Featured Reviews
In its fourth-generation redesign, the MX-5, or Miata, takes on an exotic look.

MX-5 Miata Becomes Bargain Exotic for 2016

Mazda had a lot of technology to cram inside its 2016 MX-5 Miata, so it gave the car a flashy new look, too.

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Stylish contours and high-tech features set the 2016 CX-3 atop the new sporty SUV segment..

Mazda's CX-3 Sets Compact SUV Standard

The compact crossover SUV segment has virtually exploded on the automotive scene in the last five years, and Mazda's CX-3 is a perfect example of what's best about that segment.

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Completely revised XC90 gives Volvo a major player in the mid-luxury SUV category.

XC90 Hauls Volvo to Elite SUV Status

Volvo's first XC90 was a technical success, while the second edition, for 2016, promises to succeed in every category of larger, luxury SUVs.

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Advanced Sonata Goes High-tech with Hybrids

All-new for 2015, the popular Hyundai Sonata makes a bold move upward in technology with the 2016 Hybrid and Plug-in Hybrid models.

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Alfa Romeo invoked superstar tenor Andrea Bocelli to serenade the media and accompany the introduction of the Giulia.

Alfa Romeo Doesn't Spare Theatrics for New Giulia

Alfa Romeo unveiled its new Giulia sedan at the opening of the Alfa museum in Milano, and the addition of famed tenor Andrea Bocelli was nothing short of spellbinding.

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Low and sensual, the BMW i8 is a carbon-fiber exotic hybrid car with all-wheel drive.

If You Want a Hybrid, Would a BMW i8 Do?

The idea that hybrids are boring little non performers is turned upside down by the spectacular BMW i8.

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For 2015, Murano gets complete interior and exterior makeover.

New Murano Lures Old, and New, Buyers

Nissan has reined in the far-out look of the Murano to make its luxurious SUV more agreeable to the mainstream in its third generation.

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F-150 SuperCab features wide-opening rear doors, no pillar.

Aluminum, Eco-Boosted F-150 Rewrites Rules

Ford made a bold move to completely rebuild its top-selling F-150 pickup for 2015, and it became a breakthrough aluminum blockbuster.

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Sonata traded its polarizing contours for more classic lines for 2015.

Refined, Restyled, Sonata Remains Midsize Icon

The 2011 Sonata lifted Hyundai to world-class recognition, and the 2015 redesign is significant for improving and refining it to near perfection.

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Iceland's Hvita River has 18-pound salmon, and a few Land Rover Discovery Sports.

Discovery Sport Too Cool for Iceland

With full-time all-wheel-drive and a potent 2.0-liter turbocharged engine, the new Land Rover Discovery Sport handled every obstacle Iceland could provide,

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MX-5 Miata Becomes Bargain Exotic for 2016

October 6, 2015 by · Comments Off on MX-5 Miata Becomes Bargain Exotic for 2016
Filed under: Autos, New car introductions, Weekly test drives 


In its fourth-generation redesign, the MX-5, or Miata, takes on an exotic look.

In its fourth-generation redesign, the MX-5, or Miata, takes on an exotic look.

By John Gilbert

Hurry! If you live in the warmer part of the country, there’s no urgency; but farther north, where the ominous approach of cold weather and a little snow and ice is nearing, sports car driving can become a seasonal venture, and the leaf-changing time of autumn might be the best time possible.

If you own a Porsche Cayman, or a Jaguar F-Type, an Audi TT, BMW Z4 or an Alfa 4C, there’s no real urgency, because you undoubtedly can afford to pick your spots. But if you want the same thrill, possibly amplified by the knowledge that you beat the system by spending about one-fourth of the required investment of the above-named roadsters, then run — don’t walk — to your closest Mazda dealer and pick off a 2016 MX-5 Miata for half the sticker price or less.

The base Miata Sport starts at $24,915, and moving up to the Club is $28,600, with the top Grand Touring starting at $30,065. The Club is what I drove, and it adds a limited slip and Bilstein shock absorbers and an inch larger wheels if you pick the Sport package.

Jump into the Miata, flip the closure lever and lower the top with one hand — no power gizmos, please. Start up the Skyactiv engine, shift into gear and take off. The feeling of exhilaration is instant and always the same. Fantastic. If it feels even more compact than you anticipated, it is. Its 154.4-inch length is more than an inch shorter than the original was in 1990, although wheelbase as 1.7 inches stretched on the new car, and width is a couple inches more.

With Mazda, the power and torque numbers mean very little. If it feels fast enough to give you a thrill, it is. The new Skyactiv 2.0 has 155 horses and 148 foot-pounds, and the outgoing 2.0, without Skyactiv technology, actually had more horsepower at 167 at 7,000 revs, with less torque at 140. I never know how Mazda does it, but the new car feels quicker in a more coordinated way where the engine, gearbox, electric power steering and suspension all contribute.

Nicely contoured from front to rear, the new Miata adds Skyactiv chassis and engine.

Nicely contoured from front to rear, the new Miata adds Skyactiv chassis and engine.

For 2016, even the crustiest traditionalist among Miata fans will have to admit that as good as the first three generations of the Miata have been, the fourth-generation version gives you the largest jump forward in technology, and also provides some visual exhilaration, from the first time you lay eyes on it.

First reaction to the term “sports car” is that it must have a rigid body that stays flat around the tightest corners, even if that means you risk outright harshness over any road irregularities in real-world driving. We accept that. Mazda, however, doesn’t. The new Miata has an almost surprising feeling of compliance — not softness, but a little bit of leaning in tight corners, and even a little nose bobbing under heavy braking. Maybe the Miata’s ability to feel comfortable and secure at all times, rather than steely, track-day firmness might cost you a second around a road-racing track. But you appreciate the compliance every time you get behind the wheel.

Also, when it comes to those hard-driving track day ventures, a little leaning in tight turns is no problem if it’s completely predictable, doesn’t cause you to compromise your driving aggressiveness, and actually gives a good driver time to anticipate the shifting G-forces.

Mazda has long established a reputation for building an honest “fun” driving experience into every vehicle it produces, and up on the pillar as the standard of Mazda’s “zoom-zoom” philosophy is the Miata. Actually, Mazda prefers us to call the car the “MX-5” for reasons best known to those image-makers in Hiroshima, Japan, who don’t seem aware of the enormous advantage of name-recognition. Grudgingly, the company now seems to allow its people to call it the “MX-5 Miata.”

Striking colors are just the final detail in coordinating the MX-5's revision.

Striking colors are just the final detail in coordinating the MX-5’s revision.

By any name, Mazda’s 2-seat sports car has become a standard of the entire industry for being a simple, no-frills approach to flat-out fun driving. Competitors may attempt to challenge it, but nobody has come close to providing the same flair for the amazingly low price.

For 2016, the fourth-generation MX-5 Miata adds a decided new look and personality. Rod McLaughlin, the car’s vehicle line manager, stressed those four core values that Mazda would not alter: “Light weight, affordable, a roadster, and fun to drive,” he said. “Our job was to turn those principles into engineering. ‘Kansai’ engineering involves how it feels, sounds and looks. Takao Kijima, the third-generation manager, made sure all benchmarks turned into emotional values.”

McLaughlin’s challenge was to expand on the traditional simplicity of the Miata, while also incorporating the unique features that Mazda has made standard issue on all its vehicles. That includes high-strength steel for increased rigidity and lighter weight, plus the Skyactiv treatment whereby a compacted, stylish and streamlined look and design must keep up with Mazda’s new engine technology and self-made transmissions.

The term “Skyactiv” has become commonplace in publications, but don’t settle for superficial explanations that consist of the name without technical explanation. The true definition of Skyactiv springs from Mazda’s decision to look into the future and realize the company had to make a move to an entirely new way to build engines, and cars, if it wanted to rise above the 30-mpg norm to more like 40. Mazda’s holistic approach started with a design and production of an engine from the bottom up, inside out, with everything on the cutting edge of technology.

You fit into the two bucket seats as if wearing the Miata like a sports jacket.

You fit into the two bucket seats as if wearing the Miata like a sports jacket.

A simple glance at the beautifully tuned exhaust manifold pipes winding rhythmically around the block. That doesn’t fully explain that there is a chain-driven dual-overhead camshafts, direct injection, 155 horsepower at 6,000 RPMs and 148 foot-pounds of torque at 4,600 revs, and a redline of 6,800. The variable valve-timing can keep the valves open in Miller-cycle fashion, and fuel economy figures show 27 city and 36 highway for the automatic or 34 mpg for the 6-speed stick.

A trademark of the engine, when it was introduced on the Mazda3, then accompanied thorough revisions of the Mazda6 and the introduction of the crossover CX-5, is extremely high compression ratio but with the ability to burn regular gas. Stuffing all the technical advances into the 27-year-old heritage of the Miata had to be a major challenge, but Mazda pulled it off.

At a glance, the new car has the look of a small exotic more than a bargain sports roadster, starting with the large and comparatively menacing grille opening, with angular slits for headlight eyes, vast departures from tradition.

The smooth, sporty contours of the Miata make it look natural with the top down.

The smooth, sporty contours of the Miata make it look natural with the top down.

...On the other hand, a one-hand flip and lock secures a canvas top that looks good, too.

…On the other hand, a one-hand flip and lock secures a canvas top that looks good, too.

“At the time of the Miata’s 1989 launch, there were no true lightweight sports cars available,” said Lead designer Jacques Flynn. “This car has established such a rich pedigree as a true icon that it is a huge honor for me to be involved with it. It has always been the perfect light sports car — under 2,200 pounds — and we had to make sure we met our demands for technology but also tradition.”

Mazda gives you the option of using minimum 87-octane regular or 91-octane premium gasoline, noting that you will get full power with premium.

At the MX-5 Miata introduction in California, I had an early departure to fly back to Minnesota. Since my co-driver could spend the rest of the afternoon driving all versions of the car, I drove the first part. As it happened, our best efforts to follow the map and use all of our GPS instruments and our common sense failed when highway construction got us hopelessly lost.

We zoom-zoomed around all sorts of back roads and neat, twisty highways, and we finally arrived at the lunch stop by coming to the country club by the back way. The main issue with our wandering in the wilderness is that I had to drive the whole way. Oh darn!

I got an extreme dose of driving the Club version of the MX-5 Miata, and found it thoroughly enjoyable whether on freeway stretches or around tight curves and switchbacks. Can you use a little extra exhilaration in your life, even on a mundane drive to work? Of course. And the Miata, or MX-5, provides that, every day. But hurry, so you can beat the northern snow.

Mazda’s CX-3 Sets Compact SUV Standard

August 26, 2015 by · Comments Off on Mazda’s CX-3 Sets Compact SUV Standard
Filed under: Autos, New car introductions 


The fastest-growing segment in automotive is the compact crossover outburst, and Mazda's CX-3 promises to be a major player.

Stylish contours and high-tech features set the 2016 CX-3 atop the new sporty SUV segment.

By John Gilbert

The new Mazda CX-3 is fouling up some long-standing family logic. While test-driving the proliferating array of trucks and SUVs has always been enjoyable and educational, our preference is for the dynamics of lower and sleeker cars, and the theory remains that anything bigger than “big enough” is too big.

But in the last couple of years, two pivotal new ingredients have evolved: One is age, on our part; the other is downsizing, on the part of the auto industry. Those two elements create an intriguing new junction for our consideration — to say nothing of millions of others. Without excessive size, you can still get SUV assets of a slightly higher vehicle with better visibility that’s easier to get into and out of, and has all-wheel drive to easily conquer the worst of Up North winters.

A couple of years ago, Mazda made it tempting with the CX-5, a pleasingly compact crossover SUV. We drove it around Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca, where its agility and power felt more like a sporty car. A compact SUV with the highest of high-tech power and features.

“Hmmmm,” we hmmmed. The CX-5 was the first vehicle that incorporated the full effect of Mazda’s fantastic Skyactiv technology, a holistic approach to building engines, transmissions, all-new suspension, a creative all-wheel-drive system, and an aerodynamic chassis and body and interior all in unified harmony — a concept that has followed in every Mazda vehicle since.


Distinctive lines converge on the flanks to set the CX-3 apart.

Distinctive lines converge on the flanks to set the CX-3 apart from its CX-5 sibling.

And now, for 2016, along comes the CX-3, significantly smaller than the CX-5 but still with more than adequate room and a bold, fresh design. Mazda officials say not to consider it a downsized CX-5, or a taller Mazda2, upon whose platform the CX-3 is based.

We may be hooked.  Amid an armada of new and downsized “CUVs,” the CX-3 was introduced as an early 2016 model, right after the compacted Jeep Renegade, right about the same time as the new and diminutive Honda HR-V, and just before the Fiat 500X and Hyundai Tucson. After brief exposure, the CX-3 might be the pick of the new litter.

The CX-3 blends all the features that convince mainstream buyers they need, as well as want, an SUV. If the CX-5 handles like a sporty sedan, the CX-3 is lighter, lower, better balanced and handles even better. Its looks makes you realize it is in the CX-5 family, and it has the large grille is the new identity face of all things Mazda. But its confluence of contours and exterior lines makes the CX-3 stand alone.


The GT version of the CX-3 gets starkly contrasting leather with suede inserts.

The GT version of the CX-3 gets starkly contrasting leather with suede inserts.

At 168.3 inches long, the CX-3 comes in various forms. The basic Sport starts at $19,950, the Touring starts at $21,950, and the GT starts at $24,990. All-wheel drive adds $1,200. A fully loaded GT version can be had for $28,160. All have the same 2.0 engine. The midrange Touring includes cross-traffic rear camera view, and the GT adds 18-inch wheels, LED lighting, paddle shifters, and leather seats with suede trim.

Also available are lane departure and blind spot warning, a moonroof, crash mitigation, adaptive headlights, remote start, and the ability to go beyond normal Bluetooth to social networking and communicating via e-mails. It even offers a car-finder device that can be programmed into your smartphone.

Under the hood, the CX-3 has Mazda’s exceptional 2.0-liter Skyactiv 4-cylinder, which is the smaller of two new 4s that power all the Mazda sedans as well as the CX-5. It doesn’t seem to give up any performance to its larger brother, and it can achieve heroic gas mileage figures consistently over 30 miles per gallon, thanks to delayed valve timing and its extremely high compression ratio while still burning regular gas.

CX-3 engine

The 2.0-liter Skyactiv system includes overachieving performance and fuel economy.

All that helps Mazda fool you with performance that outhustles the simple figures of a mere 146 horsepower and 146 foot-pounds of torque. That sounds mild, but the thorough combustion of Skyactiv technology reinforces another Mazda tradition: If it feels powerful enough, it is powerful enough.

Behind the wheel, acceleration is brisk, and fuel economy shows 29 city and 35 highway estimates with front-wheel-drive models, and 27 city, 32 highway with heavier all-wheel drive. One big asset is the 6-speed transmission Mazda built in-house to incorporate with its Skyactiv breakthrough is smooth and sure in its shifting and makes the CX-3 feel much quicker than several competitors, particularly those deploying CVTs — continuously variable transmissions.

In addition, there are steering-wheel remote paddles and a Sport mode to closely simulate manual shifting by holding gears in the sweet spot of the torque range, while also matching revs on downshifts, and recognizing hills and terrain where more-aggressive or more cautious shifting might be appropriate.

Part of its CX-3’s lightness comes from a combination of 63 percent high-tensile steel in the body, with the remainder ultra-high-tensile. Mazda includes its safety ring structure, which features a straight frame with rings running around the belittling and also from top to bottom along the A and B pillars, surrounding the occupant compartment with high-tensile steel. The design distributes any impacting force to the lower perimeter of the chassis.


Trusting the elegance of simplicity, the unadorned dash has a 7-inch nav screen.

Trusting the elegance of simplicity, the unadorned dash has a 7-inch nav screen.

My personal preference for interior design always has been to keep it simple, and the CX-3 wins there, too, with a horizontal dash accented by a 7-inch center nav screen, and a neat heads-up display screen on the dash in front of the driver. The factory navigation system costs $400.

The all-wheel drive system is a unique unit that Mazda calls “i-Activ.” Stan Hortinel, an engineer who was production manager on the CX-3, said the system reads steering angle and input, and also calculates other elements including temperature and brake fluid pressure.

“On dry pavement, and at normal temperatures, the system uses wheel-speed sensors to read the surface and anticipate cornering, and can switch torque to help maintain traction,” Hortinel said. “If there’s water on the road, it reads the power you’re using and the steering as well as the friction, so when you hit water the CX-3 detects it and predicts rather than reacting.

“It’s the same when there is snow and ice on the road. Your wheel-speed changes and the car’s response changes, based on the temperature sensors and steering wheel angle. The system takes in all the information and applies the torque properly to each wheel.”


What has become the signature Mazda grille adorns the CX-3.

What has become the signature Mazda grille adorns the CX-3.

Reinforcing that explanation, which is a key for anyone who drives in changing seasons, production engineer Jacob Brown said: “With the all-wheel drive system, there is never 100 percent of the torque going to the front wheels. Maybe, in perfect conditions, as much as 98 percent might go to the front, but even something as slight as a slight incline or decline would cause more power to go to the rear.”

Up to 50 percent of the power can go to the rear under slippery conditions. The system was introduced on the larger CX-5 two years ago, and weighing in 20 percent lighter than its big brother, at a mere 2,932 pounds, the system works impressively on the CX-3.

The taut CX-3 lines are intended to look like a Cheetah, tensed to spring.

The taut CX-3 lines are intended to look like a Cheetah, tensed to spring.

At the CX-3 introduction, at Westlake Village, California, Mazda showed video comparisons where Subaru’s system allowed a lot of slipping and the Honda system proved more reactive than anticipatory.

In dry weather, the front-wheel drive CX-3 is lighter and sportier to fling around curves, but the all-wheel drive models not only feel more planted in cornering maneuvers, but add another asset for those of us in the north country. All the more enticing to former car families.

XC90 Hauls Volvo to Elite SUV Status

August 8, 2015 by · Comments Off on XC90 Hauls Volvo to Elite SUV Status
Filed under: Autos, New car introductions 
Completely revised XC90 gives Volvo a major player in the mid-luxury SUV category.

Completely revised XC90 gives Volvo a major player in the mid-luxury SUV category.

By John Gilbert

The Volvo XC90 is an automotive rarity. While it is entirely new for 2016, it combines every contemporary and futuristic new element together in perfect harmony to make a whole that is far greater than just the sum of its parts.

The new XC90 is the largest Volvo, and as large SUVs go, it might be my favorite. Understand that I really like small, compact crossover SUVs, and with the herd of new ones hitting the market this year, I am a long way from determining a favorite among the smaller “CUV” group. With larger SUVs, I have less hesitation: The 2016 XC90 is so loaded with technical, aesthetic, performance, comfort, and safety features that anybody looking for a luxury SUV should be urged to consider it.

My impression from the first photos I saw was, “So this is what would happen if Volvo tried to build a Tahoe?” Thus, I was pleased to be invited for the introduction of the new XC90 in Santa Monica, Calif., because the vehicle is vastly more impressive in real-life than in those first photos. Yes, it is bigger and a bit more squarish than the more curvaceous original XC90. But in person, it looks classy, not boxy; stylish, not stodgy.

The 2016 XC90 uses its squarish exterior to house a full array of comfort, performance and luxury features.

The 2016 XC90 uses its squarish exterior to house a full array of comfort, performance and luxury features.

At 194.8 inches in length, the XC90 is 10 inches shorter than a Tahoe, and 30 inches shorter than a Suburban, but it makes excellent use of its interior space and can tow up to 5,000 pounds with engine choices that include 400 horsepower and 372 foot-pounds of torque.

As unique as the exterior looks, that might be the least impressive of the new XC90’s assets. It comes in three designations — the Momentum, the Inscription, and the R-Design. Each can be had with the choice of engines: the T6, which is a new and sophisticated 2.0-liter 4-cylinder with both supercharging for low-end thrust and turbocharging for high-end power, or the T8 “twin engine” alternative, which has the same T6 engine linked to a C-ISG battery pack/electric motor unit to generate electricity for the latest in hybrid technology.

The T6 produces 316 horsepower and 295 foot-pounds of torque and will zip from 0-60 in about 6 seconds with an EPA fuel economy estimate of 22 miles per gallon. The T8 produces 400 horsepower and 472 foot-pounds, improving acceleration time to 5.6 seconds and attaining a lofty 59 mpg high. With both engines available in all three models, all can be obtained in basic form or with popular options grouped in Vision, Convenience, or Climate packages, and a full slate of specific options also are available.

Prices for well-equipped standard vehicles range from $48,900 for the Momentum T6 or $68,100 with the T8; the high-performance R-Design ranges from a $52,900 base T6 to $70,000 for the T8; and the Inscription opens at $54,500 as a T6 or $71,600 for the T8.

Shortly after the introductory drive, during which we sampled both engines and spent a lot of time enjoying the T8’s full-power hybrid, I got a chance to test a T6 Inscription for a week’s follow-up. Scaling the steep hills of Duluth, taking the freeway to Minneapolis, or negotiating the rocky North Shore of Lake Superior, those numerous features, and the enormous, full-length skylight/sunroof that is enlarged 50 percent, made it a dream vehicle for summertime cruising or Highway 61 Revisiting.

Rich Nappa leather and real walnut wood and aluminum trim encase occupants in opulence.

Rich Nappa leather on seats and dashboard, and real walnut wood and aluminum trim encase occupants in opulence.

Volvo has had the best seats in the industry for decades, and in the new vehicle, they’ve been redone, with the same familiar Swedish orthopedic stability and comfort, but with slimmer backrests redesigned to create more rear knee-room. The second-row seats slide an inch and a half fore and aft and recline, and one-hand access to the third row is handy, whether the seats are in place for 7-passenger use, or folded down to offer 85 cubic feet of storage.

The first XC90 in 2005 was an extremely adventurous attempt by Volvo to enter the realm of Sport-Utility Vehicles. Of course, Volvo did it in its own inimitable fashion, going for sport and utility, but only after living up to its commitment without compromise on vehicle safety. I witnessed one flung through the air in a rollover test at the Gothenberg, Sweden, safety center. After coming down on its roof and rolling over four and a half times, the crash-test dummies were healthy enough to get ready for more rides.

It was an impressive vehicle, with a high-performing Yamaha-designed V8 engine inside a shell that was like a taller, stronger, bulgy version of Volvo’s legendary V70 and XC70 station wagons, making it well suited to take Volvo into an expanding SUV world.

For the 2016 restyling, nearly everything has changed in Volvo’s world. First, Volvo officials can hardly remember the days when the Swedish company was owned — and some say held back — by Ford Motor Company. It was threatening solvency as an independent at a time when a Chinese holding company that also owns the Geely car company took over ownership.

China was zooming upward to become, primitive or not, the largest car-market in the world. So it was a perfect match. Volvo needed only an infusion of money to keep building safe and now-stylish cars, and China beckoned with enormous potential. To sell cars in China, a company must partner with a Chinese car brand, and with Volvo now a sibling of Geely, that is no problem. There are a lot of Volvos being sold in China, where a new construction facility is in the works, meaning there will be a lot more to come.

Meanwhile, back in Sweden, Volvo has streamlined its engine line, hiring Lutz Stiegler to be director of powertrains, German accent and all. Experienced and impressed with the BMW, Audi, Mercedes and Volkswagen powertrains of his German homeland, Stiegler has the background and the discipline to oversee one of the biggest new engine plans in the industry.

Volvo no longer will be producing vehicles with V8s, or the in-line 6, or 5-cylinder engines. Every Volvo vehicle including S60 sedans, V70 wagons, and, yes, XC90 SUVs, will now be powered by the new 2.0-liter, in-line 4-cylinder, making up for any power shortages with supercharging, turbocharging, and electric motor bolstering. The sophisticated 4-cylinder represents completely new architecture, Stiegler explained, and can be used in both gasoline and diesel applications.

The large nav screen can be changed with a swipe of the hand over the surface, even replicating control knobs.

The large nav screen can be changed with a swipe of the hand over the surface, even replicating control knobs.

In the XC90, we’re dealing with the gasoline version, which requires additional power over and above a typical 2.0. An advance combustion system, with high compression and variable valve operation, and advance boosting from the Eaton supercharger for low-end power, and the Borg-Warner turbocharger for the high end, that transverse-mounted 2.0’s 316 horsepower peaks at 5,700 RPMs, and the 295 foot-pounds of torque peaks at 2,200 RPMs and holds it up to 4,500 RPMs.

If the way you’re driving convinces the computer that you don’t need the hard-accelerating low-end boost from the supercharger, it is decoupled so as not to use any of the belt-driven power taken to run it. In that form, it is designated as T6, and it easily propels the 4,627-pound XC90 around curvy highways or through the mountains. Premium fuel is suggested, but not demanded.

The new SPA platform, flexible enough to also underpin all future large Volvo sedans, has a newly designed suspension, including a rear unit that features transverse springs to keep it low, and air suspension all around to make ride-height adjustable. It handles as though it thinks it’s a sports sedan, more than an SUV, and it feels low and stable, clinging to the prescribed arc you’ve established with the steering wheel. The all-wheel drive models feel even more stable than the front-drive models, although the lighter front-wheel drive feels more agile and more tossable, if you’re into that type of excitement.

For the ultimate XC90, the potent little T6 engine can be upgraded to the T8 version, as a hybrid model. The 316 horsepower jumps to 400 with the addition of 87 horses from the LG battery pack, which has its vertically aligned 96 Lithium-Ion cells mounted mid-chassis, and add the kick of an extra 87 horsepower and 177 foot-pounds of torque. When all the equations are compared, the XC90 grows from 316 horses and 295 foot-pounds of torque to 400 horsepower and 475 foot-pounds of torque, once coupled to the hybrid system.

The added power improves 0-60 times from 6.1 with the non-hybrid to 5.7 with the added electrical charge. A larger difference is growing from 25 miles per gallon to an estimated 59 mpg with the hybrid.

“We developed electrification with the platform, so we built the starter-generator integrated with the crankshaft, and the Lithium-Ion battery pack’s six modules fit longitudinally down the middle of the car,” Stiegler said. “Power from the engine goes to the front wheels, while the battery powers the rear wheels, augmented by the gas engine.

“The combustion engine and electrical system go very good together. Electrical power is most efficient at low speed, and combustion engines are more effective at higher speed. So we take most of the low-end away from the combustion engine and make it electrical, then at higher speed we go to the combustion power. And we combine the two for hardest acceleration.”

The hybrid can operate for 16-17 miles on strictly electric power, and once depleted, the electrical power can be rejuvenated by the engine and the brake energy recuperated from the rear axle, or by plugging in the vehicle. A full charge can be gained in 6-7 hours on a household 110 plug in, or in 3-3.5 hours at 220. The T8 has a unique feature that allows the driver to switch to a manual charging system to bolster the system to allow 7-8 miles of pure electric operation, an impressive device for some international cities that have zero-emission restrictions for vehicle operation.

Stiegler pointed out that Volvo will continue to pursue advances in electrification, and while he said he is impressed with the performance of the all-electric Tesla. “But if everyone drove Teslas,” he said, “it’s completely unrealistic to expect there to be enough charging stations.”

All driving controls can be operated by the feature-filled steering wheel.

All driving controls can be operated by the feature-filled steering wheel.

“Our T8 is ideal, because it makes sense to use the plug-in electrical power in town, and after driving it as a pure electric around town, you then can use it as a normal hybrid, with the combustion engine providing most of the power while recharging the battery pack.”

If the sticker prices seem steep, consider the amount of high-tech equipment that comes standard, such as the 8-speed Geartronic transmission with start-stop shutoff at stoplights, instant traction and stability on the all-wheel-drive system, double-wishbone front and rear integral suspension, adjustable drive modes, and a seemingly endless array of safety features.

Every XC90 also includes collision avoidance for vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists, lane-departure warning and roll stability control, with all manner of airbag and Volvo’s typical insistence on the high-strength steel unibody safety cage. While aluminum is gaining popularity for its strength combines with lighter weight, steel construction can consist of five levels: mild, high-strength, very high-strength, extra high-strength, and ultra high-strength.

Jan Ivarsson, senior technical advisor of safety for Volvo, explained that the XC90 has, “a passenger compartment completely encircled with ultra high-strength steel,” and also adds a technique for off-road crashworthiness.

Volvo grille emblem houses all the camera and radar detection devices to enhance driver command.

Volvo grille emblem houses all the camera and radar detection devices to enhance driver command.

A vision package includes blind-spot detection in full-surround style; convenience package offers adaptive cruise control and parking assist; and the climate package offers front and rear heated seats. A Bowers & Wilkins audio upgrade adds 1,400 watts and 19 speakers, 4-corner air suspension, heads-up display, wheels measuring 20, 21 and 22 inches, a wood steering wheel, and integrated child booster cushions.

Volvo stresses that they don’t want cars that drive themselves, and prefer to offer an amazing array of cameras and radar devices to detect warn of lane variations, obstacles front and rear, with the ability to tighten harnesses, and load up brakes in an attempt to assure that drivers are conscious and aware of how to make themselves and their occupants as safe as possible. The car can detect a loss of attention and gently alert the driver that it might be time for a break.

Advanced Sonata Goes High-tech with Hybrids

July 11, 2015 by · Comments Off on Advanced Sonata Goes High-tech with Hybrids
Filed under: Autos, New car introductions 
All-new for 2015, the Sonata Hybrid makes a large technical advance for 2016.

Larger grille opening indicates that Sonata is a 2016 Hybrid.

By John Gilbert

The 2011 Hyundai Sonata was a breakthrough vehicle for the South Korean manufacturer, proving it could out-flank even the Japanese for such technical assets as dramatic contoured styling, a world-class engine with variable valve-timing and other-worldly direct injection, and a new home-built transmission.

Cutting-edge technology, to be sure, but cutting-edge mainstream stuff. Hyundai improved on that model with the 2015 Sonata, but even those advancements couldn’t prepare us for the high-tech leap to the 2016 Sonata Hybrid and Plug-in Hybrid models.

Discussing technical assets can make consumers, and some journalists, take on a glazed-over gaze, but all the technology would be meaningless if the Sonata — or any hybrid — didn’t approach normal-driving capabilities. In that regard, the 2016 Sonata Hybrid sets new standards.

Slipperier shape reaches 0.24 coefficient of drag.

Slipperier shape reaches 0.24 coefficient of drag.

You might even think you’ve gotten in the wrong car when you select “Sport” from the three drive modes, then manually command the Shiftronic transmission to rally the combined forces of the gas-engine and electric-motor and transmission for surprising potency.

“Our development goal was to combine the features of economy and fun-to-drive,” said Yong-Seok Kim, project manager for the Sonata Hybrid. “you can set the manual shift mode for Eco, Norm, or Sport. Our research shows that 45 percent drive in Economy, 35 percent in Normal, and 20 percent drive aggressively.

“With our selective control, you can set it for whichever style you want, then adapt, or let the car adapt to you. We’ve reduced the gap between driving and aggressive driving. Whichever way you drive, as you come up to a stop light and release the gas pedal to coast, you can reduce your fuel consumption by 3 percent.”

Without question, first drives of the Sonata Hybrid on the Los Angeles freeways and through the hills around Los Angeles, proved that the car’s performance is easily as good as the hottest-performing Sonatas.

Clean, contemporary dash features various and adjustable hybrid readouts.

Clean, contemporary dash features various and adjustable hybrid readouts.

The hybrid models are virtually a separate class from the normal Sonatas. You can choose a base Sonata Hybrid for $26,000, and add features and capabilities to rise to the Limited, or go upward again to reach the Limited Ultimate.

There are more differences between the Hybrid and the Plug-In Hybrid than merely using Clean and informative dash layout shows current fuel economy over 54 mpg in the Sonata Hybrid.plug-in power to fully recharge, and the Plug-in Hybrid starts at $30,100 as a Limited model, moving up to Limited Ultimate for an extra $4,500. Those prices are only moderately more expensive than the non-hybrid Sonata, and they can fetch you a $4,919 tax credit as well.

While the normal Sonata does well with engines ranging from the 2.4 to the 1.6, including a 2.0-liter turbo, the hybrids make use of the same engine, a newly refined 2.0-liter without the turbocharger.

All hybrids depart from the normal Sonata’s styling, with a more aggressive front grille opening, and revisions to the headlight and taillight housings to aid fuel-economy. In the process, the Sonata Hybrid winds up with a segment-best 0.24 coefficient of drag, lowered from the normal Sonata’s 0.27. Fuel economy can venture beyond the EPA estimated 40-44 miles per gallon highway, by altering heavy-footed driving habits.

Sonata Hybrids come in Base or Limited.

Sonata Hybrids come in Base or Limited, and the plug-in version offers increased power and capability.

By cheating to overuse electric-only power when fully charged, we started out registering 99.9 miles per gallon — because the gadget wouldn’t measure three digits. Continuing beyond about 24 pure-electric miles, we still averaged 68.8 mpg for the first leg. My partner, whose right foot always seems closer to the floor, reached as high as 59.6 mpg at a sustained 70 miles per hour.

The current Sonata had a hybrid model, but it wasn’t about to challenge the industry leading hybrid sedans from Toyota or Honda. The new car challenges everything on the market. To start with, Hyundai will aim sales at the West Coast, where there are an abundance of quick-charge stations. But buyers farther inland can order the Hybrid or Plug-in Hybrid and find their own way to capitalize on all the features.

The secret of advancing hybrid technology is that car companies aren’t in the battery-making business, so coordinating with battery companies is vital. Hyundai has a fellow-South Korean ally in LG Industries, and a newly created LG Lithium-polymer battery pack feeds Sonata’s permanent magnetic synchronous motor and clutch arrangement, with is located where the 6-speed automatic transmission’s torque converter normally would be. That unique coupling is the ideal way to blend the electric power with that new 2.0-liter gas 4-cylinder engine.

Taking away the turbo reduces the power of the normally-aspirated 2.0, but it gets more than sufficient power with the added power surge from the electric motor. In fact, the power assist comes in two doses, depending on whether you have the normal or the plug-in hybrid.

The 2.0 gas engine by itself has 154 horsepower peaking at 6,000 RPMs, and 140 foot-pounds of torque at a high 5,000-rev peak. The LG battery unit with its vertical plates in a more compact alignment, adds 51 horsepower from a 1,770-2,000 RPM peak in the Hybrid, or 67 added horsepower from 2,330-3,330 RPMs in the Plug-in Hybrid. Both benefit from the boost of 151 foot-pounds of torque from the electric motors, which operate at that peak all the way from 0-1,770 RPMs.

Alterations to the 2016 Sonata Hybrid are more attractive with the chance to beat 50 miles per gallon.

Alterations to the 2016 Sonata Hybrid are more attractive with the chance to beat 50 miles per gallon.

Doing the math, the Sonata Hybrid has 193 horsepower, and the Plug-in Hybrid has 202 horsepower. A larger battery pack is needed for the added power, and that boosts the weight of the Hybrids (3,497-3,560 pounds) to the Plug-in’s 3,787-3,810 pounds. But starting out in the morning with a full charge means you can drive the full 24 miles on pure electric, which exceeds the prime contenders, the Fusion Energi and the Accord plug-in hybrid.

Getting to that full charge offers an interesting choice, too. If you plug into a normal household outlet of 110/120 volts (Level 1), you’ll need 9 hours to reach full charge. If you have the 220/240 Level 2 outlet, you can reach full charge in only three hours. Using the normal internal charging system that takes power from the gas engine and regenerative braking means an owner could drive the Sonata Hybrid “normally” and not realize it’s a hybrid from performance, unless the over-40 mpg made the driver curious.

Hyundai’s John Shun, who oversees Sonata Hybrid production, said, “You can maximize miles per gallon over fun-to-drive, or vice versa. For example, in Sport, you get immediate throttle response, in Normal you get normal response, and in Eco, there’s more hesitation when you use regular throttle pressure.”

For the curious, you can coax the Sonata Hybrid up to 75 miles per hour on pure electric, although that might drain the battery’s power quicker. Shun said all the latest safety tricks are on the Sonata Hybrids, including blind spot detection, lane departure warning, a rear parking sensor, and forward collision warning, and so anxious are Hyundai engineers to make the Sonata safe, a “virtual” engine sound system will be coming next, to alert pedestrians who might not hear the electric-powered hybrid approaching while doing their text-walking maneuvers.

Sonata Hybrids gathered on the Pacific Beach near Los Angeles for their introduction.

Sonata Hybrids gathered on the Pacific Beach near Los Angeles for their introduction.

Other neat features include a 5-inch touchscreen and an 8-speaker audio, an upgraded 8-inch screen and a 9-speaker, 400-watt audio, or an electroluminescent instrument light show that can replace the tachometer with a power-consumption gauge, and includes a 4.2-inch trip computer. Buyers can choose an energy gauge that indicates battery charge, range, and the energy flow the way you are currently driving, and with the Blue-link smart-phone app, you can seek out high-speed charging stations.

In the rear, the Sonata boasts of being the only midsize hybrid with a flat cargo floor. Combined with the split fold-down rear seat, cargo volume reaches 13.3 cubic feet, decreased to 9.9 with the larger battery in the Plug-in. Those things might be more important in marketing than such items as the motor-driven, RPM-sensing, rack-and-pinion power steering.

But with the 2016 Sonata Hybrids, buyers have to accept both — creature features and high-technology advances.

Alfa Romeo Doesn’t Spare Theatrics for New Giulia

July 2, 2015 by · Comments Off on Alfa Romeo Doesn’t Spare Theatrics for New Giulia
Filed under: Autos, Features, New car introductions 
Alfa Romeo unveiled the new Giulia midsize sedan as the focal point of its return to competitiveness.

Alfa Romeo unveiled the new Giulia midsize sedan as the focal point of its return to competitiveness.

By John Gilbert

MILAN, Italy — When Italians decide to do something, they tend to do it wearing their emotions on their sleeves. Or at least their fenders. That unrestrained optimism accompanied the world introduction of the new Alfa Romeo Giulia, a sport-luxury sedan that is a perfect example of living up to the hyperbole accompanying that legendary Italian passion.

There is no argument about how important the new Giulia sedan is to “resurrect” Alfa Romeo, just as there is no way to overstate the importance a healthy Alfa Romeo can have for Fiat, and therefore Fiat-Chrysler Automotives, on the world automotive stage. As a midsize sedan, the Giulia is not shooting at Accord, Camry, Fusion, Malibu type sedans. It is aimed directly at the top German performance sedans, such as the BMW M3, the Mercedes AMGs and the Audi S4.

In order to run with, and ahead, of such luminary competitors, governing FCA built an entirely new platform and an entirely new 3-liter V6 with Ferrari engineering. While similar to a Ferrari designed engine used by Maserati in the Ghibli sedan, some media types assume that is the Giulia engine — a point Alfa officials refuted almost to the point of confrontation. We will believe that the Giulia V6 is all new.

Alfa built the mid-size sedan in almost total secrecy, engaging what it calls a “skunk-works” of devoted and single-minded engineers to design and build the car. That term dates back to World War II, when Alfa engineers wanted to hide their latest prize from the Fascist Italian government, and joined the secret Lockheed project to develop the F80 Shooting Star jet fighter that helped hasten the end of the war.

For the Giulia introduction, Alfa summoned several hundred automotive journalists from all over the world to come to Milano where the car shared the spotlight with the opening of the Alfa Romeo museum, with its display of hundreds of vehicles that trace the 105-year history of Alfa car-building.

In the museum’s auditorium, Alfa Romeo president Harald Hester started the show, followed by chief engineer Philippe Krief, and design chief Lorenzo Ramaciotti. When Ramaciotti talked about the passion that is an Italian hallmark, he mentioned how it is similar to Italian classical music, such as that performed by brilliant tenor Andrea Bocelli. At that moment, Bocelli was escorted onstage. He read a love poem he had written, and then he sang “Nessun Dorma,” and when he hit the operatic crescendo, a stunning red Giulia sedan was driven out on the stage behind him.

Blind tenor Andrea Bocelli recited a poem he had written, then sang an operatic Italian classic.

Blind tenor Andrea Bocelli recited a poem he had written, then sang an operatic Italian classic.

Theatric overkill? More like colorful Italian tradition.








When Italians put on a show, it includes a lot of passion, and an appearance by Andrea Bocelli was a fitting intro for the Alfa Romeo Giulia.

Sergio Marchione, chairman of Fiat Chrysler Auto, was next at the podium. “Over two years, we developed a quintessential example of all that made Alfa Romeo a car coveted by passionate drivers the world over,” said Marchione. With 510 horsepower and 0-100 [kilometers] acceleration in 3.9 seconds, we have created a car that has no need to be compared to others.

“This is one of the most impressive cars I’ve ever been associated with,” Marchione added, noting that the “skunks” at the skunk-works were able to think outside the box, starting with a clean sheet of paper, and “unimprisoned by barriers we sometimes build for ourselves.”

It’s easy to see why Marchione is the head man at Fiat Chrysler Auto, which includes all things Fiat, Alfa, Ferrari, Maserati, Lancia, Chrysler, Dodge, Ram and Jeep. Fiat returned to the U.S. only after the parent company took over the faltering Chrysler LLC, and is just now reintroducing Alfa Romeo to the U.S. Those old enough to remember might best recall Alfa for the sleek little roadster Dustin Hoffman drove to try to interrupt Katherine Ross’s wedding in the timeless movie, “The Graduate.”

Familiar triangular Alfa center point on the grille links thoroughly modern Giulia with historic past.

Familiar triangular Alfa center point on the grille links thoroughly modern Giulia with historic past.

While Alfa has slipped in popularity, almost to extinction, its heritage has remained strong, and new models like the 4C sports car and the Giulia are just the beginning of the planned resurrection.

“Alfa Romeo has a legendary place in automotives,” Marchione added. “It has so many admirers throughout the world, but it has not been reflected in commercial success. Other than Ferrari, and maybe Jeep, I don’t know of any other car capable of expanding so much of its core tradition.”

We couldn’t drive the cars, yet, so we had to be satisfied with their stunning appearance, and the deft descriptions by Alfa executives. Hester opened the program describing the uniqueness of the brand and said, “Making and creating are not the same thing. We wanted to create something different, to put the driver back at center stage. An Alfa Romeo is never just a car, just a machine. It is beyond the scope of being just a machine.”

All the sleek lines reach a harmonious conclusion at the rear of the Giulia, which  takes aim at the BMW M3.

All the sleek lines reach a harmonious conclusion at the rear of the Giulia, which takes aim at the BMW M3.

Chief engineer Krief explained the rear-wheel or all-wheel platform, housing the all-aluminum 6-cylinder bi-turbo engine, featuring Ferrari technology and engineering skill. “Turbo lag is nonexistent, and it has excellent torque at all RPMs,” Krief said. “It also has cylinder deactivation, and Alfa invented that technology in the early-‘80s. We then worked to get the engine to sing, as it should. The Giulia has 50-50 weight distribution, and our level of driving enjoyment depends on the suspension, which has ‘Alfa Link’ at the rear for maximum movement control, and double wishbone in front with a new steering system that is the most direct on the market. It has carbon ceramic brakes, and the best torsional rigidity in its class.

“Electronics are used to increase performance, not cover up shortcomings, and it has real torque-vectoring, with a double clutch system to separate the torque going to each wheel. Rear-wheel drive can be a problem on slippery roads, which is why we also offer all-wheel drive. The response is quick and it has the lowest coefficient of drag in the segment, with a front aero splitter, so it is safe to drive, even at very high speed.”

The interior is filled with classic features, real wood and real leather surrounding everything, including a console that has two round knobs. The left knob is smaller, thankfully, and it directs the driver to N, A, D, and Race. The N is for normal operation, the A is for Advanced, the D for Dynamic — which is more advanced — and the Race is for a full-out race-smooth performance setting. That control governs the direct-sequential gearbox as well as the suspension firmness and the amount of effort necessary to send the Giulia down the road.

Design chief Ramaciotti said the organically shaped car “challenges time, passion and space with its tension — part of the culture at Alfa Romeo. The short overhangs, long wheelbase, compact body, and simplicity” is the feature of the exterior, with its Alfa-emblem nose and elegant silhouette. Inside, he said, “all you see is leather, wood and carbon fiber. The whole package is a coveted object of desire, not an ornament.”

Alfa takes great pride in building passionate cars, starting with the first one, this 1910 museum piece.

Alfa takes great pride in building passionate cars, starting with the first one, this 1910 museum piece.

Marchione said FCA plans a rapid expansion for Alfa, which reportedly includes a crossover SUV/van, a larger sedan, and enough other models to sell 400,000 vehicles worldwide by 2018. The museum, filled with classic vehicles dating from the 1910 model and on up to the current era, including 1937 and ’38 Giulia and Giulietta models, and a Gran Primo race car that had two Ferrari V12 engines — one in front and one behind the cockpit.

“It will be easy to rediscover Alfa Romeo’s identity,” said Marchione, “because Alfa has lived through, and often written, so much history.”


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