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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: 2013 Ford Fusion Titanium AWD

Tuesday December 31st, 2013 at 11:1212 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

By David Colman

Hypes: Sweet Motor, Excellent Balance, Precise Handling
Gripes: Sharp Edges on Lower Steering Wheel Spoke

The Fusion ticks the “best ever” box in a number of departments for Ford. Its form fitting seats rate this accolade, for example, by providing such tightly molded support that you don’t want to leave them when you’ve reached your destination. The tailored looks of the Titanium Fusion are fetching enough to make you cast a parting glance at it every time you walk away. Interior furnishing are slick enough to convince you you’re driving a German built Audi, not a Ford made in Mexico. And the driving experience is precise enough to make you think you’re wheeling a BMW rather than a domestic product. So what’s the secret to all this success? Good design augmented by even better implementation.

The fun starts under the hood, where the 2.0 liter turbocharged “EcoBoost” engine makes a prodigious amount of horsepower (240hp) and torque (270lb.-ft.) given its modest displacement and excellent 25 MPG overall fuel consumption. In fact, it wasn’t long ago that any Grand Prix engine producing 120hp per liter would have landed in the winner’s circle at every Formula 1 race on the schedule. This direct injection gem of a Ford motor processes its fat torque curve through a creamy smooth 6 speed automatic gearbox featuring “SelectShift,” a proprietary Ford gear changing system that utilizes both a console lever and steering wheel paddles to manipulate gear choice. If you slot the console lever into the rearmost position designated by an “S” for Sport, the transmission automatically revises its program to favor use of lower gears, higher engine speeds, and faster shifts from gear to gear. In the Sport range, the diminutive paddles adjacent to your thumbs on the steering wheel become operational. In other words, the Fusion can be driven like a true sports sedan.

Fortunately, it also enjoys the kind of handling precision and all wheel drive traction that usually costs far more than the Fusion’s base price of $32,200 might suggest. The only optional item enhancing performance on this test car was a set of 19 inch alloy wheels for an extra $695. These “H-Spoke” dark stainless colored aluminum rims mounted beefy 235/40R19 Continental Conti Sport Contact tires that stuck to the pavement assiduously. Ford has snubbed the suspension movement of this Fusion effectively. It will cut apexes with the best sedans Europe has to offer. Those scooped bucket seats pin you in place while the taut springs and shocks do their job.

But we can keep the little secret about this car’s exceptional handling between us, because you can sell it to the family as a practical and safe means of transportation, and nothing more. After all, the 5-passenger Fusion scores high on the Institute For Highway Safety’s Rating System, with “Good” results on all 4 crash tests. Up front, standard dual stage airbags combine with knee bags to afford maximum driver/passenger protection. Side curtain airbags are also standard fitment. The rear seat is spacious and inviting, and the low beltline of the Fusion’s redesign for 2013 emphasizes outward visibility. Ford has also improved airflow over exterior surfaces by 10 percent, resulting in a corresponding increase in fuel economy at freeway speed.

The cockpit of the Fusion Titanium is a restful and well crafted space. I noted very close tolerances at the tricky joint where the dashboard meets the door panel. In fact the only interior demerit was a failed retraction spring on the passenger side grab handle which allowed the handle to dangle. Microsoft’s” MyFordTouch” computer system interface inhibits intuitive programming of the infotainemt system. But once you’ve mastered that hurdle, the system does work well. Below the removable coin holding tray in the compartment between the front seats. you’ll find a pair of memory stick receptacles which you can use to load all your musical choices into the Fusion’s memory. Ford uses Grace Note software for all disc and music file identification. Although our test Fusion boasted several expensive technological additions (including a $1,000 Driver Assist Package for lane keeping, a $995 radar Adaptive Cruise Control, and a $795 Parking Assist) you can easily do without any of them and still enjoy the many primary virtues of this sedan. However, a rear window wiper would be a useful option that Ford does not offer.

The Fusion Titanium AWD offers exceptional value, great comfort, and such sublimated driving pleasure that anyone canvassing the market for a sports sedan ignores this impressive Ford at their peril.

2013 Ford Fusion Titanium AWD

  • Engine: 2.0 liter inline 4, turbocharged, direct injection
  • Horsepower: 240hp
  • Torque: 270lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 22MPG City/31MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $37,670
  • Star Rating: 9 out of 10 Stars

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


Review: 2013 Kia Sorento EX AWD

Saturday October 26th, 2013 at 8:1010 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

By David Colman

Hypes: Counterbalanced Hood, Well Designed Interior Accoutrements
Gripes: Dark Red Instrument Needle Pointers Virtually Invisible

Last year, Kia transformed its Sorento from a truck framed SUV to a crossover style unibody. That big switch relegated the 2013 version to such minor revisions as new badge work and optional 3rd row mini-seats. The model range covers the gamut from entry level front-wheel-drive, 4 cylinder offerings like the $23,950 LX, to the penultimate offering we spent a week in, the $31,700 EX. Top of the model line is the SX, which stickers for $33,400. The all-wheel-drive EX model features a 3.3 liter V-6 using variable valve timing and direct fuel injection to produce 290hp and enough torque to tow 3,500 pounds. You’ll be operating a 6-speed automatic transmission without the assist of steering wheel paddles. The V-6 in this 4,235 pound vehicle, records just 18 MPG in city operation and 24 MPG on the highway. A round trip from Mill Valley to Santa Rosa surprised us by taking the fuel needle from full to half full in just 120 miles.

The Sorento EX is so softly sprung that the buckled pavement typical of California back roads causes it to pitch to and fro like a carnival ride. Comfort improves considerably on freeway jaunts where the independent front and rear suspension systems cope better with smooth pavement. Steering is fingertip light, with little information about front wheel position filtering back through the smooth leather wrapped rim. Although Kia provides the EX with standard 18 inch alloy rims wrapped in premium Kumho Venture rubber (235/60R18), you’ll rarely put these beefy contact patches to the test because the jiggling EX will dissuade you from cornering too vigorously.

At the moderate pace thus dictated by this SUV, you will, however, enjoy luxury and comfort beyond expectation in this price range. Of course, part of the bounteous swaddling stems from the fact that KIA fitted our EX with a “Touring” package that added a whopping $4,000 to the base price of the Sorento. Included in this compendium were such niceties as a Navigation System with a prominent 8 inch display panel. Unfortunately, unless you tap the “I Agree” button on the screen’s legal release document every time you start the Sorento, you’re forced to view this ridiculous warning in perpetuity.

Also provided by the Touring Package are an Infinity Surround Sound System, Ventilated and Power Adjustable Front Seats, Blind Spot Detection, and the Biggest Sunroof You’ve Ever Seen. When you factor in good visibility from the driver’s seat, oversize rear view mirrors, and very refined cruise control, the Sorento EX becomes a willing long distance cruise partner. Standard inclusions at the EX level include keyless push button start, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, tire pressure monitoring system, BLUETOOTH wireless technology, USB input jacks, 3 months of free SIRIUSXM service, and a rear camera display through the navigation screen.

If you opt for the $715 third row seat, you’ll be able to carry 5 adults and 2 children in the Sorento at the same time. This makes the EX an attractive proposition for large families more concerned with practicality than performance. While the latest Sorento will never confuse you with BMW-like handling, it accomplishes more mundane driving chores with a panache and refinement that exceed the modest expectations suggested by its cost.

2013 Kia Sorento EX AWD

  • Engine: 3.3 liter DOHC V-6 with direct injection and variable valve timing
  • Horsepower: 290hp
  • Torque: 248 lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 18 MPG City/24 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $36,550
  • Star Rating: 7.5 out of 10 Stars

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


Review: 2013 Hyundai Elantra GT

Friday October 25th, 2013 at 8:1010 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

By David Colman

Hypes: Loaded With Freebies, Clean Lines, Sport Sedan Handling
Gripes: Unpredictable Clutch Engagement, Lethargic Motor

The 5-door GT replaces the departed Touring version of the compact Elantra for 2013. The hatchback was originally intended to sell in Europe, where 5-doors remain popular. But Hyundai decided to import it to North America, where its utility will also be welcome. This Hyundai plays in a tough league dominated by the Honda Civic and newly revamped Toyota Corolla. To be successful against these all stars, the Elantra needs to look good, perform well and save you money on purchase price and fuel expenditure. In terms of appearance and economy, the new GT succeeds. In the performance department, however, this Hyundai needs horsepower help.

For a car with a base price of just $18,395, the GT looks much more expensive than it is. Hyundai stylists have chiseled a shape that looks good from any angle. Even at standstill, the GT’s aerodynamic fluting looks fast. The exterior’s performance orientation carries into the cockpit, which is neatly tailored, businesslike, and efficiently laid out. The 160mph speedometer contains a separate 240kph gauge in its center. Hyundai provides a standard trip computer with notations visible in a boxed screen located between the 6,700rpm redline tachometer and the speedometer. The base model GT also includes such niceties as heated seats, 16 inch diameter alloy wheels, front fog lights, steering wheel mounted cruise control, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, and Bluetooth hands-free phone system. In other words, this diminutive sedan is fully equipped without forcing you to upgrade it with expensive option packages.

Which is not to say, however, that Hyundai refrained from doing just that on our $24,360 test car. The sports-tuned suspension and 17 inch alloy wheel upgrade that made our GT such a fine handling sedan are both included in the $2,750 “Style Package.” These beguiling double 5-spoke chrome and matte wheels mount Hankook Optimo 215/45R17 tires that grip the road tenaciously. You also enjoy perforated leather seating surfaces, nifty aluminum ribbed pedals (including dead pedal), and a generously dimensioned “Panorama” opening roof. Adding another $2,350 to the bottom line is the “Tech Package” which positions a strikingly bright 8 inch Navigation screen on the face of the dashboard. The Tech Package also gives you keyless entry, start and stop functions via a dash-mounted button, and separate temperature controls for left and right side occupants. With all these ancillary upgrades, the GT’s plush cocoon covers any comfort or travel need you might ever need.

The GT’s great suspension, precise steering and flat cornering stance deserve a more powerful engine, however. The 148hp inline four makes just 131lb.-ft. of torque. Although the GT is very quick if you wring its noisy motor by the neck and keep revving it over 5,000rpm, you’ll have to work the 6-speed manual gearbox hard to muster such speed. And working that gearbox can be a chore because the clutch engagement is dodgy, sometimes catching near the floor, other times catching at the top of the pedal stroke. But if you are persistent enough about keeping the engine in its limited sweet spot, the GT is a blast to drive. Just don’t forget that under 4,000rpm, the little four banger is in permanent Sleep Mode.

This is a lot of car for the money, even with $5,000 worth of extras appended to the bottom line. The list of standard features is stunning, a real embarrassment to companies like Audi, BMW and Porsche who charge extra for every single nicety. When you factor in the GT’s exceptional 30 MPG overall fuel economy, Roadside Assistance coverage for 5 years (unlimited miles), plus a 5 year/60,000 mile New Vehicle Warranty, it’s hard not to give this stylish travel module a real close look.

2013 Hyundai Elantra GT

  • Engine: 1.8 liter DOHC Inline 4
  • Horsepower: 148hp
  • Torque: 131lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 26 MPG City/37 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $24,365
  • Star Rating: 8 out of 10 Stars

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


Review: 2013 Infiniti FX37

Thursday October 17th, 2013 at 8:1010 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

By David Colman

Hypes: Runs and Handles like a 370Z
Gripes: Sharp-Edged Steering Wheel Pad, Poor Rear Vision

You can call the Infiniti G37 the Special Effects model, because of its special engine, gearbox and suspension. Although the FX37 may look like just another SUV, it’s really a Nissan 370Z twice removed. Why twice? Because Infiniti’s G37 sedan is directly descended from the 370Z, while the FX37 is the SUV version of the G37. The fact that Infiniti has applied the numerical designation “37” to rename what was formerly called the FX35 stresses its 370Z/G37-derived engine displacement of 3.7 liters. Virtually the same V-6 powers all 3 vehicles. In FX37 trim, the engine produces 325hp and 267lb.-ft. of torque driving the rear wheels only through a 7-speed automatic gearbox. This sweet gearbox features automatic engine blipping on downshifts to synch rpm with road speed. Although our test FX37 was not equipped with magnesium paddles for steering wheel shifting, they are included in the $2,866 optional “Sport Package” which also provides adjustable shock damping and sport-styled seats.

Even without the fingertip convenience of alloy paddles, the FX37 is still a pleasure to operate in sporting style. The engine is extremely responsive. The gearbox ratios are perfectly calibrated to keep the V-6 in its ample powerband. The suspension and steering remain taut and informative. Helping perfect the responsiveness are a set of 20 inch alloys mounting 265/50VR20 Bridgestone Dueler radials calibrated to maximize traction on pavement. This alloy wheel upgrade is part of a $3,300 optional “Touring Package” that also includes nifty looking quilted leather front and rear seats that are heated and ventilated, plus maple interior trim and aluminum pedals.

One addition you can do without is the $2,950 “Technology Package” which burdens the FX with an annoying set of nanny alerts like “Lane Departure Warning and Prevention” and “Forward Collision Warning” that chirp a concerto of beeps that will drive you to distraction. The problem with the FX37 is that rear vision is abysmally poor thanks to its sloping roof, minuscule rear window, and huge rear C-pillars, and no amount of technology will ever overcome that genetic malady. So do yourself a favor, pass on the Technology package, and vow to turn your head and check your mirrors every time you make a lane change. Luckily, a “Rear View Monitor” is standard fitment, so you can always check the dash displayed image when reversing the FX.

The lines of the FX37 aren’t so much handsome as bulbous. If SUVs could bench press barbells, the FX would be good for 300 pounds easy. Its mega-chrome grill confronts slower traffic like a schoolyard bully. Every stylistic sweep is calculated to emphasize aggression and road dominance. I was amazed at the number of people who meekly surrendered lane position when they saw the FX looming in their mirror. While this Infiniti isn’t quite as intimidating as a police cruiser, its stance renders other motorists submissive.

Once you’re ensconced in its finely detailed cabin, however, you’re hardly aware of that bully pulpit profile. Rather, your every travel need is catered to by this well mannered concierge of the highway. Those box-quilted front seats fit like a throne, while the button festooned dashboard offers so many comfort and entertainment preferences that you’ll spend hours poring over the owner’s manual to learn them all. Of course, the addition of the $4,300 optional “Premium Package” to our test FX’s window sticker added a lot of extra content to an already well-equipped vehicle. This grouping includes an upsized 8 inch VGA color screen on the dash, Hard-Drive Navigation, Voice Recognition, Streaming Audio via Bluetooth, in-dash single CD/DVD player, and slick looking aluminum roof rails. About the only thing not included in the Premium Package is a graduate level seminar in how to make all this technology work for you.

2013 Infiniti FX37

  • Engine: 3.7 liter DOHC, 24 Valve V-6
  • Horsepower: 325hp
  • Torque: 267lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 17 MPG City/24 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $55,800
  • Star Rating: 8.5 out of 10 Stars

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


Review: 2013 Nissan 370Z Touring

Tuesday October 15th, 2013 at 8:1010 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

By David Colman

Hypes: Arrive and Drive Racer
Gripes: Stick Shaker, Poor Rear Vision

The 370Z is a no-compromise sports car. If you aim to own one, be forewarned that it’s you that will be making the compromises, not the Z. For example, the simple act of climbing aboard the coupe version will present a physical challenge you may not enjoy. The roof line is so low that you will have to duck your head while you fold your torso in order to slide bottom end first into the seat. After repeated pretzel twist entries, I learned to grab the steering wheel while performing a butt thrust that made me look like flopping Dick Forsbury, the first high jumper to clear 7 feet backwards.

Of course, once you’re ensconced in the Z’s tight cabin, memories of your inglorious entry fade as you lavish your eyes on the magnificent instrument panel, which provides more information than you could ever use. A trio of angled gauges atop the dash crown, mimicking those of the first 240Z, inform you of water temp, battery charge and time of day. A 9,000 rpm tachometer zips to redline in front of your nose, while the adjacent speedometer reads to 180mph. The fat, perforated leather steering wheel responds with vernier precision to the most minute adjustments. It is also fitted with handy tabs for scanning your SiriusXM presets without having to reach for the radio faceplate.

The Z’s love-it-or-leave-it personality persists once you prepare to drive off. Should you need to back out of a parking slot, you will be stymied by your inability to see anything lurking behind or beside you. Tank commanders have a better rear view than do Z drivers. You’d be well advised to back into parking places first, in order to spare yourself the agony of reversing blind later. Almost all is forgiven, however, when you fire up the 332hp V-6, snick the rifle-bolt-precise 6-speed manual into first, and feed in just enough gas to launch the Z from a standing start. Unlike so many finicky manual clutch packages, the Z’s take-up is perfectly linear and free of drama. Even though the Z lacks a hill holder function, you can perform a hill start anywhere in San Francisco with no drama thanks to an immediate supply of 270 lb.-ft. of torque. A persistent drawback to the manual transmission is its proclivity to shake the stick when in neutral. This has been a problem since Nissan reintroduced the Z back in 2003, and their engineers haven’t figured out how to quell the annoyance in 10 years. Of course, you can eliminate the problem by opting for the paddle-shifted automatic gearbox which contains 7 speeds instead of 6. But you’ll pay an additional $1,300 for the convenience.

Given the long, proud racing heritage of the Z, this latest Nissan two seater handles with the precision and aplomb you’d expect of such a pure bred sports car. Helping in that regard are several improvements for 2013. If you order the Sports Package ($3,030), the RAYS forged wheels differ in appearance from earlier versions, with thinner spokes revealing newly painted red brake calipers. These ultra light 19 inch diameter RAYS replace the standard issue cast 18 inch alloys. The gunmetal finished RAYS measure 9.5 inches wide in front and 10.5 inches wide in back (versus 8 and 9 inch width for the 18 inch wheels). Our Sports Package equipped 370Z mounted Bridgestone’s best all-around performance tire, the RE050A, with front rubber measuring 245/40/R19 and rears 275/35/R19. Nissan has also modified the valving of its Sports Package shocks for a “Euro-tuned” firmer, more controlled ride that can feel downright harsh at times. The package also includes a Viscous Limited Slip Differential, so this as-delivered Z is ideally configured for fast street driving, or track day competition.

A prime factor in the Z equation has always been its big 6 cylinder motor. Today’s hot rodded 3.7 liter V-6 benefits from micro-polishing of the crankshaft and camshafts. With variable valve timing and lift, the motor makes 332hp and 270lb.-ft. of torque. Just be prepared to endure a lot of not particularly pleasant noise when you stretch the motor past 4,000rpm. Even so, with a base price of just $37,820, the 2013 Z is without question a best buy sports car. Even when equipped with the Sports Package and Navigation System ($2,150), the 370Z still posts an affordable bottom line of $43,905. If you’re a nascent racer willing to put up with the minor foibles of this hard-edged rocket, you can’t do better than the latest 370Z.

2013 Nissan 370Z Touring

  • Engine: 3.7 liter DOHC V-6 with VVEL
  • Horsepower: 332 hp
  • Torque: 270 lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 18 MPG City/26 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $43,905
  • Star Rating: 9.5 out of 10 Stars

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


Review: 2013 Toyota Venza LTD AWD

Monday October 14th, 2013 at 11:1010 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

By David Colman

Hypes: More Useful Than a Swiss Army Knife
Gripes: Would-be Wood, Infuriating Customization Menu

Contrary to popular belief, “Veni, Vidi, Venza” does not mean “I came, I saw, I conquered” but “you asked for it, you got it, Toyota.” The Venza is Toyota’s gift to the family, a composite sedan, station wagon, and minivan offering seating for 5, or up to 70 cubic feet of storage with the back seats folded flat. In top line LTD trim, it lavishes enough nice touches to be confused with a Lexus. But it does so at the un-Lexus like base price of $38,870. Although our test Venza’s bottom line was burdened by an unnecessary $1,819 “Rear Seat Entertainment” system, its all-in total of $42,288 still constitutes a bargain for such wraparound family utility.

Though you could bargain hunt an all-wheel-drive, 181hp, 4 cylinder Venza for just $29,150, the 268hp AWD V-6 is the only one you’ll want to drive. The 3.5 liter engine strikes a good compromise between power and efficiency, returning 25 MPG on highway jaunts, and 21 MPG overall. Option your Venza with the bargain priced $220 Tow Prep Package (available only on the V-6), and you’ll add an engine oil cooler, oversized radiator fan, and heavy duty alternator which yield a tow rating of 3,500 pounds. Because the 6-speed automatic transmission is electronically controlled, you can select a gear range and hold the engine in its powerband without upshifting. If you’ve ever towed a loaded trailer over the Sierras, you’ll know how nice that feature can be.

The 60/40 folding rear seats retract with just the pull of a chairside lever. Doing so opens up a wealth of interior storage room that makes toting unwieldy objects a snap. For example, the rear threshold’s low height facilitates loading and unloading take-alongs like a mountain bike. No need to remove a wheel from the bike, nor hoist and bind it to a cumbersome roof rack. Just compress the springs of the removable privacy screen, stow the tubular screen behind the front seats, and you’ve got unlimited access to the Venza’s copious interior storage locker. Dark tinted privacy glass keeps prying eyes off your cargo.

The LTD’s standard 20 inch alloy rims, fitted with 245/50R20 Michelin Latitude tires, endow this crossover with a decidedly truck-like stance and appearance. The upside of the generous rubber allotment is impressive handling stability generated by unusually large contact patches at all 4 corners. The downside of the Venza’s stance is that it’s almost impossible to see anything to the front, sides or rear when you’re parking. The standard Backup Camera, which displays its video on a 6.1 inch dash screen, helps locate potential casualties to the rear. But the side view mirrors convey so little information about obstacles next to, or in front of the Venza, that you’ll find yourself bouncing off curbs you never saw.

The Venza’s interior could stand some refinement. The multiple bins dotting the console between the front seats are duplicative and cheap looking. Despite investing 30 minutes into reading the owner’s manual, I could never figure out how to stop the driver’s seat from sliding backwards every time I turned the Venza off. There are 2 different sources of menu customization available through dash buttons, with no apparent logic determining which button controls which series of features. Despite all the possibilities I never found the key to deselecting the annoying seat slide. On any Lexus, this is a 5 second deselection process.

In sum, the Venza offers such an array of travel possibilities that it will ping your sweet spot over and over. It’s easy to live with this mega- hauler because it looks like a beefy sedan but behaves like a brutish truck. Charming but butch, the Venza makes a lot of sense.

Toyota Venza LTD AWD

  • Engine: 3.5 liter V-6, DOHC with DUAL VVT-I
  • Horsepower: 268 hp
  • Torque: 246 lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 18 MPG City/25 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $42,288
  • Star Rating: 7.5 out of 10 Stars

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


Review: 2013 Volkswagen Beetle Convertible Turbo

Saturday October 12th, 2013 at 8:1010 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

By David Colman

Hypes: Kal Kustom Leather, Turbo Scoot
Gripes: Annoying Trunk Release, Poor Top-Up Vision

The latest Beetle may look like the familiar face you’ve known forever, but don’t be fooled by appearances. First of all, this Beetle is built in Puebla, Mexico rather than Wolfsburg, Germany. Although clothed in sheet metal designed to deceive you into thinking this is a rear-engine, rear–wheel-drive derivative of Dr. Porsche’s original 1930s design, the second generation New Beetle (Newer Beetle?) is in actuality a front-engine, front-wheel-drive Golf GTI successfully masquerading as a very Old Beetle. Thus, you can validate your nostalgia quotient for traditional VW values without sacrificing comfort or performance to outdated (rear-engine, air-colled) engineering principles.

Under the front hood of this diminutive convertible lies the same turbocharged 4 cylinder engine you find in so many VW and Audi family products today. When VW stopped producing their jewel-like V-6 motor several years back, the 2 liter turbo became the default GTI engine. Now, with direct injection, it’s found its way into the turbo Convertible, where it produces 210hp, 207 lb.-ft. of torque, and returns overall fuel consumption of 24 MPG. Coupled to a delightfully responsive set of 6 closely spaced ratios in the manual transmission, the Beetle Convertible will scald back road apexes with nearly the same aplomb as a GTI. Although the Convertible gives up some structural rigidity to the hardtop GTI, the loss is hardly discernible when you’re close to the limit of adhesion. The fat contact patches of standard 235/45R18 Hankook Optimo H426 tires help this drop-top stay planted through the twisties.

VW has done a commendable job of fettling the convertible with appropriate go-fast hardware. Five spoke alloy rims, which look like updated versions of the classic Porsche Fuchs wheel, decorously display the low profile Hankook tires. Inside the cabin, the aluminum brake, clutch and throttle pedals provide rubber strips for better adhesion. The matte aluminum of the pedal faces match the same trim used on the instrument cluster face, the door grab handles and latches, and the trim ring surrounding the shift mechanism. A carbon fiber emulation faces the dash front, while matte pebbled vinyl surfaces the dash top and door panels. Piano black plastic door panel tops add some 40s era pizzazz to the interior, but the real star is the stunning, bi-color seating. The front buckets feature wide whale ribbed red leather seating surfaces set off by black leather bolsters on all sides. As a finishing touch, VW trims the black bolsters with double stitched red thread. The rear buckets match the fronts. The net effect is jaw dropping, especially considering that all this custom tailoring is part of the base package.

You can tuck a couple of adults into those rear buckets, and they won’t mind the crowded leg room so much if the top is down. But the rear seats produce claustrophobia when the heavily padded top is up. The small back side windows and rear glass panel also inhibit vision and make parking a chore with top up. Those of you who recall the days when English roadsters like the MG and Triumph came fitted with tonneau covers will get a kick out of discovering the same archaic piece in the Convertible’s trunk. It’s designed to hide the roof apparatus when the top is down. It takes a good 5 minutes to install, and will bring back fond memories of an earlier era of motoring.

At $32,665 delivered, the Beetle Convertible represents solid value, GTI-level driving fun. It also admits you to an enthusiastic ownership group that sets VW apart from any other car company. This Beetle is guaranteed to put a smile on your face. How many cars can do that?

2013 Volkswagen Beetle Convertible Turbo

  • Engine: 2.0 liter inline 4, Direct Injection, Turbocharged
  • Horsepower: 210hp
  • Torque: 207 lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 21 MPG City/30 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $32,665
  • Star Rating: 9 out of 10 Stars

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


Review: 2013 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport SE 2WD

Thursday October 10th, 2013 at 8:1010 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

By David Colman

Hypes: Based on Agile Lancer Chassis
Gripes: Saddled With CVT and Low HP

Now in its third year of production, the Outlander Sport gets a fresh face and rump for 2013, along with larger wheels and new color palette. The revised snout and upturned, spoiler-topped tail impart a hunting hound rake to this crossover SUV based on the Lancer chassis. In the SE model, more up market interior trimming than before belies the Sport’s modest $22,295 base price. After spending several hours in the manually adjustable driver’s seat, I had no complaints about lack of comfort or support. The steering wheel is also manually positionable for rake and reach. The leather trimmed wheel itself features useful audio volume and band controls on the left spoke and effective cruise controls on the right spoke.

An extra $2,050 Premium Package garnishes the Sport with an enormous glass roof which admits plenty of light to the interior but does not slide or open. But it does confer fantasy status on the interior at night thanks to a long row of orange LED bulbs that illuminate both sides of the roof opening. The package also includes black roof rails, rear view camera, and a knockout loud Rockford Fosgate 710 Watt, 9 speaker audio system with 5CD/MP3 dash-mounted head unit. Since Mitsubishi thoughtfully provides the Sport with standard SIRIUS radio, there’s no lack of choice in the infotainment department.

The Outlander Sport is one curvaceous beauty. Its interior design is so full of arcs and parabolas that you can’t lay anything on a flat surface. The exterior is equally sloping, so if you want to store your coffee cup while you fumble for your keys, your only choice is the ground. But the cabin’s severe tumble home has a positive effect on outward visibility. The side and rear windows are tall and informative, and the included rear view camera helps you check all the safety boxes when you back out of a parking place.

Given Mitsubishi’s years of success with Lancer on the World Rallye Championship, it should come as no surprise that the Sport’s handling is precise and informative. The new 8-spoke, 18 inch alloys plant 225/55R18 Toyo A24 tires at each corner. These all weather radials never lose their footing, even when the softly sprung Sport achieves some rather dramatic lean angles in tight corners. However, neither the refined chassis, the athletic suspension, nor the sticky tires will determine how effectively you cover ground in this Outlander. That final measure of performance is determined by the engine/transmission combo, and here the Sport is sorely lacking. The engine is an inline 4, making just 148hp and 145 lb.-ft. of torque. Given that the Sport weighs in at 3,032 pounds, the power-to-weight requires each horse to move 20.4 pounds. Further complicating the equation is the SE’s lethargic CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission), which is particularly hard put to find the right gear ratio when you most need passing power. Although Mitsubishi optimistically equips the Sport with large paddle shifts next to the steering wheel rim, these tools are rendered virtually useless by the engine’s lack of power and the vague speed ranges of the CVT’s stepped “gears.”

If you like the Sport for all its admirable qualities – looks, finish, utility – then forego the SE trim level and opt for the base model, $19,170 ES, which comes standard with a real 5-speed manual transmission. This transmission is not available on ES versions. In the long run, you’ll still get great mileage (25 MPG City/31 MPG Highway) without paying the performance surcharge that the CVT extracts.

2013 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport SE 2WD

  • Engine: 2.0 Liter Inline4, DOHC, 16 Valves
  • Horsepower: 148hp
  • Torque: 145 lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 24 MPG City/31 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $27,170
  • Star Rating: 7.5 out of 10 Stars

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


Review: 2013 Mini Cooper Hardtop

Wednesday October 9th, 2013 at 8:1010 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

By David Colman

Hypes: 420 Miles on a Tank, Motorcycle Base Price
Gripes: Hard To Reach Seatbelts, Pinchy Door Handles

Manufacturers usually load press fleet vehicles with every expensive option available, so it was quite unusual to spend a week with a Mini Cooper virtually bereft of extras. With a base price of just $19,700, the Cooper hardtop is good value for the money. Its fun-to-drive quotient places it in the top echelon of sub $20,000 sedans. What extras it did have were well chosen. Instead of the standard 175/65 R15 tires and wheels, ours was equipped with the very reasonably priced ($1,250) Sport Package which upped wheels to 16 inch, 6 star-spoked alloys shod with 195/55R16 Bridgestone Turanza ER300II run-flat rubber. The Sport Package, which brings the as-delivered price to $21,650, also includes traction control, sport seats, and rear spoiler. For the driving enthusiast on a budget, this Mini represents a stellar bargain.

The sports seats are more supportive and better looking than those of any car in this price range. Finished in ballistic nylon weave, they afford more latitudinal support than the tires can generate. Their center sections contain black-on-gray Op Art swirls reminiscent of checker flags. The seats are emblematic of the whimsical character of the interior, which looks like it was designed by Disney Imagineers in Toontown. Circles and ovals cover every square inch of the dash. The circular air vents echo the shape of the free standing 8,000rpm tachometer. The door handles, speaker grills, even the keyfob are perfect circles. Oval shapes dominate the pedals, mirrors, dash face and overhead console. Square edges hardly exist. Mini eschews cheap materials in favor of quality finishes. The pebble grained dash top and door panels are finished with a matte sheen that eliminates window reflections. The aluminum trim across the face of the dash matches the subdued finish of the dash. The Mini looks and feels like a BMW inside because BMW own Mini.

The Mini is rewarding to drive because its steering is so precise. It reacts to directional change like a go-kart. Although ride quality is choppy over pavement imperfections, the stiff springing pays dividends on twisty roads. When you feed lock into the fat rimmed steering wheel, the Mini instantly acknowledges your input. This 2,712 lb. hardtop is one of the lightest cars on the market, and its telepathic dexterity is a product of that minimal curb weight. The engine in the base model Mini is adequate, but not impressive. With just 121hp available, you’ll find yourself using the 6-speed manual gearbox like a jockey resorting to the whip. The anemic torque output of 114 lb.-ft. occurs at 4,250rpm, so you’ll work hard for your quotient of zip in the base Mini. A better option might be the 181hp, turbocharged Mini Cooper S, which turns this racing striped little box into a raging pit bull. Of course, you’ll pay substantially more for the privilege (Cooper S base price: $24,750), and you’ll forego the base Cooper’s excellent fuel economy of 32 MPG overall, for 27 MPG with the S model.

The Cooper has been a sales sensation for more than 10 years now. Customization is a large part of its attraction. You can order your Mini 10 million different ways. No other car comes close to matching this virtually unlimited differentiation. The Mini is very much the Swatch Watch of the car world. It’s high quality appearance belies its cheap price. Just when you think you’ve seen every Mini available, along comes a new combo that makes you marvel at this company’s endless design savvy. But the best part of the Mini experience comes from the maxi enjoyment you get out of driving one. Mini represents a throwback to an age of car design that depended on resourcefulness and imagination rather than tunnel vision. In that way, Mini puts the fun back in motoring.

2013 Mini Cooper Hardtop

  • Engine: 1.6 liter DOHC, 16 Valve inline 4 Cylinder
  • Horsepower: 121 @ 6,000 rpm
  • Torque: 114 lb.-ft. @ 4,250 rpm
  • Fuel Consumption: 29 MPG City/37 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $21,650
  • Star Rating: 8.5 out of 10 Stars

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


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