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Review: 2014 Volkswagen Passat SEL Premium

Monday March 24th, 2014 at 10:33 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

By David Colman

Hypes: Flourish-Free Styling, Beckoning Interior, 15.9 Cubic Foot Trunk
Gripes: Slow To Defrost, No Rear Wiper

Psst. Hey, buddy, want buy a German sports sedan? How about a German sports sedan that’s built in Chattanooga, Tennessee? With a Mexican engine and a Japanese transmission, no less. Regardless of where the components are sourced or assembled, one drive in this latest iteration of VW’s spacious family hauler will send you a singular message: this is a German sports sedan of the first order. Its handling is superb, its fit and finish impeccable, and its breeding long and distinguished.

For 2014, the SEL model I tested is currently the only Passat equipped with the new 4 cylinder turbo. VW also offers a 3.6 liter, 280hp V6 as an option on the SEL. The turbo motor makes 170hp from 1.8 liters and replaces last year’s 170hp inline 5. The turbo laso makes 7 more lb.-ft. of torque than the I-5 (184 vs. 177), and returns better mileage (28 MPG) than the I-5 as well. Thanks to the extra torque, the latest Passat feels livelier than its forerunner when you jump on the accelerator. A 6-speed automatic gearbox takes good care of torque management, with a sport override feature available to allow specific gear choices as needed. Gear selection is then digitally displayed in the central information panel between the speedometer and tachometer.

The SEL treatment includes standard 18 inch alloy rims which mount 235/45R18 Continental Sport Contact rubber. This generous footprint produces neutral behavior no matter how hard you press this VW in corners. Despite the fact that this is a front-wheel-drive (FWD) sedan with 60 percent of its of 3,450 curb weight pounds allotted to the front wheels, the Passat never understeers. In fact, it’s hard to tell that the layout is FWD, which is a high compliment indeed to the refinement of the suspension. Standard SEL handling-related features include an electronic differential lock (EDL) which synchronizes wheel speed from side to side, Anti-slip Regulation (ASR), which limits wheel spin, and Electronic Stability Control (ESC) which corrects driver error in extremis. The cornering limits limits allowed by ESC are high enough to permit you to have some sporting fun with your Passat.

Done up in “Candy White” with a “Cornsilk Beige” interior, the starkly handsome sedan comes off looking a bit like Tom Wolfe in a white pinstriped suit: dandy but inarguably handsome. Its fit and finish exceed what you’ve come to expect in a $30,000 automobile. VW has effectively banished the word cheap as a descriptor of this product. Once you slide into those comfy biscuit colored seats, activate their three stage cushion heaters, and finger the Fender Premium Audio for your favorite SiriusXM band, you’re excused if you confuse the Passat with something substantially pricier, like say a BMW 3 or an Audi A4. Not until you check the bottom line of the window sticker do you realize that this VW’s price range stops well south of where the others start.

Clearly, in a world where parts for the same car are sourced from locations as disparate as Mexico, Japan and the USA, it’s the overall vision of design that counts. VW calls this supervisorial role the “Power of German Engineering.” From the moment you operate the chunky control stalks of the Passat, you know you’re driving a German car. The multi-function steering wheel is fat rimmed, leather swathed, and responsive to the most minute change of direction. VW has adapted electronically controlled power steering in lieu of hydraulics for 2014, and if anything, the feedback at the wheel is even more informative than before. Such subtle touches make the Passat SEL more satisfying to drive than anything else in its price range, and indeed many competitors well beyond that range.

2014 Volkswagen Passat SEL Premium

  • Engine: 1.8 Liter Inline 4, turbocharged
  • Horsepower: 170hp
  • Torque: 184 lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 24 MPG City/34 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $31,715
  • Star Rating: 9 out of 10 Stars

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


Review: 2014 Subaru Forester 2.5i Touring

Friday March 21st, 2014 at 1:33 PM
Posted by: D.Colman

By David Colman

Hypes: Great Sightlines in All Directions, EyeSight Is Useful Option
Gripes: Unreadable LCD Touch Screen

The all new 2014, 4th generation Forester looks enough like its immediate predecessor to confuse you into believing Subaru has simply revised the sheet metal a bit. But a quick look at the specification sheet reveals the new Forester, at 181 inches in length and 71 inches in height, stands 1.5 inches longer and 2.1 inches taller than the version it replaces. The additional height is most noticeable when you enter the airy new cabin without ducking your head. In fact, if you’re feeling all hat and no cattle, go ahead and wear that ten gallon Stetson. You still won’t graze the roof liner, even when your Forester comes equipped with the huge Panoramic Power Moonroof that is standard issue on the Touring model. The extra length translates into added rear seat legroom, enabling aft passengers to lounge without knocking knees. Even the cargo hold is more spacious than before, growing to 74.7 cubic feet from 68.3 cubic feet when the split back seats are folded flat.

Of course, the extra size comes at a slight penalty in added weight, as the new Forester, at 3,415 pounds, carries an extra 164 pounds when compared to the previous model. However, the performance disadvantage you might expect from the additional weight is offset by the new CVT transmission, which has finally made its way to the Forester model line. Having introduced the very first CVT transmission to the US market in its Justy model back in 1988, Subaru has more experience with continuously variable transmissions than any other manufacturer. The breeding shows in the Forester application, where the CVT operates seamlessly, always offering just the right rpm range for the 2.5 liter flat 4 to operate optimally. There’s invariably enough zip on tap to master any merge or pass you might undertake. If you really feel the need for more speed, you can upgrade your 170hp Forester to the optional 258hp 2 liter, turbocharged 4. Bear in mind that the turbo will use more gas than the base motor, which manages 27 MPG in overall driving. Regardless of engine choice, the Forester is tow rated at a commendable 2,400 pounds.

When equipped with the newly available “EyeSight” driver assistance package ($2,400), the Forester is one of the safest vehicles you can buy in terms of crash prevention. Subaru has perfected its lane keeping program by seamlessly integrating EyeSight’s information stream into your driving routine – without the annoying chirps and buzzers so many other manufacturers favor. If you start to wander from your intended direction of travel, EyeSight will simply flash an orange warning light on the info panel between the 8,000rpm tachometer and the 150mph speedometer. The package also provides pre- collision braking and throttle management. Keyless access is included as well as high intensity discharge (HID) headlights. If you are inclined to favor such driver aids as EyeSight, you’ll discover that Subaru’s system puts most others to shame. Just be forewarned that you cannot attach anything to your windshield without disrupting the view of the twin CCD (charge coupled device) cameras attached to either side of the rear view mirror. Also, scratched windshields must be replaced with genuine Subaru glass to maintain the integrity of the system.

The Touring Forester utilizes a grip enhancing rubber cargo mat in the trunk compartment that helps stabilize loose items. The rear hatch features automatic lift when you pull the up on the indented exterior handle, as well as automatic closure. The interior carpets are covered with loose weave sisal mats that were all the rage 40 years ago when they were known as cocoa mats. They still work well and look great, and I’m not sure why they ever disappeared. Subaru has seen fit to provide 3 nice chunky knobs for the heating and ventilation system. Would that they had done the same for the entertainment/navigation unit, which requires you to input commands to a 6.1 inch LCD touch screen that is virtually impossible to read in daylight. The good news, however, is that the navigation unit is standard equipment on the Touring model, and the Bluetooth enabled AM/FM/HD/SIRIUS radio thumps out a whopping base through its Harmon Kardon 440 Watt amp and speaker system.

You won’t win any road races with the Forester because its handling suffers from its high center of gravity, and the Yokohama G91 Geolander tires (225/60R17) confer modest grip. But no one buys this Subaru to win races. Its appeal lies in its consummate practicality, standard all wheel drive traction, spunky pancake 4 engine, new CVT drive train, and above all, its unsurpassed interior spaciousness. If all that isn’t worth a relatively modest investment of $33,220, good luck bettering this combo elsewhere.

2014 Subaru Forester 2.5i Touring

  • Engine: 2.5 Liter Opposed 4, Electronic Fuel Injection
  • Horsepower: 170hp
  • Torque: 177 lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 24 MPG City/32 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $33,220
  • Star Rating: 9 out of 10 Stars

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


Review: 2014 Ford Escape SE FWD

Thursday March 20th, 2014 at 2:33 PM
Posted by: D.Colman

By David Colman

Hypes: Spacious Cargo Hold, Remote Keyless Entry, Precise Handling
Gripes: Tiny Info Screen, Poor Seat Bolstering, Finger Twisting Rear Hatch Handhold

For such a small SUV (106 in. wheelbase, 178 in. length), the Escape scores reassuringly high on safety institute (IIHS) crash tests, with “Good” ratings in the all four categories (frontal offset, side and rear impact and roof strength). From the US government, the Escape rates 5 stars in front and rear seat side crashes, and four stars in all the rest (frontal crash- both sides, and rollover). These ratings are due in large measure to Ford’s inclusion of a driver’s knee airbag, front seat-side mounted airbags, and a “safety canopy” overhead bag. Adding to the security blanket for 2014 is a rear view camera, now standard on all models. This proves especially helpful when backing up the Escape, because visibility to the rear is not great. All these passive safety measures work in consort with such active safety strengths as responsive handling, respectable acceleration, and pinpoint steering control.

The Escape model line includes 3 engine choices this year: a 2.5 liter 4 (168hp), 1.6 liter turbo 4 (173hp) or 2.0 liter turbo 4 (231hp). Ford’s press pool vehicle paired the 1.6 liter turbo 4 with a 6-speed “Selectshift” automatic transmission. The Selectshift moniker is something of a misnomer, as the system depends on a shift lever mounted button to swap gears that is both hard to locate and inefficient in use. Better to supply paddles on the steering wheel, or a tip-stick method for gear choice. The 1.6 liter 4 returns admirable gas mileage figures (23 MPG City, 32 MPG Highway, 26 MPG overall), while still providing enough torque (184 lb.-ft.) to tow 3,500 pounds. In normal part throttle use, this drive train provides quiet, ample power. However, when prodded hard, the little turbo tends to shriek louder than tennis vampire Maria Sharapova.

The Escape handles better than its seats handle you. There’s no lack of cornering bite from the Continental Pro Contact tires, which are quite sizeable (235/55R17) for an SUV of such modest proportions (curb weight: 3,675 lbs.). In fact, the abundant cornering power generated by the Escape tends to chuck you off your cushions in the SE’s front seats because they have no side bolsters and they are upholstered in grip less charcoal black cloth. The optional leather seats available in the Titanium Escape, are better contoured to counteract this SUV’s ability to dislodge you. The interior of the Escape is impressively large. If you flop the split (60/40) rear bench seatbacks forward, you can even slip a full size bike through the rear hatch and lay it flat in the cargo hold. You can equip your Escape with an optional self-opening rear door for 2014 triggered automatically when you kick your foot under the back bumper. Our test SE, unfortunately, was not supplied with this latest automotive parlor trick.

The steering wheel of the Escape is festooned with so many knobs and buttons that it will make your head spin. Not a great idea when you’re tasked with concentration on driving. A couple of times, we inadvertently triggered a voice that impatiently awaited commands we were unprepared to issue. The over abundance of minute controls and menu-driven operations is emblematic of Ford’s continued reliance on its Microsoft-derived operating system called MyFordTouch. MFT is as baffling as Windows, and much more dangerous to operate in a driving environment than Windows is at your desk. By diverting your attention from driving, MFT’s opaque methodology tends to undercut the passive safety measures Ford has incorporated into the Escape’s basic architecture.

Notwithstanding ergonomic gripes, the front-wheel-drive Escape is a solid, practical mini-SUV offering handling, tow capacity and storage space that belie its humble size and mechanical specification. At a base price of just $25,550, the SE presents the potential buyer with enough virtue to make it a contender in the final round of consideration.

2014 Ford Escape SE FWD

  • Engine: 1.6 Liter Inline 4, Turbocharged (Ecoboost) with Direct Injection
  • Horsepower: 173hp
  • Torque: 184 lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 23 MPG City/32 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $26,840
  • Star Rating: 8 out of 10 Stars

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


Review: 2014 Volkswagen Jetta SEL

Wednesday March 19th, 2014 at 3:33 PM
Posted by: D.Colman

By David Colman

Hypes: Fuel Efficient New Turbo Motor, new IRS rear underpinnings
Gripes: Blind Spot Monitor Unavailable

Though the 2014 Jetta may look identical to last year’s model, significant improvements have occurred under the skin that make VW’s best selling sedan better than ever. The first upgrade lies under the hood, where a 1.8 liter turbocharged straight four replaces the previous 2.5 liter inline five. Although the new gas fueled engine makes the same 170hp as the straight five, it produces more torque (184 lb.-ft. vs. 177 lb.-ft.), and returns substantially better fuel consumption as well (29 MPG overall). The other major structural change to the Jetta is substitution of an independent rear suspension (IRS) for the torsion beam rear axle that VW has been using in one form or another since the Rabbit was introduced in 1975. By freeing each rear wheel to react to road conditions independently, the new link style suspension improves handling precision and traction. It also dampens oscillation over bumpy terrain resulting in greater creature comfort.

The well finished cabin of the SEL Jetta defies its modest $25,990 price point. Where most German manufacturers inflate the base price of their offerings with more options than you want or need, Volkswagen has taken just the opposite tack: with the exception of an $820 Destination Charge, not a single extra cost item blights this Jetta’s window sticker. In today’s market, this is indeed a rare turn of events. Surprising standard inclusions are a navigation system with a color touch screen, a Fender brand premium audio with SiriusXM subscription, Bluetooth phone connectivity, and media device interface (MDI) with iPod cable. Additionally, you need not pay extra for remote keyless entry, heated front seats, heated outside mirrors or heated wiper/washer nozzles. Not even the sporting 6-speed double clutch gearbox (with manual override for ratio selection), nor the power sunroof are optional.

The turbo 4 which VW and Audi use in so many cross-branded products, is a delightfully efficient source of power. In freeway driving, you can expect to pinch pennies to the tune of 36MPG. Despite that stellar economy, the turbo spools up maximum power instantaneously on demand. If 170hp is insufficient for your needs, VW also offers a GLI version of the Jetta which raises output of the diminutive four to 210hp and 207lb.-ft of torque. But for real world driving, you’ll find that the base 170hp engine is perfectly suited to the newly refined handling of this front wheel drive sedan. At just over 3,200 pounds, the well balanced Jetta makes good use of the sizeable contact patches afforded by standard 17inch alloy wheels shod with Continental ContiProContact 225/45R17 tires.

While I would not go so far as to call the SEL Jetta a sports sedan, it rather earns top plaudits as a sporting family sedan. Appending the word “family” to the formula indicates the Jetta is much more useful and spacious than a tightly configured sports sedan. The back seat is luxuriously spacious, with seat backs that conveniently fold flat in a 60/40 configuration to open a load platform good for 16 cubic feet of goods. The trunk is so vast that I was able to transport three large plastic storage tubs without problem, plus another pair inside the cabin, splayed across the wide back seat. You can even tow a petite trailer weighing up to 1,000 pounds behind your Jetta.

Volkswagen offers a wide array of power trains for Jetta. In addition to the 2 versions of the TSI turbo 4 already mentioned, you can also select a base model Jetta S with 115hp from its 2 liter four cylinder engine, or a 2.0 liter TDI turbo diesel good for 37MPG overall. Jetta cuts such a wind cheating aerodynamic profile that a team from Motor Trend magazine was able to hustle a TDI to a top speed of 185mph at Bonneville’s salt flats last year. Now if that isn’t a sporting family sedan, I don’t know what is.

2014 Volkswagen Jetta SEL

  • Engine: 1.8 liter inline 4, turbocharged
  • Horsepower: 170hp
  • Torque: 184 lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 25MPG City/36MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $26,410
  • Star Rating: 9 out of 10 Stars

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


Review: 2014 Nissan 370Z Nismo

Tuesday March 18th, 2014 at 12:33 PM
Posted by: D.Colman

By David Colman

Hypes: Race Car For The Street
Gripes: Poor Outward Vision

You’ve got to love a car company that specifies — on the window sticker no less — what size and brand of tires you’re guaranteed to receive as standard equipment. In the case of Nissan’s speed equipment special, the Nismo 370Z, nothing but the best in ultra high performance rubber will do. You automatically get Bridgestone Potenza S001 tires measuring 245/40R19 front and 285/35R19 rear, affixed to Rays brand forged alloy rims. And yes, Nissan also specifies the brand name of the rims on the window sticker, and requires that they be forged rather than cast. Why all the fuss about this car’s footprint? The Nismo Z is all about handling prowess, and since wheels and tires make the most important contribution to ultimate grip, Nissan has selected the best tires and wheels for their hottest handling Z.

The rest of the specification list is just as clearly focused on high performance. The suspension system, for example, is tuned with model specific sway bars, struts and shocks that are much stiffer than those of the standard 370Z. A beautifully crafted 3-point front strut tower brace ties the front suspension’s top shock mounts to the firewall for added rigidity. These competition bred measures result in handling precision and levels of grip rarely experienced in anything with a license plate. The Nismo rides very hard because the suspension is so taut that it allows nearly zero compliance over bumps. Certain undulations even cause the Z to buck like a porpoise, but these comical moments are more than offset by the incredible adhesion this chassis affords on curving roads. If you’re in the market for the ultimate handling sports car, look no further.

Nissan also goes to extreme lengths to bring the engine and brakes up to the refinement level of the suspension. The engine’s crankshaft and camshafts receive a micro polishing treatment that helps reduce internal engine friction. The Nismo’s 3.7 liter V-6 makes 350hp and 276 lb.-ft. of torque compared to the regular issue 370Z’s 332hp and 270lb.-ft. The enormous front and rear disc brakes get the Nissan “Sport” treatment, with high rigidity braided stainless steel hoses feeding special R35 brake fluid to the six piston front, and four piston rear calipers. Thus, the brake pedal is always reassuringly hard and predictable.

Both the interior and exterior of the Nismo receive special attention to distinguish this model from lesser Zs. The 8-way adjustable driver’s seat and the 4 way adjustable passenger’s seat offer lateral support commensurate with the high side loadings this car generates. Both seats sport Nismo embroidered badges on their headrests. Not only are they supportive and comfortable over long hauls, but surprisingly easy to climb in and out of. The 3-spoke steering wheel too is a work of art, with a red band incised into the top dead center position, new suede grips at the 9 and 3 o’clock positions, and just enough controls to facilitate radio selection without overdoing the array. Outside, the Nismo, in white, looks as menacing as Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, with a great gaping maw of a grill just waiting to suck up slower cars ahead. And trust me, with this car, all the rest are slower. To match the dive planes of the front spoiler, there’s a fat chorded rear wing, plus kick out rails on the rocker panels that make this Z look even wider than it is. Red accent pinstripes across the snout and exterior mirrors distinguish the Nismo visually from any other 370Z. One gander at this exotic looking Z renders the need for the Nismo rear nameplate superfluous.

Besides its bone jarring ride, the ultra Z suffers from an affliction that also burdens every 370Z: poor side and rear vision. The problem starts right under your nose, where the wide A pillars of the windshield, together with fat exterior rear mirrors, conspire to block side vision for a foot on either side of the car. To the back, the wing’s placement further reduces vision through the Z’s mail slot of a rear window. To alleviate the problem, Nissan has added a very useful standard rear backup camera which projects its image in the left quadrant of the inside rear view mirror when reverse gear is engaged. This placement is far superior to those which use a dash mounted screen that diverts your eyes from the mirror you should be looking at. Still, backing the Nismo Z out of a parking spot into traffic is an unpleasant chore. You soon find yourself parking only in spots you can vacate by driving off straight ahead.

In sum, the Nismo Z offers the finest pure driving experience you can buy for under $50,000. Nothing comes close to its combination of leech like handling, impressive acceleration, and bad boy good looks.

2014 Nissan 370Z Nismo

  • Engine: 3.7 liter DOHC V6
  • Horsepower: 350hp
  • Torque: 276lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 18 MPG City/26 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $46,370
  • Star Rating: 10 out of 10 Stars

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


Review: 2014 Toyota Tundra 4×2 LTD Crewmax 5.7 V8

Monday March 17th, 2014 at 4:33 PM
Posted by: D.Colman

By David Colman

Hypes: More Spacious Than a Texas Prairie
Gripes: Slab Seats, Uninspired Interior Trim

Do you want the good news or the bad news? Okay, let’s start with the news for the glass half full brigade. 2014 marks the debut of the all-new third generation Tundra, with redesigned fenders, grill, bed and interior. Thanks to an acre of dazzling frontal chrome, the revamped Tundra looks just as imposingly monstrous as the competition from Ford, Chevy, GMC and Ram. Since size matters most in the truck market, Tundra has more space than ever to offer potential customers. More grill, more bed, more interior, and unfortunately, more weight. This latest iteration weighs nearly 3 tons. 5.7 liters of 381hp V8 is thus heavily taxed when asked to haul 5,899 pounds of truck. Consequently, the bad news is 13 MPG in city driving and 18 MPG on the highway, for an EPA overall rating of 15 MPG.

But the poor mileage penalty is offset by this rig’s imposing straight line performance. The 5.7 liter Tundra posts a 0-60 MPH time of just 6.7 seconds, and runs the standing start quarter mile in 15.2 seconds at 91 MPH. Those times are nothing short of stunning for such a behemoth, making it the decathlete of the sport truck world. Embellishing the Olympic swiftness is a sensationally inexpensive handling package guaranteed to plant this high rider firmly on the pavement. For just an extra $135, the TRD Off-Road Package replaces standard 20 inch alloy rims with black-spoke TRD 18 inch alloys shod with Michelin LTX AT2 tires. These Michelins have a higher sidewall profile (275/65R18) than the 20 inch tires (275/55R20) normally delivered with a Tundra. That 10mm of added sidewall height sucks up chuckholes off road, as well as potholes on road. The package also includes bright blue Bilstein shock absorbers, skid plates under the engine and gas tank, and front tow hooks. If you added these accessories individually, you’d spend well over a thousand dollars.

This Tundra is designed from the ground up to tow enormous payloads. Toyota provides as standard equipment a receiver hitch, 4 and 7 pin electrical connectors, 4.3:1 rear axle ratio, transmission oil cooler, and heavy duty battery and alternator. You also enjoy a “Tow/Haul Mode” setting for the 6-speed automatic gearbox. So you can believe those ads showing the new Tundra towing the space shuttle Endeavor to its final resting place in L.A. The towing capacity of our test Tundra is 10,000 pounds. If you opt for 4WD, maximum tow rating decreases to 9,500 pounds.

The 3rd generation Tundra has also added a new model to the lineup called “1794″ in honor of the JLC cattle ranch where the Tundra is built in Texas. The 1794 artfully emulates the look of a wild west saloon, hence matching decked out competitors like the High Country Silverado offered by Chevrolet. But the interior of our LTD lacked the finery of the 1794. In fact, its gray plastic came off as a bit cheerless and drab. The front seats, while heated and leather trimmed, are flat and unsupportive. But everything about the cab is huge, with massive dash vents, stick shift, steering wheel, mirrors and step-in, seemingly designed around six and a half foot tall occupants. There’s enough rear seat legroom for three adults to stretch their legs. Compared to the 145.6 inch wheelbase of the standard cab Tundra, the extended Crewmax’ WB measures 164.5 inches. The back seat bunch is well catered to, with air vents and 120V, 12 amp AUX socket in the floor console, plus flop down center arm rest. The rear seats also fold vertically, flat against the cab back wall to create a storage unit half again as big as the 5’5″ double walled bed of the pickup.

If you can live with the Tundra’s mileage shortfall, you’ll find this 3rd generation version Toyota greatly improved. Standard features include a rear backup camera and trailer sway control. The rear bed is surrounded by plastic-capped bedrails, and includes a deck rail system with 4 adjustable tie-down clamps. A $365 bed liner is a bargain option. Since the Tundra stands 75.7 inches tall, climbing aboard would present a problem without the $595 optional running boards. Even with such a full bevy of extras, however, the bottom line is just $41,280. For that kind of money, you’ll be hard pressed to match the performance, tow capacity and acceleration combo of the Tundra with anything from Ford, Chevy, GMC or Ram.

2014 Toyota Tundra 4×2 LTD Crewmax 5.7 V8

  • Engine: 5.7 liter DOHC , 32 Valve V8 with Dual Independent VVT-i
  • Horsepower: 381hp
  • Torque: 401 lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 13 MPG City/18 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $41,280
  • Star Rating: 8.5 out of 10 Stars

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


Review: 2013 Mini Cooper S Paceman All4

Friday March 14th, 2014 at 12:33 PM
Posted by: D.Colman

By David Colman

Hypes: Exceptional Handling for an SUV
Gripes: Seats Harder Than Week Old Bread

The bottom line on the Paceman is 600 pounds. That’s how much more weight this enlarged capsule carries compared to the base model Cooper S (3,110 lbs. vs. 2,535 lbs.). Think of it as a maxi MINI. Imagine stuffing your base Cooper S with three 200 pound passengers. That kind of load numbs the quick response MINI has claimed as its birthright since 2003. The Paceman isn’t a slug by any means, but thanks to the laws of physics, its performance can’t compare to the immediacy of the original Cooper S. Now you might assume that because the Paceman is substantially larger than the Cooper S, it gains in practicality what it loses in zip. And the 4 door Paceman does gain an edge in that regard, since it’s 16 inches longer, 5 inches lengthier in wheelbase, and doubles the cargo space of the base MINI from 6 to 12 cubic feet. But our test Paceman, in 2 door coupe configuration, fails to maximize these gains because the rear seat is virtually inaccessible. The best option for owners of the Paceman coupe is to fold both rear seats flat and use all 12 cubic feet of interior space as a pickup bed. For example, this configuration would be ideal for transporting multiple canines in comfort.

Paceman shares the same turbocharged, direct fuel injected engine as the Cooper S. This potent inline 4 makes 181hp and 192 lb.-ft. of torque. A John Cooper “Works” edition is optionally available, with 208hp and 207 pounds of torque. Our test Paceman, configured with the base motor, returned 26 MPG in combined city and freeway driving. That’s excellent, considering that this test car also included all-wheel-drive, a $1,700 option that tends to decrease mileage. MINI-speak deems AWD “All4,” and emblazons that information on both front quarter panels. In addition to driving all 4 wheels, our Paceman benefited from a quartet of expensive optional 19 inch alloys (“Y Spoke Silver”) that added premium Pirelli P Zero tires (225/40R19) to the handling mix. At the expense of some comfort, these Pirellis, coupled to the 2013 Paceman’s standard sports suspension, made for an endearingly precise but bumpy ride. Note that for 2014, MINI has softened the standard issue springing and shocks, and made sports suspension a no-cost option.

The front seats were less gripping than a Hitchcock mystery. They’re flat and hard with little lateral restraint on offer. They were, however, heated, as part of a $750 optional Cold Weather Package that also provides power folding heated mirrors, and heated washer jets for the wipers. The configuration of the Paceman’s interior has been a MINI staple since the model line was launched more than a decade ago, and it’s getting long in the tooth. In particular, the huge analog speedometer occupying the center of the dash looks a bit overdone these days, since the same information is concisely conferred digitally with a readout in the tachometer located right under your nose. The “Comfort Access keyless entry” ($500 extra) is nice because the doors unlock automatically as you approach the Paceman. But once inside, you need to insert the lozenge sized fob right side up into its dash shot (which is hidden from view) before you can press the Start Button adjacent to the fob. The whole operation is too demanding of time and attention and makes you yearn for an old fashioned twist key.

Although the Paceman All4 may feel lethargic and tubby compared to a base Cooper S, you need to think of this package in different terms. You need to compare it to the bevy of more conventional compact SUVs available across the mid-price range. These invariably stand taller than the Paceman, and are thus much less fun to drive (and own), since a higher center of gravity impedes handling. These competitors also lack the immediate punch of the MINI’s turbo 4, as well as the sizeable footprint of its Pirelli boots. When you look at this highly specialized model line variant from that perspective, you’ll realize Paceman leaves your elixir goblet half full rather than half empty.

2013 Mini Cooper S Paceman All4

  • Engine: 1.6 liter inline 4, DOHC 16 valve, turbocharged, direct injection, Valvetronic
  • Horsepower: 181hp
  • Torque: 192 lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 23 MPG City/30 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $39,800
  • Star Rating: 8 out of 10 Stars

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


Review: 2014 Fiat 500L

Thursday March 13th, 2014 at 9:33 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

By David Colman

Hypes: Incredible Greenhouse, Two-Level Rear Trunk Platform
Gripes: Pulsation in Steering, Uncomfortable Rear Seats

The L version of the Fiat 500 is a completely new offering for 2014. Although it shares many styling cues with the 500, like a snub nose and bobbed tail, the 500 is substantially larger, hence more practical as a family transport. Parking the L next to a standard 500 drove home the size difference in a way no set of statistics could. With the tails of both Fiats aligned, the L’s nose projects half a parking slot past that of the 500. The extra length of the L gives you 21.3 cubic feet of storage with seating for 5. The 500 offers just 9.5 cubic feet when 4 are seated. Unfortunately, what’s been lost in the enlargement is cuteness. Where the diminutive 500 looks adorable from any angle, the L looks like a 500 that’s eaten too much pasta. In fact, the L is reminiscent of the Multipla, an inflated version of the original 500 Fiat built back in the 1960s.

When you buy an Abarth version of the 500, Fiat reminds you of that fact with close to 20 separate ID badges. When you buy the L, which is powered by the same 1.4 liter turbo that propels the Abarth, you won’t find a single indication of that historical lineage. Like the Abarth 500, the L produces a healthy 160hp and 184 lb.-ft. of torque. That’s more than enough to expedite freeway merges. Even back roads passes are possible, provided you’re in the right gear for maximum acceleration. Our test Fiat’s base price of $24,195 included a 6-speed “Euro Twin Clutch Transmission” which was both a blessing and a nuisance. In the blessing department, the automatic saved us from miles of clutch thrashing during a rush hour descent toward the Golden Gate Bridge when 5 lanes merged into 2 at rush hour. On the other hand, we would have preferred the available 6-speed manual gearbox for most of our week with the L because the automatic was frustratingly slow to respond to specific gear selection commands. Having driven an Abarth 500 with a manual stick shift, I know how much fun this engine package can be. In comparison, the L’s Euro Twin Clutch is rather a disappointment.

When seated in the cockpit of the L, you feel like you’re flying an airplane. The view from the front reminded me of a glider flight I piloted thanks to the greenhouse-like airiness of the Fiat’s window structure. In particular, a couple of enormous vent window panes promote vision to frontal quadrants usually obscured from view. A similar pair of panes wrap around the rear pillars of the roof, affording excellent sight lines to the rear. A $950 optional Power Sunroof completes the transparency formula. Out on the open road, the L buzzes along in the 60-70mph range with minimum wind and road noise. Thanks to its interior spaciousness and its all around vision, the L is much easier to drive on the freeway than the cramped 500. Lane changes in the L are especially easy. By contrast, the post behind the driver’s door in the base 500 makes every lane change a dicey proposition. Handling, however, is just adequate, even with extra cost ($500) 17 inch alloys wheels with 225/45R17 Goodyear Eagle LS2 tires. A curious pulsation in the power steering system on curvy roads eroded confidence in the L’s level of grip.

After 3 straight hours in the L on an extended drive from San Rafael to Carmel, the new Fiat proved its mettle by using just half a tank to reach destination. In fact, I made the return trip on the same tank as well, and averaged close to 33 MPG for the duration of my week with the car. However, extended time in the back seat is definitely not recommended. The seat cushions are rock hard, the back rest angle is barely adjustable and too upright, and there are no courtesy lights for reading. This hostel-like lack of amenities is a shame, because rear leg room is spacious. The front seat situation is considerably better, thanks to supportive lounge chairs with standard heating, one-touch electric power windows, and remote keyless entry, all included in the base price.

You do, however, need to insert the switchblade-like folding key into the ignition slot in order to get started. A minor ergonomic annoyance develops when you manually position the steering wheel in its lowest position. This setting, which is the least bus-like of those available, obscures the upper half of the dashboard from view. If it weren’t for the digital speed read out, which duplicates the hidden speedometer needle, you’d never know how fast you’re travelling.

Despite such minor ergonomic quibbles, the 500L is a practical, sizeable and affordable addition to the Italian brigade. While it may not be as cute as its little brother, the L will prove infinitely more practical to own in the long run.

2014 Fiat 500L

  • Engine: 1.4 liter Inline 4 MultiAir Turbo
  • Horsepower: 160hp
  • Torque: 184lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 24 MPG City/33 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $27,445
  • Star Rating: 8 out of 10 Stars

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


Review: 2014 Chevrolet Silverado High Country 4WD Crew

Wednesday March 12th, 2014 at 3:33 PM
Posted by: D.Colman

By David Colman

Hypes: Subtle Redo, Off the Chart Interior, Huge HP and Torque
Gripes: Needs Better Contoured Front Seats

Although it may not look all that different from its immediate predecessor, the 2014 Silverado shares virtually nothing with the 2013 Silverado. What it does have in common, however, are styling keynotes that distinguish Chevy pickups from any other brand: horizontally split grill, massive hood bubble, and stacked dual headlights. Design departure for ’14 is limited to boxy new fender flares front and rear, sculpted tailgate with handy bumper step indentations, and opening rear cab pass-through window. There’s bigger news under that power bulged hood, because Chevy has upgraded all available engines in the 1500 line, using direct fuel injection for added power, and cylinder deactivation for improved mileage ( “Active Fuel Management”). Our Deep Ruby Metallic High Country 4WD, stood a couple of hands higher than an Arabian Stallion. Thanks to its optional 6.2 liter V8 Ecotec ($1,995), this Silverado made as much power as 420 horses. Torque is rated at 460 lb.-ft., with 14 MPG on tap around town, and a laudable 20 MPG on the highway. The 6.2 drives through a 6-speed automatic transmission coupled to a 2 speed transfer case, an auto locking rear differential, and a 3.42:1 rear axle ratio. Standard equipment includes trailer sway control, and a handy shift lever mounted button for optimizing engine/gearbox performance while towing. All these features make the new Silverado an ideal candidate for towing heavy payloads. Chevy rates our test vehicle’s trailer capacity at 9,500 lbs. If you opt for the available 3.73:1 rear axle ratio, your tow rating increases to 11,800lbs. but your gas mileage will suffer.

If towing isn’t your game, there are still plenty of virtues to appreciate here. Topping the list is the spectacular new High Country Premium Package ($1,345) which finally moves the Silverado’s interior into deluxe fantasyland territory previously occupied by Ford (King Ranch), Ram (Laramie Longhorn), and now Toyota (1794). In fact, Chevy’s treatment of this wildly popular Western Frontier look is by far the most muted and palatable of those on offer today. Both front and rear seats are trimmed in a baseball glove amber leather with stunning oyster piping. The front seats look so deeply bucketed and inviting that sitting in them is something of a letdown. They would benefit from more side and thigh padding. Standard heating and ventilation partly compensates for lack of support. The High Country trimmings also include mountain logo threshold kick plates and nifty matching embroidery in the seat headrests.

Your $1,345 also buys you a heated steering wheel, and a welcome built-in trailer brake controller. High Country includes a bevy of safety nannies like front and rear park assist, forward collision alert and lane departure warning. With a truck this big and ungainly, it’s nice to know where your bow and stern lie since direct sightlines are impeded. If you get too close to an object, Chevy has invented a new method to warn you of impending collision. It’s called seat alert because your seat cushion automatically begins to vibrate in the event of proximate danger. This attention getter also warns of an impending forward collision, as well alerting you to traffic on either side. In an impending frontal crash, a series of red warning lights simultaneously flash across the base of the windshield.

Only the Silverado 1500 series receives the makeover for 2014. If you are planning to buy a 2500 or 3500 series Chevy truck, you’ll have to wait for 2015 when GM will complete their transition to the new pickup platform. In addition to the lusty 6.2 liter motor in our test vehicle, Chevy also offers a new 4.3 liter V6 (285hp) and a mid-size 5.3 liter V8 (355hp). Despite its somewhat limiting EPA rating of 17MPG overall, the 6.2 liter V8 will make a believer of you the instant you hit the gas pedal to pass slower traffic or tow a major load over the Sierras. This combo is good for 14.6 second quarter mile runs at 96MPH.

Chevy has improved the steering feedback and overall handling of the Silverado by equipping it with low profile Goodyear Eagle LS2 tires (265/55R20) mounted on somewhat garish 10 spoke, 20 inch chrome rims that match the chrome running boards (which are a $700 option). The High Country Silverado handles any assortment of twists and turns with studied aplomb. The only jarring note is the occasional speed bump or mismatched pavement seam that will suddenly rattle you to the core. This one chink in the armor is just about the only sign that you’re actually driving a heavy duty truck and not some benign and cultured luxury sedan. That Chevy trucks have come this far is a testament to good engineering and a conviction by GM that you can have your cake and eat it too.

2014 Chevrolet Silverado High Country 4WD Crew

  • Engine: 6.2 liter V8 with Active Fuel Management
  • Horsepower: 420hp
  • Torque: 460lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 14 MPG City/20 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $52,475
  • Star Rating: 9 out of 10 Stars

Posted in Chevrolet, Expert Reviews, Feature Articles |Tags:, , , || 1 Comment »


Review: 2014 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid SEL

Thursday January 16th, 2014 at 4:11 PM
Posted by: D.Colman

By David Colman

Hypes: Creamy Electric Supplemented Torque Band
Gripes: Could Use More Rubber on Wider Rims

Generally speaking, you can’t put much stock in automotive advertising. But VW is right on the money when they say, “Most people don’t associate hybrids with being fun to drive.” In looking back over the many hybrids I’ve driven, from the first clumsy attempts by Toyota (Camry) to the latest from Ford (C-Max), the defining characteristic of the breed has been energy saving at the expense of performance. Again, to quote VW, hybrids are “Fuel efficient maybe, but definitely not something you’d actually want to drive.” With that frank admission out of the way, the marketers at VW go on to claim that their new 2014 Jetta Hybrid puts an end to that problem for good: “Now, instead of having a hybrid just to get you from here to there, our hybrids may be the first you’ll want to take everywhere.”

After having spent a week with the new Jetta Hybrid, I can recommend it without hesitation as a driver’s car first, and an energy saver second. Clearly, VW has their priorities right. As soon as you toe into the gas pedal on this Jetta, you’ll get the “driver’s car” bit because this little sedan lunges ahead with great brio as its combined sources of energy production meld together for instant zip. This Jetta is the world’s first turbocharged hybrid in the economy car class. Thanks to the instant surge of torque provided by the electric motor, the Jetta’s 170hp is more than enough to slingshot you past slower cars on 2 lane roads, or merge with 65mph freeway traffic instantaneously. Yet the fact that you’re feeding just a 1.4 liter turbo gas motor means you’ll enjoy exceptional fuel saving dividends. The EPA rates this hybrid at 42MPG city and 48 MPG highway. That puts it squarely in the highest rank of “10/10″ in the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Rating spectrum.

So you can rest assured that you’re doing your bit to combat global warming while still owning a sedan that’s so much fun to drive you’ll have a hard time believing the buy-in is just $29,845. VW has substantially upgraded the Jetta line for 2014 with electronic power steering, 4 wheel disc brakes, and multi-link independent rear suspension. For such a hot sports sedan, the Jetta is remarkably unprepossessing to behold. It makes do with just 16 inch diameter alloy rims, tall 60 series all weather tires from Michelin (205/60R16), and no obvious air expediters. In other words, no cop worth donuts will give this VW a second look. It’s the stealth express.

Yet fly it does, with that new rear suspension clinging like a leech to even the worst road surface. The sizeable sidewalls of those Michelins absorb bumps like an additional springing device, so the Jetta manages to glide over potholes without ever deviating course or jiggling the passengers. Inside, VW treats you to its eternal verities of sound design, with large knobs for manipulating heat, air conditioning, fan and radio. You never need resort to a touch screen to carry out commands because VW, in their infinite wisdom, depend on pleasingly plump knobs for basic operational needs. However, the SEL does include an RNS 315 Touch Screen Navigation System as part of its standard equipment. The cockpit is business like, handsomely done, and so finely crafted that its Mexican build easily rivals anything VW constructs in Germany.

This is truly a serviceable family sedan, with enough legroom in back to keep a brace of 6 foot adults happy over long runs. Once nice feature for rear seat occupants is the space VW leaves open under the front seats, which gives back benchers a place to park their toes. Rear windows that drop nearly flush into rear doors, center armrest with drink caddies and storage bin, and wide opening rear doors make Jetta the perfect bargain choice for the real estate sales brigade.

Because VW has managed to build a product worthy of their advertising hype, the Jetta Hybrid SEL is the first dual energy source vehicle worth serious consideration by the sporting driver. You can honk this sleeper around town like a GTI while kissing off every other trip the gas station. What more could you want for 30 grand?

2014 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid SEL

  • Engine: 1.4 liter Hybrid TSI and Electric Motor
  • Horsepower: 170hp
  • Torque: n/a
  • Fuel Consumption: n/a MPG City/48 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $30,980
  • Star Rating: 9.5 out of 10 Stars

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


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