greenness, but it surely wasn’t very.

The other engine is a 2.4-liter four-cylinder that puts out 182 horsepower and 172 lb.-ft. of torque. This improves fuel economy to 25 City/36 Highway, but I can’t speak to the difference in performance. The 1976 car, with a 3.8-liter engine, had just 105 horsepower, with its 185 lb.-ft. partly mitigating the performance loss. Earlier LeSabres featured large V8s, typical of the era.

The LaCrosse is a very pleasant cruiser. Buick’s QuietTuning program keeps pretty much any kind of sound — engine, road, wind — from intruding. The suspension is firmer and much more stable than the old Buick’s cushion-soft float, and the electric steering, while giving little feel, does send the car where you point it. The six-speed automatic shifts imperceptibly.

Prices start at $34,985. My top-level tester had a base price of $39,755, which, with all the packages plus shipping, grew to $49,235.

Can this Buick, built in Kansas City, Kansas, woo buyers who are used to the faultless Japanese luxury execution or the power and prestige of German sports sedans? Its quality, looks and performance are high, but preconceptions are hard to shake. And there are still a few places where the interior plastics look less than top notch. One thing is certain, though. This is not the old Buick — it’s built for today.


Rugged Sierra Stands Six Feet Tall | Print |  E-mail
Wednesday, 09 April 2014 14:19


The new 6.2L V8 engine in the 2014 GMC Sierra 1500 enables a 12,000-pound maximum towing capacity.

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

Pickup trucks are a big profit center for General Motors, so when they redesigned the GMC Sierra, they were careful not to change it too much. The 2014 is all-new, but you will recognize it at the job site and in your neighbor’s driveway.

The Sierra stands more than six feet tall and weighs nearly three tons. It’s a real challenge driving one around town, maneuvering through parking lots and fitting it into increasingly slim parking spaces.

Choose from Standard, Double or Crew Cab. The Double Cab, a compromise between the single front row and the capacious Crew Cab, now uses front-hinged doors, which aid entry and exit in the inevitable tight parking situations. The spacious Crew Cab is the choice of more than 60 percent of buyers, and now offers a standard 5-foot-8-inch and a new 6-foot-6-inch bed.

Upgrading to the Denali level brings a unique grille, 20-inch chrome wheels, chrome exhaust tip, body-color mirrors and projector-style headlamps outside. Inside, you enjoy leather seating, bright door sills and real aluminum trim. “Denali” is embossed into the front seats and appears on the steering wheel as well. You also get a customizable driver display, where you can decide what you want shown on your instrument panel.

You can pick from the standard 4.3-liter V6 or two mighty V8s; all are members of the redesigned Ecotec 3 family. The 4.3-liter V6 provides 285 horsepower and 305 lb.-ft. of torque, the latter number a segment high, per GM. Step up to the 5.3-liter V8, with 355 horsepower and 383 lb.-ft. of torque available. For $1,995, you can upgrade to the mighty 6.2-liter V8 with 420 horsepower and 460 lb.-ft. of torque. Set up with the trailering Equipment Package, a Sierra with the 6.2-liter engine can tow up to 12,000 pounds.

The fuel economy numbers for the big V8 with four-wheel drive are 14 City, 20 Highway, and 17 Combined. I averaged 13.7 miles per gallon, making it one of my least efficient commuter vehicles. But that’s not what it’s made to do. The EPA gives the truck a 6 for Smog and just a 3 for Greenhouse Gas.

Driving a GMC Sierra such as my Iridium Metallic test Crew Cab is a lot like being a 7-foot-2 NBA basketball player. You have to be careful, but you also get the best view. In town, the world is not designed for you, but on the open road, it’s the best seat in the house.

Freeway cruising is fine, especially with the quietness in the cabin. That comes from special efforts at aerodynamics, including new mirror shapes and extra care with the gaps between the cab and the bed. The doors are triple sealed.

041014a2The Sierra Denali is a truck, with an upright, straightforward dashboard and large rubber-over-mold knobs that are easy to grip, even with gloves on. But, details and materials are more car-like and exude a more luxurious feeling. Customers can take their Sierra Denali on a Saturday night date or to the lumber yard during the week.

You can order two- or four-wheel drive. My tester had the latter, controlled by a small knob on the left of the dash. I had no opportunity to use the all-wheel traction, but the system has a two-speed transfer case and automatically locking rear differential.

Cars today are full of safety devices to prevent collisions, but the Sierra Denali offered something I had never seen (or felt) before. It’s called Driver Alert Seat, and it actually vibrates the lower cushion of the driver’s seat to warn of impending danger. Paired up with Forward Collision Alert and the Lane Departure Warning systems, you can get a real massage if you’re in tight quarters or the guy in front stops suddenly. GM’s research found that drivers might respond more quickly to this kind of feedback. It certainly gets your attention!

The Standard cab with the base 4.3-liter engine and two-wheel drive starts at $28,265. The Crew Cab model begins at $36,690. My Sierra Denali 1500 4WD Crew Cab, with the 6.2-liter V8, power sunroof, off-road suspension package, trailer brake control, all-terrain tires, and the cushion-buzzing Driver Alert Package, came to $55,185. All prices include nearly $1,100 in shipping costs.

Big pickups are about as American as you can get, but in this case, the Sierra is built in Silao, Mexico. However, 40 percent of its parts come from north of the border.

The new GMC trucks are impressive, even if they look a lot like the old ones. The sheer number of possible configurations, entertainment options and safety features is mind boggling. With Ford and Chrysler in their sights, this Sierra, along with its Chevrolet cousin, is GM’s finest entry.


Volkswagen Reimagines Iconic Beetle | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 03 April 2014 14:55


The designers wanted to develop the latest Beetle around the profile of the earliest cars rather than the 1998 New Beetle.

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

Fifty years ago, Volkswagen built my first car, a 1964 Beetle. It was the classic model, with narrow 15-inch wheels and tires, a painted metal dashboard below a flat glass windshield, and a noisy, 1.2-liter, 40-horsepower, air-cooled four-cylinder engine. It weighed just 1,629 pounds.

In 2014, you can still buy a Beetle, but other than the styling and the name, it shares little with the old car. In 1998, the New Beetle debuted, based on the Golf. It was a radical, but loving reinterpretation of the classic car, complete with the separate fenders, round “eyes” up front, and, harkening back to the very early cars, a bud vase on the dash.

For 2012, the New Beetle was completely redesigned, and became the “new New Beetle” so it’s now just called the Beetle. By the way, it doesn’t have the word “Beetle” on it — no Beetle ever has.

I tested a Reflex Silver Metallic 2014 R-Line, an upper-level model. This new “Super Beetle” puts out, with its turbocharged 2.0-liter four, 210 horsepower and 207 lb.-ft. of torque, through a six-speed manual or DSG automatic transmission.

040314a2The DSG uses dual clutches — one for the odd-numbered gears and the other for the evens. It selects the next gear in advance, so you can shift very quickly, which is why it’s used in racing today. It isn’t as much fun as using an old-fashioned clutch, but the car surges ahead in a way that’s nothing like my old ’64.

The EPA gives these models ratings of 24 City, 30 Highway and 26 overall. The fuel economy for 42 hours and 16 minutes of driving (including previous journalists) came to 24.4 mpg. My last one-hour commute trip netted 30.4 miles per gallon, so, as they say, “your mileage may vary.”

The Smog rating is 5 and Greenhouse Gas number is 7 — reasonable if not outstanding numbers.

The Beetle comes with three engine choices now, all in the front and water-cooled. The standard powerplant used to be a 2.5-liter normally aspirated inline five-cylinder, but now, it’s replaced by a 1.8-liter turbo four, which puts out the same 170 horsepower, but adds 7 lb.-ft. of torque (184), and improves fuel economy and performance. This change to a turbo explains why the cars with the larger engines got the R-Line designation.

The third choice is a 2.0-liter TDI Clean Diesel engine. It chugs out 140 horsepower, much less than the R-Line’s gasoline mill, but its 236 lb.-ft of torque gives it some real muscle on the highway, where EPA mileage is 39 mpg. When I tested a bright yellow 2013 Beetle TDI with manual transmission, I averaged 41.8 mpg.

The R-Line gets sportier looks, with new bumpers, kick plates, and R-Line badging. The top levels include eye-popping 19-inch chrome aluminum-alloy wheels, and a sophisticated metallic dash pad topped with a row of oil pressure and temperature gauges, and a timer/clock. It also featured sumptuous leather-topped seating and a remarkably large glass sunroof.

As a former Beetle owner, I recognized something in the engine note of this new turbo Beetle. And it seemed like there was some engine sound emanating from the trunk! It turns out that VW has pumped some extra engine music into the passenger compartment.

In any case, driving the new Beetle is fun, and without any apparent sacrifices. The classic car would slow to a crawl on extended uphills, but this one flies along without a thought. Handling for my 3,100-pound R-Line was linear and smooth, and cornering felt flat.

The original Beetle, with its rear engine, was not good at carrying much. The front trunk was shallow, irregularly shaped, and not much protection if you ran into anything. Today’s car, like the New Beetle, is a hatchback, opening with a push on the top of the chrome VW logo. I folded down the rear seats (not completely flat, but usable) and put my upright bass right in.

The new car has all of the crush zones, safety cages and airbags of a modern car. VW’s Intelligent Crash Response System shuts off the fuel pump, unlocks the doors and turns on the hazard lights in certain types of collisions. The Overall Vehicle Score is a top-level 5 stars in the Government’s safety ratings.

Pricing for the third-generation Beetle starts at $21,115 for the 1.8T with manual transmission. The R-Line begins at $25,815. All three series have option packages, and my test car, with the top-level Sunroof, Sound & Navigation package, came to $32,030.

Between 1965 and 1973, Volkswagen built more than 1,000,000 Beetles a year. Today, Volkswagen sells many more cars than that worldwide, and the Beetle is just a tiny fraction of that total. But it’s the living icon of the company.


Grand Cherokee Lifts Jeep Sales | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 27 March 2014 14:56

032714aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

The Grand Cherokee is Jeep’s best-selling vehicle. Positioned as a heart-of-the-market standard-sized SUV, it can be anything from a family wagon to a luxury off-roader. It has led Jeep to its most successful year ever in 2013.

For 2014, all Grand Cherokees are updated with slimmer new head- and tail-lamps and a reconfigured front fascia, while keeping the squared corners and seven-slat grille, which links it to its WWII ancestor.

Inside, numerous upgrades give a more premium feel. My tester, with its swanky New Zealand Black and Light Frost interior, was a Limited model, the second level of four, from entry-point Laredo through Overland to Summit. However, this vehicle, with four major option groups, was much closer to the Summit than the Laredo.

032714a2My Granite Crystal Metallic tester came with the optional 3.0-liter ECODiesel V6. Long gone are the days of searching for a station that sells Diesel fuel, and the sulfur smell is virtually gone. At the time of my test, Diesel fuel was four cents a gallon below premium, but prices vary considerably.

Why Diesel? For one thing, it gets better fuel economy than a comparative gasoline-powered model. Jeep’s 3.6-liter gas V6 has EPA numbers of 14 City, 20 Highway with four-wheel drive versus 21/28 for the Diesel. My tester, with four-wheel-drive, earned an EPA overall score of 24 miles per gallon; I achieved 24.2. With its large fuel tank, you could easily drive 600-700 miles without a fill-up on trips. However, it carries a $4,500 price premium, so it will take a long time to make up the difference.

With its 240 horsepower and whopping 420 lb.-ft. of torque, the Diesel V-6 has the power of competing V8s from other manufacturers but fuel economy that’s 43 percent better (per Jeep’s figures). The power at low rpm levels has always amazed me with Diesels. You can tow up to 7,400 pounds with this vehicle, too.

If you really want a V8, Jeep will gladly sell you their tried-and-true 5.7-liter. With 360 horsepower and 390 lb.-ft. of torque, it’s burly, but fuel economy is about the same as the gas-powered V6.

All Jeep Cherokees use a new eight-speed automatic transmission. This wide range gives a nice low creeper gear for slow starts off-road — 44.1:1. But you also get a tall 8th gear for relaxed and low-rpm highway cruising, which improves fuel economy.

You can select from three different 4WD systems. Quadra-Trac I has a single speed transfer case and gives full-time all-wheel drive without touching a dial or a knob. Quadra-Trac II has a two-speed transfer case (including a low) and uses sensors to detect tire slip, so it transfers torque to the wheels that need it. At the top, Quadra-Drive II includes a rear Electronic Limited-slip Differential and is so advanced that it can anticipate low traction and distribute torque in advance.

The Grand Cherokee can be a serious off-roader if you equip it that way. My tester had the Off-Road Adventure II package ($2,495), which includes the aforementioned Quadra-Drive II suspension, a Rear Load Leveling Suspension, and a variety of skid plates and shields and towing equipment. This earns the car the coveted Trail Rated badge.

You also get the Quadra-Lift Air Suspension. It provides a normal ride height, but also two off-road settings with an extra 1.3 or 2.6 inches of additional ground clearance. Conversely, you can use Park mode to lower the car 1.6 inches below normal ride height for easier entry and exit. Or, Aero Mode automatically lowers the Grand Cherokee .6 inches for reduced wind resistance at speed (which improves fuel economy).

Selec-Terrain lets you choose the kind of off-road traction control you want: Sand, Mud, Snow, Rock or Auto. Sport Mode lets you adjust the shift points for a more exhilarating driving experience.

My 5,275-pound tester also had the Luxury Group II, with Nappa Leather trimmed seats (ventilated in front), numerous exterior lighting enhancements, rain-sensitive wipers, and a huge dual-pane sunroof. The Uconnect system boasts a spacious 8.4 inch color screen, great for car control adjustments, and also integrates your USB and Bluetooth devices.

A Laredo, with two-wheel drive and the gasoline V6, starts at $30,190. My Limited 4x4, with options, came to $49,185. The MSRP for the Summit model, which includes most or all of my car’s options, and some interior upgrades, starts at just $5 more than that.

The Jeep Grand Cherokee has been built in Detroit, Michigan, since it debuted in 1992 as a 1993 model. The Diesel engine comes from Italy (remember, Fiat owns Chrysler), and the fancy eight-speed transmission is German, but this is a very traditional American way to drive, on- or off-road, and delivers a very satisfying experience for five.


Fiery Fiesta Heats Up Hatchback Market | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 20 March 2014 12:34


The compact 2014 Ford Fiesta ST sports a unique front grille and chin spoiler with new rear diffuser and fascia extensions.

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

The hot hatchback segment of the car world is heating up again. You can give the MINI Cooper credit, perhaps, for this development, but today you can choose from a bunch of little five-door runabouts, and these units are a long way from the “econoboxes” of yore.

Ford sells lots of cars in Europe, and now we get to share some of these gems in the U.S. The Fiesta has been available for a few years in America, but was here briefly in the late 1970s. Now, it sits below the compact Focus in the lineup, and gives MINI and the others some fiery competition.

The new Fiesta is a small car with a handy hatchback for carrying what larger cars can, and with just 2,747 pounds to move, it flies along with a compact engine. The standard Fiesta has a 1.6 liter inline four with 120 horsepower, but the ST gets the turbocharged High Output GTDI Ecoboost engine, good for 197 horsepower and 202 lb.-ft. of torque.

The ST comes only with a six-speed manual transmission, with a little upshift light in the dash to urge you to move up a gear (to save fuel). Fuel economy is good, if not great. The EPA gives it 29 mpg overall (26 City, 35 Highway). I earned 28.0 mpg overall during my weeklong test. EPA Green Vehicle scores are 6 for Smog and 7 for Greenhouse Gas.

My perky tester, in Green Envy Metallic Tri-Coat paint ($595), was easy to find in the shopping mall parking lot, even at night. This little “Kermit the Frog” also sports a unique grille and chin spoiler up front and rear spoiler, diffuser, and fascia extensions. It rides on unique 17-inch wheels and has bright dual-exhaust pipes. Like its big brother, the Focus ST, it wears the “Sport Technologies” badge, as part of Ford’s global performance brand.

Ford uses what it calls a “sound symposer” to pipe some of the engine sound back into the passenger compartment. I heard a guttural roar when I stepped on the handsome metallic accelerator pedal. They also made mechanical changes to improve handling, such as improving the electrically controlled steering with a modified front knuckle, lowering the ratio to 13:6:1. The ST sits 15 mm closer to the ground than the standard car, although it is not as low slung as, say, a two-seat Mazda MX-5 Miata.

My tester featured the optional partial-leather Recaro front seats with prominent, confining side bolsters ($1,995). As a racing seat, its goal is to keep you in place during strong cornering maneuvers, and they are effective. My wife didn’t enjoy them especially, but she wasn’t driving.

032014a2The Fiesta’s interior has the frenetic, angled quality of Ford of Europe’s smaller vehicles. There’s a handy home page for reviewing your phone, entertainment, navigation and climate systems. Just touch the outer corner with the end of your finger and the entire screen opens for viewing and adjusting your settings. Redundant steering wheel controls limit the need to extend your arm to touch the small buttons. Bluetooth activated my hands-free cell phone and music streaming; you can answer and hang up your calls from the steering wheel.

The leather steering wheel and shift knob, full climate control, and range of electronic handling aids make the ST more than Spartan, so its base price of $22,195 feels reasonable. That’s about what the MINI Cooper S starts at, and this car has 16 more horsepower and 25 more lb.-ft. of torque. The Ford’s engine is made in the UK, so it does share that with the MINI.

You can step into a Fiesta for much less than a MINI. The base Fiesta S model, with a 120-horsepower version of the 1.6-liter four-cylinder and a five-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission, starts at $14,795 in sedan or hatchback forms.

New this year is the 1.0-liter, three-cylinder, 123-horsepower EcoBoost engine, which earns a remarkable 37 mpg combined, and pushes its Greenhouse Gas number up to a 9.

A small complaint: the six-speed manual shifts quickly and easily, but feels isolated from the drivetrain, compared to MINIs and Miatas.

This little car, with its ambient lighting (cupholders, footwells, and a slice above the glovebox), accommodating rear compartment and friendly personality, can fulfill the need for driving fun and practicality for a couple or small family with young kids.

In its basic configuration, it’s a good starter car for a college kid; with nearly 200 horsepower and a manual six-speed, it becomes a more serious driver’s machine. Choose Molten Orange if green isn’t your favorite, and you can always go for basic black for a more macho look (and you don’t have to shell out $595 extra for it).


Jeep Fashions Cherokee for the Future | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 13 March 2014 14:47


The all-new 2014 Jeep Cherokee debuts a progressive exterior designed for the future.

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

The Jeep Cherokee name goes back to 1974, but it became a pioneer in the SUV market in 1984, when the second generation offered rugged Jeep characteristics in a more comfortable package. It could be the main reason that Chrysler bought Jeep back in 1987.

The Cherokee was always styled after its esteemed forbear — the WWII basic Jeep. That meant a no-nonsense, squared-off profile. When the powers-that-be opted for a softer new design years ago, they renamed it the Liberty. Now, the Cherokee is back. But what is it?

Well, there are still seven slats in the grille, but it’s a much softer, rounder nose than you might be accustomed to. And look at those slim “eyes” at the top. They are not the headlamps, although they could accommodate today’s tiny, powerful bulbs. They are the parking lamps, and the real headlamps are below. There are squared-off wheelwells, but otherwise it’s a new world.

031314a2Inside is a clean, organic-looking layout. Jeep has moved far beyond its original flat metal panel with circular gauges. Now, in Vesuvio — Jeep Brown/Indigo Blue, it’s a fashion statement. Note: The other two interior color schemes are Morocco (black) and Iceland (black and light gray). The panels meet in interesting and designer-approved ways, and the door panels feature a rising hill design that looks just like the kind you’d love to climb.

My Billet Silver Metallic Clear Coat test car was a Limited, so it was fully stocked. Leather seats and shift knob, heated steering wheel, and much more make this car anything but a rough rider. Loads of options, divided into Technology and Luxury packages and other single items makes this Cherokee more of a downsized Grand Cherokee rather than an upsized Wrangler.

This all-new Cherokee is based on the Italian chassis that also underpins the new Dodge Dart, but it’s still built in Toledo, Ohio, just as Jeeps have been for practically forever.

Two engines are offered. The Tigershark MultiAir2 2.4-liter four-cylinder is from the Italian side of the family. It puts out 184 horsepower and 171 lb.-ft. of torque. The larger engine, the new Pentastar 3.2-liter V6, is a smaller version of the popular and well regarded 3.6-liter V6 from the American side. Its 271 horsepower and 239 lb.-ft. of torque made my tester feel strong out on the road.

This car introduces a nine speed automatic transmission! You can’t hear much, but if you listen carefully and watch the tachometer you will notice lots of gear changes. This is meant to improve efficiency. Thankfully, it’s not a continuously variable type, so you can sense up- and down-shifts.

Fuel economy is improved by as much as 45 percent versus the old Liberty four-cylinder it replaced. The EPA gives it 21 City, 28 Highway and 24 overall. The V6, with its extra power, earns 19 City, 27 Highway and 22 overall. I averaged 22.5 mpg during my enjoyable test week.

You can get the three on-road levels of Cherokee (Sport, Latitude and Limited) in a four- or two-wheel-drive configuration. My tester had the kind of 4x4 capability that you need for casual offroad driving, and you control it by dialing it in on the center console. The Selec-Terrain system offers Snow, Sand/Mud, Sport or Auto settings. I left it in Auto, where you’d want it in normal driving.

For more adventurous motoring, Jeep offers the Trail-Rated Trailhawk model, based on the midlevel Latitude. You get off-road wheel flares, tow hooks, skid plates, an off-road suspension, heavy-duty engine cooling and an auxiliary transmission oil cooler. In addition to riding an inch higher (to 8.7 inches of ground clearance), it uses the Jeep Active Drive Lock 4/4 system with low range and locking rear axle, and Selec-Speed Control with Hill-ascent and Hill-descent control.

The Trailhawk features plenty of special badging and appliqués. The interior gets its share of exclusive elements, predominantly in red. And, the Trailhawk wears different front and rear fascias, for a more aggressive approach angle of 29.8 degrees while climbing rocks.

A 4x2 Sport with nothing extra starts at $23,990, including a disconcerting $995 destination charge. The Limited picks up at $30,990; mine came to $37,030 with its long list of upgrades. The Trailhawk starts $500 below the Limited, with the volume-selling Latitude in the middle starting at $27,490.

Jeep knows it has a special reputation and history. The steering wheel wears “Since 1941” pressed into its lower rim. This new Cherokee strays far from the traditional look, but Jeep wants increased international sales, and to bring the brand into the future. The ride is a little firm, but my loaded-up tester was pleasant to drive and exuded capability. Nobody seemed to notice the all-new look, but that may be a good thing.


Malibu Makes a Major Comeback | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 06 March 2014 14:46


Malibu’s revised front-end appearance is influenced by the all-new Impala, creating a more cohesive look across Chevrolet’s sedan lineup.

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

Long before the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry, the Chevrolet Malibu was a major midsize pioneer. It debuted a half century ago as the top level of the midsize Chevrolet Chevelle. Now in its 8th generation, the Malibu is striving for market share in its hotly contested and popular market segment.

I recently spent a week with a Jet Black midrange 2LT model. Midsize sedans are great for people who don’t have the special carrying needs that SUVs were meant for. My tester carried full-grown people front and rear; the back seat, despite an additional 1.25 inches of kneeroom for ’14, isn’t as spacious as some other midsizers, most notably the Volkswagen Passat.

The first few generations of Malibus had road presence and were really good-looking. The nameplate disappeared from 1983 to 1996, but it was revived when folks at GM decided to get some traction from an historic and beloved nameplate. It wasn’t until 2008, though, that Generation 7 put the Malibu back in the running, and the new model is even better.

The ’14 already gets a new grille design, to help it match the new face of Chevy exemplified by the all-new Impala. It’s still tall, but the lower section is emphasized, and the lines are more elaborately drawn.

For 2014, a new 2.5-liter four-cylinder base engine boosts fuel economy significantly. With 196 horsepower and 186 lb.-ft. of torque on tap, it moves the 3,532-lb. Malibu easily, earning mpg figures from the EPA of 25 City, 36 City and 29 combined. I got 23.2 mpg during my test week.

The Malibu is the first midsize car to provide an engine start/stop feature standard. Simply put, it turns off the engine when you’re sitting at a stoplight or otherwise not moving. The minute you remove your foot from the brake pedal, the engine starts right up. This obviously saves gasoline.

The other available engine is a 2.0-liter turbocharged four with 259 horsepower and 295 lb.-ft. of torque. Its fuel economy figures are 4 to 6 mpg lower, but the performance would presumably be a whole lot more energetic. For normal driving, the 2.5-liter four should be plenty. Both engines come only with a six-speed automatic transmission, but the gear ratios vary.

The Green Vehicle scores for the 2.5-liter Malibu are 6 for Smog and 7 for Greenhouse Gas, beating the average.

It’s interesting that the Malibu no longer offers a V6 option. Some of its ancestors were muscle cars in the 1960s and early 1970s. Choosing a 2.5 or 2.0-liter four-cylinder is the kind of option you’d expect from Volkswagen, not Chevrolet, but the times they are a changin’.

030614a2American cars like the Malibu have come a long way, and today, the seats are supportive without being squishy, the dash panels are beautiful and carefully assembled, and the controls are well-weighted and attractive. The Malibu has the dual-cockpit styling made famous by the Corvette. It’s all rendered in silver, chrome, matte black and Agathis wood trim (in the upper models).

The Malibu gets a six-inch-deep storage bin behind the full-function touch screen in the center dash, what we jokingly referred to as the “stash box.”

As a 2014 car, the Malibu is loaded with high-tech features, too many to list, but I did notice when the optional Rear Cross Traffic Alert warned me that a car was approaching behind me from the side. The forward collision alert flashes in your face when you approach a car in front quickly without hitting the brake. This sometimes goes off annoyingly when you drive around a curve and the system picks up a parked car. There is also a Lane Departure Warning and a side Blind Zone Alert, so you are pretty well guarded. For crash safety, there are 10 airbags and all the usual structural necessities.

You can’t get manual shifters in most cars any longer, but you can make sequential shifts with the Malibu if you pull the selector into the Manual setting and shift up and down with a little panel on top of the shifter itself.

You can buy an entry-level Malibu LS, choose an LT in three levels, or go for the top-level LTZ in two levels. Pricing ranges from $23,990 for an LS to the top LTZ at $31,600, destination charges included. My midrange 2LT had the leather package ($1,000), the Pioneer Premium 9-speaker Audio package ($1,175), Advanced Safety Package ($890), and Navigation system ($795) for a total of $30,125 (including destination charge). Also, they charged an extra $225 for the Black Granite Metallic paint.

Sitting neatly between the compact Cruze and fullsize Impala, the Malibu plays an important role in Chevy’s lineup. Built in Kansas City, Kansas, with an engine and transmission from the U.S., it’s a true descendant of the original 1960’s Malibu.


Fusion Energi Goes 620 Miles on One Tank | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 27 February 2014 12:03

022714aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

There’s a lot of talk these days about hybrid and electric vehicles. With a hybrid, you use gasoline and electricity together to attain higher miles per gallon. Normally, the two propulsion methods switch or combine automatically, as decided by the car’s computer.

An all-electric vehicle is completely clean, except, with current technology, the distance you can go before you run out of juice is less than 100 miles, except for the pricey Tesla. So, range is the big issue with most electric cars, making them useful only for designated trips, or for reasonable commutes or in-town errands.

But what if you could have both in a single car? A plug-in hybrid does that. The Ford Fusion Energi has a socket behind a circular door in the left front fender for charging the car, which you can fill to the brim overnight on standard 110 household current.

Once you’ve got it topped up, just step in, push the start button, and you can silently cruise for up to 21 miles, according to Ford. I found that the “tank” gauge, which looks like a three-dimensional image of a flashlight battery, never read more than 19 miles, and I got a little less than that.

My commute is 30 miles each way, so I was able to get about halfway to work before exhausting the battery. Because the gasoline engine in the Fusion Energi is just a 2.0-liter four-cylinder, it is quiet when the shift over to gasoline occurs. Then, the three-dimensional battery switches to a two-dimensional outline, which displays how much charge you have in the hybrid battery.

One morning, I started out in my Dark Side (gray) tester with a full charge. About halfway along, the shift occurred to gas. However, I still got significant electric power from the stop-and-go conditions, to recharge the hybrid battery. When I parked, I had gone 29.8 miles, of which 22.8 were electric vehicle miles. I used just a quarter of a gallon of gas to make the trip, which translates into 122.6 MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent).

Of course, on the way home, I was in regular hybrid mode, so I was far less efficient, but with a charger available at both ends, I’d go 60 miles on half a gallon of gas. That’s pretty astounding.

The EPA scores are 47 mpg for hybrid only, but 100 MPGe when you plug in the car and use it to its maximum. With its 14-gallon tank, you can go up to 620 miles on one fill-up! Green Vehicle scores are a head-of-the-class 10 for Greenhouse Gas and a laudable 7 for Smog.

One weekend day, I ran multiple local errands and arrived at home with some charge left. I didn’t use a drop of gasoline.

022714a2Built in Hermosillo, Mexico, the Fusion transformed from a pleasant, but conservatively styled midsized appliance into a gorgeous, European-influenced car with the arrival of the 2013 model; my tester was a ’14.

The new model’s face features a beautiful Aston-Martin-style grille, slim headlamps, and from there on back, a curvaceous BMW feel.

Inside, the overstuffed-looking buckets proved to be fine for a few hours behind the wheel.  The padded, leather-wrapped steering wheel looks and feels classy. The design and materials are much better than what you’d find in Detroit manufacturers’ products not long ago.

The configurable MyFord instrument panel puts all the fuel use information on the left. Choose from Empower (EV use), Engage (electric and gasoline compared), or Enlighten (more details on KWh generated, etc.). The Brake Coach gives you feedback on the percentage of energy you’ve recovered.

On the right is Ford’s branch-full-of-leaves design, which grows thicker with efficiency and barer with profligate accelerator stomping. You also can select from other displays, including audio program and climate information.

The main central panel opens to a Home Page, which shows your phone in the upper left quadrant, entertainment in the lower left, navigation in the upper right, and climate settings in the lower right. Touch the outer corner and it opens to a screen where you can make your selection. Around and below the screen, the central panel is full of touch-sensitive spots rather than actual moving buttons.

Downsides? The trunk holds only 8.2 cubic feet because of the extra battery. The car weighs nearly two tons. But the kicker may be the price. My tester came to $40,585, including $1,090 in options. To soften the blow, there is a $4,007 Federal tax credit and a $1,500 California Clean Vehicle Rebate. Ford claims that the Energi’s efficiency will save you $6,750 in fuel costs over five years compared to the average new vehicle. Or, consider a Fusion Hybrid without the plug-in, starting at $26,975.

CAPTION 1: The charging port of the 2014 Ford Fusion Energi is conveniently located on the driver’s side and near the front of the car and features a light ring that illuminates to indicate charge status.

CAPTION 2: The 2014 Fusion Energi sedan is Ford’s newest plug-in hybrid; it has an EPA-estimated range of 620 miles when starting with a full tank of gas and fully charged battery.

Roomy Passat Assembled in Tennessee | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 20 February 2014 15:04


The Passat displays the horizontal brand face, with the three-blade grille and headlights forming a single unit.

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

The Passat is Volkswagen’s midsize sedan. While earlier versions were imported, the latest one was designed especially for Americans and is built here, too. It has lots of room and a long list of features we expect from the other midsize cars, such as the Chevy Malibu, Ford Fusion, Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Hyundai Sonata. The Passat is meant to compete, but also provide something special.

This is a midsize with full-size room, with 102 cubic feet of passenger space. The rear seats provide limo quality legroom and the airy cabin is bright and cheerful. The trunk is just a tick under 16 cubic feet. Part of the German design is providing comfortable, supportive seats. The Cornsilk Beige interior in my car added to the feeling of spaciousness.

The exterior design is edgy and rectangular. That might seem a little out of the current trend of sheetmetal exuberance, but VW is aiming for the traditional feel that used to be a mainstay at BMW and Mercedes-Benz. It’s more handsome than flashy, but every panel and transition is carefully considered and sculpted. There are no awkward or unbalanced angles, inside or outside.

Typical for a midsize car, the Passat comes in several levels, from the basic S, to the Wolfsburg Edition, SE, Sport and SEL. Within these, choose from three different engines to configure the Passat that fits your budget and inclination.

New this year is the 1.8-liter turbo four-cylinder engine. It replaces the 2.5-liter five-cylinder that was the former standard powerplant. With an identical 170 horsepower and an additional seven lb.-ft. of torque, it improves fuel economy and loses nothing. In my 3,230-pound test car, through a six-speed automatic transmission, the Passat felt more than up to the job, with lively response and a pleasant engine note. EPA ratings are 24 City, 34 Highway, and 28 Combined. I averaged 26.0 during my test week. The Green Vehicle ratings are above average, at 7 for both Smog and Greenhouse Gas.

The two other engine choices are a 2.0-liter TDI Diesel and a 3.6-liter V6. The Diesel generates 30 fewer horsepower than the 1.8-liter turbo but develops much more torque (236 lb.-ft.). Scoring 43 mpg on the highway, it has a nearly 800-mile range. You’ll stop for biological reasons long before your car needs refilling. With its Selective Catalytic Reduction system, this clean Diesel is sold in all 50 states.

The 3.6-liter V6 makes the Passat into a real sports sedan. With 280 horsepower and 258 lb.-ft. of torque, it still earns 28 mpg highway. It comes only with a DSG dual-clutch six-speed automatic, which is optional on the Diesel. The 1.8 and 2.0 engines are available with manual transmissions, if you want them, but the DSG, by eliminating a clutch and providing immediate gear changes, gives another kind of satisfaction.

The new Passat may have been designed in Deutschland, but it’s assembled in Chattanooga, Tennessee, as part of Volkswagen’s 5-billion-dollar investment in North American manufacturing. My test Candy White Passat featured an engine built in Silao, Mexico, and a Japanese transmission, so it’s an international effort.

022014a2The Passat offers the Fender Premium Audio System. Fender is renowned for its line of electric guitars and amplifiers. This system puts out 400 watts through nine speakers, including a subwoofer in the trunk. I sampled various stations on the SiriusXM Satellite Radio and it not only handled the Rock, as you’d expect from Fender, but rendered Classical with sensitivity and balance.

As a modern car, the Passat has the usual safety cage, crush zones, and multiple airbags. Also, you get Electronic Stability Control (to help you stay on the road), anti-lock brakes with Brake Assist, and tire pressure monitoring. Volkswagen pays for the first two years or 24,000 miles of maintenance, too.

As an SEL Premium, my tester had most of what you’d want, including leather seating, automatic climate control, and the rest. The only step up would be to take the larger engine, but I really don’t think I’d need it. My tester came to a competitive $31,715, including shipping.

The base S model with the 1.8-liter turbo and five-speed automatic gives you a long list of standard features, including a multi-function steering wheel; air conditioning; trip computer, AM/FM/CD audio system; Bluetooth, and power windows, mirrors and locks. Prices start at a modest $21,815. The top of the line SEL Premium with the 3.6-liter V6 comes in at $35,085.

This new Passat successfully mixes the spirit of Volkswagen and the realities of global production. It matches the needs of many Americans, while giving a little more driving pleasure on the road than the sales leaders. It stays under the radar with traditional styling. Volkswagen has big sales goals for America, and the Passat is helping them meet them.


Mazda MX-5 Makes Motoring More Fun | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 13 February 2014 13:23


With more than 900,000 units sold, the MX-5 is by far still the best-selling two-seat roadster in the world — with the Guinness World Records to prove it.

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

Some cars are simply meant for fun. The Mazda MX-5, originally known as the Miata, is one of those. A low, narrow, lightweight two-seat sports car, it evokes the beloved MGB, Austin Healey Sprite and Alfa-Romeo Spider. More than 900,000 have been sold since its 1990 debut, mostly in North America.

Over time, some things have changed, inevitably. Engine size is up from 1.6 liters to 2.0, along with a bump in horsepower from 115 to 167. You can get six speeds in the transmission, now, although the base model still has five. Styling has evolved over the years, but the 2014 MX-5 is still recognizable as the descendant of the original 1990 Mazda Miata.

What also changes over time are one’s knees. With my first test Miata in June, 1992, I jumped in and out with no thought, but today, it’s harder to bend and fold into the cockpit. Once you’re there, though, it’s surprisingly non-claustrophobic, looking forward. However, there’s nothing behind the seats except storage for the folding top. The trunk holds just 5.3 cubic feet, too, so pack lightly. There’s a small lockable bin between the seats for incidentals.

Perhaps, like classical music or camping, if you experience something as a child, the enjoyment and appreciation stays with you as an adult. My father took us out in his British sports cars when I was a kid, so when I drive an MX-5, I always remember warm summer nights, the sound of the Austin-Healey’s burbling exhaust, and my brother and I sitting in the small seats on the way to get ice cream.

These cars have always had the easiest and quickest drop-tops. All current models come with a Z-fold cloth top that requires only releasing the center latch and flinging it behind you. Recently, a new Power Retractable Hard Top became available in the upper models. Besides keeping out the elements, noise and criminals more effectively, it operates with the push of a button, dropping or raising in just 12 seconds.

Driving with the top down lets the world in. I heard the engine and smelled the aromas of flowers, cooking, and even a touch of skunk as I zoomed along. The engine note in these cars has always been “treated” to sound like the engines of yore, and the most recent iteration actually uses an “Induction Sound Enhancer,” made up of tubes and membranes. However, while commuting, the engine, wind and road noise will make you turn up the stereo.

021314a2Mazda still lets you shift your own gears. The renowned short-throw manual shifter in the MX-5 vibrates in your hand and feels completely connected to the driveline, while delivering perfect shifts. It combines with the taut rack-and-pinion steering, sport-tuned suspension and lively engine to give you an invigorating driving experience.

These little roadsters have always been affordable. The original 1990 model listed at $15,000, but some early buyers paid a stiff premium of $5,000 or more to get one. Today’s base model, the Sport, with manual five-speed transmission and soft top, starts at $24,515. It comes with 16-inch alloy wheels; dual exhausts; power windows, mirrors and locks; leather-wrapped steering wheel; and a six-speaker AM/FM/CD audio system.

The middle-tier Club model, like my test car, looks cool with its gunmetal gray 17-inch alloy wheels; black top, front air dam, rear diffuser, headlight bezels and mirrors; and Club logo badge on the front fenders. Inside, you get body-color accents and blacked-out instruments. The Club gets a sport-tuned suspension, with Bilstein shocks and a limited-slip differential.

The top model is the Grand Touring, with automatic climate control, leather seating, Bose premium sound system, and bright interior and exterior accents.

Prices do climb for the Club and Sport, but never out of the range of affordability. The loaded Grand Touring, with hard top, is $31,345. My Club tester, with manual transmission and hard top, came to $29,460.

Weighing between 2,447 and 2,619 pounds, the MX-5 doesn’t overtax the happy little engine. EPA fuel economy numbers are 21 City, 28 Highway (24 Combined). I averaged 25.7 mpg. The EPA Green numbers are 5 for Smog and 6 for Greenhouse Gas.

The MX-5 is all Japanese, rock solid reliable, Guinness Book of World Records certified as the top-selling sports car of all time (by far), and absolutely a pleasure to play with. It will not carry much, it’s hard to enter and exit, and it’s noisy for extended interstate travel. Using the cupholder makes shifting awkward. The sunvisors are practically useless (they don’t swivel to the side). But if I could have another car to do all the practical stuff, this would be my top choice for weekend fun, especially for those summertime trips to the ice cream parlor.


Acura ILX Hybrid Attracts Eco Buyers | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 06 February 2014 12:47


Prices for the 2014 Acura ILX Hybrid begin at $29,795.

By Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

Acura introduced the ILX compact sedan last year, based on the Honda Civic. The original Integra used the same recipe. Its passing was lamented by some folks, and now, the ILX (note the “I” in the name) is back.

If you’re basing a car on the popular and ubiquitous Civic, why not use all the variations? The standard ILX has a 2.0-liter inline four with 150 horsepower through a five-speed automatic transmission only. The sporty model features a 2.4-liter four with 201 horsepower — and comes only with a six-speed manual. Now, there’s a Hybrid model of the ILX, just like the Civic. It pairs a 1.5-liter gas engine with an electric motor (Integrated Motor Assist), and comes only with a continuously variable automatic.

The fuel economy numbers for the base 2.0 engine are 24 City, 35 Highway, and 28 Combined. The Hybrid jumps to 39 City, 36 Highway, and 38 Combined. I was able to get 36.4 mpg during my test week, which feels like a success. The EPA’s environmental ratings, per, are 9 for both Smog and Greenhouse Gas, versus 6 and 7 respectively for the standard car.

How do you make an Acura out of a Honda? Well, there’s the body styling, of course. The ILX has the requisite lines along the sides of the body, the squinty headlamp pods, slim taillamps and shield grille that distinguish Acura products now.

020614a2Inside, the exuberant v-shaped center stack flows through the instrument panel and glovebox, as in other Acuras. Materials are fancier than the Civic, too. There are a few omissions from the list of luxury features that expose the Civic origins. The steering wheel tilt and telescope setting is manual, as is the adjustment of the front passenger seat. There is no lumbar adjustment for the driver. You’ll find, however, stitching on the doors, nicer carpeting, and a general sense of well being. The 160-mph speedometer is wildly optimistic, of course. Even the 2.4-liter sporty model won’t go there.

Driving a hybrid is a pretty normal experience these days. I’ve seen color center-screen depictions of rolling wheels and power flowing from the engine to the battery. The ILX keeps it very simple, with a plain instrument panel graphic. You’re not supposed to worry about it. But, there’s a cool green ball that helps you monitor your behavior. Accelerate strongly and watch it fade away to nothing. Drive more carefully and it remains, or at least fades gradually.

There’s also a gauge to monitor the battery, where you can see if it’s charging (green) or assisting the engine (blue), in case you want to know. You can also view the charge level of the battery. This is not a plug-in hybrid, so any power you generate comes from braking, not from a cord.

Pressing the Econ button on the dash is a good idea to keep you from overdoing it. However, with just 1.5 liters and the CVT, the car is not especially sporty, and it labors when moving uphill. I had to deactivate the Econ button when I wanted to really move. On flat freeways, especially during commuting, it’s no problem, though, and I’m sure that’s why I got that nice 36.4 mpg average.

Honda’s hybrid system works differently from, say, Toyota’s. You don’t drive a Honda hybrid on pure electricity. The motor supports the engine, and allows for use of a smaller displacement unit, and therefore, the high fuel economy numbers. But, you won’t get 50 miles per gallon, like you do in a Prius. The ILX doesn’t look or feel like a Prius, either, and there is a buyer for each.

One way to reduce fuel consumption is to shut the engine off when you stop, and the ILX does this automatically. This Auto Stop technology is starting to appear in non-hybrid cars, too, after being a mainstay of hybrid motoring.

Prices for the Hybrid begin at $29,795. However, if you add the Technology Package, it moves up to $35,395. Just for comparison, the least expensive ILX, the 2.0, starts at $27,795.

The Technology Package adds a fully featured premium sound system, the Acura Navigation System with Voice Recognition, and other tech features, including real-time traffic and weather, and the AcuraLink Satellite Communication System with Automated Appointments. That means you can schedule service while you’re driving down the road.

The ILX has won 2013 Motorists Choice awards from IntelliChoice and AutoPacific for the premium market segment in the Youthful and Cosmopolitan categories. So, in a nutshell, this car is meant for young urban professionals, who want the economical and high-quality tendencies of a Honda Civic but a bit more style. Offering a Hybrid version widens the gateway to the Acura brand.


Cavernous Odyssey Swallows Up Your Precious Cargo | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 30 January 2014 12:41

013014aBy Steve Schaefer • San Leandro Times

Back in the olden days, if you had several kids, you bought a station wagon. In the USA, that meant a driveway-covering Ford Country Squire (maybe with wood paneling), or perhaps a Chevrolet Brookwood. These probably had a rear-facing third-row seat, which could be fun for kids of a certain age to hide and conspire in.

In 1984, Chrysler introduced the minivan, and since then, it’s been a growing market. Despite many attractive crossover SUVs, for people hauling, you really can’t beat a minivan. The sliding doors on each side are a big boon. And today’s models have grown in size and now offer a comprehensive range of comfort, convenience, safety and entertainment options.

Honda’s Odyssey was recently redesigned, and this new generation is the best one yet. The 2014 model gets some thoughtful updates. The styling, with its zigzag side window line, takes a little getting used to, but it is distinctive. And the car is huge. Sitting in the driver’s seat of my Alabaster Silver Metallic tester, it was a long way to the passenger’s door.

013014a2The Odyssey swallows up passengers in three rows. With the optional DVD entertainment system, that back cabin resembles a movie theater — a new kind of “drive-in.” Or, if you have to transport a mass of goods, you can drop the third-row seat into low storage compartments to create a perfectly flat floor. If you need even more room, lower the second row the same way. You’ll end up with a cavernous 148.5 cubic feet of haulin’ room.

Moving this 4,613-pound marvel down the road takes some muscle, so the Odyssey comes with a proven 3.5-liter V6 that puts out 248 horsepower and 250 lb.-ft. of torque. For 2014, the five-speed automatic grows to a six-speed, meaning slightly better fuel economy and performance. I can’t say how the Odyssey drives with a car full of folks, but as a solo driver, it felt responsive and handled neutrally, nearly silently.

013014a3Fuel economy is rated at 19 City, 28 Highway and 22 Combined. I averaged 19.1 mpg, but I did spend a lot of time inching along the freeway with commuters. The EPA green vehicle numbers are 6 for Smog and 5 for Greenhouse Gas.

Honda has made sure that they don’t skimp on their interiors. The Odyssey features two big display screens, an eight-incher up top and a seven-incher below, to let you not only see what’s going on with your navigation, entertainment and climate options, but to act on them too. They cleaned up the dash a bit, but there’s a little bit of a learning curve. The light- and dark-gray matte surfaces are pleasant to look at and feel good under your fingers.

Odysseys come in LX, EX, EX-L, Touring and Touring Elite models. The LX is the entry point, well equipped at $29,655, while the Touring Elite, like my test car, is packed to the gills with everything imaginable. Prices for that one begin at $45,280. Both prices include the destination charge.

So, what do happy families need? Well, how about a way to clean up messes? The Odyssey now features, on top models, a standard HondaVAC. Tucked in back, it has a hose long enough to reach anywhere in the car, and is designed for dry stuff — dog hair, cookie crumbs, sand. There’s a canister with a replaceable filter, too.

With your precious family members riding along, why not have a Forward Collision Warning system, too? In my car, it flashed “BRAKE” in red at me when I approached parked cars without touching the brakes. I did this on the curving streets in my neighborhood and found the flashing annoying at those times, but it would be a godsend if someone stopped short in front of you.

The Odyssey features the Advanced Compatibility Engineering (ACE) body structure, which was strengthened for this new-generation model. There’s also a Lane Departure Warning system to keep you on the straight and narrow. Honda’s Expanded View Driver’s Mirror gives you a wider view of what’s behind you, and the Honda LaneWatch system shows you a video view of what’s on the passenger side of the car when you go to make a right turn. Are you feeling safer, now?

There’s more. How about a cool box in the center console, to stash refreshing beverages for those long trips? The audio system connects to all kinds of different entertainment options, including Pandora — and the Aha system.

The Odyssey has real competition, but at this point I consider it to be one of the two top minivans on the market. My neighbors just bought one, trading in their Chevy Tahoe. That sounds like a mileage and comfort upgrade to me.

CAPTION (TOP): Odyssey Touring Elite models come standard with the HondaVAC™ in-vehicle vacuum cleaner, which allows customers the ability to quickly and easily clean-up dirt and debris from every corner of the minivan.



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