Don Armstrong’s Automotive Reviews
Jeep Grand Cherokee
This coveted trophy doesn’t come easy. Not only does the Grand Cherokee master some brutal Hill Country terrain, but must garner respect of some pretty polished journalists.
These wordsmith’s gather once a year to drive almost every truck and SUV/CUV known to man, with some categories bulging with entrants. Styling –both interior & exterior, fuel economy, handling and value, among others, play an important role in judging. It’s not an easy road for manufacturer entrants.
New for 2013 is the Grand Cherokee Trailhawk edition, one of 10 specialty vehicles in the Jeep lineup. It features Jeep’s Quadralift air suspension that can adjust the Cherokee’s ride height for maximum off-road ground clearance or lower it for improved fuel economy and comfort. Finding the right suspension and gear-box setting is easy with the Selec-Terrain controller found on the center console. It’s as simple as turning a knob and punching a button.
For protection from unwanted rock crawling injuries, the Trailhawk edition also comes standard with skid plate and rock rail protection and Goodyear Silent Armor Kevlar tires. Model-specific suede and leather trim seating round out the features.
All 2013’s get either a 290-horse 3.6-liter V-6 or the stump-pulling 5.7-liter V-8 that produces 360-horsepower and 390-lb.ft. of torque, good enough for towing up to 7,400 pounds. Along with its Trail Rated nomenclature, now you can say “major travel trailer rated.” The Trailhawk model comes with the V-6, which is a perfect fit in our opinion.
We did put the Trailhawk on the Kinibbe Ranch off-road course, which included some pretty rough terrain, a dip in the Guadalupe River and a major rock out-cropping, all of which were handled with ease. A quick jaunt on a paved road then on to highway speeds proved very comfortable, not only in ride quality and handling, but also in interior quietness, proving to us that the statement “Most Awarded SUV Ever” lives up to the title.
The 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee starts at $27,495, the Trailhawk edition begins at $41,995.
We looked for competitors and found a few wannabe’s including the Toyota 4-Runner, Honda Pilot and Nissan Pathfinder, but when it comes to value for capability, you just can’t beat the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
VW Jetta Sportwagen 2013
I know, as soon as you heard the title of this story, you clicked to something else. I get it, but for those that like things like Presidential/Vice Presidential debates or arguing with the Middle Eastern man behind the bullet-proof plastic at the corner Stop-n-Rob about the outdated ads for one dollar packs of Marboro’s in the window, appease me please and listen for a couple of minutes here.
Like minivans, wagons are NOT dead, despite what you may have heard. In fact, they are our Western European neighbors’ crossover/SUV and here’s why: It gets the fuel economy of a car, is maneuverable like a car, rides like a car and has as much room behind the 2nd row seat as some SUV’s and, in some cases more, especially with the back seats folded down.
Let’s start with fuel economy. When powered by VW’s TDI 2.0-liter Clean Diesel, the Jetta Sportwagen can get up to 42-mpg on the highway and 30-city. And if that’s not the best part then maybe one of these are: the six-speed dual-clutch automatic helps this thing haul butt AND does it without the embarrassment of black locomotive-style smoke pouring from the exhaust pipe or the clikity-clack sounds coming from under the hood. It’s clean and quiet.
So you’re saying, “I don’t know where to buy diesel, my station doesn’t have it.” Do you know how to use Google? You’d be surprised at the growing number of stations repurposing it’s seldom used mid-grade gasoline underground tank for diesel fuel.
Now to the car itself, the body design is conservative. In fact, our test car was that oh-too-popular brownish/beige; the kind my 90 year old dad used to drive. They do offer other colors so please appease me? If you like the straight horizontal grille between the headlights and the overall look of last year’s Golf, then you’ll love the Sportwagen because that’s pretty much what it is.
Seating is covered in what VW terms “Leatherette.” Could have fooled me, I’d swear they were real hides. Like the exterior, the dash is very conservative in design too. That’s not a bad thing, but for those trading in a vehicle that has lots of interior sculpted swoops and curves, this may be a bit too conservative.
If there was anything that rubbed me the wrong way was the touch screen controls. I’m one that believes no one should have to open the instruction booklet to learn how to change radio stations or input your favorites. I know I’m getting old and technology is NOT my strong suit, but the IT folks in Germany certainly didn’t consult with us Americans on ease of use here. I will say that once you fumble you’re way to something you can live with, the sound system is pretty good.
As for the ride quality; it’s German with an American likability about it. No it’s not a Mercedes or BMW…because it’s a Volkswagen. What VW has done is to combine the likeability of German handling with a softer sprung ride and it works for me.
So here’s what I’m thinking: If you want to paddle upstream, against the flood water of what seems to be a never ending deluge of SUV’s and crossovers, then check out the Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen TDI. Look at it like shopping for and ElCamino in a full-size truck lot. SUV versus wagon, heck, I might have just given VW its next marketing idea.
Starting price is $20,395, the TDI clean Diesel begins at $25,540. Get the diesel!
We give the SportWagen 4 out of 5 stars.
If you’re shopping, you’ll also want to check out the Ford Focus and the Mazda 3.
Ford F-150 King Ranch
Once a year, Texas Auto Writers Association members gather at the Kinnibe Ranch outside of San Antonio. Here, truck manufacturers’ offer up their latest creations for us to test on just about every kind of terrain the Texas Hill Country has to offer. And the 2012 winner was the Ford F-150.
Not much was changed on the 2013 model from the 2012 except new grilles, wheels, a few accoutrements and some minor shuffling of equipment packages along with an all-new Limited trim level.
There is a carryover engine option that I’m sure you’ve heard about, Ford calls it EcoBoost. The twin-turbo, all-aluminum 3.5-liter V-6 EcoBoost engine, with its 365 horsepower and 420 lb-ft of torque, provides best-in-class towing capability of 11,300 lbs along with up to 20 percent fuel economy savings over the V-8. The EPA rates the EcoBoost in the 2-wheel drive model at 16-city and 22-highway. We highly recommend it, if it fits into your hauling and towing requirements.
Naturally, Ford gave us the high-end King Ranch model to drive around the Island for a week and I can see why it’s so popular among the drug store cowboy set. Here is the proverbial lap of luxury that starts with its Texas born-and-bred moniker. But it is just one among several upper trim levels that begins with the Lariat and also includes the Platinum and the all-new Limited models, each with their own special badging and trim combos.
New for the 2013 King Ranch is a 3-bar grille, 20-inch machined aluminum wheels, ambient lighting, Sony Radio with HD and single CD player and the new 8-inch touch-screen. To make it easier for the REAL cowboys, buttons below the touch-screen are designed to be used with work gloves.
Ford marketing folks named the hides on the seating “Chaparral Leather.” You can call it anything you like, but you are sure to use adjectives like “fine” and “beautiful.”
Although we didn’t punish the suspension with pasture ruts, ant mounds or piles of dried gumbo clay, I’m sure every cowboy in the state has done just that and Ford knows how to build them for a decade of service without a trip to the shop.
On the road, the F-150’s manners are well healed – almost limo-like – so your trips to the mainland and back will be just like an easy bay breeze.
The F-150 does have competitors, namely the Ram 1500, the Chevy & GMC 1500’s and, to a lesser extent, the Toyota Tundra.
We would highly recommend driving each one for at least a day before plunking down your hard-earned cash. Of course, there are those cowboys & girls that are either brand loyal or are swayed by friends, family or ads. Just drive ‘em all so when asked, you can at least say you did.
The F-150 King Ranch starts at $42,825 and gets a 5 out of 5 stars rating.
Listen to Don Armstrong’s In Wheel Time radio show every Saturday morning 9 AM to Noon on Yahoo! Sports Radio 1560 am
2013 Chevrolet Cruze Eco
There was a day not long ago that the only REAL players in the compact sedan segment were Honda, Toyota and Mazda. Not any more.
Now when I say Chevrolet you may have visions of Vega, Citation or maybe even Cobalt. Forget all that. The Chevy Cruze brings a whole new game to the compact scene in the form of a very competitive sedan that I would put up against any of the aforementioned competitors and win.
There is only so much you can do with a 4-door box and Chevy has molded it into an attractive package that could easily be called Malibu’s little brother. Now, I use the word “little” loosely because today’s compact is anything but little, especially on the inside, and this is where the Cruze really shines.
The first thing that pops out is the cleaver way the interior design team negated the expanse of the hard plastic dash with a swatch of attractive cloth material that integrates part of the upper door panels into the dash, covering the area directly in front of the passenger. Not only is it sharp looking, but adds a bit of refinement in this segment.
I’m a big proponent of cloth seats. Why not leather? Too hot. Why no sunroof? Too hot. Chevy does a great job with its cloth seats, leaving out the flowery prints, instead, putting the interest in fabric design. Nice touch.
Sedan buyers always open the trunk lid and we did too since this is where luggage and Christmas presents will soon reside. Surprisingly, there is 15.5 cubic feet of space here, which is as much as some crossovers behind the third row seat
The instrument cluster in our Eco includes a changeable display between the speedometer and tach that reports every variable in fuel consumption. I found myself using the button to change the display as much as I did the radio. Funny how these fuel conscious cars have that affect on you.
At the top of the center stack is a 7-inch display screen that includes the optional navigation system with MyLink. Easy to use and understand. Volkswagen, take note.
Under the hood of our Cruze Eco is a 1.4-liter turbocharged engine that delivers 138 horsepower, the same as the standard 1.8-liter, but with more torque and better fuel economy, 26 MPG-city and 39-highway when coupled to the six-speed automatic transmission. I actually got 42 on a trip to Dallas and back.
Another nice surprise offered by the Cruze is its ride and handling. I was expecting the typical rent-car mush, but found myself wanting to take corners faster than you’d normally manhandle an American compact.
Now the best part, pricing. There are currently 5 trim levels available. The base LS model starts at $17,130. Our Eco tester begins at $20,875. Options, including the bargain basement-priced navigation at $795, bumped the sticker to $24,470.
While shopping, you’ll also want to check out the Hyundai Elantra, Ford Focus and Mazda 3.
I really liked the Chevy Cruze Eco and am giving it 4.5 out of 5 stars
Infiniti M37 S
It’s no secret that I am a big fan of Japanese luxury rides…not ALL of them, but most, and after a week in the M37 S, I want one.
The “M” takes the mid size luxury sedan right up against the heavy hitting Germans with the 2013 model. Its rounded corners, rectangle, open-mouthed grille and low-to-the-ground swagger with class tell those in the know that you are a man (or woman) of distinction!
The M37 has the body of a 30-year old fitness instructor, the agility of an Olympian and the power of a new age weight lifter with just the right cut.
Under the hood resides a 330-horsepower V-6 that powers the rear wheels through a 7-speed automatic transmission. All-wheel drive, a V-8 and a hybrid models are also available.
Without boring you with all of the gear-head banter about suspension components, stopping power, 2” sway bars, McPherson struts, cornering G-force and other gobbledygook, I’ll let you read to yourself from the Infiniti web site.
I want to get to the interior. Now THIS is what an interior is supposed to be. Comfy seating for 5 – really for 4, but who wants to sit on the middle backseat hump? The perforated leather seat inserts have a mysterious, subtle shadow stripe pattern that will have you saying, “Wow, nice touch.” They are heated and cooled, of course. For that lucky sole that gets to ride shotgun, your rear speaker sound is delivered through optional Bose speakers on either side of the headrest, just like the driver’s.
If you’re really into the drive and don’t want to move your hands from the steering wheel, then cruise, radio and paddle shifters await your command. Otherwise, a nicely arranged center stack topped with an easy to use touch screen will certainly accommodate all HVAC controls, sounds, mileage calculations, engine performance stats and maybe even a nice cup of Earl Grey tea.
The feature I was fascinated with was the Forest Air system included in the Deluxe Touring package which, according to the press materials, “creates a sense of refreshing climate and natural breezes of a relaxed forest setting.” Heck, I couldn’t have written that any better. I’ll buy it!
Oh, but wait…there’s more. Standard on all M models is Active Noise Control, which generates “canceling” sound from 4 door speakers to reduce unpleasant engine harmonics. Here’s what’s “sick” about that, it works. This has one of the quietest cabins I have ever been in.
Okay, I know you’re asking, “Don, get to the packages and pricing.” Okay, here we go.
Base price on the Infiniti M37 is $48,200. The “S” or Sport designation adds $3,750. The Technology package, that includes things like blind spot & lane departure warnings, cruise and distance controls, among a slew of others tacks on $3,050. The Bose Sound, Forest Air and rear sun shade come under the Sport Touring header. And last, but not least, is the Premium Package that includes Nav, voice recognition and all of the other techno stuff, for $4,200. That brings the total sticker price, including destination, to $62,095.
I’m giving the Infiniti M37 S 4.5 out of 5 stars.
If you’re shopping in this price range be sure and check out the BMW 5 Series, M-B
E Class and the all-new Cadillac XTS
Chevrolet Silverado 2500 HD w/ 6.6 Duramax Diesel
It wasn’t very long ago that a pickup truck with a capacity rating above the 1500 or 150 designation was strictly for work …not anymore. With the advent of bigger and heavier RV’s and boats, most half-ton pickups strain to pull its load up hill, out of the water or down the interstate, while most ¾-ton’s do it with ease, especially those equipped with a diesel. Today, each of the Detroit big 3 tout bigger and better 2500’s or 250’s than ever before and we found out how right they are when we got a chance to see what the Chevrolet 2500 HD with the 6.6-liter Duramax diesel could do.
Think of your ½-ton on steroids. Everything is bigger, beefier and badder, and in our case, just as nice – or nicer – on the inside, than many cars we drive. Big, comfy captain’s chairs upfront are just what the doctor ordered for those long cross country hauls. There’s a big storage tray on the center console with removable cup holders and a storage-well big enough to hold several 10-pound bass.
Although I am personally not a big fan of the fake plastic wood treatment in any vehicle, car or truck, Chevy did a pretty good job this one. The center-mounted touch screen and climate controls are easy to master and the instrument cluster is more car-like than you’d expect.
The fold up 60/40 split bench in back is comfortable and roomy, and will get high marks from any passengers.
A truck that’s rated to pull almost 9 tons has to have big bones, so Chevy gives the 2500 a fully boxed frame, much bigger brakes and a beefed up suspension. Although a capable 6-liter gasoline engine is standard, we recommend the Diesel with almost 400 horsepower and a whopping 765 lb-ft of torque. That’s enough grunt to uproot 100 year old oak trees. Although not EPA rated, our city/highway combo mileage averaged 16 mpg, which isn’t bad for this big locomotive. Of course, a 36-gallon fuel tank helps stretch the time between stops at the refinery.
When you’re talking about a beast like this, ride quality is like a horse-drawn buckboard without something for it to do, like a big load of dirt in its bed or a drag-behind 9-ton camper with slide-outs and rocks. This thing is happiest when loaded up.
Base price is $42,670, but we got the diesel version, which tacks on an additional $7,195, which must be coupled to the ruff ‘n’ ready Allison 6-speed transmission for another $1,200. Another amenity that may seem trivial is the touch screen navigation for $2,250. Be sure to get that because you’d hate to make a wrong turn on the way to Aunt Mary’s house.
With a litany of other options, the grand total for our tow monster is $58,590. Yes, it’s a lot, but no more than the competition, and like we said, this thing could be named Bluto for its towing and payload capability.
Unless you’re a died-in-wool Chevy fan, be sure to give the competitors a look too; Ford’s F-250 Superduty and the Ram 2500.
I’m giving the Chevrolet 2500 HD Diesel 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Buick Verano 2013
New as a 2012 model, the baby Buick caught many of us journalists’ off guard. Here was entry-level luxury in a compact sedan package that looked great and felt right then and the new 2013 model adds a bit more swagger to it.
The Verano is built on the same platform as the Chevy Cruze, but don’t think for a minute that it looks or acts like a Cruze. Buick managed to massage the ride characteristics and looks – both inside and out – to give the Verano a luxury twist that the Cruze simple doesn’t own.
If you like the look of the Buick line, you’ll love the Verano since most of its design cues were taken from the Enclave, LaCrosse and Regal including an arching roofline and the signature Buick waterfall grille.
The interior really shines with straight forward lines that make sense. On the road, this is one of the quietest cabins on the planet thanks to special glass and attention to the type and placement of noise deadening stuffing.
Another surprising interior find was rear seat legroom. For my 6-foot frame, back seats are NOT usually a priority for knees. Somebody at Buick drank the legroom Koolaid and called my name.
What would a Buick be with some bells and whistles? Well, it wouldn’t be a Buick now, would it? It has all of the goods that you want and expect in an entry-level luxury car and what isn’t standard is certainly available.
The Verano is powered by a solid 2.4-liter EcoTec 4-cylinder engine that produces 180 horsepower. The 6-speed automatic transmission is my choice for gear boxes, but for those that want to row it yourself, a 6-speed manual is available. Fuel economy is 21-city and 32-highway.
Some naysayers among the motoring press have complained that 180 horses just isn’t enough in the Verano and there should be at least an option for more power. Buick heard those cry babies and now offers a sweet little 2-liter turbo 4-banger that cranks out 250 horsepower and still gets 20 and 30 MPG. Oh yeah…0 to 60 in 6.2 seconds too…from a Buick!
Entry level pricing on entry level luxury starts at $23,080, the turbo model begins at $29,105.
So you’re gonna shop the competition and here’s what you’ll find; The Acura TSX. Nice little ride starting at 30K. The Infiniti G Sedan beginning at 33 grand and the Lexus IS 250 that starts at 33-8. Get the picture? The Buick, starting at 23, is the new found bargain here.
I’m giving the 2013 Buick Verano 4.75 stars out of 5.
2013 Land Rover Range Rover
The all-new Land Rover Range Rover is scheduled to make its U.S. debut at dealerships in about six months and this one is sure to garner crowds around it.
Taking visual cues from the wildly popular Evoque, the new Rover keeps its “floating roof” design, but with a pronounced slope toward the rear glass. This, coupled with a more steeply raked windshield, and the 2013 Range Rover get’s a body sculpting overhaul that is deserving of a 40-year old.
If there were drawbacks to the outgoing model it would be weight and accompanying fuel mileage. Both of those items have been addressed for 2013. Our U.S. version will tip the scales 700 pounds leaner than the 2012 version due mainly to its all-aluminum unibody construction.
In addition to the sleeker sheet metal, the British born legend gets new lighting front and back including the latest in LED technology.
Although the interior will retain many of the key elements that make the vehicle what it is, the layout and décor are brought into the 21st century with a cleaner, more elegant (if you can imagine that) and more contemporary flare with a wider center console.
If you’ve seen the current driver control surfaces, you know that it looks like the cockpit of a space shuttle. No more, as the new Range Rover comes with no less that 50% fewer buttons, knobs and switches.
That’s not to say any of the ride and traction control functions are lost to this house cleaning, quite the contrary. The new Terrain Response system now features an automatic setting that analyzes the current road surfaces and driving conditions and selects the most suitable terrain program for you.
The Range Rover retains its adjustable air suspension system but with an available “lean control” feature, that reduces the degree of body lean during cornering.
There are two V-8 power plants available, one delivering 375-HP and a 510-HP Supercharged model. Expect fuel mileage to improve from the 12 and 18 currently on the road thanks in part to its 700-pound diet and a new 8-speed automatic transmission.
Although pricing on the 2013 land Rover Range Rover hasn’t been officially announced, expect it to start somewhere north of the current $94,820 for the Supercharged model and $79,425 for the entry level version.
I’ll reserve the star rating until I get a chance to drive it, but keep in mind there are a number of high-end competitors that are worthy of comparison including the Infiniti QX56 and the Mercedes-Benz G Class.
Fiat 500 Abarth
The Abarth is named after Italian hot rod legend Karl Abarth, who believed small, lightweight, everyday driving cars could be turned into little road rockets through reengineering key elements of the mass production model.
The Fiat 500 Abarth is just that car, based on the Sport production model.
Key elements that have been changed or upgraded include a different front bumper that allows more room in the engine compartment for its turbocharged 1.4-liter Multiair engine and all of its plumbing, mainly for cooling air. Two large air inlets provide air to the twin turbo intercoolers.
A quick-shifting 5-speed manual transmission delivers power to the front wheels through half-shafts that are twice the size of regular 500’s, ensuring that there is no breakage with the increased power.
And what would a little hot rod like this be without an exhaust system that told everybody you are driving something extra special. The Chrome-tipped dual exhaust emits a throaty burble at idle and screams, “I’m haulin’ the mail” at full song.
A magic “sport” button resides on the dash by the driver’s right hand. By engaging it, the Abarth’s engine control module gets a buzz cut and unleashes its maximum “stuff” including a more performance-weighted steering feel.
If you thought the interior of the Fiat 500 was cute, the Abarth model keeps the cute and adds a good dose of manly chest hair, starting with an Abarth designed steering wheel that includes a thicker rim, flat bottom and perforated leather with cruise and radio controls – when you’re not at the track.
If you still doubted its racing heritage, check out the 160-mph speedometer with tachometer and the adjoining turbo boost gauge with shift light.
Seating features a one piece design with pass-throughs for racing harnesses, should you actually get serious about putting it on the track. One of my pet peeves is a seat whose head rest is too close to the back of my head. This is one of them. I can’t imagine having to wear a helmet in this seat. Your line of sight will be your feet instead of the road ahead.
As for pricing, let’s get things in perspective first. A regular, entry-level Fiat 500 starts at $15,500. The Abarth model begins at $22K. That’s a healthy jump, but it’s still not much to pay for this kind of performance straight from the factory.
The Abarth has racing series written all over it, kinda like the Mazda Miata MX-5 Convertible has for years, yet the Mazda starts at $23,470. I think the Miata may have met its match with the Abarth.
I’m giving the Fiat Abarth 4.75 stars out of 5
The Chevrolet Volt is a plug-in hybrid that operates unlike any other; here’s how: A single 10-hour overnight charge from your 110-volt household electrical outlet in the garage will get you anywhere from 25 to 40 miles of gasoline and emissions-free commuting, depending on how heavy footed you are.
Translated; the average American commute to work is 16 miles. That means that even if your employer doesn’t have an electrical outlet for you recharge one you arrive at work, you can still make it back to the house on that overnight charge you paid about $1.50 for. There is at least on Texas power provider that is promoting free electricity at night, so charging the battery during the specified hours could cost you nothing.
So what happens when the battery is depleted? A 1.4-liter, 84-horsepower gasoline engine kicks on to power up the generator to give you an additional 344 miles of driving before a stop at the gas station.
Here’s the window sticker’s breakdown on the Volt: 94 MPGe and 37 MPG with the gasoline engine. It states that you’ll save $7,600 in fuel costs over 5 years with an out of pocket gas bill of $1,000 per year. Sound like a lot? Not at all. Have you ever done the math on the amount of money you spend in a year filling up your ride?
As for the car itself, the design is sleek, aerodynamic and very GM. The ride and handling are very good with an almost German-car feel. The back 2 seats are comfortable, but like almost all mid-size 4-door sedan’s the legroom can be a little tight.
Up front are two info screens. For the driver, the screen is reconfigurable, so various functions can be displayed including whether your right foot is caressing or abusing the accelerator pedal. I liked that display the most, just to see how well I could do to keep up with traffic from a stop while using the least amount of electric power. I did pretty well after a few tries.
One new item on the 2013 model that is worth noting is a “hold” function. Say you are taking a road trip that involves highway AND city driving. In the “normal” mode, the Volt would use all of it’s stored electricity first, then switch to the gasoline engine once it’s depleted. The “hold” function allows the driver to use only battery power during those typical gas-sucking city speeds.
My Volt was pretty much loaded up with options, like the $2,000 high-end audio and navigation system, Bose speakers at $500, leather everything for $1,400 and polished wheels to the tune of $600. What I’m saying hear is, just like every other car, tack on the options and $39,145 base price swells to $45,170 after the $850 destination charge.
Although the Volt gobbles up highway miles with ease, is navigation really necessary? It is designed as a commuter car that CAN get to Dallas and back without being plugged in. On the other hand, when you get into this price range most folks opt for the most if not all of the extras we mentioned.
The government currently offers a $7,500 credit on the car, so that should help a little.
Chrysler 200 Convertible hard top
Are you ready for a drop top in your life? If you’ve never driven one or ridden in one, I think I’ve found the perfect, affordable topless cruiser for you, the 2012 Chrysler 200 Convertible hard top. This boulevard baby has everything going for it, most notably, the price.
The Chrysler 200 got a complete makeover in 2011 and sales have proven that the improvements are well received. Among the upgrades were the power plant, its ride and handling characteristics and a very nice interior.
The 200 took the place of the Sebring; new look, new name. Although there are striking similarities between the Sebring’s sheet metal and that of the 200, it’s what’s underneath that adds up to a greatly improved car.
The Chrysler 200 Convertible comes with a soft top or steel retractable hard top in three trim levels, the Touring, Limited or S model; I had the mid-level Limited. Engine choices are between a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder or the 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 that delivers 283 horsepower and gets a respectable 19 mpg-city and 29-highway through a 6-speed automatic transmission. That’s what I had.
I love the way the 200 rides and handles; this is the way a mid-size convertible is suppose to feel. The suspension is compliant enough to handle what is quickly becoming some of the worst streets in any major American city, yet it doesn’t “float” like Grampa’s Oldsmobile.
My 200 was equipped with a strikingly beautiful two-toned leather interior in black and white. Front seating was nothing short of complete comfort and while your rear might have felt good in the back seat, leg room was a little tight for my 6-foot frame, which is pretty typical for most mid size two doors.
Chrysler included plenty of soft touch material; on the dash, arm rests and center console. The dash and center stack are elegant in a simple way; just the right amount of chrome and a wonderful, easy to use touch screen user interface. And don’t forget the signature analog clock too. Love it.
Trunk space leaves a little to be desired, but hey, it’s a convertible! The 200 comes with a storage-well that reminds you not to put anything in that space or the roof won’t retract into it. A couple of thoughts here: Either don’t plan on top-down motoring while using it to haul stuff to Aunt Mary’s or confine your Samsonite’s to two carry-on size briefs in front of the storage-well and enjoy the free tanning salon on wheels.
Entry-level pricing on the Chrysler 200 Touring convertible is $26,955. My Limited model begins at $31,950. The retractable hard top adds $1995 and the UConnect interface with GPS an additional $695.The Grand total of my 200 limited Convertible was $35,490.
About the only real competitors in this price range are the Camaro and Mustang.
I’m giving the Chrysler 200 Convertible 5 out of 5 stars.
BMW 3 Series
Well, I had my chance behind the wheel of the all-new sixth generation of this automotive icon and I have to agree – for the most part – that this “little sedan that could, did.” And here’s why.
First, BMW doesn’t stray too far from the design of its outgoing models. Let’s face it, part of what makes a car successful is its familiar look, but like almost every other carmaker, BMW increases the size of the new 3 Series in almost every way. In fact, it’s almost as big as a 5 Series just a few years ago. Is that because current owners want a bigger car? If that’s the case, then why don’t the buy the larger model? Sorry, I just don’t get it.
As for the new “look” of the 3, think of it as the “freshman 15,” you know, your kid leaves for college in August and comes back at Christmas – 15 pounds heavier. In this case, however, the car actually weighs 88 pounds less than its predecessor thanks to extensive use of weight saving materials both inside and out. There is still no mistaking the look of the new car for anything other than a BMW 3.
The new “3” is offered in three different trim levels, Sport, Luxury and Modern, each with its own look. The Sport has black grille slats and red accents that transfer into the interior. Luxury is as you would expect, high gloss chrome grille and other chrome trim elements along with special stitching on the leather seats, just to name a few. The Modern Line distinguishes itself with satin aluminum finishes and wood inlays in the interior.
For all of us die-hard lovers of BMW’s famous in-line six cylinder engine, it is still offered – thank goodness – but the talk of the town is the new 4-cylinder engine. The 328i now comes with a 2-liter I-4 with a twin-scroll turbocharger and direct injection, good for 240 horsepower and 23 MPG-city / 34-highway, making it the most fuel efficient BMW ever sold in the U.S. A 6-speed manual transmission is standard and an 8-speed automatic is optional.
Let’s not forget that this is a German-built performance sedan and that means it has a stiffer ride than what you may be familiar with in most American or Asian-built machines. That’s not to say it rides like a race car, but it is capable of going around corners at a brisk pace without losing grip. For the BMW purist, you may not like the new electric steering since part of the 3’s allure is the feel of the road. Although it dulls the feedback a bit, most won’t even notice.
Now the interior, it is everything you might expect from the evolutionary process including more room. I didn’t say “a lot more room,” just more room and it’s proportional throughout the cabin. The dash and center stack remain uncluttered thanks to the iDrive user interface. To me, it’s still too hard to maneuver through all those pages to perform simple tasks, but I will have to live with it…I guess. Just tell me to stop complaining and I will.
Seating choices are dependant on the trim level you choose, so sit in all 3 of them.
The 328i starts at $34,900 while the 335i begins at $42,400. Expect a nicely equipped 335 to set you back about $50 G’s.
If you’re already sold on one then you won’t want to bother with cross shopping the competition. If not, then take a look at the Audi A4, Mercedes C-Class and the Infiniti G.
I’m giving the 2012 BMW 3 Series 5 out of 5 stars.
Infinity FX 35 Limited Edition
If there were ever a sports car SUV it would be in the Infiniti FX. The FX exterior with long hood and descending roofline is the embodiment of a hot rod with offroad-styling. Infiniti calls it a performance crossover.
In the 4th year of the second generation FX, the most noticeable styling change is a refreshed front grille and fascia, which takes cues from the Infiniti Essence Concept.
I was asked to review the new for 2012 Limited Edition model with the available Iridium Blue exterior, which is exclusive to this special model. Shod with low profile tires on 21-inch graphite finished rims, this FX 35 is knock-your-socks-off beautiful – in a manly kind of way.
The FX is available with a V-8 or V-6 power plant, connected to a 7-speed automatic transmission. The 3.5-liter V-6 delivers 303 horsepower to a full time all-wheel drive system that is part of the Limited Edition model, something I normally wouldn’t recommend for us in Houston. However, since this is a road warrior, it certainly adds grip for autocross bragging rights.
The transmission features a thing Infiniti calls Adaptive Shift Control. ASC logs driving habits and fine tunes the transmission to best fit your individual style, making the transmission more responsive or fuel efficient, whichever cup of tea you choose to sip. Downshift rev-matching is another standard feature that us Indycar driver wannabe’s can appreciate too.
I was disappointed to find out that paddle shifters are available only on the V-8 equipped FX. The whole idea behind this road rumbler is performance and, to me, paddle shifters should be a standard feature across the FX line.
This is a luxury SUV in every sense and there is no questioning that title the instant you open the door and get behind the wheel. The first confirmation is the quality of materials; soft touch hard surfaces, fine leather and a minimal amount of chrome and brushed aluminum.
Sturdy knobs, buttons and switches are the other tip off. Many times we lose track of the fact that well designed machines come with quality nuances that don’t jump out at us until we go from a $20,000 vehicle to a $50,000 one like the FX. And it’s not just subtle things like door handles and lighting either, it includes solid underpinnings, bushings, brakes and the just way things are screwed together.
This mid-size is like many others in its class…it has a limited amount of rear seat leg room and because of its zippy roofline, cargo space doesn’t measure up to what most of its competitors offer. But this isn’t a vehicle you’d typically load up with camping gear either.
FX ride quality is something you either seek out or has you shopping for something else. The word “performance” should have given you an indication of ride quality. Our Limited Edition FX is wound up tighter than Dick’s hat band and there are many suspension items that contribute to the stiff ride; shocks with rebound springs, big stabilizer bars, both front and back AND the 21-inch wheels with low profile tires.
When I was 20, it was important for me and my passengers to feel they were riding in a race car. Not so much anymore, but the FX ride quality reinforces its “performance” label. Its V-8 counterpart, the FX 50, offers driver selectable settings and that may help soften the ride enough to let me give it 5 out of 5 stars instead of the 4.5 it deserves.
Base price on the 2012 FX35 is $43,700. My Limited Edition model starts at $52,000 but comes with everything, including a great nav system. Overall, I love this crossover, just wish I had the option of giving it a little more compliant ride.
2013 Mazda CX-5
The 2013 Mazda CX-5 may be just what the Doctor ordered for this Japanese automaker. Here is a long awaited and overdue remake of a relatively popular compact crossover that brings styling and mileage that many of its competitors wish they could tout.
First, the styling of the CX-5 is far better than the outgoing model by leaps and bounds. Not that the old was bad, but sculpting is “in” and instead of going with the typical Japanese mantra of “if the old sold, then let’s not change it,” Mazda chose to start design with a blank canvas. Some of the words Mazda uses to describe its exterior styling are: sculptured, shapely and sweeping swoosh line. Also getting a re-do is the old smiley face grille, that I think turned a lot of potential buyers off. In its place is a new “five-point” signature wing design.
The interior is anotherhigh pointof the Mazda CX-5. Again, the highlight is sculpting. There are very few flat surfaces. Instead, is a sweeping dash that is beautifully designed with a focus on the driver. Audio and climate controls are easy to reach and the touch screen located at the top of the center stack is user friendly and intuitive. No, you don’t have to get the owner’s manual out to figure it out. As for dash color, if you like something other than black then you might have to shop another brand.
Seating is comfortable but the head support is one of those that is too close to the back of my head. This is one of my pet peeves and if I bought this car, a trip to the fab shop would be in order so I could have the brackets bent back to keep it from slapping me on the back of my head.
There is adequate leg and headroom in the back seat and a generous amount of cargo room too.
Ride and handling in the CX-5 should be considered sporty, due in part to its relatively light weight of 3,200 lbs. This also helps contribute to its 26 mpg-city and 32-highway when equipped with the 6-speed automatic. Not enough? Shift through the 6-gears manually and you can bump up the highway mileage to 36!
However, don’t expect the automatic transmission to react to subtle movements of your right foot. If you’re looking for instant gratification, get the manual.
Another contributing factor to the CX-5’s impressive fuel mileage is the little engine that could, a 2.0-liter power plant called the Skyactive-G engine. This high compression, naturally aspirated motor delivers a meager 155-horsepower and only 150-lb.-ft. of torque. This shouldn’t be an issue with most mom’s, but load it up with gear for the beach, 2 adults and 3-kids and you may wish for a little more grunt. Unfortunately, this is the only engine currently offered. Hey Mazda….how ‘bout a turbocharged model to put a little more zing in its step?
There are three trim levels, the Sport, Touring and Grand Touring, each of the touring models heaping on those luxuries in generous doses until you get to the Grand Touring (which I had) that comes with everything but navigation, that’s an additional $1,325. MSRP for my loaded up CX-5 – with nav – was a respectable $30,415.
I give the Mazda CX-5 4.5 out of 5 stars.
2013 Chevy Equinox
The Chevrolet Equinox rolls into 2013 with a new, more powerful 3.6L V-6 engine, Chevrolet MyLink Radio with Navigation and other features that will help maintain its momentum as one of the industry’s most popular small crossovers.
The current body style debuted in 2010, so the current Equinox should be familiar to you, especially since Chevy sold 193,000 of them in 2011 and sales were up 15% in the first five months of this year. But in the highly competitive small crossover segment there seems to be an all-new or completely updated model coming out everyday and automakers are being pressed into keeping up with the Joneses every way.
I, for one, am a big fan of the available two toned dash. Along with the stylish layout of instrumentation and the center stack, the contrasting colors of the dash make the interior really pop. Another nice feature is the sliding rear seat that allows for more cargo behind it when it’s tucked up closer to the front seats and more legroom when pushed back.
Chevy’s MyLink system integrates Internet radio stations such as Pandora® and Stitcher SmartRadio® using hands-free voice and touch-screen controls through your Bluetooth-enabled phone. It also adds stereo audio streaming and wireless control of smartphones. A high-resolution, seven-inch, full-color touch screen display makes media selection easy to navigate.
There are 3 trim level offerings, the LS, LT & LTZ, but if those prepackaged levels aren’t exactly what you want, then there is a long list of options to shop from. Or just go for the gold with the LTZ , select the high end MyLink and be done with it.
Ride and handling is another matter. Personally, I like it – although the turning radius is a little big. Others may say that it has dull handling and ride quality …doesn’t let you “feel” the road. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to “feel” the road in an SUV. This isn’t a sports car that I’m expecting to carve a path on freeway fly-over ramps at 80 MPH.
Chevy offers two engine choices in the Equinox, a 2.4-liter I-4 with 182-HP or the new, direct-injected 3.6L V-6 that will put a smile on your face. Not only does the 301 horsepower engine deliver 14 percent more power than the outgoing model, it delivers the same fuel economy, 17-city and 24-highway. Both engines are connected to a 6-speed automatic transmission in either front wheel or all-wheel drive configurations. Towing capacity jumps too, from 1,500 to 3,500 lbs with the V-6. That’s good enough to tow a small camper.
If crossovers from Toyota, Honda or Kia are on your shopping list, do yourself a favor and stop by the Chevy store to check out the Equinox. Starting at $23,530, it may get you thinking “American” again.
Overall, I think the 2013 Chevy Equinox is an excellent choice as a small family hauler and give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Suzuki Grand Vitara
The somewhat dated looking body style is still attractive, albeit a little on the boxy side. One drawback is the side-hinged cargo door. I understand that the weight of the full size spare mounted on it precludes top hinges, but jeep remedied the problem by mounting their spare on a separate bracket that is swung to side before opening the top hinged gate. Nose to tail or parallel parking makes getting anything in or out of the cargo hold a nightmare with a side-hinged door.
Once past that issue, cargo room is ample and the space is equipped with a hard, shell-type, folding and removable cargo cover.
The Suzuki Grand Vitara comes in 4 trim levels, Base, Premium, Ultimate Adventure and Limited. I had the Ultimate Adventure model.
This new addition to the lineup adds 18-inch alloy wheels, foglights, integrated turn signal mirrors, heated front seats, water-resistant seat upholstery and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. The seats were comfy and the two toned leather attractive.
The dash and center console layout were straight forward with easy to understand controls arranged in easy to use, logical fashion. Unlike most vehicles, navigation is not “built-in” to the center stack. Instead, Suzuki adds a storage compartment on top of the dash that holds a removable Garmin. I have mixed feelings about this setup. With the door closed, potential thieves don’t know if the device is actually in there or if you have removed it. With the door open and the Garmin in plain sight, the vehicle is begging to be broken into and the portable nav ripped off. Not to mention the broken window. When navigation was relatively new, this was a great feature because you could take it with you on the plane and use it in your rent car. Not so much anymore.
Some reviewers don’t like the ride quality of this Suzuki. I, for one, do like it. In an SUV or crossover, this is one of those areas that comes down to personal comfort. In my opinion, an SUV slash crossover in Houston rarely ever sees anything other than concrete, nor is it used in an autocross-style competition, so give I’ll take a ride that’s not going to beat me to death and doesn’t feel like its going to tump over on the freeway exit ramp and I’m good. The Grand Vitara delivers on both counts
On the other hand, the power train lags behind almost all of its competitors. The 2.4-liter engine delivers and underwhelming 166 horsepower. Now that would be okay if this were in a small sedan, but a relatively heavy vehicle like this needs more oomph or a transmission with more gears. Here again, the 4-speed automatic has become pretty much a thing of the past for most manufacturers. Perhaps the 5-speed manual would be a better fit, but I didn’t have that. The EPA rates the Suzuki Grand Vitara at 19 MPG-city and 23-highway. I can vouch for the 19-city as all of my driving was done around town. A 4-mpg boost on the highway would seem an honest call.
Now here is a big redeeming feature for the Suzuki… price. Starting at $19,499 for the base model, this may be just the right price point for value-minded young families that don’t mind its shortcomings. Even my next-to-the-top Ultimate Adventure model has a $23,949 posted price that could probably be negotiated down to a tick over $21K.
If you’re in the market for an entry-level compact SUV, you may want to also shop the Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage. The Toyota Rav4 and Honda CR-V also compete in this category, but can get pricy if you start adding options.
Rumor has been swirling for a couple of years now among us journalist-types that Suzuki is going to pull out of the American market, since advertising is pretty much non-existent. Perhaps they realize that by supplying test vehicles to guys like us, Suzuki can get enough FREE advertising to keep enough folks walking in the door…even if only for a little while longer. However, if that were to happen, I don’t believe it would be too big of a problem as parts and service would continue to still be available.
I give the Suzuki Grand Vitara 3.5 out of 5 stars.
Volvo XC60 T 6R
Have you ever wondered what happened to Volvos televised crash tests where it seemed nothing could hurt the darned things? Well the TV grandstanding may have ended but the Swedish engineers are still hard at work across the pond ensuring the cars and SUV’s they build are as safe as ever.
With that said, I recently had the opportunity to drive the Volvo XC 60 T6 R-design, a compact luxury SUV that should be on your shopping list if you’re looking in the $33 to $43 thousand dollar range.
The XC 60 is a 5 passenger Sport Ute that separates itself from European, Asian and American SUV’s in its class with a sporty, aerodynamic exterior design and a unique approach to interior luxury.
This is not the old boxy design of years past, so get that out of your head right now. As for the interior, it hits a certain “I like it, minimalist” style that is quite appealing. Let me explain; the center stack in the XC 60 isn’t cluttered like most of today’s other offerings. The flat panel between driver and front seat passenger has enough space around the audio and climate controls that it makes a statement…it actually draws your attention to its clean, sparse, approach to design. Nicely done I say.
As for standard features, the list is long and includes all of the niceties you’d expect in a luxury compact SUV. I’m not sure how many times you use heated seats in Houston, Texas, but I, for one, can do without the Climate Package and I’m not a big fan of sunroofs. In this heat, are you kidding me? Unfortunately, it’s part of the T6 designation. Okay, I’ll take it if I have to.
The interior leather and fabrics are also different, from the stitching placement to the headliner. Now you may think, “How can he make such a big deal out of these subtle little things?” It’s the subtle little things that add up to make the whole and the whole in this story is a fabulous, different kind of ride from the everyday, run-of-the-mill luxo sport utility vehicles.
The ride quality is also different – it must be in the water or something over there. A taut ride usually translates into harsh or stiff, but the Volvo XC 60 is more sports car-like; nimble to throw around corners but doesn’t give you the feeling of being top-heavy.
My T 6 R-design is fitted with a 3.0-liter turbocharged inline 6-cylinder power plant. Most 6’s these days are of the V variety – 3 cylinders on each side. This may help designers put that engine in a small space but it many cases it hurts torque. On the other hand the straight 6 typically produces enough grunt to be felt the moment you leave a standing start. Turbo charge it and you’re gonna kick almost every one else’s butt.
My first hot rod motor was a Inline 6 with two one barrel carbs an Offenhauser manifold and dual point ignition. Had so much torque, it pulled the front wheels off the ground during hard launches.
Of course power comes from fuel and the T6 R-design is a little thirsty getting only 17-city and 23-highway.
The T6 also comes standard with all-wheel drive while the lower priced XC 60’s are equipped with rear-wheel drive and all-wheel optional.
As for competitors in this upper end class of SUV’s I would have to include the Audi Q5 and Mercedes GLK 350. Personally, I like the Volvo better than either one. That’s not to say they suck…not at all. I just like that Swedish touch – no not message, Mikey.
The base price of the Volvo XC 60 is $33,300 while the all decked out T6 R-Design begins at $43,700. Tack on the Platinum bells and whistles and your drive out is about 50 G’s.
I’ll give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Quirky is a word that may be overused in the automotive world to describe not-so run-of-the-mill vehicles, but it’s the best word we’ve found to describe the 2012 Kia Soul, so we’re gonna use it.
You may be familiar with the look of the Soul since there are many of them around the streets of Houston. It’s your basic little box with a car-like nose. The trailing edge of the box is slightly tapered so as not to mimic the Scion xB – which it doesn’t .
There are 3 trim levels, two of which have quirky names, base, + (plus sign) and ! (exclamation mark). I had the top of the line ! model.
This loaded-up Soul has everything you’d want and expect in a car that starts at $19,600 for the “!” model and includes 18-inch alloy wheels, automatic headlights, foglights, LED daytime running lights and taillights, a sunroof, houndstooth pattern two-tone upholstery, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and the Audio Upgrade package. If you tack on the Premium package for another $2,500 you’ll get what I had… keyless ignition/entry, leather upholstery, heated front seats, automatic climate control and a navigation system with real-time traffic.
So how does it drive? Awesome. Now I’m not trying to sell this car, just being totally honest here. This is NOT a sports car, so I didn’t expect, nor want, sports car-like ride and handling. This is an everyday, user friendly, fun, nicely equipped car that can zip you around town with a sporty-type ride, yet won’t beat you to death with a stiff suspension.
Highway travel is a breeze too. There is plenty of passing power in the 2-liter, 4-cylinder engine that whirrs out 164 horsepower. I had the 6-speed automatic transmission, which is the only one available in this top model. If you want a stick-shift – which I couldn’t imagine why – a six speed manual is available in the base and plus models.
I grew up in an era when controls were all operated manually and still really appreciate climate and audio adjustments that can give me the instant satisfaction I’m looking for. But I also appreciate navigation with a touch screen that incorporates audio, so I know the artist to which I’m listening, or the year the song was released.
One crazy feature that took me back to the late 60’s was lighting surrounding the speakers in the front door panels. Not only can you change the ring color but you can also synch it to the beat of the music. My friend Tommy (Puss) Wilson strapped a similar gizmo under the dash of Renault Dalphine and I thought that was the neatest thing, almost as good as Mike Campagna’s “reverb” unit located in the glove box of his Chevy Biscayne.
As for shopping comparisons to the Soul, let’s mention again the quirky Scion xB, just a lot more bulky looking , the Chevy Sonic and the bizarre, weird, odd-looking Nissan Juke. The only reason we throw the Sonic in there is pricing and size, other than that, it’s what I consider more mainstream in looks. As for the xB, it may have more interior space, but the current model losses a bit of the quirk and leans more toward ugly.
Speaking of ugly, another competitor to the Kia Soul is the Nissan juke. Now my fellow Texas Auto Writers all raved about its power and handling, and if that’s what you’re after, then I must agree. However, I can’t get past the disjointed front end on the Juke. Imagine wanting to show off your new girlfriend and you bring the chick nobody wanted to date to the party. What do you say? Oh, how nice, what a cool ride, absolutely love it…while deep down inside all of those friends and family members are wondering if you were high on something when you thought she looked good.
Back to the Soul, here’s what I really like about it. It’s kind of like a wagon without the wagon look, with plenty of cargo space to handle the Home Depot stuff or the kids soccer equipment with comfortable rear seating. If you need to haul a nightstand to Aunt Mary’s house or take your better half on a weekend back to nature trip, fold down the rear seats and you’ll still have room for the dog.
Oh, and did I mention fuel mileage? The 2.0-liter Soul gets a solid 26 mpg-city and 34-highway.
I’m giving the Kia Soul ! a five out of five stars. Loved it!!
2013 Lexus GS350 F SPORT 4-door
Overview: The all-new GS brings with it a much sportier feel and appearance than its predecessor. Quicker steering, retuned suspension, stiffer chassis and a slightly wider track combine to vault this mid-size sedan to now compete with some of Germany’s best.
Instead of packaging and marketing various trim levels of the GS, Lexus chose to group upgrades under “options” – although the F SPORT option shows up in emblem form on the truck lid.
Even though the base model is well equipped, we we fortunate enough to nab the $6,130 F SPORT option that includes 19-inch graphite colored wheels shod with summer tires, special suspension & steering, big brakes with 4-piston calipers and a litany of interior and exterior upgrades.
We were particularly fond of the Drive Mode selector located on the center console. When the urge struck, all we had to do was select from one of the 4 driving style options, sending us from smooth and calm to Dario Franchitti-style in a mere twist of the dial.
The best option was the $1,380 Mark Levinson surround sound audio system. This 835-watt noise maker is about as good as it gets in mobile audio.
If you don’t think the V-6 has the sound of a V-8, think again. Lexus has added what they call a intake sound generator to make the GS growl like a V-8 when you step on its tail. We like it.
If there were any complaints it would be with the joy stick type controller that connects you to audio, climate and navigation. Although not as bad as the iDrive system that BMW refuses to change, there are better interfaces out there. After toying with it for a week, we got better at drilling through the menus to change from navigation to audio.
This all-new GS is definitely worth considering if you are looking for a luxury sports sedan
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Highest MPG City: 19
Highest MPG Highway: 28
Trim Designations: Base
Base Price: $46,900
What I Liked: New “spindle” grille and overall styling both inside and out
What Needs Improvement: Joy stick controller for user interface
Star Rating: 4.5 out of 5
2012 Toyota Prius 4-door hatch
Last week, I had the pleasure of getting the best hybrid I have ever driven, the Prius c. I know, you’re asking, “so Don, what makes this thing so great?” There’s not one thing in particular, it’s the whole little package.
The Prius c’s heart lies in the form of Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive, albeit a somewhat scaled down version since the car itself is considerably smaller than the regular Prius. And it weighs a lot less, 2,500 pounds to be exact. Although we wouldn’t call it “peppy,” there’s plenty of power to get out of the way of most anything. What’s really important here is the c’s impressive fuel mileage, 53-city and 46-highway – and it get’s it. An overnight trip to Waco and back proved its truth in advertising all while zipping to and fro at speeds up to 75 mph. And this is touted as a city car?
Despite its smallness, the interior is works well with two adults up front. It’s a little tight in back, but still capable of toting a couple of friends. The contrasting dash colors give it some eye candy and the cloth seats work well in central Texas heat.
Be sure to include the Entune system with your purchase. Toyota’s new driver interface is easy to use and offers the latest is connectivity
Once you drive the little high-miler, I think you’ll agree that money talks and….well, you know the rest.
Horsepower: 99 total with electric boost
Highest MPG City: 46
Highest MPG Highway: 53
Trim Designations: One, Two, Three, Four
Base Price: $18.950
What I Liked: Fuel mileage & styling
What Needs Improvement: I keep hearing complaints about a rather stiff suspension, but I like the ride quality sostop complaining!
Star Rating: 5 out of 5
2012 Toyota Camry LE
The base L and LE trim levels, keeps the Camry affordable with a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine delivering 178 horsepower.
The SE and XLE trims get the 3.5-liter V-6, sportier suspension and interior and exterior bling and plenty of upscale options including leather and the new Entune multimedia system.
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Highest MPG City: 21
Highest MPG Highway: 30
Trim Designations: L, LE, SE,
Base Price: Entry level L $22,055 – SE $26,640
What I Liked: More aggressive exterior styling & cleaner lines. Interior boasts more soft touch materials and attention to details.
What Needs Improvement: SE Sport-tuned suspension may be a little too stiff for some.
Star Rating: 4.5 out of 5
2012 Ford F-150 EcoBoost
Once a year, Texas Auto Writers Association members gather at the Kinnibe Ranch outside of San Antonio. Here, truck manufacturers’ offer up their latest creations for us to test on just about every kind of terrain the Texas Hill Country has to offer. And this year the winner was the Ford F-150.
Not much was changed on the 2012 model from the 2011 except an engine offering you may have heard about in TV ads, the EcoBoost engine, and that’s where the story lies.
Normally aspirated V-6’s didn’t have enough horsepower and torque to address the needs of light duty hauling and towing, and although V-8’s have the grunt, they typically don’t get great gas mileage. Enter the EcoBoost.
In the F-150, the twin-turbo, all-aluminum V-6 EcoBoost engine with its 365 horsepower and 420 lb-ft of torque provides best-in-class towing capability of 11,300 lbs combined with up to 20 percent fuel economy savings over the V-8.
F-150 work trucks start at $22,990, the EcoBoost engine is a $900 option.
Engine: 3.5-liter twin-turbo V-6
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Highest MPG City: 16 (4X2)
Highest MPG Highway: 22 (4X2)
Trim Designations: Available in XL, XLT, FX2, Lariat, FX4, King Ranch & Platinum (not avail. In Raptor or Harley-Davidson)
Base Price: $30,780 for XL – add $900 for EcoBoost option
What I Liked: Everything
What Needs Improvement: The somewhat cumbersome My Ford Touch interface was upgraded for simpler operation – that fixed it! Thank you Jennifer Brace.
Star Rating: 5 out of 5
2012 Hyundai Veloster 3-door Coupe/Hatchback
Hyundai calls it a 3-door coupe, but we’ll call it Veloster. This is an all new vehicle for Hyundai with one door on the driver’s side and two on the passenger side. Weird? You bet. Does it work? Yes, it does.
Hyundai’s take on the full size, passenger-side rear door is that it allows much easier access to the back seat without having to open the front door. The correlation is drawn with the likes of the now defunct Mazda RX-8, with its half-sized, rear-hinged back doors.
The Veloster is another car whose design, Hyundai says, “takes inspiration from a high-performance sport bike.” We don’t understand the fascination of car manufacturers taking away anything from motorcycles, unless it’s to capitalize on their current popularity among the buying demographic. The interior is competitive in the segment, and we’ll leave it at that.
Powering the Veloster is a 1.6-liter I-4 engine that buzzes out 138-HP through a 6-speed manual or automatic transmission. Our tester is rated at 29 MPG-city and 38-highway. Look for a 200-HP turbo late this summer.
If you’re in the market for very hip little sub-compact, the Veloster starts at $17,300.
Engine: 1.6-liter I-4
Transmission: 6-speed manual (available 6-speed automatic)
Highest MPG City: 28 (manual)
Highest MPG Highway: 40 (manual)
Trim Designations: base (only one available at this time)
Base Price: $17,300
What I Liked: Sportscar-like appearance and handling at the right price for the young or young at heart
What Needs Improvement: More horsepower; and it will have more with the soon-to-be-released turbo model…200 horses to be exact. Back seat sized for contortionists.
Star Rating: 4 out of 5
Who among us could resist meandering through the neighborhood in a brand new BMW 6 Series Convertible with the top down, waiving to appreciative admirers?
Completely redesigned for 2012, the all-new 650i takes the winning elements of the outgoing model, melds & massages them and gives them to us in a breathtaking form that has perfect strangers stepping up and asking questions.
Power comes from a 4.4-liter twin turbocharged V-8 that whirrs out 400 horsepower and 450-lb.-ft. of torque, propelling the drop top from 0 to 60 MPH in just a tick under 5 seconds. Equipped with the 8-speed automatic, average mileage is posted at 19-MPG.
To say the interior is opulent doesn’t do it justice, but, for the first time since its introduction some 10 years ago, the i-Drive driver interface has finally been dumbed-down enough that we can kind of figure it out. Its huge 10.2-inch screen certainly helps.
Ride and handling are nimble except when encountering one of Houston’s growing numbers of large, deep pot holes. The 650i’s low profile tire and optional 20-inch wheel combination will jar you to the bone.
Get your BMW 650i convertible groove on beginning at $90,500.
Engine: 4.4-liter turbocharged
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Highest MPG City: 15
Highest MPG Highway: 22
Trim Designations: 650i & 650i X Drive
Base Price: $90,500
What I Liked: Exterior beauty, interior luxury & plenty of turbocharged power with no lag
What Needs Improvement: bi wheels, low profile tires and Houston pot holes are a bad mix. When is BMW going to give up on that stupid iDrive interface and get with the program? Having to drill down through multiple menu’s to change radio stations or adjust settings is the definition of distracted driving.
Star Rating: 4 out of 5
Overview: Just because it’s a mild hybrid doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice power or comfort. In fact, you’ll get both in the Buick LaCrosse with eAssist.
Let’s set something straight, the current lineup of Buick products in no way should be compared to those that your parents or grandparents may own or have owned. No, it’s a new millennium and parent GM is getting Buick’s groove back on.
That said, the LaCrosse eAssist hybrid offers the 2.4-liter direct injection I-4 engine with a helper 15kW motor-generator to deliver smooth power, resulting in a commendable 25 mpg-city and 36-highway rating; this, in a full-size sedan.
If you haven’t visited the interior of a new generation Buick in the past couple of years, we encourage you to do so. We think you’ll be really surprised by the level of luxury and all of the whiz-bang electronics that are standard, including Buick IntelliLink that includes Pandora Internet radio and Stitcher SmartRadio.
Transmission: 6-speed Automatic
Highest MPG City: 25
Highest MPG Highway: 36
Trim Designations: Base, Convenience, Leather and Premium 1
Base Price: $30,170
What I Liked: It’s all about the mileage and comfort, the price point isn’t bad either. Here is a lot for the money.
What Needs Improvement: I’d like to see an optional handling package. Hey, who says a big hybrid has to conform?
Star Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Honda, as well as most of the other Japanese automakers, has had a rough go of it this past year. An earthquake, tsunami and numerous recalls, have stunned not only long-time die-hard fans, but those contemplating a first time purchase. With that said, Honda still builds some sweet rides, one of them being the Pilot SUV.
The 8-passenger Pilot, first introduced in 2003, carries forward in its second iteration with a minor freshening for the 2012 model year.
The Pilot gets a slightly revised front fascia, a few tweaks to the interior and a little goose in the MPG department.
One nice feature that Katy families will like is the 2nd and 3rd row seats that fold flat with the rear cargo area, creating a cavernous, minivan-like hauler for things as big as refrigerators.
Honda’s 3.4-liter, 250 HP, V-6 powers the front wheels through a 5-speed automatic transmission and gets 18 MPG-city and 25-highway.
Pricing begins at $28,620 for the Pilot LX.
If you like conservative styling, then here’s your sign.
Engine: 3.4-liter V-6
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Highest MPG City: 18
Highest MPG Highway: 25
Trim Designations: LX, EX, EX-L, Touring
Base Price: $28,620
What I Liked: Solid feel, powerful V-6 engine
What Needs Improvement: confusing center stack, old school plastiky interior, boxy exterior
Star Rating: 4 out of 5
2012 Cadillac Escalade ESV
This may be the ultimate American-bred workhorse. Built in Arlington, Texas, the Cadillac Escalade ESV not only has a 7,800-lb tow rating, it can seat up to 8 adventurers in comfort, style and luxury.
This full-size Escalade shares many of its underpinnings with the Chevrolet Suburban, one of the most popular SUV’s in America. What makes it a Cadillac is extra noise deadening materials, brand exclusive exterior cues and luxury interior amenities that the Cadillac brand is known for.
Powering the Escalade is a 6.2-liter V-8 that delivers 403-HP to the rear wheels through a 6-speed automatic transmission. All-wheel drive is also available. Mileage is what you’d expect from a vehicle that weighs almost 3-tons, 14 mpg-city and 18-highway.
Starting price for the Base model is $65,770, while the full-tilt Platinum Edition begins at $82,545. And then there’s the fuel bill.
Engine: 6.2-liter V-8
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Highest MPG City: 14
Highest MPG Highway: 18
Trim Designations: Base, Luxury, Premium, Platinum
Base Price: $65,770
What I Liked: Room, comfort and luxury amenities
What Needs Improvement: If the General would offer a diesel option they could increase it’s tow rating AND fuel mileage!
Star Rating: 4.5 out of 5 because of poor fuel economy
Year/Make/Model: 2012 Dodge Charger SXT 4-Door Sedan
The Dodge Charger SXT Plus, with its very capable 292-HP V-6, is connected to an all-new 8-speed automatic transmission. What the SXT lacks in power – when compared to 470 HP SRT8 – the new tranny helps make up for it in off-the-line performance and fuel economy, up to 31-mpg highway.
The “Plus” part of the SXT equation adds the premium technologies that are a must for a family sedan like this. In addition to leather seating you’ll also get the 8.4-inch Uconnect Voice Command system with Bluetooth, Alpine Audio and other packaged ammenities. The complete list is as long as a telephone wire.
The SXT starts at $28,495.
Engine: 3.6-Liter V-6
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Highest MPG City: 18
Highest MPG Highway: 31
Besides the SXT, other trim levels include SE, RT, SRT8 Superbee and SRT8
Base Price for SXT: $28,495
What I Liked: The Charger remains one of my favorite full-size sedans on the market. The new 8-speed automatic feels like it adds 100-horsepower to the drivetrain and the big touch screen is the bomb!
What Needs Improvement: With the refreshed exterior, lots of popular option packages and a very accommodating interior, nothing needs improvement. How do you improve on something this good?
Star Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Kia Optima is Easy on Gas
The Kia Optima Hybrid is a styling standout in an otherwise bland lineup of midsize hybrid sedans. The 2012 model is a carryover from last year’s do-over and looks a lot sportier than it really is.
The Optima’s interior relies on user-friendly design elements with plenty of soft touch surfaces where the hard plastic used to be. The Optima Hybrid was the first Kia vehicle to offer the company’s proprietary UVO powered by Microsoft® voice-activated infotainment system, which is paired with the AM/FM/CD/MP3/Sat audio system with SiriusXM™ Satellite Radio capabilities, back-up camera, auxiliary and USB audio input and Bluetooth®5 wireless connectivity with steering wheel-mounted controls. It’s a $5,000 add-on that is part of the Technology Package and is money well spent.
Powered by a 166 horsepower 2.4-liter four cylinder gasoline engine mated to a 40-horse electric motor, the mileage figures are impressive for this size car, 35-MPG city and 40-highway.The full parallel hybrid system can be driven in zero emission, full-electric drive mode at speeds up to 62 MPH.
Highest MPG City: 35
Highest MPG Highway: 40
Base Price: $26,500
What I Liked: Can be driven short distances in full electric mode up to 62 MPH. Great for a quick squirt up the freeway for lunch without using any go-juice.
What Needs Improvement: Back to the drawing board on the wheels
5 – Star Rating: 4.5
Dateline: 03/17/2012 2012 Acura TSX Sport Wagon
The compact TSX wagon is being marketed as an entry into the luxury segment; a statement that seems to be spot on.
The dichotomy, German versus Japanese, has never been more apparent. Although the exterior is somewhat conservative in form, the interior smacks of a European luxo-cruiser, in both layout and quality of materials.
The TSX is powered by either a 201-horsepower 2.4-liter 4-cylinder or the 280-HP V-6, which we tested. Connected to the 5-speed automatic transmission, the later combination proved to be a winner, and the recommended set-up.
With 61-cubic feet of hauling capacity, the TSX Sport Wagon might be the perfect solution for new moms, who’ll appreciate the lower load floor and easy access to baby.
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Highest MPG City: 19
Highest MPG Highway: 28
Trim Designations: Base or with technology Package
Base Price: $31,160
What I Liked: European-style luxury and compact SUV cargo room
What Needs Improvement: Polarizing “beak” on front grille
1-5 Star Rating: 4.5
Buick Regal GS
Overview: The all-new, 2012 Regal GS blends a 270-horsepower high-output Ecotec 2.0L turbo engine, six-speed manual transmission, responsive Interactive Drive Control System suspension technology with exclusive GS-mode, Brembo front calipers and other features into one of Buick’s most balanced performance sedans ever.
The torque from Regal GS’s exclusive Ecotec 2.0L high-output turbocharged engine provides more launch force than the Acura TSX V-6, Audi A4 Sport, Lexus IS 250 and 350, Infiniti G25 and G37, and Volvo S60. It also delivers the highest specific output of any production engine GM has ever offered, and at 135 horsepower per liter, is the most power-dense engine ever certified by the Society of Automotive Engineers.
Buick’s exclusive Interactive Drive Control System is standard on the Regal GS, and allows drivers to choose from three operating modes – Standard, Sport and GS Mode – that change the suspension settings and steering sensitivity according to driver preferences. Regal GS also features a four-wheel independent suspension with a unique High Performance Strut (HiPer Strut) front suspension design that reduces torque steer and improves grip and cornering power.
A lower ride height, 19-inch, 5-Twin Spoke alloy wheels (20-inch, 5-Twin Spoke polished alloy wheels with summer-rated performance tires are available) and four-piston Brembo front calipers also contribute to the GS’ performance persona.
Engine: Turbocharged 2.0-liter I-4
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Highest MPG City: 19
Highest MPG Highway: 27
Trim Designations: GS
Base Price: $34,835
What I Liked: The price point is a bargain when compared to other upscale competitors from Germany and Japan. The Standard Interactive Drive Control System with exclusive GS mode allows drivers to change the suspension settings and steering sensitivity for a more spirited driving experience
What Needs Improvement: Not much if any. If I were to pick nits, I’d like a little more sound coming from the engine and exhaust when I put my foot in it, but this is a Buick. Buick’s response to me might be, “have an aftermarket cat-back exhaust system installed once you take delivery.”
Star Rating: 4.5 out of 5