Review: 2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited AWD

Tuesday October 14th, 2014 at 8:1010 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited AWD

By David Colman

Hypes: Solid Power Team, Efficient Use of Space
Gripes: Vague Steering Feel, Ergonomic Cabin Issues

Get more, pay more. Toyota has dimensionally revised the 2014 version of its Highlander, widening it 4.5 inches, and adding 3 inches to its length. Although wheelbase remains as before, at 110 inches, interior space increases to the point that the third row bench seat will now accommodate three people rather than two. The foursome that occupy the first two rows of Captain’s Chairs enjoy indulgent splendor. Front row perforated leather seats are heated and ventilated, with the driver’s chair offering 8 way power adjustment, and the shotgun seat good for 4.

Both second and third row seats recline and fold for cargo use. Though the threesome hitching a ride in the back of this 4,852 pound bus will find their surroundings somewhat less palatial, the wide aisle between the second row Captain’s Chairs offers exceptionally easy access to those third row seats. If you choose the most expensive version of the Highlander – the all -wheel-drive Hybrid Limited that we tested – you will discover that its base price, like its size, has also swelled, from $46,370 in 2013 to $49,790 for the 2014 version.

2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited AWD

Of course, cherry picking the top model also yields dividends not found on lesser Highlanders. For example, Limited status provides a Platinum Package of goodies at no extra charge. This bevy of niceties adds heated, perforated leather second row Captain’s Chairs, plus technology upgrades like dynamic radar cruise control, automatic high beam headlights, and lane departure alert. But the most worthy addition of all is the cabin capping Panoramic Moon roof, with its power tilt and slide front section and fixed rear panel. This feature reinforces your sense of spatial freedom. All seating positions benefit from its extra light and expanded view.

2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited AWD

The Hybrid power train works in consort with a Constantly Variable Transmission to provide terrific thrust whenever you need it. The electric motor will power you through slow city driving, with the 3.5 liter V6 gas engine kicking in as needed. When you pin the accelerator to the floor, the two modes of propulsion combine for seamless acceleration. With 270hp and 280 lb.-ft. of torque, the Hybrid Highlander will crack the 7 second barrier in the 0-60mph run, and pull a trailer weighing 3,500 pounds. The cherry on top is the exceptional mileage this package records. By posting an overall consumption of 28 MPG, this Hybrid owns Consumer Report’s top SUV mileage figure.

2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited AWD

New for 2014 is a trapezoidal grill, re-contoured headlights, plus redesigned front and rear fascias. However, only Highlander devotees will recognize these mild alterations because this Toyota’s appearance is so understated and mainstream. If you seek a stylistic attention getter, than you’re looking at the wrong vehicle. Which is not to say that the Highlander is lacking in either grace or proportions. Its architecture is, in fact, classic Toyota: utilitarian, aerodynamically clean, and handsomely uncluttered. The Highlander’s elevated hind quarters impart a dynamic forward thrust to the overall rake of its dipping beltline. Massive five spoke “Chrometec” alloy wheels, shod with 245/55R19 Bridgestone Dueler HL tires, reinforce the Hybrid’s imperious Clydesdale stance.

Inside, you enjoy all the benefits of increased space. The wide dashboard contains an innovative parcel shelf that sensibly stores all those loose odds and ends that normally float around the cockpit. The door panel armrests utilize memory foam which is pleasingly compliant to the touch. A centrally located 8 inch color touch screen controls tuning functions for the standard JBL entertainment system. The screen, which also covers interior climate control duties, can be difficult to read in daylight driving. Although the center console features a handy roll top cover, its storage well is so deep that a built in source of illumination inside would be helpful. Also, the dual center mounted cup holders seem to be configured for Big Gulp containers at the expense of smaller cups which are free to slosh about disconcertingly. These minor transgressions are all the more surprising in view of the brilliant design of that center oddments shelf.

2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited AWD

If you are in the $50,000 SUV market, the newly upsized Hybrid Highlander should be on yours required reading list. It makes up for its lack of flash with a list of virtues long enough to outbid such competitors as the Honda Pilot, Hyundai Santa Fe and Nissan Pathfinder.

2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited AWD

  • Engine: 3.5 liter DOHC V6 with VVT-I, plus Electric Motor
  • Horsepower: 270hp
  • Torque: 280lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 27 MPG City/ 28 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $50,875
  • Star Rating: 8.5 out of 10 Stars

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Review: 2015 Nissan Versa Note SR

Monday October 13th, 2014 at 8:1010 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

2015 Nissan Versa Note SR

By David Colman

Hypes: Cute SR Makeover, Good Value
Gripes: Weak Motor, CVT Woes

Nissan’s SR Versa strikes a new Note for 2015. From the outside, it’s apparent the SR is no base Note. Rather, it sings a different tune thanks to its unique front and rear fascias, side skirts, mesh black grill, black headlight enclosures, and machined-spoke 6×16″ alloy rims. Inside the smoked headlight enclosures sit multi-reflector Halogen bulbs. The exterior rearview mirrors contain neatly integrated turn signal indicators, and the tail of the roof incorporates a sizeable spoiler. Inside, seats covered with simulated suede continue the sport motif with orange racing stripes and stitching. Chrome door lock plates enliven the interior, along with silver trim accents on the shift lever and instrument panel. All these cosmetic changes elevate this Note to a higher key, by reconfiguring its appearance from boring to enticing. But does its performance live up to the promise of the pomade?

2015 Nissan Versa Note SR

Not quite. The sporty looking SR still utilizes the base Note’s economic 1.6 liter four, which commendably averages 35MPG in combined city/highway driving. The price you pay for such meager fuel consumption is lethargic straight line performance. With only 109hp and 107lb.-ft. of torque on tap, this engine needs special help from its gearbox to complete quick passing maneuvers, But with the SR’s “Xtronic” transmission, the overtaxed motor hardly gets any help at all. Since this continuously variable transmission lacks actual gear sets, you’re restricted to just 2 ranges of choice, Drive and Low. Drive range is relatively quiet because it keeps engine rpm low. But it also sedates power output, mandating a shift into Low range when you need extra punch. Low range does improve zip from tepid to acceptable, but at the expense of much increased noise from the suddenly high revving engine. There is no happy median between these two widely divergent conditions.

2015 Nissan Versa Note SR

The gearbox conundrum stifles the performance of an otherwise nimble Versa. Ride quality for such a short wheelbase car is surprisingly posh. The 195/55R16 Bridgestone Ecopia tires are partly responsible for good bump absorption, due to their tall 55 series sidewall profile. The Note remains reassuringly level and unflustered when pressed through switchbacks. The addition of a 370Z style steering wheel, complete with dimpled leather handgrips, furthers the sporting illusion. The manually adjustable front seats feature 6 change opportunities for the driver and 4 for the passenger. The surprisingly spacious rear seats offer decent comfort, and enormous legroom considering the diminutive size of the Note. Thanks to low window sash height, the interior feels spacious rather than constricted, a notion corroborated b y the numbers: 94.1 cubic feet of interior room and 18.4 cubic feet of trunk space in this hatchback.

2015 Nissan Versa Note SR

Nissan equips the SR Note with a wide variety of safety instruments, including side impact and curtain airbags, Traction Control and Vehicle Dynamic Control. Although the braking system includes anti lock technology (ABS) and electronic brake distribution (EBD), the system makes do with front discs but rear drums. We experienced mediocre brake retardation when slowing to a stop from freeway speed due to a lane closure. The pedal required more than moderate pressure to deal with this unexpected stoppage.

2015 Nissan Versa Note SR

The Versa Note SR offers unquestionably good value as basic transportation. Considering its $17,530 base price, you enjoy a lot of plusses for your limited investment. It will transport four in comfort, with a full size door for each. It will duck into parking places fatter hatchbacks spurn. It will run for a week on less than half a tank of gas. What it won’t do, however, is live up to the spanking promise of its new SR dressage. For that kind of performance, the spoiler and racing stripe brigade will have to look elsewhere.

2015 Nissan Versa Note SR

  • Engine: 1.6 liter inline four
  • Horsepower: 107hp
  • Torque: 109lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 31MPG City/40MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $19,180
  • Star Rating: 7 out of 10 Stars

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Review: 2015 Cadillac Escalade 4WD Premium

Sunday October 12th, 2014 at 8:1010 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

2015 Cadillac Escalade 4WD Premium

By David Colman

Hypes: Biggest Bully on Your Block
Gripes: Chintzy Newsprint Owner’s Manual

When is big better? When you can’t remember where you parked at the mall. That’s when your Escalade, which stands taller than a Texan, allows you to see where you parked it. Big is also better when you need 7 seats to carry the soccer team home from practice. The Escalade will handle that assignment without worry. And big is best when you need to tow a heavy trailer. Cadillac rates our Escalade, equipped with optional ($500) 22 inch “Dual 7-Spoke Ultra-Bright” alloys at 7,000 pounds tow capacity.

This 3rd generation Escalade is based on GM’s recently released, all new GMT900 truck. Escalade fans and owners have waited patiently for 7 years for this updated Cadillac SUV.
In the Cadillac idiom, big needs to be imposing. The revamped Escalade, with its massive chrome grill, and vertical cascade of LED light pods, stands tall enough to double as a movie theater marquee. Climbing aboard is no mean feat, as the roofline stands 6 feet 2 inches high, and the step-in height from ground to cabin is an imposing 22 inches. Optional ($1,695) Assist Steps. Power Retractable reduce entry height to just 10 inches. But since these wide running boards remain in position when doors are open, they interfere with cabin access when you just want to reach in and grab something.

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For a vehicle that weighs more than three tons (6,027 pounds) this behemoth is reassuringly quick in a straight line, thanks to its 6.2 liter V-8′s 420hp and 460lb.-ft. of torque. A recent Motor Trend test pegged its 0-60mph time at 6.1 seconds, with a quarter mile run of 14.6 seconds at 95mph. On a twisty stretch of two lane blacktop, this Cadillac proved its versatility by powering through passing opportunities while maintaining equilibrium in turns due to the massive footprint of its 285/45R22 Bridgestone Dueler H/T tires. The Escalade carries a space saver spare tire tucked underneath the back of the vehicle, but according to diagrams in the Owner’s Manual, releasing it for use looks to be no simple matter. However, Cadillac provides concierge level roadside service that extends to tire changes, as well as fuel replenishment should you run dry. If you call for assistance on any problem and you’re within 30 miles of a Cadillac dealer, you can expect a representative of that dealership to meet you at your car. Otherwise, GM will arrange for a tow.

2015 Cadillac Escalade 4WD Premium

Inside, this latest Caddy confection is palatial. Everywhere your eye comes to rest is either real wood, hand cut leather, or rough-out suede. In a color scheme delectably described as “Shale with Cocoa Accents,” the passenger compartment of our Majestic Plum Metallic SUV will convince you that you’ve just checked into the Ritz. Power aids for every whim and notion abound. All four aft seats flip down with the push of a button. The pedals rise or retract electrically. The steering wheel is heated, as are the four front chairs. Ventilation fans cool the front row seats . If you wag your foot under the liftgate it will open automatically, freeing you from the need to grab a latch or find your key fob. You can even program the liftgate’s opening height. You can configure the 12 inch full color gauge cluster to show four different instrument renderings: Simple, Performance, Balanced and Enhanced. We went with the “English Balanced Cluster” which displayed engine rpm in the left face, speed in the analog center dial, and water temp/fuel level in the right window. A five way control wand to the right of the steering wheel accesses information cluster menus and options.

2015 Cadillac Escalade 4WD Premium

The Escalade’s 130 inch wheelbase and 224.3 inch length insure maximum stretch room for all passengers, plus hangar class storage when you fold the rear chairs flat. Unfortunately, the resultant vast load floor stands 39 inches above pavement height, so you’ll need to heft your goods more than three feet in the air before you can slide them aboard. On the other hand, the Escalade’s vaunted stature gives you an unparalleled view of traffic and road conditions. In the event that you fail to use this rare sightline gift, Escalade is fully endowed with safety aids that will keep you out of trouble. Side Blind Zone Alert, Rear Cross Traffic Alert and a Rear Vision Camera are all standard features. These warning harpies integrate seamlessly with normal driving, never becoming intrusive as so many other systems do. From time to time you may hear an alert chirp its presence, or feel a gentle nudge from your seat. All of this is helpful rather than annoying, and a model of civility other manufacturers would do well to emulate.

2015 Cadillac Escalade 4WD Premium

Albeit expensive, the 3rd generation Escalade is once again the aspiration SUV for technocrats seeking the thrill of tomorrow today.

2015 Cadillac Escalade 4WD Premium

  • Engine: 6.2 liter V-8, 16 Valves
  • Horsepower: 420hp
  • Torque: 460lb,-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 14 MPG City/24 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $86,480
  • Star Rating: 9 out of 10 Stars

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Review: 2014 Nissan Altima 2.5SL

Saturday October 11th, 2014 at 8:1010 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

2014 Nissan Altima 2.5SL

By David Colman

Hypes: Spacious Back Seat, Inviting Interior
Gripes: Needs To Lose CVT Transmission

The Altima is Nissan’s scrappy contender in the turbulent family sedan marketplace. When you’re battling mainstream heavyweights like Toyota’s Camry and Honda’s Accord, you need something special to attract buyers to your product. Although the Altima 2.5 SL is nothing special to look at or drive, it still merits consideration due to its affordable base price of $27,775. Seven different tiers of Altima are available (2.5, 2.5 S, 2.5 SV, 2.5 SL, 3.5S, 3.5 SV and 3.5 SL). Base prices range from $22,010 to $30,660. Models designated 2.5 utilize a four cylinder engine rated at 182hp. 3.5 models upgrade performance with a 3.5 liter V6 good for 270hp. Our test Altima fell squarely in the middle of the price range, with its 2.5 liter four mated to a CVT transmission. This combination yields 31MPG in overall driving.

2014 Nissan Altima 2.5SL

The SL designation adds the following improvements to the base 2.5 Altima: integrated turn signal rear view mirrors, fog lamps, premium Bose sound system, heated leather front seats, driver adjustable lumbar support, and auto dimming rearview mirror.
In addition, our test SL added an $800 moon roof, $210 in floor and trunk mats, and $1,090 for a Technology Package that increased color display screen size from 5 to 7 inches, and added navigation, blind spot and lane departure warnings, plus moving object detection. The $30,830 price brings you a fully equipped long distance cruiser with few flaws. In a world full of attention getting designs, the Altima SL is sedate and inoffensive, rather than brash and boastful.

Comfort ranks high on the list of attributes here. Ride is plush, with good damping of road imperfections. Nissan’s tire selection contributes to the plush ride. The 215/55R17 Continental Pro Contact tires help absorb bumps, though at the expense of precise steering feedback. Although handling is hardly cutting edge, the Altima will tackle any back road without embarrassing itself. To prove the point, Nissan is running a pair of Altima coupes in SCCA’s hotly contested Pirelli Touring Car Series, where they are consistent podium finishers.

2014 Nissan Altima 2.5SL

The interior of the SL looks expensive. The seats in particular, offer outstanding support and comfort. Nissan calls them “zero-g” because they are so light to the touch that you feel like you’re floating on air. With the exception of the driver’s seat, each seating position has been thoughtfully supplied with overhead grab handles to ease entry and exit. The commodious rear seat offers so much legroom you could almost sneak a pair of floor mounted jump seats into the mix. The rear seats also fold down in a 40/60 split, opening a vast storage space to the 15 cubic foot trunk. A pair of buttons on the rear window sill control the seatback flop. In another thoughtful touch, these buttons contain key locks, thus restricting trunk access to intentioned adults rather than playful children.

No matter which Altima you select, you have no choice but to accept the CVT transmission. Anyone who enjoys driving soon learns to loathe this invention. While CVT insures excellent fuel consumption figures, it drains the joy out of operating the 2.5 SL. With just 2 selections available for forward motion (“D” and “Ds”). you have very little control over your Altima’s rate of acceleration. Of course, this will only matter to you if back road driving comprises part of your daily itinerary. In those circumstances, your inability to resort to higher engine speed via lower gearing virtually mandates you will never pull out to pass slower traffic. The CVT thus insures tediously strict conga line behavior on twisty roads.

2014 Nissan Altima 2.5SL

But aside from the pair of drivers who contest the Pirelli series, no one would think to buy this Altima for its performance potential. Rather, the 2.5 SL is a sedan that makes sense to the accountant in us all. Its parsimonious behavior starts at the dealership where you can buy it for just a tick over thirty grand. It continues through the life of the sedan, where the EPA estimates annual fuel cost to be just $1,700. That’s about the same as you’d pay for a new Mini Cooper ($1,650). And if you have a family of four to transport, there’s no question which car makes more financial sense.

2014 Nissan Altima 2.5SL

  • Engine: 2.5 liter inline 4, Double Overhead Cams, 16 Valves
  • Horsepower: 182hp
  • Torque: 180 lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 27 MPG City/38 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $30,830
  • Star Rating: 7 out of 10 Stars

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Review: 2014 Toyota 4Runner LTD 4×4

Friday October 10th, 2014 at 8:1010 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

2014 Toyota 4Runner LTD 4x4

By David Colman

Hypes: Taunts You To Tackle Moab
Gripes: Pogo Ride, Fake Wood

Give the 4Runner its due. Unlike so many pretend cowboy SUVs that are all hat and no cattle, the 4Runner is still boss of the cattle drive. Instead of flimsy unibody construction that is so prevalent in the SUV kingdom these days, 4Runner sticks with its heritage rugged body-on-frame construction. Thanks to the massive pair of boxed frame rails underlying this Toyota, you don’t need to think twice about hitching a 5,000 pound trailer to the 4Runner’s new, standard-for-2014, receiver style hitch. The tow package also provides 4 and 7 pin electrical connections.

2014 Toyota 4Runner LTD 4x4

The stout 1GR-FE V6 makes more than enough power (270hp) and torque (276 lb.-ft.) to haul a loaded trailer over the Sierras without blinking a turn signal. Best of all, if traction becomes iffy near Donner Summit due to inclement weather, just dial up the appropriate setting on the 4WD system by reaching for a beefy knurled “A-Trac” knob on the center console. With it, you can configure the drive system for any eventuality, from 70 mile per hour, 2WD touring to 10 mile per hour, 4WD Crawl Control. If traction is particularly limited, lock the center differential and downshift the 5-speed automatic gearbox into low range. Pretend SUVs do not offer a locking center differential. It’s a device that ensures on or off road conditions will never conspire to keep 4Runner from its appointed rounds.

Of course, there is a price to pay for this consummate tractive effort. The ride of the 4Runner is invariably harsher than you’ll experience in less fully evolved SUVs. Step-in is a bit challenging, as the 4Runner stands 70.1 inches high. You will frequently avail yourself of the grab handles located over each door. The standard 20 inch tall, 6-spoke alloy wheels bearing 245/60R20 Bridgestone Dueler H/T tires, impart a rugged, jacked up look to the 4Runner. They are also responsible for elevating the Toyota’s center of gravity to the point that sudden lane changes provoke disconcerting bobbing motions. The ultra stiff “X-REAS Sport Enhancement Suspension” compounds the twitchiness and harsh ride. But if you aim to sling this thing through the Rubicon Trail, you’ll praise the calculated competence of the competition bred suspension package.

2014 Toyota 4Runner LTD 4x4

Order the Limited version (rather than the SR5 or Trail models) and you will lack for nothing in terms of comfort or equipment. The least expensive 4WD 4Runner is the SR5, with a base price of $34,695. One step up brings you the Trail 4WD at $35,725. Next comes the Trail Premium 4WD ($38,645), and then our Limited 4WD, with a base price of $43,400 and an as delivered sticker of $47,520. The jump from Trail to Limited ups the ante by installing a JBL premium sound system with 15 speakers, HD radio, Entune applications, and a highly legible 8.1 inch monitor for controlling the dual zone climate control system and the included navigation system. Limited largesse also extends to leather front seats, mirror and seat memory settings, subscription services, multi-zone air conditioning, and somewhat bogus looking wood grain interior trim. On a 100degree day in the East Bay, that multi-zone air conditioning proved inadequate to cooling the interior between repeated shopping stops. Save yourself $1,365 by deleting the leather trimmed fold flat 3rd row seats and sliding leather second row seats. Lop another $1,500 off our list price by eliminating the “Automatic Running Boards.”

2014 Toyota 4Runner LTD 4x4

The dashboard of the 4Runner has a look all its own. If you were a fan of 80′s Boom Boxes, you’ll love the Limited’s oversize knobs, matte platinum finishers, and Be-Bop graphics. There’s still a playfulness to 4Runner design that is sorely lacking in the competition. From its start in the late 1980s, Toyota’s 4Runner has carved out a look and niche of its own. This is a brand that says rugged and individualistic, from its snarling chrome snout to its shiny bold tailgate finisher. New this year are massive, protuberant Projector Beam headlights, and equally dramatic looking LED tail lights.

If you find yourself lost in a sea of pretty SUVs. look to Toyota’s 4Runner for celestial navigation. It’s still the same pole star it’s been all along: tough, athletic, and undaunted. For SUV buyers looking for more than a pretty face and a plush ride, the tightly focused 4Runner is still the real deal for pleasure seekers and serious off roaders alike.

2014 Toyota 4Runner LTD 4x4

2014 Toyota 4Runner LTD 4×4

  • Engine: 4.0 liter V6, 24 Valves, DOHC, Dual VVT-i
  • Horsepower: 270hp
  • Torque: 276 lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 17 MPG City/21 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $47,520
  • Star Rating: 9 out of 10 Stars

Posted in Expert Reviews, Feature Articles, Toyota |Tags:, , , || No Comments »


Review: 2014 Mini Cooper Hardtop

Thursday October 9th, 2014 at 8:1010 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

2014 Mini Cooper Hardtop

By David Colman

Hypes: More Space, More Pace, Interior Upgrade
Gripes: Difficult Rear Seat Access

Until now, the base model Mini Cooper rang a death knell for fast driving. Its 1.6 liter four’s measly 131hp and 114 pounds of torque never unlocked the potential of the little car’s fabulous chassis. So when a base 2014 Mini Cooper arrived in my driveway, I wasn’t exactly planning a week of street racing with it – especially when I looked inside and saw that a power sapping automatic gearbox replaced the Mini’s always rewarding 6 speed manual. However, on my first stint behind the chubby, small diameter steering wheel, I realized something significantly different had transformed the performance of this base model from slug to swan.

In a subtle but near total revamp of Mini, the new third generation base model grows dimensionally in all departments except engine displacement. For example, length increases by 4.5 inches to 171.1 inches, width grows by 1.7 inches, height by 0.3 inches and weight by 140 pounds to 2,675 lbs. But the base model’s engine loses a cylinder and gains a turbo. Its 1.3 liter, 134hp, 162lb.-ft., 3 cylinder turbo makes more power (+15) and torque (+48!) than the larger 1.6 liter four it replaces. Not only that, it gets better mileage as well – 29 MPG City/41 MPG Highway ( versus 29/37). The improvement is instantly obvious to anyone who has spent time rowing a base model Mini through the gears trying to extract even modest acceleration.

2014 Mini Cooper Hardtop

The turbo 3 is really lively, even conjoined to an automatic 6-speed transmission ($1,250 extra). This transmission offers a manual shift gate which allows you to maximize engine boost. In over-boost condition, the turbo ups torque output to 169lb.-ft. Although the automatic transmission Mini seems like the perfect candidate for paddle shifts, they are not standard issue, so you need to slap the floor stick fore and aft to swap gears. And though you might manually select a gear – say second – to hold until further notice, the transmission will override your selection and up-shift automatically to 3rd due to rpm increase.

2014 Mini Cooper Hardtop

You will never notice the increased size or heft of the latest Mini unless you try to park it in a very tight space. In the greater scheme of things, this is still a very small sedan, with a turning circle of just 35 feet. The electrically assisted power steering is micrometer precise, and the all-season, run flat Pirelli P7 tires (205/45R17) inhibit squeal and pitch in turns thanks to their extremely short sidewalls. They’re mounted on appropriately named “Tentacle Spoke” alloys which give you the unparalleled opportunity to clean 20 spokes at each corner when you wash your Mini. These wheels comprise part of the $1,500 Sport Package, which also includes Sport Seats, LED Headlights, and white turn signal lenses. The new seats are a sensational improvement over anything Mini has offered before. They conform themselves to your body shape so thoroughly that you’ll never want to exit them at destination. When upholstered in the $1,750 “Leather Lounge Satellite Grey” finish of our test car, they look as sumptuous as they feel. Their contrasting cord piping is an elegant touch. Another optional nicety is the $350 extra “Cottonwood” dash treatment, which mimics the striated look of recycled barn lumber, and complements the Satellite Grey seats exceptionally well. In all, the new Mini boats a number of interior refinements that elevate it from steerage status to business class. In particular, the oversize central instrument face, which formerly housed a comically huge speedometer, has been rededicated to a number of useful functions including radio selection and navigation graphics. As a navigation screen, its 8.8 inch size is particularly welcome. The chrome ring which surrounds this central screen contains a series of LED bulbs that throb blue when you cool the interior or red when you dial up heat. It’s Mini-only insouciance at its best.

2014 Mini Cooper Hardtop

While you may rue the fact that Mini has grown dimensionally since its inception, you won’t regret the extra 8 cubic feet of interior cabin space the new model offers, or the 3 cubic feet of storage it also provides. Of course, accessing the increased acreage is problematic because, thanks to door/seat interference, you can barely slide your hand behind the front seat to tilt it forward for rear area access. At the very rear, Mini thoughtfully provides an under trunk floor storage bin which will keep 3 supermarket bags upright for the ride home. That is, as long as you don’t dial up the “Sport” setting on your Mini. If you do that, the big screen graphics read “Let’s Motor Hard!” and the pictograph shows your Mini as a combo go-kart/rocket ship. Follow that prompt and you’ll scatter those groceries all over the place.

2014 Mini Cooper Hardtop

2014 Mini Cooper Hardtop

  • Engine: 1.3 liter inline 3, turbocharged
  • Horsepower: 134hp
  • Torque: 162lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 29 MPG City/41 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $33,095
  • Star Rating: 9.5 out of 10 Stars

Posted in Expert Reviews, Feature Articles, MINI |Tags:, , , || No Comments »


Review: 2014 Chevrolet Spark EV

Wednesday October 8th, 2014 at 8:1010 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

2014 Chevrolet Spark EV

By David Colman

Hypes: Perfect 10 on the Greenhouse Gas Scale
Gripes: Impractical Range, Rubbery Suspension

Home, home on the range anxiety. The electric motor Spark EV, which is sold only in California and Oregon, is a great idea whose time has not yet come. Without any back-up source of power, the Spark is dead when its lithium ion battery runs out of charge. This problem limits your range to at most 80 miles of real world driving. If your destination lies more than 40 miles distant, and you plan on returning without delay, you’d better leave the Spark home, tethered to its recharge umbilical, while you take a real car instead.

We set off on a 50 mile one way drive with more than 50 miles showing on the range indicator. 25 miles into the drive, the remaining range suddenly dropped from 25 miles to 11 as we crested a long hill. The system emitted a warning “Bing” and dashboard lights flashed the disconcerting information that we needed to “Recharge Soon.” Okay, so we pulled off the highway and, luckily, found a shopping plaza with an ARCO gas station, Starbucks cafe and KFC restaurant. Little did we know we would be spending the next 3 hours stuck here as we tried unsuccessfully to recharge the Spark. Chevy provides a 120V recharging unit with a 3 prong plug which we inserted into the wall receptacle of the ARCO station, with kind permission from the manager.

2014 Chevrolet Spark EV

After an hour of purported recharging, we returned to find that nothing was gained because the wall socket was apparently dead. So we found another socket, plugged in the charger and were unpleasantly surprised to find that although this socket had juice, the fussy Spark charger refused to operate, illuminating a red light to indicate failure to charge. Apparently, the recharger will not operate in all live outlets. Nor can you use an extension cord to connect it.

After 2 hours of phone calls, we were able to locate a Charge Point station within our now 8 mile range, drive there, only to find ourselves stymied by lack of the Charge Point affinity credit card needed to dislodge the charging wand for use. More phone calls finally got electrons flowing into the Spark. We then had to hitch a ride home with a friend, who also drove us back to retrieve the partially recharged Spark some 5 hours later.

Once you accept this EV for what it is – basically the ideal mail delivery vehicle for a six block square housing subdivision – you’ll be happy with your cute, puppy faced Spark. After all, it scores 10 on the EPA’s “Fuel Economy and Greenhouse Gas Scale” as well as 10 on the “Smog Scale.” It also carries a rating of 119 MPGe, which means its theoretical rating exceeds its real world range by about 40 miles. The EPA also rates its recharge time as 7 Hours. Unless you have a 240 Volt recharge station at your disposal, you can expect to spend about 20 hours recharging depleted Spark batteries. We estimated that the charge rate at our 110 volt garage outlet was good for about 4 miles of range for each hour of charge time. Grass grows faster than Spark recharges itself.

2014 Chevrolet Spark EV

Chevy has tried to jazz up the interior of the Spark EV with stylistic cues taken from the Volt. Inside the tiny cabin, you’ll find hard touch surfaces for radio and climate controls. The dash sports random directional slashes incised into its surface to impart a feeling of energy and brash individualism. The seats pick up the party line with their free form dot conga lines. The door panels and dash spine use blue-grey plastic inserts to lighten the interior and imbue it with further playfulness. The shiny plastic housing of the instrument cluster reflects itself distractingly in the windshield and side mirrors. Living in the Spark EV is like spending time inside an Igloo drink cooler.

2014 Chevrolet Spark EV

The one feature electric motors are best at providing is torque. The Spark EV produces an instant wallop of 400 lb.-ft. the second you floor the accelerator. So impressive is this launch from a standing start that the Spark’s front wheels go light as weight transfers to the tail end. Lightness is the byword of Spark handling. With teeny (185/55R15), hard shell (370 Tread Wear Rating) Bridgestone Ecopia tires, Spark’s connection to the pavement is tenuous at best. If you engage the “Sport” setting on the central console, handling improves marginally. However, you will not mistake this diminutive sedan for a sports ride under any circumstances. The Spark lives to do only one thing well: travel short distances while avoiding gas stations altogether.

2014 Chevrolet Spark EV

2014 Chevrolet Spark EV

  • Engine: GM Electric Drive System with 21kWh Lithium Ion Battery Pack
  • Horsepower: 140hp
  • Torque: 400 lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 119 MPGe
  • Price as Tested: $28,570
  • Star Rating: 5 out of 10 Stars

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Review: 2014 BMW X5 xDrive 35i

Tuesday October 7th, 2014 at 8:1010 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

2014 BMW X5 xDrive 35i

By David Colman

Hypes: Super Size Tire Footprint, Impressive Interior Space
Gripes: High Tailgate Liftover, High Curb Weight for 3 Liter Engine

Those of you who are not BMW aficionados’ need a quick lesson in the Bavarian meaning of the letter M. Almost all BMW model lines are available with an M Sport package. Usually, this consists of sporty upgrades to the looks and handling. While the surcharge is quite hefty for an M Package ( $4,600 in the case of our test vehicle), you receive better value than if you were to order each improvement individually. On our X5, for example, the M Sport group includes a long list of improvements that would cost significantly more than $4,600. Some of the following items are not even available individually: 20 inch M Sport alloy wheels, Sport automatic transmission, High Gloss roof rails, Multi-contour seats, Aluminum hexagon interior trim, Aerodynamic kit, Shadowline exterior trim, and Anthracite headliner. Do not, however, confuse an X5 bedecked with this M Sport group for an X5 M. When the letter M is part of the X5′s official designation, as in “X5 M” you have bought yourself a much more expensive and esoteric vehicle which puts a premium on high performance to the exclusion of any other trait.

For example, our test X5, with all-wheel-drive (xDrive) and a 3.0 liter, turbocharged motor (35i) produces 300hp and 295lb.-ft. of torque. Its base price is $55,100. The X5 M on the other hand, which is expected late in the model year, will offer a 4.4 liter turbo V-8 that makes 555hp and 500lb.-ft. of torque. Plan on paying more than $68,200 for this low volume special. There are times when 555hp would be nice, because 300hp is taxed to the max when you need instant acceleration. Although BMW put this new 3rd generation X5 on a diet and reduced its footprint by 170 pounds this year, the in-line turbo 6 is hard pressed to provide instant acceleration because the X5 still weighs more than 5,000 pounds. The 8-speed Sport automatic gearbox helps maximize those 300 horses by keeping the engine turning in the fat part of its broad torque curve. From 1,300rpm all the way to 5,000rpm, this motor cranks out peak torque. That kind of pulling power allows you to tow a trailer weighing 6,000lbs.

2014 BMW X5 xDrive 35i

BMW is unusually generous with the wheel and tire dimensions of the M Sport package X5. The 20 inch diameter alloys are 10 inches wide front and 11 inches wide rear. Continental “Extra Load” SportContact tires rival in size the rubber you might find on a Porsche Turbo: 275/40R20 front and 315/35R20 rear. Such a gargantuan footprint insures tremendous stability. It’s virtually impossible to dislodge this X5 from your intended path of travel. Our test X5 enjoyed the added handling benefit of a $3,600 optional Dynamic Handling Package which provides “active” stabilizer bars front and rear that stiffen the chassis platform as you trundle through turns. The package also improves shock absorber response, with a Dynamic Damping system that reduces pitch in turns. Despite the fact that this SUV stands 69.4 inches high, 193.2 inches long, and 86 inches wide, it will handle any twisty piece of pavement you can throw at it with remarkable aplomb. The only drawback to the X5′s size is that it takes both sides of the road and then some to make a U-turn because its turning circle is 41.5 feet wide.

2014 BMW X5 xDrive 35i

Inside, this BMW will seat 4 passengers in exceptional comfort, and 5 in relative comfort. The interior will store 22.4 cubic feet with all seats elevated, and 66 cubic feet with rear seats collapsed. With seats flattened, you will discover many ingenious storage compartments to keep valuables out of sight. For example, the entire rear sub floor can be packed with goods covered by a lid that raises and lowers with assist from an hydraulic strut. The side walls of the rear area also contain small binnacles. Storage pegs fold flush against the walls, as does a wide retainer belt for securing packages. A double railed track system allows use of multiple inserts like a dog shield or specially fitted cargo container. BMW engineers offer you more configurations than a tub of Lego bricks.

Finished in a shade of blue that is so dark (Carbon Black Metallic) it looks black most of the time, and done up in black Dakota leather inside ($1,450 extra), the only flash you’ll find in this X5 is the hexagonal aluminum diamond plate that graces the door panels, dash board and center console. And even that injection of bright work is subdued thanks to a matte finish. But if solid virtues of practicality, great handling, and decent gas mileage are more important than bling, this X5 beckons you hither.

2014 BMW X5 xDrive 35i

2014 BMW X5 xDrive 35i

  • Engine: 3.0 liter in line 6, turbocharged with direct injection, Double-Vanos steplessly variable valve timing
  • Horsepower: 300hp
  • Torque: 295lb.-ft.@1,300-5,000rpm
  • Fuel Consumption: 18MPG City/27 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $68,675
  • Star Rating: 8.5 out of 10 Stars

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Review: 2014 Porsche Cayman S

Monday October 6th, 2014 at 3:1010 PM
Posted by: D.Colman

2014 Porsche Cayman S

By David Colman

Hypes: Beautiful to behold, Thrilling to drive
Gripes: Everything Good Costs Extra

The latest iteration of the Cayman S really is the best Porsche I’ve ever had the pleasure to drive. It’s intoxicatingly fast, which is the essential attribute in the $100,000 league. Porsche factory figures peg the Cayman S with PDK automatic gearbox at 4.4 seconds for the 0-60mph run. Car and Driver bettered that when they tested the 2014 Cayman S and recorded 0-60mph in 4.1 seconds, and 12.6 seconds at 112mph for the standing start quarter mile. You can be dawdling along at 60mph in 7th gear when you suddenly feel the need for speed. Flap the left PDK paddle toward you 3 or 4 times and this Porsche will jump faster than a cheetah ambushes a springbok.

Any Porsche is the sum of its options. Start with a base 2014 Cayman S ($63,800), add GT Silver Metallic paint ($2,580), Carrera Red Natural Leather interior (3,895) and a Burmester High-end Surround Sound System ($6,730) and you have the makings of a truly brilliant sports car. Adaptive 18-way Sports Seats ($3,465) insure comfort and support will never wane. Three stage seat ventilation ($730) evaporates stickiness on long trips while seat heaters are invaluable on cold mornings (Premium Package $1,170).

2014 Porsche Cayman S

At first I was disappointed to discover that this otherwise magnificent Porsche was saddled with an automatic gear change system called PDK. It’s a habitual view acquired during Porsche’s Sportomatic period and reinforced by years of experience with feckless Tiptronic Porsches. Adding to my consternation was the need to pay $3,200 extra for something I expressly disliked.

By the end of the week, I was singing an altogether different tune. PDK really is a terrific advance in gear change technology, one that I could happily abide in my own garage. There is simply no downside to this system. It never does anything without being told to do so by you. Automatic shifts? Never a problem. Full manual control? No problem there either. I hereby surrender my lifetime stick shift membership card.

2014 Porsche Cayman S

When the Cayman S first arrived in our driveway, I looked it over and thought, ‘How are we ever going to pack enough stuff for a week-long trip in this tiny car?’ At first glance, the front and rear trunks look more like toe lockers than foot lockers. However, it soon became apparent that the deep front storage well is designed specifically to accommodate two airline Cabin Trolleys laid on their side. The Cayman’s interior is also full of surprising crannies and nooks for additional storage, like the pair of lockers located behind and above the seats. Each bin is equipped with a sliding serrated cover to discourage prying eyes.

Last week, JD Power and Associates announced that Porsche “easily led its 2014 Initial Quality Study” according to USAToday. With 5,000 miles on its odometer, our Cayman S could have been the poster child for Power’s IQS. In our 10 days with the car, we found nothing amiss, either cosmetically or functionally. Tailoring of the natural leather interior is particularly judicious. The perforated leather seating surfaces fit better than a Saville Row suit. Visitors from another planet would never guess this is supposed to be Porsche’s entry level sports car.

2014 Porsche Cayman S

A bevy of worthy options help elevate Cayman driving to an art form. In particular, the complex Adaptive Cruise Control ($2,170) allows freedom from the drudgery of stop and go interstate driving. Set your car length limit and the ACC will insure you never get closer to the car in front than you specify. ACC also includes Porsche Active Safety, which will actually stop your Cayman in the event you don’t. It will then resume forward travel with a tap of the cruise control lever. Our test car’s specification sheet also included Porsche Torque Vectoring ($1,320) which electronically mimics a rear axle limited slip differential. This in turn optimizes steering precision. In fact, try as hard as I might, I could never get the rear end to unload or lose traction, even through a heavily banked, 180 degree freeway onramp. The aggressive Pirelli P Zero tires (235/35ZR20 f., 265/35ZR20 r.) mounted on optional ($1,560) 20 inch Carrera S wheels played a major role in the Cayman’s sublime stability.

Surely there must be something to carp about here? Well, OK, Porsche could do better with the cupholders, which spring forth from the dash like something out of Popeil’s Pocket Fisherman. For starters they’re too short to hold a water bottle or a Starbuck’s Venti cup. When you order the optional $2,370 Sport Chrono Package, your Cayman’s on board computer can be configured to read instantaneous “G Forces” on the right hand instrument face. But this is really a duplication of assets. Because all you need do is check your cupholders, At just over 0.2g’s your skim milk latte will puke its contents out of the cup’s sipping hole. At 0.5g’s, the cupholder will pitch the whole thing into your lap. With those irrefutable indices available, who needs a g force meter?

2014 Porsche Cayman S

2014 Porsche Cayman S

  • Engine: 3.4 liter opposed 6 cylinder with Direct Fuel Injection and VarioCam plus
  • Horsepower: 325hp@7400rpm
  • Torque: 273 lb.-ft.@4500-5800rpm
  • Fuel Consumption: 21 MPG City/30 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $97,890
  • Star Rating: 10 out of 10 Stars

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Review: 2014 Ford Fusion Energi Titanium

Tuesday August 26th, 2014 at 4:88 PM
Posted by: D.Colman

2014 Ford Fusion Energi Titanium

By David Colman

Hypes: Plug-In Convenience with Mainstream Attributes
Gripes: Overly ‘Helpful’ Steering, E-Motor Performance Marginal

If you relish having the most expensive house on the block, then the Fusion Energi is definitely the Ford you’ll want to own. You can buy an entry level Fusion S for just $21,900. An upgraded SE is $23,855. A top level Titanium series Fusion costs $30,500, with incremental jumps to $32,500 for either the Hybrid or the all-wheel-drive version. At the very top of the pyramid stands our plug-in Hybrid Titanium test car, with its base price of $40,500, and its as delivered sticker of $45,310. You can partially justify the extra cost by proclaiming the plug-in feature will save you bucks in terms of fuel cost. But it will take you just short of forever to recover your initial expenditure, which is more than double the cost of a base Fusion.

2014 Ford Fusion Energi Titanium

This is not to say that the Energi is a sedan without merit. It’s nice to roll into your driveway and plug this Fusion in for its night time battery recharge. With a special 240V outlet, you can refresh the 300 pound lithium pack in just 2.5 hours. The Energi, however, runs out of electric energy at just 20 miles. If that range meshes with you daily drive, then you’ll never need to visit a gas station again. But for most of us, 20 miles will get us where we’re going, not back home again. To cover the shortfall, Ford has provided a 4 cylinder in-line, 2 liter gas motor which kicks in when needed with 141hp and 129lb.-ft. of torque. The electric motor alone is good for 118hp and 117 pounds of torque. If you have battery reserve, you can combine the two sources of motivation by depressing a button on the steering wheel. Those quick bursts are enough to make passing slower cars possible, a feat not necessarily feasible on electric power alone. With both sources of propulsion in use, the Fusion Hybrid Energi will cut a 0-60mph run of 8.6 seconds and top out at 104mph.

2014 Ford Fusion Energi Titanium

Ford has elevated the interior of the Fusion, in Titanium guise, to top level status. The seats are excellent, with special accolades going to their enveloping and adjustable lower back support. The steering wheel contains so many control buttons for cruise, stereo, and incidental information, that you will find it difficult to keep your hands focused on driving rather than programming. The instrument binnacle contains two vertical bar graphs, with the left side dedicated to electric charge information, and the right side providing fuel tank status.

The constant velocity transmission (CVT) offers little in the way of help when you suddenly need more oomph from your drive train. Your choices are restricted to D (Drive) or L (for additional downhill braking), with no paddles connected to the steering wheel for manual shifting. When you’re in full electric mode, dependant on just 118hp to motivate this two ton sedan, you will be a full time occupant of the slow lane. Braking is regenerative, with the heat of brake application being diverted back into the electric energy supply chain. Although the Fusion’s brakes at first seem slightly mushy, they never change their engagement point on successive applications. This will come as a welcome benefit to those who have sampled regenerative brakes that behave inconsistently.

2014 Ford Fusion Energi Titanium

The steering effort on our Energi, however, displayed seemingly erratic behavior. At times it felt like the wheel was difficult to turn, at other times it kicked back subtly for no apparent reason. After experiencing this disconcerting behavior for a day or so, I belatedly realized such feedback was intentional. Thanks to the $1,140 Driver Assist Package, the Fusion’s steering is designed to tighten whenever you chain lanes without signaling first. Not only does the steering stiffen, but it also vibrates as it resists your input, even guiding your Fusion back into the lane you’re in. Personally. I would pay $1,140 extra to delete this annoying “feature.”

Steering anomalies aside, the Fusion Energi is one of the best plug-in Hybrids you can own. It tops the list because it makes so few concessions to its special status as a plug-in. Its brakes are dependable and consistent. Its power flow is acceptable in EV mode but better in tandem power mode. It’s a full size four door family sedan, though you do lose significant trunk space to battery storage needs. Its exterior and interior design reveal the same flare and finesse that characterizes the entire Fusion line. If you want to go green, and can afford to spend liberally upfront to save in the long run, the Fusion Energi is a good Hybrid choice.

2014 Ford Fusion Energi Titanium

  • Engine: 2.0 liter DOHC inline 4 cylinder plus AC Electric Motor
  • Horsepower: 141hp (gasoline)/ 118hp (electric)
  • Torque: 129lb.-ft.(gasoline)/117lb.-ft. (electric)
  • Fuel Consumption: 43 MPG (gasoline)/100 MPGe (electric)
  • Price as Tested: $45,310
  • Star Rating: 8 out of 10 Stars

Posted in Expert Reviews, Feature Articles, Ford |Tags:, , , , || No Comments »


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