Review: 2014 Nissan Juke Nismo RS

Saturday October 18th, 2014 at 8:1010 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

2014 Nissan Juke Nismo RS

By David Colman

Hypes: Go-Kart handling, Best Seats in the Biz
Gripes: Still Looks Homely

Nismo is the competition arm of the Nissan empire. Any vehicle bearing the Nismo badge is sure to appeal to the driving enthusiast. Currently, Nismo’s best effort is also their most affordable one, the $26,120 Juke Nismo RS. Now, the Juke is never going to win anyone’s beauty prize, thanks to its bulbous headlights, angular planes, and ungainly tall stance. But to Nismo’s credit, the stylists and engineers in the competition department have orchestrated a makeover that turns the homely Juke into a fearsome canyon carver with looks to match.

2014 Nissan Juke Nismo RS

Let’s start with the carefully contrived cosmetic surgery. Because the letter “O” in NISMO is red – like the Japanese setting sun – everything else on the Juke RS derives from that chroma key. A neat red pinstripe decorates the RS-specific front and rear fascias as well as the rocker panels of the Sapphire Black body. Red rear view mirrors complete the two tone appearance of the exterior. Inside, the color symphony continues with racing Recaro front buckets with black suede seating surfaces, red side bolsters and red “Nismo RS” embroidered headrests. Black front and rear seats display contrasting red stitching, and even the 8,000rpm tachometer face (redline 6,500) is anodized red to match the rest of the bi-color decor.

Simulated carbon fiber surrounds the 5.8 inch color touchscreen in the center of the dash face. This navigation device, which also offers various Nissan Connect applications, is part of the $1,200 optional Navigation Package that includes Voice Recognition for Audio and Navigation, Sirius XM Traffic and Travel Link, and Streaming Audio via Bluetooth. A Rockford Fosgate “ecoPUNCH” audio system with subwoofer, and USB Connection Port for iPod-like devices completes the benefits package.

2014 Nissan Juke Nismo RS

But the hospitality of the interior furnishings are secondary components of the Juke’s DNA. This is primarily a tightly focused driver’s car, with an unforgiving ride quality, and a peaky but powerful engine. Likewise, the Recaro seats offer heavenly support when you’re strapped in, but are maddeningly difficult to enter or exit. If you’ve got racer genes, the performance of the Juke Nismo RS will be more than worth the tradeoff in comfort and ease of operation. The uprated 197hp “DIG Turbo” direct injection motor is 10hp stronger than that of the base Juke. It also produces 184 lb.-ft. of torque, 7 pounds more than the standard Juke. The suspension is considerably stiffer than the stock Juke, so you will feel more road imperfections but enjoy greater control when the road turns twisty. The premium performance biased Continental tires (225/45R18 ContiSportContacts) ride on Nismo specific 7 x 18 inch alloys with enough tiny spokes to keep you busy for hours at car wash time.

Rear seat passengers in this Juke will long for their trip to conclude. The exceptionally tall Recaro front seat backs impede frontal vision for rear seat riders, as well as knee room. Although the Juke offers a fifth door hatchback, cargo space is so limited that you’ll want to fold flat the 60/40 split rear seats to make room for anything bulky. A nice feature is the under-floor rear cargo bin, ideal for hiding valuables from sight.

2014 Nissan Juke Nismo RS

The Juke Nismo RS is a hard core enthusiast sedan which makes few concessions to comfort or ease of drivability in its quest to provide maximum thrust on twisty roads. If you enjoy road racing, you will love this little rocket. Kudos to Nissan for having the resolve to offer such a tightly focused sports package at such an affordable price. The Recaro seats alone are worth the paltry price of admission.

2014 Nissan Juke Nismo RS

  • Engine: 1.6 liter inline 4, turbocharged with direct injection
  • Horsepower: 197hp.
  • Torque: 184 lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 25 MPG City/31 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $28,345
  • Star Rating: 10 out of 10 Stars

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


Review: 2014 Lexus IS-F 4-DR Sedan

Friday October 17th, 2014 at 8:1010 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

2014 Lexus IS-F 4-DR Sedan

By David Colman

Hypes: Thumper Motor, Superb Fit and Finish
Gripes: Bi-Xenon Headlights Need to Swivel

Attention BMW M Customers: Be sure to check out this Lexus before you buy Bavarian. The newest version of the Lexus IS-F is without question the most hard edged performance car the company has built since the $400,000 LFA ceased production three years ago. Now that BMW has forsaken V-8 power for the M4 in favor of a turbocharged 6, Lexus maintains a performance advantage over the German benchmark by offering the IS-F with a throbbing 416hp 5 liter V-8 that pulverizes pavement with 371 pound feet of torque.

This is a true muscle car motor, worthy of any drag strip you care to attack. But Lexus conceived of the F as a complete package, with the kind of suspension refinement period muscle cars never came close to achieving. You will appreciate the IS-F’s finely tuned, race bred double wishbone front suspension, which reads pavement changes like a savant. With the added benefit of sophisticated multi-link rear geometry, the IS-F steers and adheres better than any product Lexus or parent company Toyota currently offer.

2014 Lexus IS-F 4-DR Sedan

If you have any doubt about the F’s handling supremacy, just look at those 19 inch forged BBS alloy wheels and super sticky tires Michelin Pilot Sport tires. The 14 spoke wheels, finished in fetching liquid graphite, measure 19 x 8 inches front and 19 x 8.5 inches rear. They are shod with rubber measuring 225/40R19 front and 245/35R19 rear. Recessed behind the alloys are massive 14.2 inch Brembo style 6 piston front disc brakes backed up by 13.6 inch double piston rear discs. With high friction pads, these stoppers will let you spend a day at the track without losing your brakes.

2014 Lexus IS-F 4-DR Sedan

The idea of taking the IS-F to the track is not at all farfetched. With its standard TORSEN limited slip differential, you are assured of intelligent torque distribution through the F’s rear wheel drive. You’ll also never be at a loss for the correct gear ratio since the IS-F’s Sport Direct Shift automatic offers 8 gears controlled by either the stick between the front seats or the oversize paddles attached to the steering wheel. The steering wheel itself is eminently grip worthy thanks to a fat rim covered in perforated leather. The front seats can be configured to encapsulate you like racing buckets, or relaxed to emulate the comfort of your favorite lounge chair. Both seats are heated, and covered entirely in red and black leather, with 10 modes of power adjustment available plus memory settings for both sides. Front seats feature the letter “F” embroidered on the side bolsters and headrests.

2014 Lexus IS-F 4-DR Sedan

Especially effective are the Optitron electroluminescent gauges, which come alive during night driving with a brilliance that will shock you. Right under your nose is a pie plate sized tachometer that reads all the way to 9,000 rpm. Redline is 6,800rpm. Flanking it on the right is a much smaller 210 (!) mph analog speedometer, augmented by a digital speed readout window. The important gear selection indicator could stand to be larger and more prominently displayed, since its current location in the upper right quadrant of the display panel plays hide and seek with the steering wheel. All trim surfaces on the dash and door panels are done in a silver carbon fiber like material that reinforces the F’s image as a race track bred machine. The cockpit is seamlessly constructed, with the kind of panel fit you’ve come to expect from Lexus. Most cars with track aspiration tend to look like boy racers designed them. The IS-F, on the other hand, with its merciful lack of flamboyant flourish, was expressly designed to appeal to the mature adult.

2014 Lexus IS-F 4-DR Sedan

This Lexus shows just how many cannons Lexus has stored in its go-fast arsenal. It’s not often that parent corporation Toyota displays this much technology. But every few years, the world’s leading auto manufacturer takes the wraps off something special. Last time it was the LFA, this time the IS-F. You might think it looks like just another gap-mouthed Lexus family sedan until you notice the bevy of subtle F monikers on its flanks, or the sizeable carbon fiber tail spoiler anchoring its trunk lip. At that point you realize this Lexus is in many ways directly related to the splendid prototype sports cars Toyota fielded at Le Mans in this year’s 24 hour race. No clearer example than the IS-F can be found to prove once again the adage that racing improves the breed.

2014 Lexus IS-F 4-DR Sedan

  • Engine: 5.0 liter V-8, DOHC, 32 Valves, Direct and Port Injection, VVT intake and exhaust
  • Horsepower: 416hp
  • Torque: 371 lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 16 MPG City/23 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $67,419
  • Star Rating: 10 out of 10 Stars

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Review: 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Summit 4×4 Diesel

Thursday October 16th, 2014 at 8:1010 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Summit 4x4 Diesel

By David Colman

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

The big news at Jeep this year is availability of a diesel engine for the Grand Cherokee model. Although this Eco Diesel option is not inexpensive, at $5,000, it will pay back dividends in mileage and cruising range unavailable with either of Grand Cherokee’s other gas engine offerings (3.6 liter V6 and 5.7 liter V8). If you opt for the diesel, your 24.6 gallon fuel tank will take you more than 700 miles between visits to the pump island. In addition, you will be able to tow a 7400 pound trailer thanks to the diesel’s 420 pound feet of torque. That prodigious torque output makes the Grand Cherokee diesel your best bet for towing duties. By comparison, the 5.7 liter V8 makes 390 pound feet of torque.

2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Summit 4x4 Diesel

Also new for 2014 is the appropriately named Summit model, a range topper which outranks the Overland as the most luxurious Grand Cherokee of all. If you haven’t examined a Jeep interior in a while, you will be smitten with the attention to detail inside this cabin. Our test Jeep, done up in Jeep Brown, is meant to emulate the colors of the Grand Canyon. To me it looked more like an advertisement for See’s Chocolates. Vast swatches of glove soft “Natura-Plus” mocha leather cover the seating surfaces and complement the matching open pore wood of the dash and center console. Even the steering wheel rim features real wood top and bottom segments. The suede-like headliner and A-pillars beg you to touch them. The instrument panel can be configured with a variety of displays thanks to thin film transistor (TFT) technology. The huge double paned panoramic sunroof blasts the interior with enough daylight and fresh air to dispel any trace of back seat claustrophobia. Though it’s hard to find demerits inside the Summit Jeep, flat, hard front seats cry for softer cushions and additional side support.

2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Summit 4x4 Diesel

Also new for 2014 is an 8 speed automatic transmission which offers torque multiplication in gears 1 through 5, direct drive (1:1) in gear 6, and overdrive ratios in speeds 7 and 8. The transmission up shifts and downshifts seamlessly. For 2014, all Grand Cherokees include paddle shifts for gear changes. The gear selection controller sits atop the center console, activated by a stubby T-handle lever with detents set so close together that it’s easy to get Neutral or Park when seeking Reverse.

2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Summit 4x4 Diesel

Although you might mistake this Jeep’s many luxury indulgences for a soft underbelly, that is hardly the case. In fact, the Summit is well equipped to conquer any unpaved road you care to tackle. This Jeep is Trail Rated, an honor bestowed only on vehicles which meet strict guidelines for ground clearance, maneuverability, traction, articulation and water fording. In the case of the Grand Cherokee, you can count on its sophisticated full time 4 Wheel Drive Quadra Trac II system to guarantee traction and maneuverability in the outback. As far as ride height is concerned, the Summit provides a Quadra Lift air suspension system that affords 8.7 inches of ground clearance in normal daily driving. You can elevate it 1.3 inches by selecting the Off Road 1 setting, or 2.6 inches for Off Road 2. With 11.3 inches of ground clearance in this rock avoidance mode, you can clear most any obstacle, or dare to ford stream beds. If you choose Aero Mode, or Sport setting, the Jeep drops 0.6 inch to a ride height of 8.1 inches for less wind resistance and better fuel economy.

2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Summit 4x4 Diesel

The Summit edition of the Grand Cherokee is a styling exercise that ticks all the right boxes for clean design. First you’ll notice new LED head and tail lights, and new charcoal rocker panels which match dark gray lower valences front and rear. The rear under tray houses exhaust tips, the front sports newly integrated fog lights. Bi-Xenon headlights swivel from side to side for improved back road illumination as you turn the steering wheel. Model specific polished aluminum alloy rims measure 8 x 20 inches and plant hefty contact patches on the road thanks to Goodyear Fortera HL tires measuring 265/50R20.

2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Summit 4x4 Diesel

The Summit diesel weighs 5,149 pounds, so you won’t be whipping it through S curves like a sport SUV. You’ll also become quickly cognizant of its heft when you make your first U-turn, an undertaking that uses up 37 feet of road and forces you to swing the steering wheel through 3.7 turns from lock to lock. But once you’ve seated four or five adults inside this luxurious cabin, and headed off road to do some serious trail blazing, you’ll marvel at just how much power, range and competence $59,000 will buy when you select this Detroit-built bargain of a Jeep.

2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Summit 4×4 Diesel

  • Engine: 3.0 liter V-6 Diesel, turbocharged, common rail direct injection
  • Horsepower: 240hp
  • Torque: 420lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 27 MPG City/ 28 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $50,875
  • Star Rating: 8.5 out of 10 Stars

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Review: 2014 Ford Fusion Energi SE

Wednesday October 15th, 2014 at 8:1010 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

2014 Ford Fusion Energi SE

By David Colman

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

Through the first third of 2014, Ford has sold 72,746 Fusions. That accomplishment places the Fusion fourth in the mid size market segment, behind Nissan’s third place Altima, Toyota’s second place Camry and sales leader Honda’s 112,100 Accord sales. The Fusion may lag the imports, but it is a rousing success compared to other domestic brands like Chevrolet’s Malibu (43,101 sales), Dodge’s Avenger (25,068) and Chrysler’s aging 200 (21,648). The reason for Fusion’s strong showing lies in its appearance, value, and diversity of models. Let’s start with looks, because that’s the first sales hook you’ll encounter. Ford blatantly emulated the grill silhouette of Aston Martin’s $300,000 DB-9 to distinguish the Fusion from anything else in the mid size segment. The Ford’s high belt line also mimics the Aston’s tall side/squat greenhouse proportions. The result is a very handsome product from Ford that rings the styling bell with cues borrowed from Aston’s James Bond closet.

The value facet of Fusion ownership manifests itself in the wide variety of affordable combinations Ford offers. No fewer than 9 different models are available for 2014, ranging in price from the FWD S at $21,900 to the Titanium Energi at $40,500. You choose from 4 different engine options, FWD or AWD, plus 2 plug-in hybrids designated SE and Titanium. The Energi (Hybrid) SE that is the subject of this review carries a base price of $36,700. With the addition of a $295 Reverse Sensing System and a $795 Navigation System, this Fusion SE’s delivered price is $40,585.

2014 Ford Fusion Energi SE

If you choose a Hybrid Fusion, you will lose considerable trunk space compared to a gas powered model. The high energy battery pack occupies a substantial section of the trunk floor, leaving you just a little flat storage area before the floor steps up sharply to house the battery and electric motor components. Note that although your warranty will cover all Energi system bits for 15 years or 150,000 miles, the high energy battery warranty is limited to 10 years or 150,000 miles. Since this Hybrid is only capable of covering 21 miles before its battery charge expires, the trunk space trade-off would seem to pose a considerable deterrent to selecting a Hybrid Fusion. An SE with gas motor only retails for just $23,855, and comes with an unobstructed and spacious trunk.

2014 Ford Fusion Energi SE

But the beauty of this Hybrid lies in its virtually undetectable transfer from electric to gasoline mode when underway. Whereas most such combo cars let you know quite clearly and noisily when switching from electric to gas power, the Fusion transfers energy source quietly and seamlessly. Under full electric power, it proved so quiet that we were able to sneak up on a bobcat hunting in the wild without alarming the cat. An idling gas engine would have instantly driven this cat into the bushes. So there are unanticipated blessings when running silently on electricity. Another Hybrid virtue is the shot of thrust the electric motor provides when you flatten the throttle. The 2.0 liter gas engine which normally provides 141hp and 129 pound-feet of torque, links up with the electric power source which adds 118hp and 117 pounds of its own torque. That’s more than enough surge to spring past slower traffic on two lane roads, or slot into a 70mph freeway pattern without worry. Best of all, you’ll do so while averaging 43 MPG in overall driving. If you restrict your Fusion outings to electric power only, you’ll register 100MPGe. As far as the Energi’s Greenhouse Gas Rating, it scores a perfect 10 out of 10 on the EPA/DOT barometer, and a 7 out of 10 on the Smog Rating scale.

2014 Ford Fusion Energi SE

Unfortunately, Ford equips the Energi SE with rock hard (Treadwear Rating: 430) Michelin Energy tires (225/50R17), that lose grip at the least provocation on twisty back roads. Because this sedan is otherwise so well balanced and sensitive to steering input, the Michelins detract from an otherwise pleasant handling package. If you replace them with something stickier, you might sacrifice a few MPG in favor of improved adhesion. It’s a move well worth making.

Learning to love the Fusion is easy because the interior is so well designed. In SE trim, the driver’s seat is heated and offers 10 power adjustments as well as 3 memory positions. The other front seat is also heated, with 4 power position controls. The rear seat is surprisingly comfortable for long trips. I spent several hours in back, comforted by a large center armrest containing 2 drink holders, and a pair of small, floor-mounted AC vents with adjustable nozzles. the only rear seat demerit stems from the Fusion’s high beltline and small windows, which tend to induce claustrophobia and motion sickness if you enjoy reading while riding.

Ford’s Fusion is leading domestic mid size sales because it looks good, rides well and offers a wide variety of combinations and price points. The Energi SE is one of a handful of Hybrids that’s not only economical to run, but also fun to drive.

2014 Ford Fusion Energi SE

2014 Ford Fusion Energi SE

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

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


Review: 2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited AWD

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

2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited AWD

By David Colman

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

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

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

2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited AWD

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

2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited AWD

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

2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited AWD

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

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

2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited AWD

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

2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited AWD

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

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


Review: 2014 Nissan Altima 2.5SL

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

2014 Nissan Altima 2.5SL

By David Colman

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

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

2014 Nissan Altima 2.5SL

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

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

2014 Nissan Altima 2.5SL

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

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

2014 Nissan Altima 2.5SL

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

2014 Nissan Altima 2.5SL

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

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Review: 2014 Toyota 4Runner LTD 4×4

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

2014 Toyota 4Runner LTD 4x4

By David Colman

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

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

2014 Toyota 4Runner LTD 4x4

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

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

2014 Toyota 4Runner LTD 4x4

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

2014 Toyota 4Runner LTD 4x4

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

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

2014 Toyota 4Runner LTD 4x4

2014 Toyota 4Runner LTD 4×4

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

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


Review: 2014 Mini Cooper Hardtop

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

2014 Mini Cooper Hardtop

By David Colman

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

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

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

2014 Mini Cooper Hardtop

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

2014 Mini Cooper Hardtop

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

2014 Mini Cooper Hardtop

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

2014 Mini Cooper Hardtop

2014 Mini Cooper Hardtop

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

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


Review: 2014 Chevrolet Spark EV

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

2014 Chevrolet Spark EV

By David Colman

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

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

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

2014 Chevrolet Spark EV

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

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

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

2014 Chevrolet Spark EV

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

2014 Chevrolet Spark EV

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

2014 Chevrolet Spark EV

2014 Chevrolet Spark EV

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

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


Review: 2014 BMW X5 xDrive 35i

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

2014 BMW X5 xDrive 35i

By David Colman

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

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

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

2014 BMW X5 xDrive 35i

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

2014 BMW X5 xDrive 35i

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

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

2014 BMW X5 xDrive 35i

2014 BMW X5 xDrive 35i

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

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


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