Featured Reviews
For 2015, Honda redesigned the subcompact Fit from top to bottom.

Honda's New Subcompact an Even Better Fit

The Honda Fit established itself as a functional, roomy subcompact through its first two generations, but for 2015, Honda has improved every facet of the iconic hatchback.

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Light, carbon-fiber Alfa Romeo 4C gets exotic speed from 1,750 ccs.

Alfa Romeo Rides Exotic 4C Back Into U.S.

When Alfa Romeo decided it would return to the U.S. market, it pulled out all the corporate stops to create the exotic 4C, a quick, passionate, mid-engine two-seater.

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Jeep's new Cherokee looks good, drives well, and over-achieves in severe weather.

Cars of Winter Blow Through Toughest Tests

A lot of cars run well in ideal conditions, but only a few run well in the worst possible conditions -- such as Minnesota's record-setting Winter of 2013-14. We'll name a few.

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Stylish new Chrysler 200 is built on an Alfa Romeo platform.

Same Name Covers All-New Chrysler 200

Chrysler realized it had abandoned the lucrative midsize segment, but under Fiat tutelage, it now brings a new 2015 Chrysler 200 into that highly competitive market, with coupe-l

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The Resort at Pelican Hills, Newport Coast, California, gave Kia's K900 a perfect backdrop.

K900 Gives Kia a Luxury 'Multi-Vitamin'

When Kia decided to expand its portfolio into the luxury segment, the new K900 became the perfect vehicle.

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New engine family powers Volvo into future.

New Engines Give Volvo More From Less

Volvo's new design has caught up to the company's impressive levels of safety and comfort, and a new generation of 4-cylinder engines will push the Swedish vehicles into the futu

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Chevrolet Stingray voted 2014 North American Car of the Year.

Big 3 Again Big at Detroit Auto Show

Chevrolet swept the 2014 North American Car and Truck/Utility of the Year awards to kick off the Detroit Auto Show in mid-January.

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Compact and sleek, the Mercedes CLA250 is a coupe-shaped sedan at entry-level price.

CLA250 Tops Price, Style Standards

Mercedes-Benz has unveiled the CLA250 for 2014, with the industry's best aero figures, and a high-mileage front-wheel-drive turbo-4, in a coupe-shaped compact with a base price o

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Cadillac CTS

Car, Truck/Utility Finalists Named

Cadillac's redesigned CTS joins Corvette and Mazda3 as Car of the Year finalists; Jeep Cherokee, Acura MDX and Chevrolet Silverado are Truck of the Year finalists.

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KIA Soul more upbeat for new generation

KIA's New-Age Beat Is Soul-ful

Popularity of the Soul surprised even KIA when it was introduced, which sets up the iconic little vehicle for its 2014 revision.

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Honda’s New Subcompact an Even Better Fit

July 13, 2014 by · Comments Off
Filed under: Autos, New car introductions 
For 2015, Honda redesigned the subcompact Fit from top to bottom.

For 2015, Honda redesigned the subcompact Fit from top to bottom, with more room, power, gas mileage.

By John Gilbert

Other than the engine, transmission, suspension, steering, safety technology, platform, exterior body panels, interior room and design, and latest safety and connectivity technology, there isn’t really that much that’s new about the 2015 Honda Fit.

It’s still got the same old name.

Of course, even there Honda has a winner, because Fit was the perfect name when the popular subcompact was first introduced and revised for a second generation. Starting under $20,000, the versatility of the Fit handled whatever you were doing, whether climbing aboard to drive or ride, stashing groceries under the hatchback, or folding the rear seats flat for extra storage, everything in the car…fit!

It’s risky to start redesigning an iconic car like the Fit, which is just as impressive among subcompacts as the Civic is among compacts or the Accord is among midsize cars. But in the case of the third-generation Fit for 2015, Honda has worked its magic to take a car that functioned so well in every way and improve it in every way.

My reservations about the first Fit, which made its debut in 2006, and the second-generation car as well, was that Honda seemed content to reach 30 miles per gallon with the car and its 1500 cc. engine. Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Mazda, Subaru and Mitsubishi, in my opinion, seemed to create a Japanese manufacturer’s united front that 30 mpg was good enough, so they stuck with it. German manufacturers, and then the South Korean breakthrough by Hyundai and partner Kia, proved “40 is the new 30,” and the Japanese were suddenly scrambling to catch up. Mazda was first, with the Skyactiv technology on its 2.0 and 2.5-liter engines. Honda followed by impressively redoing the 2.4-liter 4-cylinder for the Accord.

Despite making the Fit shorter, Honda increased interior dimensions throughout.

Despite making the Fit shorter, Honda increased interior dimensions throughout.

It was, therefore, with great anticipation that I attended the automotive media introduction of the 2015 Fit, in San Diego. We were stationed at the trendy Andaz Hotel, and our choreographed destination was to drive through the mountains to the Mount Woodson Castle.

The most recent Honda Fit I’d had for a week’s test remained fresh for comparison: At 70 mph, the little single-overhead-camshaft engine was turning 3,000 RPMs through fifth gear of its 5-speed transmission, a high rev reading that resulted in 31 mpg. That was OK, but just OK for a subcompact. I figured a lot of revs were being wasted in fifth, doing the comparatively simple task of maintaining cruising speed.

The new third-generation Fit is on an entirely new platform, with more dramatic styling and with its 1.5-liter 4-cylinder drivetrain revised to come under Honda’s “EarthDreams” scheme. The new engine has 130 horsepower (up from 117) and 114 foot-pounds of torque (up from 106), and three significant upgrades are: dual overhead cams (one for intake valves, the other for exhaust), direct injection, and a 6-speed manual transmission plus an upgraded continuously-variable automatic transmission (CVT).

The CVT adds steering-wheel paddles when you move up from the LX to the EX model, which also gets you 16-inch wheels, a moonroof, push-button start, lane-watch when you signal for a right turn, and a 7-inch screen rather than the basic 5-inch to display connective and internet features. The driver can shift the CVT by choosing D-Range downshifts which return to normal automatically, or an S-Range for almost-manual-feeling ratio adjustments that equate to a 7-speed, and requires the driver to execute ratio changes by paddle-shifting.

Improving width, and rear legroom, are packaging marvels of Honda engineering.

More spacious interior, and 4.8-inches more rear legroom, are packaging marvels of the shorter Fit.

My partner and I eagerly set off charging through the Southern California mountains’ most engaging curvy roads, pushing the stick-shift Fit to sports-car-like extremes. On our return trip, mostly on freeways, we cruised along at normal traffic-flow speeds. At that point, I noticed that at 70 mph, our car was turning 3,000 RPMs — same as its predecessor! We both expressed surprise and concern about that, but when we got back to the hotel, I clicked over the computer screen and saw our gas mileage readout as “41.1 mpg.” That was for driving through city traffic, really hard up and down the mountains, and finally cruising back.

Adding an overhead cam, more power and sixth gear should bolster performance, but shouldn’t necessarily improve fuel economy that much. Maybe that’s what they mean by “earth dreams.” Honda officials said that improved engine and transmission technology, plus using 27 percent ultra-high-grade steel helped increase torsional rigidity 15-percent in the car itself could account for the mileage increase. The EX model shows EPA estimates of 29 city and 37 highway with the stick and 33/41 for the CVT. The LX adds underbody panels for aerodynamics and boasts 25/41 EPA figures.

The new Fit comes in a basic LX model that starts at $15,525 ($16,325 with the CVT) and should account for 35 percent of sales; the fancier EX, starting at $17,435 ($18,235 with CVT) and aims at 55 percent anticipated sales; EX-L, starting at $19,800 in CVT only, and which is the EX with added leather and connectivity features aiming for 6 percent; and the EX-L Navi, based at $20,800 and shooting for 4 percent, which adds the navigation system.

New side contours improve the appearance of the 2015 Honda Fit.

New side contours improve the appearance of the 2015 Honda Fit.

Hiroaki Hamaya, the engineer charged with overall product planning for the new Fit, said that the LX has more than $1,000-worth of new features but costs only $106 more, while the top level EX has $1,800 in new features and costs only $250 more. “More buyers are moving up to the LX and EX,” Hamaya said. That figures, with all the added features of the upgrades. But the most significant improvements are very Honda-like refinements. Along with making all its elements lighter and stronger, the CVT has 14 percent wider ratios to make it far more enjoyable than most CVTs, which drone there presence to you in boring monotone. The engine’s direct injection has a side intake that creates a high-tumble fuel-air flow for better burning.

The reason the Fit felt better as we were flinging it around some mountain roadways is that the power increase is complemented by the suspension, which has been improved for angle and material in the front struts, and H-type torsion beams at the rear for improved stability and a more rigid feeling. Electrically boosted steering benefits by a quicker ratio. With vehicle stability assist, hill-hold assist, and torque-correction steering, the lighter but stiffer Fit body is quieter and firmer feeling.

Also, it should come as no surprise that packaging-master Honda has actually worked more magic. It shortened the Fit by 1.6 inches, to 160 inches in overall length, but increased all the interior dimensions for occupants.

High-strength steel and a sleeker shape set apart the third-generation Fit.

High-strength steel and a sleeker shape set apart the third-generation Fit.

Lengthening the wheelbase by 1.2 inches to 99.6 helped, but interior passenger volume is increased by 4.9 cubic inches, with front shoulder room increased by 2.1 inches, and — get this — rear seat legroom increased by 4.8 inches.

That aids Honda’s claim of class-leading cargo capacity, against such notables as the Ford Fiesta, Nissan Versa, Hyundai Accent, and Kia Rio, Toyota Yaris, Mazda2, Chevrolet Sonic, and Kia Soul — all worthy competitors. In fact, it might be the considerable improvement of those competitors that helped motivate Honda to make sure the third-generation 2015 Fit would accept the challenges of making the car look better, ride better, handle better, accommodate people and cargo with more room, and quietly and forcefully improve power and fuel economy. Typically, it Fits right in.

Alfa Romeo Rides Exotic 4C Back Into U.S.

July 6, 2014 by · Comments Off
Filed under: Autos, New car introductions 
Light, carbon-fiber Alfa Romeo 4C gets exotic speed from 1,750 ccs.

Carbon-fiber Alfa Romeo 4C has mid-engine balance and turbocharged 1,750 engine.

 

By John Gilbert

Every auto manufacturer wants to convince customers that its cars are fun, and exciting to drive. Then there are the Italians. Say no more. There is never a need for an Italian car-maker to suggest that his car is emotional, or exciting. It comes with the territory.

That’s the backdrop for the Alfa Romeo 4C, which Alfa Romeo plans to ride back into the U.S. auto market for 2015. We can call it a $55,000 thrill-making toy, and that’s not a rip. That’s basically what a Corvette Sting Ray is, or a Porsche Boxster S or Cayman S, or a Nissan GTR or 370Z. All are fun, and describe the genre, and all cost substantially more than $55,000. When you build a specialty sports car, you can charge a lot, but you’d better back it up with substance.

The 4C has, for substance: mid-engine balance, an extremely light (2,400-pound) mass that can be hurled 0-60 in the mid-4-second range, a top speed of 160 mph, an over-achieving aluminum 1,750 cc. turbocharged and direct-injected 4-cylinder, light and precise suspension and steering, and a high-tech body that owes its construction and heritage to contemporary Formula 1 technology.

The look and the performance rank in the exotic supercar class, but if that’s not enough, Alfa is going to build in an exclusivity. Only 1,000 Alfa Romeo 4C cars will be distributed to anxious U.S. buyers in its first year, through selected Fiat dealerships. One of the 4C models I drove listed for $58,295 with racing exhaust and bi-xenon headlights.

Designer Lorenzo Ramaciotti brought the 4C contours and emotional flair together.

Race track setting proves designer Lorenzo Ramaciotti brought the 4C contours and emotional flair all together.

If you’re unconvinced that the 4C is emotional, and fun to drive, standing next to one is pretty good evidence of the former and starting the engine is convincing of the latter. The sound is exhilarating. It resembles the “sports-plus” settings for straight-through exhausts on Porsches or the new Corvette. The sound is part of the overall image, but it’s best experienced somewhere like the road-racing circuit at Sonoma, California, which used to be known as Sears Point.

Shift the twin-clutch direct-sequential gearbox into first and pull out of the pit lane. The steering feels just a bit heavy at first, but that’s because Alfa chose not to waste any energy on power steering. Once rolling, the light-front 4C steering is perfect, as is its precision. Build a little speed, as you exit the pits, and ease slightly up the slope toward Turn 1. Hammer it, and the sound gets better, and its reflexes seem to improve as well. The fantastic responses of the car react to every tiny steering, curving, braking or accelerating input you choose, and they conspire to create a sensory deadlock: It is impossible to calculate which is the best characteristic of just how emotional and exciting the Alfa 4C is.

Every contour has a purpose in the 2,465-pound Alfa 4C.

Every contour has a purpose in the 2,465-pound Alfa 4C.

After first seeing the 4C at a couple of big auto shows, I couldn’t wait to fold myself inside one for a test drive. The time presented itself when I was invited to join a group of eager journalists who drove a fleet of Alfas from our hotel in San Francisco up to Sonoma’s road-racing track. The car will be made in six exterior colors altogether — black, basalt grey metallic, a milky eye-catcher called “Madreperla White Tri-coat,” and my favorite two — Rosso Alfa, and Rosso Competizione Tri-coat.

I had fun asking other journalists which red they preferred, but instead of calling them “Rosso Competizione Tri-coat,” a very metallic red, or the nonmetallic “Rosso Alfa,” I merely pointed at the two parked side by side. Most chose the metallic, but it deserved a pause. Every company makes an impressive metallic red, but only a precious few — most notably Ferrari, Porsche, and Alfa Romeo — cover a car with a pure, deep, flat red that electrifies you more the longer you gaze at it. So that’s my pick, and it has nothing to do with how many thousands of dollars you might save avoiding the metallic if you ever had to touch up a nick or scratch.

Among the colors available on the 1,000 U.S.-bound 4C Alfas for 2015 are red, or red.

Among the colors available on the 1,000 U.S.-bound 4C Alfas for 2015 are red, or red.

If you are old enough to remember the movie “The Graduate,” you remember it as a cleverly written classic that starred Dustin Hoffman as a college-age kid, co-starring with an Alfa Romeo roadster, which became known thereafter as the Graduate. Alfa Romeo brought some other fine cars to the U.S. back then, including the GTB, a sleek fastback coupe of the late 1960s that allowed Horst Kwech to battle John Morton’s factory Datsun 510 for the Under-2.5-liter road-racing championship. Alfa won two titles, the second in 1970. Years later, after also bringing in a stylish 164 sedan, Alfa pulled out of the U.S. market, as did other European manufacturers, including Fiat.

Nowadays, Fiat is an enormous conglomerate, owning Ferrari, Alfa, Lancia, and Chrysler along with its namesake. And it’s time to come back into the U.S.  Fiat, which has done an excellent job of changing the entire culture of Chrysler Group — including Dodge, Ram and Jeep — promotes its own fun little Fiat 500 subcompact, and is right on schedule to bring long-deprived U.S. drivers a taste of Italian sports-car flair, all part of a larger picture.

Lorenzo Ramaciotti, who is the head of design for Fiat and Chrysler, and who used to work for the reknown Italian coach-maker Pininfarina, was asked to back away from the justifiable celebration of the 4C and tell me what his next project would be. “The next Alfa for the U.S.,” he said. “We have a five-year plan for bringing in eight Alfa models to the U.S.” After the 4C, I can’t even imagine what directions Alfa intends to go with its new models. I asked Ramaciotti what was his favorite personal design ever.

“I couldn’t name my favorite, or my favorite three, or list the top 10,” he said. When I pressed him, he explained that for Pininfarina, he designed the Ferrari 456GT, which might be why he can’t compare others, and he has drawn everything from such six-figure supercar classics to Peugeot 406 Coupes, and more. “Styling is nothing without substance,” he said. But Italian cars always have this flair, this emotional sexiness about them. Is it part of the culture?

“Every car has its own recipe, and sexiness of design is part of the recipe,” Ramaciotti said. “It all has to hold together. This one, I like. Some cars turn out better than what my perception was, others not as good. We have design studios in Turin, in Auburn Hills, and in Brazil. I feel myself more like a coach; I have good players and I try to let them play.”

Getting into the 4C is easier than getting out, perhaps influenced by incentive.

Getting into the 4C is easier than getting out, perhaps influenced by incentive.

The whole idea for the 4C started with Fiat selecting two senior executives from Ferrari, and letting them and Alfa Romeo executives select their own team with a few simple guidelines. Be innovating and revolutionary to insure that Alfa’s well-conceived charisma remains separated from other marques. That means an advanced and innovative engine, balanced vehicle layout, which led to a mid-engine, two-seater design that has a weight distribution of 41 percent front/59 rear. Alfa calls it “nearly perfect 50/50,” but being Italian, a little exaggerating is acceptable. To meet the demands of contemporary society, that meant making the car as light as possible without compromising safety, and then a small but potent engine can overachieve under the hatch.

Designers borrowed the overall look from the iconic 33 Stradale model from 1967. The extremely low, flowing lines are built from composite body pieces, over a carbon-fibre monocoque with an aluminum engine frame. Its “pre-preg” monocoque is made from a heat-cured resin matrix that features manmade carbon fibers, which run unilaterally to provide five times the strength of conventional non-metallic material. SMC, or sheet-molding compound, is a low-density, high-strength composite used for the exterior; it is 20 percent lighter and more rigid than steel and offers a 20 percent weight-saving compared to steel.

Auto enthusiasts will welcome Alfa's insignia back to the U.S.

Auto enthusiasts will welcome Alfa’s insignia back to the U.S.

Weight is only 2,465 pounds, and with the engine behind the two bucket seats, but ahead of the rear axle, the “mid-engine” layout offers exceptional steering-handling balance. Next came the 1,750 cc. 4-cylinder engine, a high-revving, direct-injected and turbocharged unit producing 237 horsepower at 6,000 RPMs and 258 foot-pounds of torque over a span of 2,200-4,250 RPMs. In fact, 80 percent of the maximum torque is available at only 1,700 RPMs. Alfa also installed its twin-clutch transmission, shiftable by paddles on the steering wheel, unless you choose to leave it in drive, which allows it to show off its capabilities to shift itself, both up and down.

You can alter the 4C driving dynamics to get more aggressive gearshifts buy going to Race mode, or using the paddle shifters on the steering wheel. There are four modes in Race, including All-weather, for most anti-slip and to compensate quickly for reducing power and loss of traction; Natural, for grand touring with a more passive differential; Dynamic for aggressive calibration to improve response and 25 percent quicker gear changes, as well as later stability control intervention when drifting through a turn; and Race, which puts the drive in total control by deacivating stability control.

All lines radiate from the 4C's familiar "trilobo" shield in the center of the low, sleek grille.

All lines radiate from the 4C’s familiar “trilobo” shield in the center of the low, sleek grille.

The interior of the car is driver oriented, with simple instrumentation and a flat-bottom steering wheel, inspired by motorcycle racers. Aluminum pedals are sporty, and the 7-inch instrument cluster with all the necessary graphics, and carbon fiber-fiberglass reinforced bucket seats make it the perfect setting for a drive to work or, in my opinion, a cross-country trip. Some said the exhaust note might become intrusive; to me, if that happened I’d get the chance to test out the audio system for a different type of music. You can also choose to avoid the “racing exhaust” choice on the option list. But test it out, first. You may like the sound as much as I do.

The seats are comfortable and supportive, even in hard cornering on the racetrack, where, by the way, the twin-clutch transmission in “D” downshifts impressively and makes you wonder if you need to be playing with the paddles for personal control. But, of course, this is an Italian beauty, and the ability to manually stimulate it and yourself is part of the allure.

Cars of Winter Blow Through Toughest Tests

June 8, 2014 by · Comments Off
Filed under: Autos, Weekly test drives 
Some vehicles perform well, and some perform well in extreme conditions, such as the winter of 2013-14.

Jeep’s new Cherokee looks good, drives well, and over-achieves in severe weather.

By John Gilbert

Any car can feel impressive to drive and live with when the weather is in the 70s and dry, but not too dry. The real test of road-worthiness is when you have conditions that give you trouble negotiating a road, or even seeing one — which made the winter of 2013-14 perfect. Only when we reached the end of May, 2014, did I dare to think winter might be over, because the 2013-14 winter was one of the coldest, harshest, most unrelenting I’ve witnessed.

It was bad elsewhere, I know, but in Duluth, Minnesota, we had both cold and snow in constant or alternating dosages. Records show 76 days when the temperature dipped below zero, with a record 28 of those days in one consecutive stretch. And we’re talking actual temperature, none of this sissy “wind-chill” stuff. Various regional temperatures along the North Shore of Lake Superior — where I live — hit 25-35 below on several occasions, and 98 percent of the big lake’s surface was ice-covered for a couple of months. But along with it, we had something over 130 inches of snow piling up as well on all the roadways and driveways in the area, starting out with the most significant single snowstorm I’ve ever witnessed.

It was in the first week of December, right after a pair of vehicles had been brought to my house for a week’s road test. Talk about good timing! They were a Jeep Cherokee Limited and a Nissan Rogue, both fun to drive versatile compact crossover SUVs. The Cherokee is all-new from the wheels up, and the Rogue is a thoroughly revised vehicle on a platform that will lead Nissan into the future.

It kept snowing until 40 inches buried a Jeep Cherokee and Nissan Rogue.

It kept snowing until 40 inches buried a Jeep Cherokee and Nissan Rogue.

Both the Cherokee, left, and Rogue handled the huge storm with poise.

Both the Cherokee, left, and Rogue handled the huge storm with poise.

The official Duluth Airport snowfall was 29 inches in that 24-hour stretch, although an official weather-watcher who lives farther out on the same North Shore ridge as I do said her official measuring stake is 39 inches long, with a neon pink tip for easy spotting, and that morning she couldn’t find the stake above the surface of snow. So I don’t know how much we got at our yard from that one snowfall, but I’m estimating 42 inches. When I ventured outside the morning after the storm, the snow was hip deep, as I shoveled my way toward the thick white blanket that had been black asphalt just hours before. I climbed into the Jeep Cherokee, after clearing view-panels in the vicinity of the windshield.

I started it, and backed up as far as seemed reasonable, to point the nose toward our rural road. It was reluctant to move that far, and wasn’t convinced moving forward was a good idea, either, making me concerned the whole vehicle might be hung up on the snow. About then, I heard a snow plow going by, and watched as it left about a 5-foot pile of snow as if to seal us into our 100-yard-long driveway.

I broadcast a live morning radio show on KDAL 610am, and I immediately realized that I could shovel or make it to the show, but not both. I climbed aboard again, made sure the Cherokee was in its 4×4 setting, and clicked the selection knob on the console from automatic, past rock, past mud, to “snow,” which electronically assists the vehicle in determining what sort of power might be best for such conditions. Too much power, for instance, can make slippery conditions worse. I shifted the gear lever into low range. To my considerable surprise, the Cherokee churned ahead, with the undercarriage plowing little grooves, so I carefully increased speed near the end of the driveway, and then I hit the gas pretty hard.

A video might have looked like a speedboat bursting through a wave; I hit that pile of snow and blew through it, snow flying in all directions, as I kept churning out onto the rural road. I was free, and the Cherokee hadn’t spun a tire, although our roadway was hardly clear of obstructing snow. I favored the Cherokee for North American Truck of the Year, and going anywhere and everywhere that week was convincing enough to get my official vote as a member of that jury. It finished second, but I’ll guarantee the rest of the voters didn’t match my extreme road-test.

The Cherokee is Jeep’s first front-wheel drive vehicle that switches torque to the rear as needed, and its terrain switch makes it capability remarkable. The Limited was equipped with the 2.4-liter 4-cylinder with Multiair and Chrysler’s new 9-speed transmission, and it had unaggressive all-season tires — nothing special. A couple weeks later, I got the TrailHawk version of the Limited, with the optional 3.2-liter V6 and all the best all-terrain equipment, including big knobby off-road tires. And yes, we got more snow for a similar test on top of the old stuff, but to my surprise, the TrailHawk with its extra power, wanted to spin those knobby tires every time I started up. So I’ll take the Limited with the 4, and the potential to get 6-8 more miles per gallon, and with adequate power and no spinning, and its more-reasonable sticker price starting at $26,495. It’s perfectly balanced for the worst weather or for easy-going highway duty.

I sympathized, a couple of months later, when one of the leading national car magazines presented a major feature on driving in Michigan’s winter with the new Cherokee. The magazine chose to upgrade to the optional V6, then they complained about the fuel economy. Too bad.

The snow piled on, but the Rogue fought through.

The snow piled on, but the Rogue fought through.

The Nissan Rogue has always been a family favorite. The current model will continue to be offered as the 2014 Rogue Select with a base price under $20,000. The new Rogue, all redone, is improved in every way, starting with a stiffer platform called the Common Module Family (CMF) architecture, which is shared with affiliate Renault and will be the basis for future Nissan products. The new Rogue will be priced between $24,000 and $30,000, and will be built in Smyrna, TN., where it joins the Altima, Pathfinder, Leaf, and Infiniti QX50 as newly launched vehicles being built at the U.S. plant. About an inch taller, longer and wider, and with a longer wheelbase, the new Rogue squeezes in an optional third-row seat. The 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine has a 10.0-to-1 compression ratio but burns regular fuel, producing 170 horsepower and 175 foot-pounds of torque. A significantly improved Xtronic CVT (continuously variable transmission) improves fuel economy to an EPA 33 highway.

The Rogue, also, charged through that snow-filled driveway and was unimpeded by the worst weather week. It doesn’t have all the multi-terrain switches of the Cherokee, but it does have the ability to go from front-wheel to all-wheel, to 4×4 lock, which is where it spent a good part of that week. Like the Cherokee, the Rogue can be bought for under $30,000, and has a reasonable shot at topping 30 miles per gallon, although trying for good gas mileage in blizzard conditions is a shaky proposition.

Granted, there are other vehicles that could handle such ferocious storms, but some couldn’t — particularly those with rear-wheel drive, or with summer or high-performance tires. But among those vehicles that came to me at the right time to find lots of snow, certain vehicles stood out for performing their best in the worst possible conditions:

Subaru's WRX for 2015 is a bargain alternative to the SYI.

Subaru’s WRX for 2015 is a bargain alternative to the SYI.

*  Subaru had a strong pair to draw from: the new WRX, which approaches the fun of the flashier WRX-STI but a welcome tad less harsh in handling; and the Crosstrek Hybrid, a startlingly attractive wagon-sized crossover. Both are based on the compact Impreza platform, and both seemed right at home in the nasty stuff, with their all-wheel-drive 2.0-liter powerplants ready to go all day or all night. The WRX was the new 2015 model, and it reduces engine size from 2.5 to 2.0 liters from 2014, with the 2.0 the turbocharged item from the acclaimed Forester, set to deliver 268 horsepower and 258 foot-pounds of torque. The stiffer, firmer and stronger WRX comes off as a worthy $30,000 alternative to the costlier hair-trigger WRX-STI. Snow was no problem. The 2014

Crosstrek is Subaru's most stylish SUV and adds hybrid power.

Crosstrek is Subaru’s most stylish SUV and adds hybrid power.

Crosstrek is a comparative bargain at just under $30,000, and is among the best-looking Subaru utility vehicles ever, and its normally aspirated 2.0-liter flat 4 has a milder 145 horsepower, but the addition of the synchronous electric motor in the hybrid setup leaves the Crosstrek Hybrid with a combined 160 horsepower and 163 foot-pounds of torque. At only $27,000, the well-equipped test vehicle is impressive, particularly with the manual mode on the CVT.

*   Audi is legendary because of its quattro all-wheel-drive system, which auto magazines insist on spelling with a capital “Q” despite Audi’s protests and official spelling. Audi’s recent proliferation of models brought forth more capable winter-beaters than ever, but with three specific for our purposes: The SQ5 was first to show its stuff to us.

SQ5 takes Audi Q5 to sportier capabilities.

SQ5 takes Audi Q5 to sportier capabilities.

The Q5 is a very impressive midsize SUV, and the SQ5 adds all sorts of sports features to the suspension and power delivery, and even though it might have been wise to have better winter-traction tires, the SQ5 barreled through without a whimper. Audi’s 3.0-liter V6 combines direct injection and supercharging to send a potent 354 horsepower and 340 foot-pounds of torque through the refined quattro all-wheel-drive system via an 8-speed Tiptronic transmission, the “S” version separates itself from the standard Q5. Naturally the upgrades cost a bit, and the SQ5‘s base price is $51,900, and as tested it sat $61,420. The S4 sedan gets similar treatment above and beyond the A4, but a compact to midsize sedan doesn’t need as much outright power as a heftier SUV, so Audi limits the supercharged 3.0 to 333 horsepower and 325 foot-pounds of torque, in the S4, sending the quattro system its power through a 6-speed

Audi S4 went through snow and stick made it more fun than challenging.

Audi S4 went through snow and stick made it more fun than challenging.

stick shift. That combination meant the S4 not only cut a dashing figure through the snowy streets, it was also fun to shrug off the indignity of having its flashy red paint job obscured by a lot of road glop. While those two vehicles were prizes, the larger and sleeker A7 showed up later. I once declared the A7 the most attractive sedan in the world, because it is essentially an A6 with a sloping, fast-back roofline. This particular model was equipped with all my favorite stuff, not only the quattro all-wheel-drive system, and the 8-speed automatic with paddle-shift manual capabilities, but instead of the 3.0-supercharged gas V6, this one came with the 3.0-liter turbocharged diesel (TDI) engine. Audi’s turbo-diesel magic means the single turbo delivers a decent 240 horsepower, along with an indecent 428 foot-pounds of torque. Diesels always create scads of torque, which is why they are so impressive in acceleration, and the prodigious A7 TDI torque peaks at a mere 1,750 RPMs, which is barely above idle speed and also right on the tach reading at 70 miles per hour. At a base price of

White Audi A7 TDI quattro needs graphics to be visible in snowstorm.

White Audi A7 TDI quattro needs graphics to be visible in snowstorm.

$68,000, the A7 TDI offers a beautiful luxury car with tremendous power and the ability to get over 30 mpg all the time, and nearly 40 mpg on the highway in more agreeable weather. The test car topped $80,000, which is easy to do with the options. The gleaming white paint on the test vehicle stood out, even after a blizzard, because Audi had slapped large decals on the sides that said “TDI” in huge letters, and “Clean Diesel” smaller. Those large black letters prevented anyone from repeating the joke about seeing a white cow eating marshmallows while giving milk in a blizzard. Maybe branding that cow with large black letters would help. The final winter-beating aces are a bit of a surprise.

*   The Volvo S60 T6 is a fantastic sedan and comes with all-wheel drive as an available option. So does the XC60 T6, Volvo’s midsize SUV. These were 2015 models, which seems to have signalled Volvo to play a practical joke on journalists who might be guilty of assuming they could do a superficial job of covering the cars. Volvo has built a strong series of inline engines, including a 4, a 5, and a 6. The T5 used to designate a turbocharged 5 and

Redesigned 2015 Volvo XC60 and S60 (rear) have FWD traction that nears AWD.

Redesigned 2015 Volvo XC60 and S60 (rear) have FWD traction that nears AWD.

the T6 a turbo 6. But for 2015, Volvo carefully stated that it was condensing and refining all its engines, and that a 4 would power all its new cars, replacing the 5 and 6. Curiously, Volvo chose to name the hot new 4, which is both supercharged and turbocharged, by calling it the “T6 Drive-E.” That led some reviewers to write that the company was going to 4-cylinder, but the particular test car was a T6, with the 6. Wrong! It’s the 4. By amazing coincidence, I found both an S60 sedan and XC60 SUV together in my driveway when another blizzard hit. My wife pleaded to drive the XC60 for its greater clearance and all-wheel drive, compared to the lower S60 sedan. After a couple of days, I informed her that, oddly enough, neither vehicle had AWD. It’s just that the front-wheel-drive models handled the 302 horsepower and 295 foot-pounds of torque through their 8-speed automatics, with paddle shifters.The S60 priced at $38,150 with the test model $47,925, and with fuel economy figures of 24 city, 34 highway by EPA estimate. The XC60 showed 22 city/30 highway at a base price of $40,000, up to $50,725 as tested. The beauty is that all-wheel drive is a wonderful asset, but a well-balanced car, built with winter-driving in mind, and mounted with good all-season tires, can convince you it’s good enough to beat the worst winter. Maybe a lot of it is state of mind. Or maybe Volvo has the benefit of Minnesota-like Swedish winters.

 

Same Name Covers All-New Chrysler 200

April 21, 2014 by · Comments Off
Filed under: Autos, New car introductions 
Chrysler desperately needed a competitor in the midsize segment, and connected all the right dots to create the new 200.

Stylish new Chrysler 200 is built on an Alfa Romeo platform.

By John Gilbert

If you ran a pro football team and wanted to compete in the National Football League, you’d be well-advised to have a quarterback. Or if you were sending a Major League baseball team onto the field to start the season, you will need a solid starting pitcher.

Chrysler understands the analogies, by living the automotive equivalent — trying to compete in the auto business without a midsize car. Since one out of six new vehicles are selected from that largest segment in the United States, Chrysler can empathize with that football team without a quarterback or baseball team without a pitcher. (It’s just coincidence that it might seem we’re specifically comparing cars to recent seasons by the Minnesota Vikings or Minnesota Twins.)

The new 200, which will start with a base price of $21,700, has no resemblance whatsoever to the existing 200, representing such a departure that I asked why the same name was retained. They responded with a few market-speak lines about the value of “name recognition,” similar to what Dodge officials said when their all-new vehicle was born under a resuscitated Dart name, after a previous but pretty much unloved compact sedan.

There is no question how impressive the Dart’s styling and technology is, and how special the new 200 will be for Chrysler. The comparison to the Dart, incidentally, is well-founded, because the 200 shares the underpinnings with Dart of the Alfa Romeo Giulietta — a platform Chrysler officials have praised as the best and most versatile the company has ever used, and one which can be adjusted any direction for length and width.

Harmonious connection of contours sets apart the rear quarter view of the 200.

Harmonious connection of contours sets apart the rear quarter view of the 200.

When the style-conscious Fiat folks guided Chrysler into its midsize venture, they didn’t mess around. The 200 is larger than the compact Dart, which takes on the Honda Civic, Mazda3, Toyota Corolla, Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Volkswagen Jetta, and Nissan Versa. The 200, meanwhile, is taking on the big boys, such as the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Mazda6, Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Malibu, Nissan Altima and Volkswagen Passat.

In order to wade into that competition, Chrysler was required to nail everything from design to comfort, to technology, to creature features, and to performance, not necessarily in that order.     If the plan was to hit one out of the park, Chrysler picked wisely in its location for the introduction: Louisville, Kentucky, home of the Louisville Slugger baseball bat company, with the actual presentation at Louisville Slugger Stadium, one of the neatest and best-designed minor-league ballparks.

Without question, the 200 is stunning to look at. As you approach it, you may not have any idea what it is, except that it is obviously wearing a fresh, contemporary version of the “four-door coupe” style, with a sleek, swept-back roofline. Read more

K900 Gives Kia a Luxury ‘Multi-Vitamin’

March 22, 2014 by · Comments Off
Filed under: Autos, New car introductions 
Kia wants to ride its new K900 into the heart of the affordable luxury segment.

Kia K900 felt at home on California mountain roads.

By John Gilbert

To the uninformed, K900 might sound like the latest super-vitamin, capable of doing mighty things for your well-being and overall health. In a way, it is that for Kia, because the K900 is Kia’s all-out luxury sedan, powering Kia to rise to a new dimension in automotives.

Skeptics might say that Kia has become known for building strong and inexpensive economy cars, so what are they thinking building a large sedan to compete in the all-out luxury car segment? “We didn’t build the K900 just to serve the market,” said Orth Hedrick, Kia’s vice president of product planning. “This car is designed to change the perception of Kia.

“We had four points we focused on — design, luxury, performance, and technology. In design, we think we hve a modern, timeless look that has a presence.

“For luxury, we have an elegant version of the signature grille and 16-element LED headlights on the outside, and a new definition of what a luxury interior has to be, with modern, sophisticated materials and every touch point making you think luxury and sophistication. It took us three or four years to find a source for the Nappa leather hides from South America that were exactly what we wanted, and the natural wood accents complement it.

Four 4-beam clusters make 16 LED headlights for the K900.

Four 4-beam clusters make 16 LED headlights for the K900.

“Performance comes from the platform with a stance that can only be gotten by rear-wheel drive,” Hedrick added. “We’ve got 52 percent of the weight on the front and 48 percent on the rear, with a solid structure.”

Of course, the 5.0 V8 is a key element of the performance, with 429 horsepower and 376 foot-pounds of torque, running through an 8-speed automatic that Kia has tweaked for quicker shifting, up and down.

Technology is evident throughout the exterior styling and mechanical features, but blends with luxury that surrounds occupants on the inside. Seats are encompassing in their support and comfort. The multimedia driver assist has a 9.2-inch screen in the center stack, with adjustable redundant readouts on a heads-up display. The optional Harmon Kardon Lexicon audio system has a 12-channel digital amplifier and 17 speakers. Adaptive lane-finding is a feature on the headlights, which have a unique arrangement with two 4-LED clusters on each side, making 16 separate beams. Read more

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