Review: 2014 Chevrolet Spark EV

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

2014 Chevrolet Spark EV

By David Colman

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

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

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

2014 Chevrolet Spark EV

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

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

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

2014 Chevrolet Spark EV

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

2014 Chevrolet Spark EV

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

2014 Chevrolet Spark EV

2014 Chevrolet Spark EV

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

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Review: 2014 BMW X5 xDrive 35i

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

2014 BMW X5 xDrive 35i

By David Colman

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

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

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

2014 BMW X5 xDrive 35i

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

2014 BMW X5 xDrive 35i

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

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

2014 BMW X5 xDrive 35i

2014 BMW X5 xDrive 35i

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

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Review: 2014 Porsche Cayman S

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

2014 Porsche Cayman S

By David Colman

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

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

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

2014 Porsche Cayman S

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

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

2014 Porsche Cayman S

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

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

2014 Porsche Cayman S

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

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

2014 Porsche Cayman S

2014 Porsche Cayman S

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

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Review: 2014 Ford Fusion Energi Titanium

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

2014 Ford Fusion Energi Titanium

By David Colman

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

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

2014 Ford Fusion Energi Titanium

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

2014 Ford Fusion Energi Titanium

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

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

2014 Ford Fusion Energi Titanium

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

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

2014 Ford Fusion Energi Titanium

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

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Review: 2014 BMW M235i

Thursday August 21st, 2014 at 4:88 PM
Posted by: D.Colman

2014 BMW M235i

By David Colman

Hypes: Track Loving Leech, Stealth Appearance
Gripes: No Passenger Grab Handle

The heart of this hot rod BMW is its splendid inline 6 cylinder turbo motor. Tuned to produce 320hp and 330lb.-ft. of torque, this quintessential BMW straight six is a joy to trot, canter or gallop. Although the engine produces maximum torque as low as 1,300rpm, you will be reluctant to reign in the sweet six before the tachometer sweeps past 6,000rpm. It’s one of the freest revving engines I’ve ever driven, with an exceptional proclivity for high rpm operation.

As a daily driver, the M235i passes the test with flying colors. It’s never temperamental, it has a sizeable trunk, and it will comfortably carry four adults should the need arise. Just park the gearbox in Drive, dial up the “Comfort” setting on the Driving Dynamics Control, and potter around town as if you were driving any conventional grocery getter. The M235i will make no demands of you whatsoever, in spite of its track bred pedigree.

2014 BMW M235i

If a stretch of freeway cantering should arise, you might want to crank the mode dial into “Eco Pro” to maximize mileage (32 MPG Highway). Closet racers will select the track oriented “Sport+” specification when riding this bronco at full gallop. For most driving, the “Sport+” choice is ideal. It stiffens the suspension, quickens the variable sport steering, and enhances the exhaust note. “Sport+” also replaces the car’s default setting of Dynamic Traction Control with Dynamic Stability Control, a sportier alternative which, as BMW points out, “allows the driver to handle several of the stabilization tasks.” It’s in this latter state of tune that the M235i really comes into its own.

The gear ratio splits of the Sport Automatic transmission are optimally configured for maximum acceleration. With 8 gears on hand, each successive up shift keeps the 3.0 liter on full boil. Best of all, when you get to the heart of the batting order – second, third and fourth gears – you hardly lose 500rpm with each up change.

You can climb into this diminutive coupe and instantly go fast. You really don’t have to fiddle with any of the Driving Dynamics controls BMW provides for optimization. The laws of physics infrequently overcome the inherent stability of this coupe, thanks to the beefy contact patches of its Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires (225/40 R18 front/245/35R18 rear).

2014 BMW M235i

Stylistically, the M package is so discrete that uninformed onlookers will hardly note its existence. Wind management, for example, is so conservatively handled that the stubby tail spoiler looks like the Gurney flap for a wing that’s missing. Subtle flutes and creases channel air through the triple honeycombed front grill slots. Thanks to sharply angled, auto-leveling, Xenon adaptive headlights, surrounded by LED “Corona” rings, this BMW greets you with the inscrutable masked gaze of the Lone Ranger. Out back, the deftly sculpted under tray incorporates marker lights and blackened exhaust finishers so subdued you hardly notice the car has twin pipes. The only flamboyant visual flourish is the use of silver metallic paint on the exterior rear view mirrors.

The indoor furnishings are equally buttoned down. Black on black is the byword here, with Black Dakota Leather sports seats held together by black stitching. The dash and door surfaces offer varying patterns of pebble grained black vinyl. Floor mats and carpeting are plush black velour, and even the fine wood trim inlays on the dash and door panels are striated ebony. Only the oversize M Sport dead pedal and entry kick plates shine with aluminum luster.

2014 BMW M235i

The power activated front seats are fully supportive without being confining. Depending on how much cornering resistance you need, you can notch the degree of pinch around your lower back electrically. The fat rimmed M Sport multi-function steering wheel provides a pair of protrusions designed to retain your thumbs at the proper 9 and 3 o’clock positions. Elongated alloy shift paddles feature rubberized edging for better control.

BMW’s latest Bavarian hot rod is an autobahn assassin. It’s beauty lies in the fact that it has more faces than Mount Rushmore. It’s adept at trundling and bundling. For touring it’s alluring. And for shredding it’s abetting. Car as mood ring, sympathetic to every personality trait from melancholia to mania. This BMW has the full range covered. And at just $49,025, it’s way cheaper and more fun than a long term shrink.

2014 BMW M235i

2014 BMW M235i

  • Engine: 3.0 liter in line 6, turbocharged, double VANOS valve actuation
  • Horsepower: 320hp
  • Torque: 330lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 22 MPG City/32 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $49,275
  • Star Rating: 10 out of 10 Stars

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Review: 2014 Cadillac ELR

Friday August 8th, 2014 at 3:88 PM
Posted by: D.Colman

2014 Cadillac ELR

By David Colman

Hypes: Brilliantly Engineered, Scintillating Appearance, Practical Electric Application
Gripes: Hard to Access Rear Seat, Vacillating Brake Pedal

The allure of the electric car has never shined brighter than it does in Cadillac’s ELR. If your daily drive runs twenty to forty miles, you will never need to visit a gas station, or refill your fuel tank. The electric only range of the ELR is rated at 37 miles. In actual practice we rarely exceeded that figure during a week of daily errand running. Driving for free certainly gives you a different perspective on the car game. Just plug in your ELR when you come home each day, and let it recharge over night. GM provides a handy 120V “Travel Charge Cord” which will plug into any wall socket and refurbish a completely discharged battery so you’re ready to roll the next morning. Recharging time takes between 12 and 18 hours on 120V current.

2014 Cadillac ELR

The beauty of the ELR – unlike the Tesla or Nissan Leaf – is that this Cadillac will never leave you stranded if you deplete the battery while on a trip. If the lithium ion battery pack runs out of charge, the ELR’s 86hp, 1.4 liter gasoline engine assumes the chore of returning you home. If you plan on traveling long distances, the gas only range of the ELR is a healthy 340 miles.

Before the ELR, you had to be willing to make certain compromises in practicality and comfort in order to diminish your carbon footprint. For example, the Chevy Volt, upon which the ELR is based, has offered many of the same virtues as the ELR for several years now. But by comparison to the ELR, the Volt’s many hard edges make it uncomfortable to live with on a daily basis. By refining the Volt platform, GM has made the ELR much more inviting and fun to drive than its Chevy predecessor.

2014 Cadillac ELR

For example, new HiPer front struts replace the Volt’s MacPherson struts, a Watts linkage absent in the Volt adds control to the Caddy’s rear suspension, ZF power steering is superior to the Volt’s unit, and the ELR’s variable rate shock absorbers greatly improve ride quality. The ELR sits 0.7 in. lower than the Volt, and plants a much more substantial tire footprint on the ground. Instead of the Volt’s skinny, rock hard hyper-miler tires, the ELR utilizes premium sports sedan rubber: Bridgestone Potenza RE97 245/40R20 at all four corners. The Volt drives and feels like a $40,000 car, while this $82,135 Caddy will quickly convince you it’s worth all the extra money.

Few sensations in life are as satisfying as whizzing through back road curves fast enough to hear your sticky Bridgestone tires singing their song of adhesion. The reason you can hear this aria is that there’s absolutely no engine noise to drown out the sound of the tires. On full electric propulsion for those initial 37 miles each day, the ELR is utterly silent. You can listen to the shocks damping the bumps, or hear that ZF steering rack hum as you dial it through 2.5 turns from lock to lock. This is pleasure driving at its best, free from noise, free from smog and free of charge. Only the regenerative brakes, with their inconsistent engagement point, spoil the fun.

2014 Cadillac ELR

Inside the ELR, Cadillac has amped up the level of opulence to top tier level. This electric powered coupe’s luxury fitment gives nothing away to BMW, Mercedes or Audi competitors. Especially lovely is the optional Kona Brown full leather seat package ($2,450) which smells inviting every time you climb aboard. The mocha colored leather is glove soft, and the seats are exceptionally comfortable and adjustable (10 way power). Once you accustom yourself to Cadillac’s CUE control system, you will enjoy its ease of operation. For example, if you want to raise or lower the volume on your favorite music, just slide your finger along the V-shaped chrome bar below the Bose premium audio unit. Most of the controls operate in this fashion, with many having duplicate overrides on the steering wheel. You can even control your regenerative braking by using the paddles connected to the steering wheel. This Cadillac also offers a full range of driving modes, activated by a slide button on the center console. “Tour” is most useful for conserving energy, while “Sport” is essential for vigorous driving where passing is anticipated.

2014 Cadillac ELR

Although charging the ELR at home worked wonders for our needs, we found that the 240V charging stations located around the North Bay are annoyingly inconsistent with electric vehicle needs. For example, none of the units would release their plug without use of a special RFID proximity sensing charge card. This despite the fact they all claim to offer your first 2 hours of recharging for “free.” Unfortunately, free is no good if you can’t even release the plug from its locked receptacle to recharge your car. And the stations we checked each required different cards, with different 800 numbers to call for application. This brilliant electric Cadillac deserves better treatment than offered by these bogus facilities.

2014 Cadillac ELR

2014 Cadillac ELR

  • Engine: 1.4 liter inline 4 with port injection; 2 electric motor generators
  • Horsepower: 217hp (combined)
  • Torque: 295 lb.-ft. (combined)
  • Fuel Consumption: 33 MPG (Gas Only)/ 82 MPGe (Electric)
  • Price as Tested: $82,135
  • Star Rating: 9 out of 10 Stars

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Review: 2014 BMW 435i xDRIVE Coupe

Monday August 4th, 2014 at 10:88 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

2014 BMW 435i xDRIVE Coupe

By David Colman

Hypes: Hyper Flashy Interior. 166mph Top Speed
Gripes: For $63K, They Could Put A Screwdriver in the Toolkit

BMW has introduced two new 4 Series coupes for 2014. What differentiates them is choice of engine. The 428i uses a turbo four cylinder engine, while the 435i offers a turbo six cylinder motor. Both are available in either rear wheel drive form or all-wheel-drive trim (which BMW calls xDRIVE). The top version of the 4 Series coupe is the 435i with xDRIVE, and this is the model we spent the last week exercising. Get a tight hold on the reins because it’s a mighty quick stallion. The 435 would is definitely the hot ticket for speed lovers. Its 3.0 liter turbo makes 300hp and 300lb-ft of torque. The 3,621 pound 435i, with its superior power-to-weight ratio of 12.07lb/hp, covers the Standing Start quarter mile in 13.7 seconds at 105mph, while posting a 0-60 run of 5.2 seconds.

Though the 428i and the 435i look much the same and share virtually identical structures, they are vastly different vehicles in feel and performance. For comparison purposes, you would do well to think of these two coupes in human terms. They represent the same person at different stages of the life cycle. The 428 is the youthful rebel, rambunctious, ready to party, a real back road butt kicker. But once the 428 gains a few years and a few pounds, it matures into the 435, graying slightly at the temples, a little thicker in the waist and thinner in the reflexes. These BMW coupes reinterpret BMW’s “ultimate driving machine” adage from different perspectives. The 428i is ultimate if you’re seeking hot laps with your tail and your tongue hung out. The 435i offers ultimate satisfaction if you aim to cover vast distance at a canter rather than a gallop.

2014 BMW 435i xDRIVE Coupe

The Coral Red Dakota Leather interior of our 435ix looks positively opulent. Just the thing for the mature swinger who still boogies to the Latin beat of Xavier Cugat. While purists might dismiss this kind of visual flamboyance in such a serious sporting BMW, the red and black combo really knocks your socks off. The heavily pebble grained seat leather adds another dimension to the gripping support afforded by these special seats that are part of the coupe’s $3,100 optional M Package. The 435ix carries a reasonable base price of $48,000, but posts a whopping bottom line of $63,725 due to the following additions: the aforementioned M Sport ($3,100), Cold Weather Package ($700), Driver Assistance Package ($950), Dynamic Handling Package ($1,000), Lighting Package ($1,900), Premium Package ($2,200), Technology Package ($3,150), M Sport Brakes (650), Concierge Services ($250) and Destination Charges ($925). I don’t know about you, but if I’m paying an extra $250 for “Concierge Services,” I expect a warm croissant and a cafe au lait be delivered to my Coupe every morning.

2014 BMW 435i xDRIVE Coupe

But these many additions do bring multiple benefits, such as a heated steering wheel, heated front seats, retractable headlight washers (Cold Weather Package); adaptive full LED lights, automatic high beams (Lighting Package); comfort access keyless entry, lumbar support, satellite radio with 1 Yr. subscription (Premium Package); navigation system with touchpad, Head-up display, remote services, BMW apps, enhanced smart phone (Technology Package). The heated steering wheel is a particularly welcome addition on chilly mornings, a most worthy substitute for that missing concierge. The graphics of the navigation system maps are spectacular, showing 3D topographical details that will take your breath away. The Head-up display, on the other hand, is something of a mixed bag. It plays your speed on the windshield, right under your nose. So there’s no excuse for pretending you didn’t know how fast you were going when the officer arrives to hear your tall tale. It also keeps you apprised of your cruise control setting, and instantly notes any changes to your prescribed speed. Unfortunately, the mirror face of the Head-up unit reflects itself in the windshield during sunny conditions, so you get a helping of glare with your order of info.

2014 BMW 435i xDRIVE Coupe

Although the 435i is slightly heavier, taller and more front weighted than its cheaper sibling, our test coupe had one big ace in the hole that was missing from the 428′s arsenal: all-wheel-drive. California State Route 175 connects the rural outposts of Hopland and Lakeport with 18 miles of the best driving roads you’ve ever traversed. On a midweek day, there was virtually no traffic in either direction to distract me from pushing the big BMW as hard as I dared. While it never seemed as light or agile as the 428i, it felt more planted and predictable than the four cylinder model when pushed to the limit. With the 19 inch Bridgestone run flat S001 tires (225/45R19 front, 255/40R19 rear) generating significant side bite, the 435ix refused to lose its tenacious grip on the pavement, no matter how hard I tried to conjure drift angles. While it may be lacking in drift challenge showboat potential, the 435ix is the BMW 4 Series coupe I’d chose for a cross country trip with bad weather in the forecast.

2014 BMW 435i xDRIVE Coupe

  • Engine: 3.0 Liter inline 6, Turbocharged and Intercooled
  • Horsepower: 3000hp
  • Torque: 300lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 20MPG City/30MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $63,725
  • Star Rating: 9.5 out of 10 Stars

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Review: 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited 4×4 Diesel

Friday August 1st, 2014 at 2:88 PM
Posted by: D.Colman

2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited 4x4 Diesel

By David Colman

Hypes: Intuitive UCONNECT Interface, Stellar Diesel Cruising Range
Gripes: Doors Need Slamming for Closure

Jeep’s latest iteration of the Grand Cherokee line offers remarkable flexibility of use. It’s a tough truck, a comfy limo, and an economy ride, all rolled into one very handsome product. The truck part of the equation will take you just about anywhere on or off road, especially if you order your Jeep with the optional, “Trail Rated” $2,495 “Off Road Adventure II” package. In well appointed Limited trim, this spacious Jeep behaves more like a plush and expensive foreign bred sedan than a domestic sports utility. All the seats are heated, with 8-way adjustability for the front pair. The cabin is plush and quiet, and the new 8.4 inch dash-mounted touch screen offers more climate control and entertainment options than Microsoft’s house of tomorrow. When you order your Jeep with the new-for-2014 V-6 turbocharged diesel ($4,500 extra), your Cherokee will effortlessly yank a 7,400 pound trailer while still managing 24 MPG in overall fuel consumption. Pulling that kind of load with ease is what 420 lb.-ft. of torque will do from a standing start. Jeep’s new 8-speed automatic gearbox is standard across the Cherokee line this year, and its paddle shifted multiplicity of gears immensely enhances the low-revving performance of the new diesel.

2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited 4x4 Diesel

Of course, if you’re looking to Jeep for a faster Grand Cherokee, a couple of contenders will put you into the BMW M5 and Porsche Cayenne GTS class. Along those lines, you can up horsepower by selecting either the optional 5.7 liter V-8 (360 hp) or the dragon slayer SRT8 version which generates 470 hp from its 6.4 liter motor. The price for such extra grunt is substantial, with the 5.7 liter V8 barely capable of 20 MPG and the 6.4 liter SRT motor good for about 15 MPG. From a practical standpoint, then, you can’t beat this new diesel, which makes just 240 hp, but produces enough torque to rival the SRT Hemi for towing purposes.

2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited 4x4 Diesel

Jeep performed a mild, yet highly successful restyling of the Grand Cherokee’s front fascia for 2014. The results look better than Botox. Below the carryover traditional seven slot grill, an aluminum framed lower intake scowls menacingly. Newly condensed Bi-Xenon headlamps impart a squint to the Jeep’s face that distinguishes it from any other SUV on the road today. If you opt for the sublimely luxurious, $3,000 optional “Luxury Group II,” those slit lamps are automatically adjusted for variable vehicle height, flick automatically from low to high beam as required by traffic, and impart a carnival glow in broad daylight thanks to LED daytime running lights. The seemingly pricey package provides much more than just better illumination. Among the inclusions: a huge Panorama sunroof that gives backseat captives the pleasurable illusion that they’re riding in a convertible. We took a foursome on a day long excursion along the twisting, sometimes nauseating Coast Route, and never heard a single complaint about backseat discomfort.

The 8.4 inch screen, which is also part of the Luxury II package, is a wonder of technology. Chrysler’s UConnect system is far superior to other, nominally similar domestic and foreign offerings such as Ford’s MyTouch, Cadillac’s CUE, and BMW’s iDrive. For ease of use, it’s hard to beat UConnect’s intuitive operation. This system, which encompasses everything from climate control to phone usage to infotainment sources, immediately summons whatever touch screen you might need, and presents the information in a visually clear and obvious way. As soon as I received this Jeep for my weekly drive, I spent about 10 minutes reconfiguring everything about its behavior to suit my personal preferences. For example, I eliminated the annoying valet seat slide and steering wheel tilt, then muted the remote fob door lock chirp. And I did so with absolutely no prompting from the owner’s manual. Good thing too, since the manual was absent from the glove box.

2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited 4x4 Diesel

This latest Grand Cherokee with its hyper efficient diesel motivator represents a remarkable accomplishment for Jeep and parent company Chrysler. Its Quadra-Drive II 4WD system allows you to select any suspension height or traction setting from outback to sand to snow with the simple twist of a fat dial on the center console. In normal pavement mode, the admittedly heavy (4,900 lb.) Cherokee tends to lose front axle grip first in twisty turn work. Yet the Michelin Latitude mud and snow rated tires (265/60R18) manage to extricate you from even the most precarious incipient slide by clawing the pavement resolutely. Even when you’re pushing this behemoth to the limit, you’ll never irritate your riders, who remain blissfully unflustered thanks to this Jeep’s uncanny composure in duress. You could hardly ask for more than that from any SUV, and the fact that this one, fully loaded, slides in under $50,000 makes the ownership experience all the more remarkable.

2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited 4x4 Diesel

2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited 4×4 Diesel

  • Engine: 3.0 Liter V6 Turbocharged Diesel
  • Horsepower: 240hp
  • Torque: 420lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 21 MPG City/28 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $49,185
  • Star Rating: 9.5 out of 10 Stars

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Review: 2014 Infiniti QX80 AWD

Thursday July 31st, 2014 at 4:77 PM
Posted by: D.Colman

2014 Infiniti QX80 AWD

By David Colman

Hypes: Big As Texas, Rich Furnishings
Gripes: High Step-In, Pedestrian Looks

When a friend recently bought a Chevy Suburban, I asked him why he chose such a large SUV. With a slightly baffled look, he replied: “Because I want as much real estate as I can afford.” Even more than the Suburban, Infiniti’s newly renamed QX80 is the king of road real estate. It’s simply gargantuan – in size, weight, appearance, horsepower and cost. Let’s start with the last item first. Unless you’ve got an SUV slush fund with eighty grand in the kitty, you’ll have to content yourself with a little less acreage than the QX80′s ranchero. Base price here is $64,450. From that vaunted starting point, the option groups keep coming like tumbleweeds in a dust storm. The $4,650 Deluxe Touring Package consists of a 15 speaker Bose stereo system, climate controlled front seats, semi-aniline leather all around, and richly lustrous Mocha Burl trim. Of course you’ll want your QX to stand Texas tall, so you’ll opt for the outlandishly huge 22 inch, 9 spoke, forged alloy rims with 275/50/R22 Bridgestone Dueler H/T tires at each corner. That bit of bling will set you back $2,250. And if you have some pint sized back seat occupants, parental obligation requires you to order the $3,100 Theater Package to keep them entertained while you fiddle with your $3,250 Technology Package. Bottom line: $79, 096.

2014 Infiniti QX80 AWD

Is it worth that kind of money? If you can afford the buy-in and the gas bills (combined city/highway average of 16MPG), the answer is a resounding yes. The justification the QX80 offers in exchange for its hefty price is its do-it-all capability. Carry 7 adults? No problem. Its triple row seating looks like a small auditorium, with rich furnishings for all 7 occupants: 2 up front, 2 behind, a 3 in the tail. Tow 8,500 pounds of trailer? The QX’s monster 5.6 liter V8 will clean and jerk that much weight without working up a sweat. After all, you’re utilizing 400hp and 413lb.-ft. of torque. And best of all, you never need worry about road conditions, because the Q-ship provides full time all-wheel-drive, with such elaborate options available from the driveline and 7 speed automatic gearbox as High and Low AWD,Tow Mode, Snow Mode, and Hill Start Assist. With its elevated stance and plethora of tinted windows, the QX80 towers over traffic. No one has a better view of the road than you do.

2014 Infiniti QX80 AWD

Thanks to the Technology package, this SUV has more built in cameras than San Quentin. The little nubbins are up front and out back, in the windshield and under the rear view mirrors. You’ll never get away with an errant lane change without having the QX tattle on you with a little blink or chirp. In fact, there’s so much oversight available here that it won’t be long before you start disabling some of the systems to maintain equanimity. For example, you’ve got Blind Spot Warning and Intervention, Lane Change Warning and Intervention, Forward Collision Warning (with Brake Assist), Backup Collision Intervention, and Intelligent Cruise Control. When all these nannies are in full nag mode, you’ll find yourself dealing with an alarm from some source every couple of seconds. At least the system allows you to quell its Cassandra-like paranoia to suit your own level of apprehension. I used the 10 inch wide in-dash monitor to delete most of the technology overload. The best option of all is to delete the Technology group from your vehicle’s build sheet. You’ll not only save $3,250, but preserve you sanity as well.

2014 Infiniti QX80 AWD

Aside from those niggling considerations, the QX80 is a really terrific long haul companion. It maintains surprising composure on back roads despite its ungainly proportions, near 3 ton bulk (curb weight: 5,990lb.) and high center of gravity. And when the big Q sets sail on the freeway, the miles glide by so effortlessly you think you’re commanding a Greyhound Scenicruiser rather than an SUV.

Admittedly, the box on wheels shape of this Infiniti will not quicken your aesthetic pulse. But once you’ve tossed about a dozen steamer trunks in the back, you’ll learn to respect its insatiable 49.5 cubic foot cargo bay. You’ll quickly learn to love the easy QX80 conversion from seats up to seats down. That’s because all 4 rear seats can be dropped electrically with just the push of a button. Even the tailgate is electrically opened and shut. That kind of practical convenience will quickly make you overlook road king’s artistic shortcomings. If you’re looking for maximum road acreage, this Infiniti is just the ticket.

2014 Infiniti QX80 AWD

2014 Infiniti QX80 AWD

  • Engine: 5.6 Liter V-8 with VVEL and DIG
  • Horsepower: 400hp
  • Torque: 413lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 14 MPG City/20 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $79,095
  • Star Rating: 9 out of 10 Stars

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Review: 2014 BMW 328d xDrive Sports Wagon

Wednesday June 11th, 2014 at 8:66 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

2014 BMW 328d xDrive Sports Wagon

By David Colman

Hypes: Impeccable Build Quality, Exceptional Utility
Gripes: Sluggish Throttle Response, Wide Spacing of Lower Gears

The 328d diesel powered wagon is something of a conundrum. It enjoys the trappings of a sport focused offering, yet doesn’t ultimately live up to the flamboyant promise of its appearance. With a base price of $42,950, it carries a reasonable premium of just $1,500 over that of the $41,450 petrol powered all-wheel-drive wagon. A quick gander at our diesel’s specification sheet would lead you to think that this wagon has everything it needs for quick travel, M Style. Start with the attention grabbing azure paint. Of the 13 wagon colors available this year, our test vehicle’s Estoril Blue Metallic finish ($550 extra) is the only one of the baker’s dozen limited solely to use on M Sport equipped wagons.

2014 BMW 328d xDrive Sports Wagon

A $3,580 M Sport group adds 18 inch model specific wheels, sport seats, aluminum hexagon interior trim, anthracite headliner, M steering wheel, aerodynamic exterior refinements and shadowline trim. The SensaTec seat material feels enough like leather to make you forego the $1,450 up-charge for Dakota Leather. Another $1,000 brings adaptive M suspension and variable sport steering. For a comparatively modest outlay of $49,275, this is the sportiest diesel wagon you can buy from BMW.

The wagon’s handling is faultless. The all-wheel-drive (xDrive) system allows the all weather Pirelli P7 tires (225/45R18) to secure such a tenacious pavement purchase that you hardly ever need resort to BMW’s standard Dynamic Stability Control or Dynamic Traction Control. The balance and poise of this 3 Series platform encourages you to explore its handling attributes by switching the M Sport’s Driving Dynamics Control into the “Sport+” setting. Sport+ eliminates Dynamic Stability Control from the handling equation, thus allowing you to experiment with adhesion limits. You never entirely forget that with its weight distribution split of 48.7% f/51.3% r, this all-wheel-drive wagon has slightly more tail to wag than any other 3 Series offering.

2014 BMW 328d xDrive Sports Wagon

But xDrive’s full time all-wheel-drive traction helps overcome that rear weight bias. This BMW accelerates through switchbacks effortlessly. Never so much as a chirp of protest is heard from the scrabbling Pirellis. Instead of losing speed through chicanes, the wagon maintains its footing and composure better than you do. With its comparatively low center of gravity, the 328d upholds the concept of sports driving better than any jacked up BMW Sports Activity Vehicle. And best of all, you pay only a 10 pound weight penalty for selecting xDrive over rear-drive (3,790 pounds vs. 3,780 pounds).

The performance conundrum’s negative facet reveals itself when you toe into the diesel, expecting acceleration to match the explicit handling. Most of the time, you don’t get it. One of the most disconcerting drawbacks of the diesel is its reluctance to respond to your toe the instant you floor the throttle from a standing start. Although BMW’s lists a 0-60mph time of 7.6 seconds for the 328d xDrive, you’d be well advised to avoid maneuvers that require instant engine response. On the other hand, one of the main attractions of diesel motivation is stellar fuel consumption. In this regard, the 328d posts gratifying EPA numbers: 31 MPG, city, 43 MPG versus highway. The combined city/highway figure is 35 MPG, and cruising range is 645 miles with a 15 gallon tank.

2014 BMW 328d xDrive Sports Wagon

Another enticement is the aft cargo area, which offers multiple storage options. This wagon will allow you to slip a fully assembled bicycle into the cargo hold. All you have to do is drop both rear seats flat, remove the net partition and cargo cover struts, and you have unimpeded access to 53 cubic feet of storage space. The standard power operated hatchback door eases loading chores, as does the tailgate’s separate flip open rear window.

Normally overlooked back seat passengers will rejoice in the comfort of conveyance here. The rear seats are well contoured for long journeys. A drop down central armrest serves as a double drink caddy, while both front seat backs contain storage pockets with netting. Floor mounted rear ventilation ducts allow for individual climate tailoring, separate reading lights illuminate each outboard position, center seat belt receptacles store out of the way when unneeded, and rear windows retract fully into the doors.

2014 BMW 328d xDrive Sports Wagon

The diesel sports wagon provides a fully inhabitable environment for four, with more than enough luggage storage (13 cubic feet with rear seats up) for a comfortable overnight trip. For families, this car is an ideal transit solution. For speed merchants, it has its own galaxy of challenges to offer and conquer. There’s very little you can throw at it – or in it – that the 2014 328d xDrive can’t handle. And done up in Estoril Blue, this slinky beauty is sublimely easy on the eyes.

2014 BMW 328d xDrive Sports Wagon

  • Engine: 2.0 Liter inline 4 Diesel, turbocharged
  • Horsepower: 180hp
  • Torque: 280lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 31 MPG City/43 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $49,275
  • Star Rating: 8 out of 10 Stars

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