Featured Reviews
Pure EV has 124-mile range and can recover 80 percent of full power in 23 minutes.

Ioniq gives Hyundai advanced EV and hybrid

Hyundai shot high with its new Ioniq, aiming for the most efficient electric vehicle, as well as the top-mileage hybrid and plug-in hybrid. EV with quick-charge recovery and 124-

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Jeep Compass still here, finds bold new path

In Jeep's array of successful SUVs, the Compass seemed forgotten. The new model, however, makes a giant stride to challenging siblings like Cherokee and Renegade.

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Looking more "mainstream" than Subarus normally do, the 2017 Impreza is entirely new.

New Impreza hidden in plain view

The Impreza has been a loyal soldier for Subaru, and its reward is an all-new platform, body, interior, and overall impression for 2017. The Impreza 2.0 Sport starts at $23,000.

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Atlas handled swollen rivers of Texas Hill Country with ease.

Atlas more than a shrug as VW's large SUV

Volkswagen's array of vehicles ranged from compact cars to midsize SUVs, but the company's dealers and customers wanted a large, 7-seat SUV -- so the Atlas was born.

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Mazda's CX-9 for 2017 has a sleeker and more luxurious demeanor.

As biggest Mazda, CX-9 fills key niche

As a small car company, Mazda can alter its course swiftly, and while revising its engines to Skyactiv potency and improving its sedans, it also heightened the technology of its

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Rugged exterior of Ram 2500 Power Wagon looks imposing, and fulfills that image.

Ram Power Wagon lives up to lofty image

It doesn't matter if you realize that Dodge made a rugged military truck called the Power Wagon during World War II, or even that you recall the first production version. The 201

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Mercedes Metdris vans offer reasonable size for cargo or riders.

Metris offers new reasons to tour auto show

Driving a new Mercedes Metris cargo van added to the curiosity of checking out the passenger version at the Twin Cities Auto Show.

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If it is intended to replace the late and beloved Taurus SHO, the Fusion Sport looks the part.

New Fusion adds flair with Sport model

Ford's Fusion has been a stalwart member of the growing midsize segment for years, but without fanfare the car's revision for 2017 has various upgrades -- including a Sport model

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Irregularity of winter blizzards are nothing to the allroad with its venerable quattro AWD.

Audi allroad returns with all-road perfection

Audi followed through on the idea of discontinuing its allroad wagon a couple of decades ago, but it is back for 2017, and it is lower and sleeker but still over-built for this e

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Toyota's diminutive C-HR could steal customers from the RAV4.

Compact crossovers rule auto-show world

High-profit large SUVs are manufacturers' favorites, but consumers prefer small compact crossovers, such as Toyota's new C-HR and an auto-show-full of others.

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Ioniq gives Hyundai advanced EV and hybrid

April 24, 2017 by · Comments Off on Ioniq gives Hyundai advanced EV and hybrid
Filed under: New car introductions, Autos 

Ioniq offers stylish body on dedicated platform with buyers’ choice of pure electric, hybrid, or plug-in hybrid power.

By John Gilbert
If the Hyundai Ioniq came out as a stylish new compact car, its sleek and aerodynamic looks, roomy interior, quick and agile performance, and smooth ride would undoubtedly make it a big hit at a base price of $22,200.

But it’s not a mainstream car. Far from it. It has all those above attributes, but it becomes a truly unique vehicle by being offered in a choice of three alternative powertrains. After a brief chance to aggressively road-test two of the Ioniq models, the impression it leaves is — in a word — electrifying.

I asked Hyundai officials if we were all going to be driving electric cars in the near future, or are hybrids a viable alternative. The consensus is that we are headed for electric-powered cars, but it will be a number of years before they take hold, which means hybrids and plug-in hybrids might make the most sense right now. Taking no chances, Hyundai is offering all three alternative powertrains in the new Ioniq.

Apprehensions from preconceived ideas can get in the way of buying a hybrid vehicle, much less a pure-electric one, and while Hyundai officials are aware of all the reasons buyers have for not buying such an alternative-energy car, they have designed the Ioniq to conquer all of them.

The Ioniq is the first car with a dedicated platform — shared with the new Elantra —  designed to offer the choice of the most efficient hybrid in the industry, the most progressive plug-in hybrid in the industry, or the most environmentally sound and efficient pure-electric car in the industry.

That’s a lot of firsts, but ever since Hyundai made technical breakthroughs in engine, fuel injection, transmission efficiency, and design development nearly a decade ago, we shouldn’t be surprised by what those creative engineers in Seoul, South Korea, might come up with.

Pure EV has 124-mile range and can recover 80 percent of full power in 23 minutes, at $30,000.

“The best thing is it looks like a regular car, and it drives like a regular car,” said Mike O’Brien, vice president of products for Hyundai Motors America.

I beg to differ. When my driving partner and I took off on the twisty and not always smooth roadways near Ann Arbor, we drove the Ioniqs harder than a normal citizen might drive. We wanted to push the Ioniq to see if it was just another alternative-energy car or truly something special. My vote was the latter.

If I there was a conventional engine under the hood, I would have been impressed that the Ioniq swept around tight, even blind, curves, always with the car following dutifully and with precision to all steering inputs. The fact that it was pure electric made it all the more impressive when it stayed level, never lurched, and handled the numerous road irregularities we flew across with nary a hint of harshness, looking high-style from every angle.

When my turn was finished, I found the passenger bucket seat supportive and comfortable in all circumstances, and it gave me a better chance to admire the smooth and high-end look and feel to the seats, dashboard and numerous features. They use wood chips and bits of volcanic rock to make the soft and supple top on the dashboard, for example. And they found a way to mix soybean oil into the paint, as another example of making the car sustainable.

The basic Ioniq Hybrid starts at a mere $23,000 including destination, its 1.6 engine helping recharge the battery pack. The plug-in Hybrid next up the scale, while the top-end, pure-electric version starts at $29,500. The EV will have no gas-engine safety net, but it will have a range of 124 miles before needing a recharge. It has a larger electric motor system, and a potent version of the LG Chem battery pack that develops 88 kW, the equivalent of 118 horsepower and 218 foot-pounds of torque, which collaborate to send the car rocketing away from a stop with startling potency.

Large touchscreen offers choice of features for driver and occupants to monitor.

There are other dazzling EVs newly on the market, such as the Tesla, the Chevrolet Bolt, Nissan Leaf, and BMW i3. The Bolt has a range of 238 miles, which is very impressive, and the Tesla also has excellent range. O’Brien, however, referred to industry standards for thermal efficiency, which take into account such things as the carbon footprint. Since 67 percent of our electric energy comes from fossil fuel or coal, the reality is that electric power may seem free, but nothing is free.

“Ultimately, we’re going to have to reduce our carbon footprint,” O’Brien said. “They call it an ‘MPGe’ equivalent, and by that calculation the Ioniq is the most efficient EV with a 136 MPGe, which beats the i3, the Bolt, and all other EVs on the market.”

O’Brien explained the assets of the three-pronged answer to all the alternative-energy challenges by first enumerating the challenges.

“While hybrid and electric vehicles have been around for awhile, it’s still a fact that 97 percent of buyers have not bought them,” said O’Brien. “That means only 3 percent are choosing hybrids or electric vehicles. We seem to be stuck on that number. The reasons consumers give for avoiding hybrids are: cost, lack of performance, boring, maintenance worries, not sporty enough, and insufficient passenger or cargo room.

“When you look under the hood of a Camry or Accord hybrid, you see all kinds of extra space, because the platform was designed for a larger engine. With a dedicated platform, and using a small engine with the hybrid, means we didn’t need all that space. So we moved the cowl forward, reducing the size of the engine compartment, and creating a much more spacious interior. Our hybrid has a total interior volume of 122.7 cubic feet, and our plug-in hybrid and EV have 120 cubic feet.”

In addition, Hyundai worked with LG Chem, the South Korean electronics giant that designed and built the battery pack for the Chevrolet Volt, and the new Chevrolet Bolt pure-electric, as well as for Hyundai, Kia and other hybrid car-makers. The streamlined design of the battery pack, with vertical plates, and a lithium ion polymer structure, make it lighter and smaller and able to be form-fit into odd areas. And lithium-ion-polymer battery packs generate more power, hold the charge longer, and recharge more quickly.


Battery pack location under rear seat provides mid-car weight balance, full 122.7 cubic feet of cargo space.

Other hybrid car-makers fit the battery pack under the trunk, which greatly cuts down the cargo room, and, being heavy, gives most hybrids an odd weight-distribution. Hyundai engineers designed the Ioniq with the battery pack under the rear seat, leaving full trunk space, and creating a lower center of gravity and a mid-engine feel that enhances steering and contributes to good handling.

Hyundai engineers also revised their well-proven 1.6-liter Kappa 4-cylinder, a dual-overhead-camshaft gem with direct injection that can make compact cars, midsize cars, and even the Tucson compact SUV perform admirably, with a turbocharger in some cases. In the Ioniq, it is altered with Atkinson-cycle technology that keeps the intake valves closed a bit longer, and delays the opening of the exhaust valves. That allows the air-fuel mixture more time to more fully ignite, resulting in greater thermal efficiency, and extra power. With the hybrid, the engine doesn’t need extra power, because the electric motor supplements any need for power.

In the Ioniq Hybrid, the 1.6 has 104 horsepower at a high 5,700 RPMs, and 109 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 RPMs. The electric motor adds 32 kW (43 horsepower) for a 125 horsepower maximum, and its 125 maximum added torque combines for a 139 foot-pound punch.

The biggest surprise to many traditionalists is that electric motor power is more efficient than a gas engine. It has 100 percent of its torque at zero RPMs, so stepping hard on an electric car’s “gas” pedal can snap your head back by surprise. In the Ioniq Hybrid, the electric motor’s instant torque aids low-end power, and if you need extra power at high speed, the electric power can continue to supplement the 4-cylinder up to 75 miles per hour.

Driver view carries out Ioniq concept of driving normalcy — with changeable gauges..

After being thoroughly impressed with the pure-electric Ioniq, we also drove the base-model hybrid, which also drove well, with quick acceleration, and good steering and handling. Unlike nearly all other hybrids, the Ioniq Hybrid does not use a CVT, the continuously variable transmission that uses belts and pulleys to seamlessly shift, but leaves the unsatisfying feeling of “motorboating” instead of tangible shift points.

Hyundai engineers equipped the Ioniq with their own 6-speed dual-clutch transmission that shifts swiftly and with a decisive sportiness, whether you like paddles or just switching to “sport” to hold shift points higher. The “eco” setting upshifts earlier for better economy, and the Ioniq Hybrid comes away with everyday fuel economy of 59 highway, and 58 mpg combined city-highway. That beats the Prius and all other hybrids, as does the Ioniq’s thermal efficiency that means 40 percent of all its energy goes to its wheels, which are shod with specially designed Michelin tires.

We didn’t get to drive the plug-in hybrid, which is yet to be introduced as the third electrified system. That will move up from the Hybrid’s 32 kWh with 43 horsepower, to 45 kWh, and 60 horsepower. With more electric motor power in the mix, when fully charged it will go 27 miles on electric only, before the gas engine kicks in seamlessly to help.

Both hybrids share the 6-speed dual-clutch transmission. The plug-in Hybrid has a more powerful charger. You can connect to normal household outlets, but if you use the quick-charge system you can recover 80 percent of a full charge in 23 minutes, a fast charge that will let you cover another 99 miles.

All available safety items, including standard rear camera, and the availability of lane-change devices, are included, and the Ioniq also has all the latest in connectivity features.

Spacious room under hatch also houses optional quick-charge kit.

I am eager for a longer test-drive, but the first impression will be hard to shake. The Ioniq beats the tests of cost, sportiness, being not boring, being not sporty, and having insufficient interior room.

If maintenance worries still exist as the last concern, how about this: Along with Hyundai’s usual 10-year, 100,000-mile engine warranty, there is a lifetime warranty on the battery pack.

I kidded O’Brien that if the Ioniq doesn’t quite meet fuel-efficiency figures, they could come out with a Type R and insert a tiny “R” between the “I” and the “O” to make it an “Ironiq.” He didn’t laugh. After driving the car, I’m more inclined to suggest they might need to insert a small “C,” because the new car could indeed become Iconiq.

Jeep Compass still here, finds bold new path

April 24, 2017 by · Comments Off on Jeep Compass still here, finds bold new path
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

No longer plain and subtle, the new Compass resembles slick, downsized Grand Cherokee.

By John Gilbert

In Jeep’s ever-expanding world of hardy, all-terrain vehicles, the descending order of size and capability has been: Grand Cherokee, Cherokee, Patriot, Compass, Renegade, Wrangler. Or something like that, with the Wrangler probably the most capable off-roader, but also the most limited as far as all-purpose highway use goes.

When the Cherokee came out, it was an instant knockout, selling like hotcakes because it would do all the things the Grand Cherokee would do on the road, and would come close to duplicating the Wrangler’s off-roading. When the Renegade came out, as a cute, squarish little Jeep, it also proved surprisingly capable and is a great example of hoe effective the collaboration between Jeep and Fiat can be.

All of which made me think that the Patriot and Compass were probably destined to be eliminated. The Compass has been a lightweight vehicle, good for commuting and moderate foul-weather usage, but nowhere near as hardy as the Cherokee above it and the Renegade below.

Shows what I know.

For 2017, Jeep not only is keeping the Compass around, it has given it an entirely new life, from every standpoint — looks, styling, and capability. In fact, some critics think the narrow-eyed Cherokee looks like a rebel among the other Jeep vehicles, and for them, the new Compass takes on a more traditional Jeep look. You could make the case that the Compass now looks like a downsized Grand Cherokee.

Recently I was able to live with a new Compass for a week of driving on the cliffside hills of Duluth and the gently winding roadway along the North Shore of Lake Superior. In traffic and up hills, the Compass performed very well, never lacking for power or performance.

Critics might have thought its niche had squeezed shut, but 2017 Compass fits in well.

Under the hood is the now-familiar 2.4-liter Tigershark 4-cylinder engine, a jewel of a powerplant originally designed in joint venture by Hyundai in South Korea and used by Mitsubishi as well as Chrysler as its base engine for compact cars. With Fiat ownership, the adaptation of that company’s brilliant MultiAir system works fantastically well on the 2.4. That system starts with dual overhead camshafts, one for intake and one for exhaust, and then eliminates the intake cam, instead using a system of oil-filled tubes that connect exhaust valves with intake valves. Everytime the exhaust valves work, they force the intake valves to work too, in computer-perfect concert.

The result is an almost-turbocharged like increase in power and performance. As tested, the 2.4 with MultiAir2 offers 180 horsepower and 175 foot-pounds of torque — easily enough to send the Compass Latitude 4X4 on its appointed rounds, aided by its 9-speed automatic transmission.

Driver vantage point is familiar Jeep.

Ahead of shifter, switch allows dialing in for off-road, terrain.

Just ahead of the floor shift lever there is a round knob, and turning it gives you selection of automatic, snow, sand, or mud. Obviously, Duluth in March gave me ample chance to conquer a driveway coated with ice and a rural highway covered by snow, with the appropriate pile of chunky snow pieces from passing snowplows that tried in vain to prevent us from escaping.

There is adequate room for four adults, five in a pinch, and a surprisingly expansive storage area behind the split-folding rear seats. Painted “Redline Red,” it was easy to spot the Compass coming, and the tasteful black interior made it a classy and sporty vehicle.

My wife, Joan, is never one to be intrigued by pre-supposed opinions about cars. My one disclaimer is that she loves red vehicles, so the Compass had a head start. “I love that car,” she said. “It has great styling, and I while I like all the Jeeps’ styling, I like this one the best. Maybe because it’s a little smaller, I found it easier to handle in traffic.”

Cherokee was a departure in Jeep front styling, while Compass has more family look.

And, she didn’t say, it’s also a great shade of red.

Highway handling is excellent, with independent MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link rear suyspension with coil springs. Interior appointments include a Beats speaker suystem on the audio system, full connectivity for electronic gizmos, a good navigation system, and Apple Car Play, or Android Auto if you are so equipped.

You also have to love Jeep. Just in case you wonder if it really is capable, your information is pretty convincing. It shows an approach angle of 16.8 degrees, a breakover angle of 22.9, departure angle of 31.7.

It comes at a base price of $24,295, which is extremely reasonable for a fully capable 4X4 wearing Jeep livery. With the popular equipment group and all the electronic and connectivity potential, the sticker rose to $30,115. Still a bargain, for what you get, even if you never have to churn those 17-inch polished alloy wheels in anything more challenging than ice in the driveway and a pile of chunky snow for a barricade to the real world.

Surprisingly large cargo area, even with Compass rear seats upright.

Everybody at Jeep has worked long hours to brush away the stubborn image of quality control and quality from years ago. From what I’ve seen in frequent test drives of all the brand’s vehicles, the tightness of build quality and firmness of handling has never been this good before. With fuel efficiency rated at 30 miles per gallon highway driving, plus firmly comfortable seats and its slick new styling, the suspected new-vehicle satisfaction should make any buyer very happy that the company had a better idea than to discontinue the Compass.

New Impreza hidden in plain view

April 24, 2017 by · Comments Off on New Impreza hidden in plain view
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Looking more “mainstream” than Subarus normally do, the 2017 Impreza is entirely new.

By John Gilbert

After pulling into the Target parking lot, I dropped off my wife, Joan, and engaged in my usual parking-lot gamesmanship, wherein I circle a couple of times just to see if I can find a closer-than-reasonable open spot near the store. I don’t mind the extra walk distance; it’s just a competitive game I like to play. In this case, I found one, and nosed my “Lithium Red Pearl” compact into the slot.

There was some sort of a sports discussion on the radio, so I sat there for a few minutes. A family parked its SUV and walked past. The fellow carrying a youngster turned back once, and then a second time, for a longer look. Then he smiled and walked on.

Another couple came by, same sort of thing. Both of them paused for a second look before continuing on. Later, at another parking space in downtown Duluth, Minnesota, a couple guys walked by and stopped. “What kind of car is that?” asked one.

“It’s the new Subaru Impreza,” I answered.

“You’re kidding,” he said. “Doesn’t look like any Subaru I’ve ever seen before.”

It’s hard to recall any Subaru sedan attracting that sort of interest from passers-by. But this is the new 2017 Subaru Impreza, which is like no other previous Impreza sedan.

This one is built on an all new Subaru Global Architecture platform, upon which all things Subaru from here on will be built, because it can house everything from a sports car to an SUV. Until a company revises, restructures and reinforces its mainstay platform, consumers never have reason to realize the need for such upgrading.

Impreza’s new platform will form the underpinnings of all future Subarus.

With the new Impreza, Subaru is claiming that the new car is 70 percent more rigid than the 2016 was. Think about that. It’s not like you drove the 2016 and thought of it as a piece of ill-fitted junk. It felt OK. Beyond that, it felt the way you anticipated a Subaru Impreza should feel. If a compact sedan can become 70 percent more rigid than last year’s, consider what would happen in reverse, and what any car would feel like if you reduced its rigidity by 70 percent!

In any event, maybe it takes the firmness of the new platform to force you to realize how impressive it feels because now you’re aware of how ragged and inconsistent previous Imprezas handled, rode, and steered.
Underneath, all is changed now, much in the same way the visual impact of the Impreza has completely changed. Passers-by were taken by the metallic red paint job, but more by how it looked when draped on the stylish contours that indented the sides and slanted upward near the rear wheelwells. Those lines came off a smoothly coordinated grille and hood, and ended at a stylishly turned rear decklid and incorporated taillights. Length of 182.1 inches and wheelbase of 105.1 means the stretching makes room for 12.3 cubic feet of cargo.

The test car, a 2.0i Sport model, tracks well, and its 2.0 flat-opposed 4-cylinder kicking out 152 direct-injected horsepower and 145 foot-pounds of torque. It also had a CVT — continuously variable transmission — which handles the 3,179-pound compact sedan with ease, and even establishes a sporty feel with steering-wheel paddles that can engage different detents to feel like a 7-speed transmission.

Partly because the flat-opposed engine’s direct injection increases power a bit, and partly because its new steering geometry andspecially-damped suspension reduce the body’s tendency to roll by a full 50 percent, but mostly because of that all-new platform, the Impreza makes those sporty alloy wheels look like they are not out of place.

Driver’s view in the Subaru shows sporty yet functional switchgear and controls.

Functionally, the sport-tuned suspension and active torque-vectoring helps stability for that symmetric all-wheel drive, and the nose features active grille shutters that can close at cruising speed to aid aerodynamics.

Inside, the seats are well-bolstered and comfortable, and because the car is a bit longer and wider, there is room for adults to fit more comfortably in the rear seat, where many compacts make that a challenge. Two-stage heated front seats and leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob are nice touches, as are the aluminum pedals. Keyless access and push-button start are almost mandatory these days, so it’s impressive the Impreza has them. It also has a windshield that is thicker for sound insulation, and the power moonroof and added feature of tire-pressure monitoring with individual pressure display means Subaru checked all the boxes.

Flowing style hides the impressive feat of a 70 percent more rigid platform.

The interior finish is also vastly improved, including the nav screen, which is an 8-inch high-resolution touchscreen, as part of the Starlink Multimedia Plus system, which affords easy connectivity for Apple, Android, Aha, Pandora, Bluetooth choices of hands-free devices. The driving control instruments, with knobs and controls easy to spot and efficient to operate, have redundant controls on the steering wheel, and little storage cubicles seem to be everywhere you’d want them, to make things easier to live with.

EyeSight driver assist lifts the new Impreza to the upper echelon of compacts with adaptive cruise, pre-collision braking, lane-departure and sway warning, plus lane-keep assist, lane change assist, and rear cross traffic alert.

Perhaps most impressive, Imprezas always have been inexpensive, which makes the new one seem like much more of a bargain, at a starting price of just over $21,995 for the Sport model. Option packages including the EyeSight, moonroof, Harman/Kardan audio upgrade, and Lineartronic CVT boost the sticker up to $26,560.

Does it blow away the main competition, such as Mazda3, Honda Civic, or Hyundai Elantra? In a word: No. But it now competes with them, with no apologies.

The high-performance WRX always has been an impressive premium version on the Impreza line, and the very top WRX STi is an outright screamer. Those will continue on the old platform, we’re told, for now. I would have to say, as fun as those cars are, they are nowhere near as refined as the new garden-variety Impreza, which means Subaru should hasten to get them on the new platform.

Virtually every modern stroke of technology joins the familiar Subaru assets in the AWD Impreza.

In assessing all the high points, we can point at the comfort, space, flexibility of its hatchback storage space, and now the precision noteworthy in its steering and handling, and its outright lack of shakiness that used to be standard equipment in Imprezas.

Plus, I would have to go back to my parking lot experiences, and a week of other passers-by pausing to look or comment as best evidence of how slick the new Impreza looks. It can baffle onlookers who can’t figure out what it is without asking. It simply doesn’t look like a Subaru Impreza because there is nothing odd or irregular about how it looks or how it drives. And that’s a good thing.

Atlas more than a shrug as VW’s large SUV

April 20, 2017 by · Comments Off on Atlas more than a shrug as VW’s large SUV
Filed under: New car introductions, Autos 
Volkswagen determined it needed a large, 7-passenger SUV, and in the Atlas, it appears to have a winner.

Volkswagen’s new 2018 Atlas handled swollen rivers of Texas Hill Country with ease.

By John Gilbert


Volkswagen needed a large SUV much more than the marketplace needed another large SUV, and that in essence, is why the Atlas came to be designed and built as an American demands.

If you were a fan of reading Ayn Rand, you could say that VW officials in Wolfsburg, Germany, decided, “We must have a larger SUV,” and Atlas Shrugged. Sorry about that.

The point is that if a consumer family loved its succession of Volkswagen vehicles, but grew past the point where everybody could fit inside a Golf, or a Jetta, or even a Tiguan or Touareg — which will seat four comfortably and five in a squeeze — then they would have to go off and buy a Tahoe, Explorer, Honda Pilot, any of several Toyotas, or any of a couple dozen other alternatives.

Thus it made sense that as a family outgrew its VW, the Atlas would give those customers a larger VW SUV to grow into. It has three rows of seats, foldable into various configurations depending on whether you need to haul people or luggage, or major pieces of equipment.

Atlas features three rows of seats and good cargo room no matter how you position the seats.

The Atlas is the largest vehicle Volkswagen has made, and it will be built in the new Chattanooga, Tenn., plant VW built for Passat sedans. But for the first media drives, Volkswagen decided to corral us in San Antonio, from where we were driven northward to the small town of Boerne, Texas, and stationed at the Tapatio Springs Hill Country Resort.

It is a fantastic facility, with an 18-hole golf course, and enough space to hold various presentation meetings, as well as a full-scale Texas barbeque. (I like barbequed brisket, but I don’t bother with it when there are also ribs available; there were ribs available at our patio dinner, cooked as perfectly as you could want.)

After we looked over the large exterior of the Atlas, senior product manager Mark Gillies began his presentation by explaining why the company picked the vast expanse of Texas for the intro drive. “The Atlas is big, and it looks right at home with all the big SUVs down here,” he said. Other officials added that it is designed, tailored and built in the U.S. “to fit American families.”

The Atlas looks the part, but the secret of success in that hotly competitive segment is how the vehicle feels, how it drives, and how flexible its game plan is executed. The Atlas is built on VW’s MQB platform, which is versatility personified. The entire Golf family, Jetta, Passat and Tiguan all share versions of that underpinning.

It didn’t take us long to find out how the plan was executed. Having dodged some severe rainstorms and tornadoes that swept through the area on that Sunday, we arose early Monday to hit the road. And the hills.

My driving partner, whom I shall call Sebastien, is a young journalist from Toronto who was anxious to learn all he could about Texas, so we discussed everything from Waylon and Willie, to Luckenbach, to the music capital and bats of Austin, and as much as I knew of the region we were venturing into.

A large navigation screen covers the center of the dash with a sweeping view, as well as a 360 surround view of the vehicle.

We swept along a ribbon of asphalt as the highway followed a winding, twisting trajectory around numerous curves and up, down and between hills that sprouted in random fashion out of the densely wooded terrain, as if intending to surprise an unsuspecting motorist.

The heavy rain of the previous night turned most of the dried-up creekbeds into raging, near-flash-flood attitudes. I started behind the wheel of the new Volkswagen Atlas SL Premium, with 4Motion all-wheel drive and the VR6.

The very neat navigation system had been programmed with our route, and the Nav Lady kept us aware of or next turns. The lack of any shoulders on the narrow two-lane roadways offered good reason to stay alert as we cruised through what they call the “Hill Country” of central-west Texas, a little bit north of San Antonio and a little bit southwest of Austin.

The Atlas comes in base S ($30,500 to $33,700), S Launch ($33,500-$35,300), SE $34,990-$36,790), SE With Technology ($35,690-$38,890), SEL ($39,160-$42,690), and SEL Premium ($48,490), with features and equipment rising along with the sticker prices.

Engine options include the long-standing 2.0-liter turbocharged 4 with 235 horsepower and 258 foot-pounds of torque, running through an 8-speed automatic, and with 4Motion optional. The engine upgrade is the also-familiar narrow-angle 3.6-liter VR6 with 276 horsepower and 266 foot-pounds, and the AWD versions include the VR6.

Even the more basic Atlas SE looks the part of the loaded luxury version.

It seems that VW made different packages for increasing feature content, with all sorts of driving aids and enhanced safety and connectivity, as well as fancier interior amenities that lead up to Atlas models loaded to the sunroof with options.

Latching onto the dark red SEL Premium gave us the larger 20-inch wheels, and as the top of the line Atlas, it felt solid and substantial without the hugeness that is part of a lot of large SUVs.

We should anticipate by now that any vehicle made by Volkswagen will trace curves with a flat attitude at any speed, and the Atlas did that, as I placed the outside front tire near the edge of the roadway and held precise lines toward the next hill and curve.

That worked on freeways and 4-lanes, and was even more critical in Hill Country, where the 2-lane highways had only a little grass to serve as shoulders, and a lot of nasty looking underbrush not far off the roadway. No problem.

Driving other models with the standard 18-inch wheels and fewer features, such as the SE model, was evidence that any Atlas will do for most “needs,” but the more loaded models are aimed at “wants” of SUV buyers.

We got to our lunch stop, at the delightful little town of Fredericksburg, a bit early. And as I was telling Sebastien about stopping in Luckenbach several years ago, he plugged it into the nav system and suggested we had time to make a quick side-trip there, right then.

Atlas brought a modern touch the cowboy charm of ancient Luckenbach, Texas.

We did that, and found expansion of the ancient cowboy town, but the main store, post office and back room where a bearded fellow would play the late Waylon Jennings classic “Luckenbach, Texas,” with only a minimum of urging.

The build quality of the Atlas is definitely vault-like, and the superb driving attitude only adds to the feeling of driving security. At a length of 198.3 inches, and with a 117.3-inch wheelbase, the Atlas looks taller than its 70 inch height. The towing capacity is only 2,000 pounds with any added hitch, while the factory hitch offers 5,000 pounds with enhanced oil and transmission coolers and beefed-up structure.

Perhaps more important statistics are the 20.6 cubic foot cargo capacity behind the upright third-row seat, which expands to a spacious 55.5 cubic feet with the third row folded down, and 96.8 with both the second and third rows folded clear.

With the lengthy standard equipment, which includes LED headlights, start-stop technology, rearview camera, smartphone connectivity with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and MirrorLink, it’s remarkable that the option list goes on forever. LED taillights, a huge sunroof, power tailgate that opens with a wave of your foot under the rear bumper, a digital cockpit, ambient lighting, remote start, second-row captain’s chairs that slide nearly 8 inches, and can be heated.

Officials stressed that the third row is designed for adult comfort, not just kids. Safety factors are also available, such as brake assist and autonomous braking with pedestrian monitoring, blind spot monitor, rear traffic alert, lane assist, park distance control and maneuver parking, for parallel or perpendicular assist.

Luckenbach’s general store, post office, convenience shop and venue for country singers never changes.

Other refinements that will appeal to buyers are things like 12 liters of storage in the console between the front buckets, a customizable instrument panel with a 12-inch display, and a sound system that is among the best in the industry — a dedicated Panasonic Fender surround system. It has 480 watts blowing through 12 channels to 12 speakers.

We hit “Outlaw” on the satellite audio system, and let that Fender system blast out “Bob Wills Is Still the King,” and, of course, “Luckenbach,” for all of Hill Country to hear.

As biggest Mazda, CX-9 fills key niche

March 31, 2017 by · Comments Off on As biggest Mazda, CX-9 fills key niche
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 
Mazda's SUV selection now covers the compact CX-3, roomier CX-5, and expanded CX-9, which meets the demands of families that need 7 seats.

Mazda’s CX-9 for 2017 has a sleeker and more luxurious demeanor.

 By John Gilbert

An automobile company is only as good as its customers determine. If its cars are too big, too small, too bulky, too stodgy, well, you can go down the road a ways and find a company that might more closely fit what you’re looking for.

Mazda, meanwhile, a comparatively small Japanese company, must be eavesdropping. Maybe there’s a wiretap. Or at the very least, they’ve been reading my mail. Because Mazda continues to make vehicles that impress me;  no weaknesses, just assets. It holds over to their array of SUVs, too. I thought the first CX-9 was too big and a little ungainly, while the CX-7 was sporty and quick, but not economical enough.

When Mazda reorganized its engine and drivetrain manufacturing, and restyled its sedans, it came up with the CX-5, a midsize SUV that handles like a sports car and is perfectly compact. In the last year, Mazda brought out the CX-3, which is smaller and more compact, to the point that even I, who prefers as compact as you dare, find the back seat pretty cramped, if you intend for any humans more than 12 years old to ride back there.

Meantime, before redesigning its outstanding sedans — the compact Mazda3 and the midsize Mazda6 — the company came out with a completely redone CX-9 a year ago. Its largest SUV will satisfy the most discerning fancier of larger SUVs, who like to complain about compact crossovers being too small.

We got a chance to test-drive a 2017 Mazda CX-9, and my wife Joan, agreed with me about every characteristic of the vehicle. It was stunning to look at, in “snowflake white pearl,” which made the vehicle fairly glimmer in any light, and even stand out at nighttime.

Businesslike and sporty gauges and steering wheel give CX-9 driver full control.

The look of the CX-9 also impresses, because it has a bold and forceful open grille, with the top protruding a bit in an aggressively sporty manner. From the side, the silhouette makes a striking pose also, looking lower than it is, and sleek from front to rear, with all the contours and grooves fitting in well with the sometimes mystical concepts Mazda has for its flowing design.

Under the hood, Mazda’s jewels of technology prevail in every model, since the company went to its holistic “Skyactiv” design for creating engine that unify intake, exhaust, combustion chambers and everything else, internally as well as externally.

For those whose eyes glaze over when you talk about such technicalities, suffice it to say that Mazda gets more power and more fuel economy out of a given engine displacement than any other company, in normally aspirated form. Read more

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