Pacifica Leads Minivan Resurgence with Hybrid Tech

June 12, 2019 by · Comments Off on Pacifica Leads Minivan Resurgence with Hybrid Tech
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Parked on the North Shore, the 2019 Pacifica Hybrid shows off the style of its contours.

By John Gilbert
Picture yourself driving along any scenic and winding highway. In my case, it’s revisiting Highway 61 on the North Shore of Lake Superior. The drive is effortless, allowing you to enjoy a beautiful day while sitting in a comfortably supportive bucket seat, gripping a nice handful of steering wheel. You enter smoothly and then accelerate, just as smoothly, coming out of the curve. The almost silent response of high-tech power is amplified by the stable, well-planted feel of the suspension, and the precise agility of the steering is more imnpressive when you push it a little.

Obviously, you’re driving a sports sedan or maybe even a sports car, with capabilities that reach beyond your demands, particularly with the speed limit in mind.

But no. You are driving a minivan. Come on, minivans are boring, aren’t they?

Well we’re not talking about “just” a minivan. This is the 2019 Chrysler Pacifica, which is the contemporary standard among ultimate family haulers. And this one is one giant step beyond, being the Hybrid Limited model, which detunes the 3.6-liter V6 from its standard duty, and then bolsters that tuning by the potent punch of a hybrid electric system, with a plug-in adaptor.

The result gives the Pacifica Hybrid 260 horsepower of roadworthiness, and until you try one yourself you’ll have to trust me on this: The Pacifica Hybrid takes off with startling acceleration from a stoplight or from the need to pass from normal speed.

The design of the front end and lights of the Pacifica resembles a sporty sedan.

The beauty of the Pacifica Hybrid is that if you bought one and didn’t know it was a hybrid, you would simply think you got a more powerful engine than you intended to. The flip side of the usual equation — more power less fuel economy — is that the Pacifica Hybrid can readily attain 30 miles per gallon in combined city-highway driving, with combined gas-electric power.

In my week-long test, where the winding road most covered was Highway 61 along the North Shore Drive of Lake Superior, my recharging consisted entirely of what I could generate from the engine and the regenerative braking energy capture from braking. The test vehicle had two features that I was unable to fully exploit — numerous storage bins in virtually every panel and under the seats for one, and locating the special plug-in adaptor that I could use for the plug-in feature of the hybrid.

When driving a fully charged hybrid, you can drive moderately for a few miles, usually enough to get to work and home again, as well as using the power to augment the gas engine power. When you do plug in the adaptor, you can go from the gas-only mileage estimate of 30 mpg to a whopping 82 miles per gallon using the electric power and gas power. The best part is that if you have 240-volt plug-in, you can get a full charge in two hours.

My inability to find the charging cable no matter how many of the umpteen cubicles and storage bins I searched, was that apparently the last previous journalist who test-drove this vehicle must have kept the cord, because it wasn’t reunited with the Pacifica until the agents from the press-fleet operation in Chicago came to retrieve it. The cable fits into a neat pouch provided for that, and in a bin just inside the hatch on the left wall.

So I got my high of 32 miles per gallon without a fully charged battery pack. My net trick is to coax FCA to send the Pacifica Hybrid for a return engagement so I can see how high I can coax that fuel economy.

As I’ve written many times, in the next few years we will all be changing over to some form of electrified vehicles, ranging from basic hybrids up to plug-ins and on to full electric. There is no need to fight it, or even be reluctant to make the move, because I can only see benefits, with no minus sides.

Firm platform and feature-filled body house seven and lots of gear.

The test Pacifica was equipped with all the elements that boosted the Pacifica to the highest echelon of the industry, far beyond the grasp of the old Dodge Caravan or Plymouth Voyager, or the upscale Chrysler Town and Country. Those were legendary for their utility and durability, and we probably all know people who put 200,000 miles on a Caravan, then gave it to an offspring or relative who put another 100,000 on it.

The new Pacifica shares those attributes, but with a new and stiff platform it starts out with a stylish exterior, with flowing creases and lines, coming off a stunning and contemporary grille with its headlight enclosures streaming gracefully off that grille. It also has all the current safety and connectivity stuff, like remote start, blindspot and cross-path detection, auto-dimming lights, and such things as stow-and-go second-row seats that fold down and can be tucked into those floor-located storage bins for a flat floor and more storage space.

Also, the option list includes a 760-watt amplifier on the 20-speaker Harmon Kardon audio system, a 360-degree overhead camera view, plus forward collision warning, lane-departure warning, adaptive cruise with stop-and-go shutoff at stoplights, and an amazing parking assist device for both parallel and perpendicular parking — with a stop feature. Some of the first parking assists would park your car without you touching the steering wheel, but after getting you into the parallel parking spot, it wouldn’t brake and would allow your car to cave in the grille of the car parked behind you.

There are other impressive vans out there for competition, mainly the Honda Odyssey and the Toyota Sienna, but none can match the brilliant planning and execution of the Pacifica.

A button on the key fob, or a wave of your toe, operates sliding doors and hatch.

For example, it has a built-in vacuum cleaner, which followed Honda’s lead, but the Pacifica’s device is stashed right near the sliding driver-side door, where it might be most-used. Those sliding doors, and the rear hatch, will operate at the touch on the handle, or by the key-fob, or, with the fob in your pocket, by reaching your foot under the vehicle, which is great for when you’re carrying parcels and especially in foul weather.

The stability of the front-wheel-drive Pacifica is also complemented by keeping your kids, or other passengers, happy and entertained inside. You can haul seven or eight, depending on whether you choose the taller captain’s chairs or the three-seat bench for the second row. First, you slide the door open, flip a switch to tilt the seat forward or tumble it, which allows for easy and even graceful entry to the third row, which will house occupants of any size.

Fit, finish and features fill Pacifica Hybrid interior.

Foldable, stowable seats and headrest video screens assure pleasant trips.

When you’ve filled the van with people, they have the panoramic sunroof to improve their domain, and it has a third pane for the way-back riders, beyond the oversized front sunroof. In the back of the front bucket headrests there are a pair of fold-up video screens, and in the backrest pouch you have wireless headphones. Separate controls allow rear-seat riders two alternatives for videos, DVDs or video games via the Blu-Ray player, which should take care of most of the disagreements kids might have fighting over control or choice of video. As well as putting to rest the “Are we there yet?” questions.

The whole minivan thing seemed to go out of our consciousness a couple decades ago, when families that sought them out to replace the family station wagon from an earlier era, suddenly tired of them and declared them boring and unexciting. That led to the move toward giant SUVs, and I can’t even count the number of times people asked men for advice about what to buy to haul their family with three or four kids, and when I’d suggest a minivan they’d have the same answer: “Oh, I’d never buy a minivan.”

Instead, they would choose an oversized, overpowered, and under-economied SUV and settle for 8 mpg to prove they were “with it.” Through those years, some minivans went out of production, but Chrysler and now FCA have soldiered on, continuing to build the minivans that were bought with an almost embarrassed attitude.

The Pacifica changed all that, and the Odyssey kept pace. Now the new Pacifica, with its hybrid version, sets a new pinnacle. In fact, a month ago, Motor Trend decided to do a novel “head-to-head” competition for best family vehicle. It chose an array of sedans, midsize and compact SUVs, and compared them in tournament-style competition. The Pacifica beat out the Odyssey, and advanced to the “semifinals,” outpointing every other candidate to win the entire thing.

Gas engine can hit 30 mpg, and plug-in hybrid power can reach 80 mpg.

It was probably the most politically correct method for obscuring the upcoming choice, while still selecting the best family-hauling vehicle.

I couldn’t agree more, and the margin of victory grows when you add in the fun-to-drive quotient along with the spirited performance, steering, versatility and the ability to not only take a family trip to visit relatives, but volunteering to take the whole gang out for adventure.

All-new Q8 Surprises as More-compact Audi SUV

June 5, 2019 by · Comments Off on All-new Q8 Surprises as More-compact Audi SUV
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

The new Audi Q8 reverses the trend and is lower and a bit shorter than the Q7.

By John Gilbert
Last week, I wrote about the fun and education offered by the Midwest Auto Media Association’s annual rite of spring — the MAMA Spring Rally — where about a hundred new vehicles are brought to Elkhart Lake, Wis., by manufacturers to be driven by 80-100 auto journalists, who learn how they handle along with experiencing the sheer joy of driving on the best road-racing course in the country.

But getting there was half the fun. My older son, Jack, who assists me with testing and photos, drove up from the Twin Cities so we could leave from Duluth, early on Tuesday, May 21st, for the six-plus-hour drive, zig-zagging diagonally from Duluth, Mn., and down through Wisconsin to Elkhart Lake, in the southeast region just north of Milwaukee.

We drove down there and back in an Audi Q8, which is Audi’s latest and perhaps best SUV. In Audi’s lexicon, cars are designated by “A” as in A3, A4, A5, A6, A7 and A8, and the SUVs by “Q” with the smallest the Q3, then the Q5 midsize and the Q7 as the largest. I am a big fan of vehicles that are as small as they can be while still being big enough, so I assumed the A8 would probably be the biggest, and I would have to subvert my personal feelings into the scope of someone with a need for a huge SUV.

Smoothly blended Q8 lines spell luxury, even when parked in the Road America paddock.

To my pleasant surprise, the Q8 is not only less than huge, it is lower and shorter than the Q7. It shares the design cues, although its familiar grille has been altered to contain much wider gaps in its cross-hatch design. So large, in fact, that I suggested it could let in a lot of air, but might also let in insects as large as sparrows, which could clutter up your radiator.

Next from Audi is the e-tron, a pure-electric SUV with quattro all-wheel-drive and all, and we await a chance to test its driving range. It looks sleek and compact, with the same style grille as the Q8, which for now, is plenty high-tech. It comes in hybrid fashion, which Motor Trend claimed is the only available engine, but our test vehicle came with an alternative — the high-tech turbocharged 3.0-liter V6, which delivers 354 horsepower and 369 foot-pounds of torque in other Audi utility vehicles. It runs through an 8-speed Tiptronic automatic.

I was surprised that the Q8 was not included in the Rally, where we also vote on the Family Car of the Year, and now, with prices rising, a Luxury Family Car of the Year. The MAMA board decrees that only cars made available to be driven at the spring and fall rallies can be considered, whatever the reason for Audi’s exclusion, it’s unfortunate, because the Q8 would have been a definite favorite. Selfishly, though, it didn’t matter, because I got to experience it in real-world conditions and it came through regally.

Open grille will let air in, but won’t stop many insects from hitting the radiator.

Listed at a $67,400, which is moderate for a luxury-level SUV, the test Q8 totaled $79,340 once you added on option packages such as Premium Plus, Driver Assistance, the Year One, and Towing. That meant the jump up to 22-inch alloy wheels, plus virtually every driver-assist gadget you’ve ever heard of, to alert drivers to obstacles moving or stationary, ahead, behind or on either side. It will stop short of an obstruction or slow-moving vehicle, and its superb handling from adaptive suspension dampers makes it handle with great, sporty stability.

The test Q8, in its optional Daytona Gray Pearl Effect paint, justifies its luxury price with interior features you appreciate as soon as you see them, such as fine-grain ash inlays on the dashboard, tastefully blended in with aluminum and leather to engulf you in plush comfort, but always with solid support.

It also has Audi’s newest navigation system, and we found it to be both good news and bad news. On the way down it was fantastic, taking us on all sorts of back roads, but always excellent highways. As a Minnesotan, I have to wonder why every Wisconsin road we drove on was smooth and maintained, compared to the pothole-dotted endurance tests of Minnesota highways.

The nav screen can be duplicated on the adaptable instrument panel of the Q8.

The simplest way from Duluth to Elkhart Lake might be to go straight south on Hwy. 53, then take Interstate 94 east until finding a likely connecting road, or to cut straight east on state roads running above 94. But the quickest way is also the most enjoyable and most fun driving, and it was exactly the way the Audi nav lady directed us. We made it from Duluth into the north end of Elkhart Lake, all 350 miles on one tankful of premium gas, getting about 24 miles per gallon, off an EPA maximum estimate of 22.

It was less perfect two days later on our return trip Thursday afternoon. I anticipated it might vary its guidance because I was going to drop off Jack at his residence just north of St. Paul, but I still wanted to drive on most of the same roads we had come down on. To assure the nav lady wasn’t tempted to guide us quite a distance southwesterly to connect to I-94, we drove off in a northerly direction for 30 miles and then put in our navigation desires.

The luxury of leather, real ash wood and aluminum makes the Q8 an inviting environment.

We made a stop of two, and when we got into our trip, we drove for a solid half-hour before I realized we were being directed by gentle voice commands almost straight south. We wasted an hour getting turned around and trying to figure out how to get back on our preferred route, and about every mile or so the nav lady demanded we make a u-turn and head south. Of course, for safety reasons, even the passenger cannot reset the nav while the car is moving, which it reminded us about whenever we tried to cancel out of it. After four or five stops and resets, we ignored the nav lady and drove northward, until we finally coaxed the system to concede and  reconfigure the directions.

Pondering the fun of driving Lexus sports cars, BMWs like the new 3-Series, Mercedes products, hot Mustangs and Shelby GTs, and everything else from Miatas to Hyundai Veloster N, and Challenger Hellcats, the enjoyment was plentiful. But it won’t be diminished with more electrification. I have reached the point of experience where I want to learn about the many high-tech drivability features as to simply go fast.

Off the actual race track, we had off-road and the timed autocross sessions, where more than a dozen vehicles could be hurled around one lap of the tight little paved go-kart track inside the big circuit. We lined up like grade-school kids fighting for position at an ice cream parlor, and when you got up to be first in line, you could defer if you were waiting for a certain car. I did that a couple times, because I wanted to experience everything, including the handling of the comparatively large Maserati Lamonte Trofeo SUV with its surprisingly solid suspension and Ferrari-built powertrain.

Lexus UX200 crossover.

BMW M2 Coupe.

I finally got to all of the autocross cars except an elusive dark red BMW M2 coupe that seemed to always be on the course, driven by somebody else. I did get to drive the just-introduced Veloster N, a Mazda3 hatchback, a Miata, a Nissan 370Z, the GTI, GLI, BMW Z4, Durango SRT, Gladiator, Blazer, and about 50 others either on the big track, the surrounding roadways and the autocross, where times were electronically registered and prizes awarded for the quickest laps.

While a few of us wanted to try everything, some picked out what they thought would be the quickest car and drove it repeatedly. The guy who won actually placed first, second and third — and it turned out, all in that same M2. Everyone thought that was a novelty; I thought he missed a lot of other neat cars. And no wonder I couldn’t get even one lap in the M2!

The auto industry is hurtling into the future, and I couldn’t help but wonder how the Rally will be when it becomes mostly populated with electric cars. Assuredly, we will all be driving electrified vehicles before another decade passes. Maybe it will be pure electric, or maybe some form of plug-in hybrid, or straight hybrid, but the free efficiency of electric power that can be self-generated by an engine and offers lightning-quick performance is advancing rapidly.

Last week I named the Acura NSX as the unequivocal best I had ever experienced on the track. That low-slung sports car has three electric motors that work seamlessly with a specially-built 3.5-liter V6, located transversely behind the two seats and ahead of the rear axle, which makes it “mid-engine.” That pays off with handling balance unattainable with front, rear, or all-wheel drive.

The NSX V6 powers the rear wheels, which supply the main thrust in forward acceleration, because of the natural shift of a car’s center of gravity from front to rear during hard acceleration. But while one of the electric motors coordinates everything, the other two each operate one front wheel. You would never know it, because operation is so smooth, but the combined horsepower to all four wheels is 573 from the gas-electric combination.

The advancement of cars has been matched by advances in connectivity, and navigation systems, which are pretty fool-proof these days. The nav on my

What is as graceful as the styling harmony of the Audi Q8’s rear corner, at a high school baseball tournament game?

iPhone works better than most car systems. But looking back at the almost humorous stubbornness of the Audi Q8’s navigation, it was good to find something to complain about, because otherwise the Q8 was close to perfect.

Lots of power, good fuel economy, comfortable ride, luxurious interior, all housed within an agile, low-slung and attractive SUV that belies its high numerical designation and, hopefully, will be Audi’s guide to a sporty crossover future. If the nav lady fouls up your directions and your trip takes longer, well, that’s just a little more time to enjoy the driving.

NSX, Special Tribute Highlight MAMA Rally

June 1, 2019 by · Comments Off on NSX, Special Tribute Highlight MAMA Rally
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Acura’s second version of the NSX combines mid-engine V6 with three electric motors for the ultimate hybrid. (Photos — Jack Gilbert.)

By John Gilbert

Elkhart Lake, Wis.

Driving the newest cars around Road America’s road-racing course at Elkhart Lake, Wis., is one of the highlights every year in the auto writing business. It’s called the MAMA Spring Rally, and it lures nearly all manufacturers to bring their newest offerings and allow nearly 100 Midwest Auto Media Association journalists to drive them one lap around the classic 4-mile layout.

The event lived up to all expectations on a couple days in mid-May, including two nights at the Osthoff Resort in Elkhart Lake and some fantastic meals in addition to the cars. This year included a couple of special highlights for me, on a course where I once took a race driving school and competed in a Showroom Stock race nearly 50 years ago. I’ll explain my highlights in reverse order. First, the finish.

Mercedes C63s AMG is a factory-modified high-performance sedan.

Two cars I had hoped to get into provided my last two thrills. I had been told that there were 37 drivers on a waiting list for the Acura NSX, the amazingly low-slung, mid-engine two-seater sitting there in gleaming Casino White Pearl. If I could come back just before the end of the final track session at 4 p.m., they would get me into it for my lap.

At about 3:45, the Mercedes C63 S AMG became available. You get one lap, out of the pits on signal, and all the way aroul14 turns and up and down hils before coming back into the pits. No passing. With this car, a co-driver sat in the passenger seat, filling me in on the complexities, and making sure I didn’t sail off into the next dimension.

This car, tuned and prepared by the crack AMG performance arm of Mercedes, is beyond just a slick-handling powerhouse. It has a 4.0-liter V8 and is called “Bi-Turbo” because it has twin turbochargers. These are not what you’d call mass-produced. The engine is build by hand, by one engineer, whose signature adorns the engine. This one had 503 horsepower and 516 foot-pounds of torque, which is more than enough. I would say I drove at about 40 percent of the car’s capacity, and it was awesome. Of course, it should be, for $97,830.

Amazingly, you could get a version up to 630 horsepower and 554 foot-pounds of torque for another $60,000 or so. But with front engine and all-wheel drive, 503 seemed enough.

The NSX combines race-car power and performance with legendary Honda/Acura workmanship.

Finally, just a couple of minutes before 4, they called me back into my helmet for the NSX. Same deal, with a passenger as my guide. Without hesitation, I will say that in all the years I’ve done these test runs around Road America, the new NSX was the best car I’ve experienced on that track. It is a jewel, a very tight two-seat coupe, with the super-tuned 3.5-liter V6 in a mid-engine layout, and it’s augmented by three electric motors to total 573 horsepower and 476 foot-pounds of torque. How’a that for a hybrid?

It also has a 9-speed, dual clutch transmission, and because so much of the cart is carbon fiber — like the roof, deckled, spoiler — it is extremely light even though it feels completely planted because of the mid-engine balance and all-wheel drive. It’s remarkable that the engineers can coordinate the gas engine powering one axle’s wheels and the hybrid motors matching with the others. It was a genuine thrill to drive that car.

I thanked the guys with both the Mercedes and Acuras and said it worked out great to leave those two until last, because they were the two best, and driving them earlier in the day might have reduced sone excellent other cars to anticlimactic.

There were dozens of new vehicles, and many were limited to driving on the roads surrounding the track without being allowed on the track. The next day we drove an assortment of trucks off-road, and had the chance to try numerous cars on a short speed test around a short course laid out for go-karts.

Looking like a rugged Wrangler pickup, new Gladiator is strong on and off road.

Among the highlights: The just-introduced Jeep Gladiator, Jeep’s long-awaited pickup, is like a combined Wrangler and pickup with a 3.6-liter V6. The Ram 2500 Power Wagon, and the Durango SRT 392 with a 6.4-liter Hemi were other highlights, along with an overwhelming Challenger SRT Hellcat Redeye.

Compact and stylish crossover revives Blazer name.

The Lincoln Nautilus is a new SUV, very slick. The Kia Telluride is also a large SUV, sll new and filled with class. A pleasant surprise is the new Chevy Blazer, an old name restored on a compact crossover that should be a huge success, with a 3.6 liter V6.

Honda had a couple of its new Passports, another old name recirculated on an impressive new crossover that falls between the Pilot and CR-V and is aimed at more rugged duty than either of those siblings. Cadillac had a new XT4 available to drive. The Kia Soul is redone, with a 1.6-liter turbo that gives it more kick for under $30,000.

New version Mazda3 has more fluid style, Skyactiv-G power, AWD.

Another very impressive drive were a stunning pair of dark red sedans. First was the new and revised Mazda3 compact, this one with its Skyactiv-G 2.0-liter engine with an amazing amount of horsepower, enough to power all four wheels. It comes as a hatchback, which I prefer, or a sedan that looks like a downsized Mazda6.

Limited production Acura TLX PMC is built at the same plant as the NSX.

The other among many red-is-the-magic-color cars was the Acura TLX, which is a specialty version of the sedan Acura made by combining the TSX and the TL, but this one is so special it doesn’t have a price yet assigned. It will be lots. The car is shipped from Honda’s Marysville, Ohio, plant to the PMC — Performance Manufacturing Center — plant, where the NSX is so meticulously built. One of the colors you can order on the NSX is a fantastic red that is so special it is a $6,000 option, and takes a five-day process to complete. Meanwhile, there are only going to be 360 hand-built TLX PMC sedans, and the decision was made to limit it to one color — that same special red. So at least there’s no option fee for it.

New Honda Passport fits between CRV and Pilot.

The first day started, in a misty fog and chilly 40-something gloom, so we gave the track some time to dry out. When it was ready, my son, and assistant, Jack Gilbert, and I hopped into a light and bright blue Hyundai Veloster N, a letter designation which sets apart specialty high-performing Hyundai models from now on, to carry out a special task.

In my early days at Elkhart Lake, a great friend from college days, Tony Swan, also reported on races and later raced on that track as a writer at Car & Driver. As I wrote about late last year, Tony finally gave out after a nasty battle with cancer, but he drove and reported until the end. I wished I could have attended services near his home near Ann Arbor, Mich., but his wife, Mary, drove Tony’s GTI to Mound, Minnesota, where Tony grew up on Lake Minnetonka, and set up a small ceremony there for Tony for friends and relatives.

That one included a couple of guys who attended the University of Minnesota with Tony and me. Mary also brought a few envelopes with some of Tony’s ashes enclosed, because he had some selected places he hoped to have them scattered, including Lake Minnetonka, and at a race track or two.

I knew Tony loved Road America, so I requested one of the envelopes, which I carried down in my jacket pocket. I asked Jack to drive while I sat in the passenger seat, and we picked the Veloster N as being appropriately spory. We went around the track semi-fast, and nearing the end we went through a low

The Veloster N worked the autocross track, after our secret mission.

part called Thunder Valley, then made a hard right turn through Canada Corner. I had told Jack my plan, and I readied the envelope. As he started up the hill, into a fierce wind, I opened the window, and let Tony fly.

It was, indeed, Tony’s final ride. Afterward, I notified the MAMA board of what I had done. They all knew Tony, and one of them said how appropriate it was and that forevermore, driving around that corner and starting up that hill will rekindle Tony’s memory.

He’d have loved the high-potency Veloster N, too.

Unbroken 4Runner Keeps On Keepin’ On

May 15, 2019 by · Comments Off on Unbroken 4Runner Keeps On Keepin’ On
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Stylishly rugged, the 2019 Toyota 4Runner offers familiarity instead of surprises.

By John Gilbert

Generally when you review a new vehicle you can hardly contain yourself from gushing about all the fantastic new high-tech features and gadgets contained in it. And then there’s the 2019 Toyota 4Runner.

The 4Runner is solid, steady, consistent, free of surprises, and…completely familiar. Even if it looks a little bit different from the one we’ve known for a decade.

Toyota is an amazing company, and nobody can quarrel with its overwhelming sales success, which has been largely achieved by ignoring the styling trends and gimmicks in an automotive world that is seemingly passing it by. By ignoring the guidelines it helped create, Toyota has continued to build the same-old same old of some of its most popular vehicles, such as the Corolla, Camry, Tacoma, Tundra — and the 4Runner.

The RAV4 is different, having been restyled a few times to stay at the top of its popularity game, as Toyota’s top-selling vehicle as a compact SUV.

But go up one step to the 4Runner, the midsize stalwart of the line, and go back to when the fifth generation was brought out, almost a decade ago, Toyota’s reputation for durability and consistency won out over the trends toward latest-tech and gimmickry. Basically, if you are familiar with the 2010 4Runner, you are pretty much familiar with the new 4Runner. The company did make some styling changes for 2018, but the ongoing refinement is primarily under the skin, and is what makes the 4Runner keep 4Running.

Abundant storage room means 4Runner’s midsize is big enough.

Cynics have been accusing Toyota for years about building boring cars, because the emphasis on running forever through a trouble-free existence can cause observers to equate that to boring, compared to so many competitive cars. But overlooked amid the criticism is that people seem to find it comfortable to walk into showrooms and find something so familiar, and they seem to feel comfortable getting the newest version of something they trust.

The trucks and SUVs are the best examples of standing out primarily because they are unchanged. The best comparison might be made to link the Tacoma mid-size pickup and the 4Runner midsize SUV. There is some merit there, because basically, the tried and true Tacoma pickup underpins the 4Runner. You could say the 4Runner is a Tacoma with a body, or that a Tacoma is a 4Runner with a bed carved out of the rear.

A reliable source I know well in the business says it best: “With Toyota, the cars aren’t cool, but the trucks are.”

I’ve always thought it was interesting that the huge rivalry between Japanese giants Toyota and Nissan was best described by the battle between the 4Runner from Toyota and the Pathfinder from Nissan. Both came out about the same size, both about the same shape, both had strong engines and both were the springboards to vastly expanding SUV arsenals.

I personally preferred the Pathfinder, for a couple of peculiar reasons. When I would test a 4Runner, I liked everything about it, but it seemed I would bump my head on the roof as I entered, and again as I exited, and it also seemed that a lot of the switchgear location always required a few days for me to learn. The Pathfinder, on the other hand, felt custom made for me — good clearance for my head in and out, comfortable driving position. with everything right where my instincts and fingertips figured it should be.

That was a long time ago, but it continued to be a factor in my analyses year after year, even though I always accepted and acknowledged that it was me that was peculiar and not the vehicle.

Simplicity without being overly fancy or glitzy is 4Runner hallmark.

Now that the 4Runner has been redone a bit for 2018, the new 2019 version is designed and arranged in a way that seems pretty near perfect. That means, it’s pretty close to the same as ever.

The test 4Runner I had for a week on the North Shore of Lake Superior came loaded with all the right stuff. It was the TRD (for Toyota Racing Division) Off-Road Premium model. It starts out with the stiffest platform Toyota engineers can build — as if the company has an unspoken intention to prove it can “out-Jeep” Jeep. Dedicated off-roaders are certain that only Jeeps can take on the most rugged off-road challenges, but those loyalists might be surprised to learn that the 4Runner can be ordered for comfort or in a form that can go anywhere off-road but with a bit more comfort.

A lot of observers scoff at such claims, so Toyota makes a couple of versions to prove its point. Among the varieties of 4Runner you can select the off-road TRD model, which came with the choice of its heavier-duty Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS), which is for serious off-road enthusiasts only. No sense getting it if you intend to only venture through some rugged long driveways to the lake, or for other light off-roading. You need to be into one-upmanship, or seriously into hobby or high-performance off-roading in order to order your 4Runner modified to take you anywhere.

And there is still a higher level, which is the TRD Pro. While the 4Runner is a smooth handler on the road, the TRD Pro’s trick suspension adds Fox internal bypass shocks and quarter-inch aluminum skid-plates underneath, among other specifics. But you don’t need to go Pro once you add KDSS to the TRD as the test truck had.

Sculptured grille retains tradition of efficiency.

As is, the sticker price, with LED foglights, running boards and the KDSS suspension, was $43,083. More than the compact SUVs, but a long way below the loaded luxury SUV cruisers.

A friend of mine said he liked the 4Runner so much, he was looking for a good used 4Runner to buy.  I threw out an opinion: The 4Runner is one of those extremely high resale Toyotas, which means it will hold its value very well, and which also means if you find one used, it will command too high a price to be a good deal. For that reason, the 4Runner is almost the equivalent of a good automotive investment, because you won’t lose the usual amount of trade-in depreciation.

Rugged or not,  the 4Runner rides with comfortable smoothness on the road. And if you fill it up for a vacation trip, you can still tow 5,00p0 pounds.

Appearance-wise, the test 4Runner came in Nautical Blue, a dark, beautiful blue that makes you first think you’d be crazy to go crashing through the underbrush with that paint job. The grille and contours surrounding the front end look sporty and aggressive, particularly compared to the old er generation.

You also can shift the 4Runner into a full-lock 4×4 setting, either high or low range, and just for trial sake, we had one of those frequent post-winter storms while I had it, and it was simple to shift it into the 4×4 high range just as it was to go to 2-wheel drive for dry pavement highway running.

The 4.0-liter V6 with dual-overhead-camshafts churns out 270 horsepower and 278 foot-pounds of torque, which is more than enough to scale those boulders and off-road trails to that wilderness lake or campsite. A hardy 5-speed automatic transmission sends the power to however many wheels you want. Most have gone to 6-speeds, or even more, but with the right ratios, 5 are enough.

Driving the 4Runner is easy and impressive, in any weather, and while the seats are comfortable and supportive, and everything works, you may miss some of the glitzy features some competitors boast about. But there remains a lot to be said for building something and getting it right, then refining it, however subtly, and sticking with it.

4Runner is further evidence that even if Toyota’s cars aren’t cool, the trucks are. Photos: Jack Gilbert.)

I’m not saying the 4Runner is perfect, but it does do everything a serious performance off-roader can, and it contains all the necessary safety stuff on a trim frame and in a familiar body. And proof of its refinement, I didn’t conk my head on the roof even once!

Who knows when Toyota will decide to make a major change to the 4Runner? But for now it follows the theory that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The 4Runner not only “ain’t broke,” it is built so well it probably will never break. So thpical of Toyota, you won’t need to fix it.

A7 Upgrades for 2019 Both Subtle, Substantial

May 8, 2019 by · Comments Off on A7 Upgrades for 2019 Both Subtle, Substantial
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Two ways to get where you’re going — Audi A7 quattro or skateboard leg power.

By John Gilbert
There I sat, in my own driveway, checking and cross-checking (well, it was still hockey season!) all the features in the 2019 Audi A7 quattro. My obsession was one thing in particular: the very neat little sunscreen that fits up in front of the long, sloping hatchback rear window.

It worked great for filtering out a lot of the sun and heat, but it was getting on toward evening now, and I wanted to locate the power switch that would drop the screen down flush to improve nighttime visibility out the rear.

There are so many switches and gadgets on the A7, as on most high-end cars these days, that it isn’t always easy to figure out what the heck the little icon is for on the various switches. And sometimes you have to get on the expansive information screen, which is a lot like a computer or iPad, and you find an indication that you can tap an electronic switch and get whatever job you want done.

I knew I would find it, but right then I was a half-hour into perusing all the switchwork and gadgetry in what was becoming a more and more futile exercise.

When an automaker is near perfection, sometimes its evolutionary changes feel a lot like no change at all. That’s a good thing, if the car they’re changing is already at the top of the scale. Audi is that way. The German company builds a full slate of cars nowadays, from compact to sporty to luxury, with a fleet of highly regarded SUVs of all sizes alongside.

Shelter from harsh Lake Superior wind was eash on A7 North Shore test drive.

But Audi is at its best when it comes to making luxury freeway cruisers, which handle and feel more like sporty sedans but are safe, beautiful and highly efficient. At the top is the A8, and the midsize is the A6, but now they have wedged a sporty, fastback version of the A6 in between and called it the A7.

When you line all three up it’s very difficult to pick a favorite among the three. The A6 and A8 look different because the A8 is longer, particularly the one that comes to the U.S., which is the A8-L — the elongated version only. Of course, the A7 looks markedly different than both of the others, because of the sleeker, fastback roofline and hatch under it. Personally, I think the A7 is the best looking of the batch, and I did review it as a 2018.

But it has undergone significant changes for 2019, so when a 2019 Audi A7 arrived for me to test drive and evaluate for a week, I studied it carefully to denote all the changes. Different platform underneath it, and a change in 3.0-liter V6 engines, from the supercharged hot one to a turbocharged hot one, still 2.0, and from impressive to…impressive. The interesting thing is that all three cars at the top of Audi’s luxury chain — the A6, A7 and A8-L — all use the same engine with the same power.

And it is so good, smooth and powerful, that nobody is going to complain, especially when you can get right about at 30 miles per gallon on a freeway trip. Of course, the A7 has quattro, Audi’s brilliant all-wheel-drive system, although it is changed considerably from the quattro of years past, which had itself been altered and revised repeatedly. Interesting, quattro put Audi ahead of Mercedes and BMW for those of us who drive in snow part of the year, but now that Mercedes and BMW have realized the inherent advantages of AWD and installed it or made it available on many models, Audi keeps refining its quattro to come at compromise from the opposite direction.

Who doesn’t like hatchbacks? A7’s fastback slope covers stuff while enhancing appearance.

The new quattro has two different differentials, to make the whole system work more efficiently. Audi has conceded that sometimes you want a slight power bias going to the rear, so it has accommodated it. But when you switch to open both clutches, you effectively eliminate the AWD and had only front-wheel drive, which aids in sportiness and performance as well as eliminating a lot of the friction that comes with AWD.

The beauty of the Audi system is that you notice only that the new Audi drives hard, handles well and has great traction in all circumstances, just like the old one did.

As for the engine, the old one had the supercharger, which force-feeds air into the engine, to such more gas and make more, and instant, power. Turbocharging usually takes a bit longer for the exhaust-air-fed flow to do essentially the same thing, which led to traditional “turbo lag” in turbocharged engines, even though fuel efficiency and gas mileage were better than supercharged. Audi has gone back and forth on this, and here is the best comparison.

Elegantly simple interior displays open space adorned with finest wood, leather, metal.

Last year, the 3.0 dual-overhead cam V6 with the supercharger turned out 333 horsepower and 325 foot-pounds of torque, which peaked between 2,800 and stayed at that peak until 5,300 RPMs. Impressive. Ah, but the little gremlins in their white smocks in Ingolstadt found that by using a twin-scroll turbocharger instead of the supercharger, they could eliminate any lag and could coax the same displacement 3.0 to out 335 horsepower and 369 foot-pounds of torque at a peak that now spans from 1,370 to 4,300 RPMs.

The torque peak is the point where you feel maximum thrust for acceleration, and you needn’t be German to realize that more torque, peaking at lower RPMs — in fact, barely above idle speed — will deliver more power sooner than the alternative. Various tests I’ve read indicate the heavy (4,400-pound) A7 will go 0-60 in about 4.7 seconds, and will hit 105 miles per hour from 0 in 13.3 seconds in a quarter mile. You can’t even get the silky smooth transmission to hit all seven gears in that time.

The base price on the A7 Audi quattro is $68,000, and as tested, loaded with all the options, the sticker was $85,240. If that seems outrageous, you have to look beyond the real leather, wood and aluminum comfort of the interior with its great seats fore and aft, and consider the level of ingredients in that A7.

Head-up display and adjustable gauges with panoramic nav are A7 highlights.

Handling and performance are aided by the exquisite balance inherent in all Audis, even with their engines hanging out forward of the front axle. It feels perfectly balanced, so it it. The A7 test car came loaded with all the proper safety and connectivity features, plus Audi’s fantastic full-width and adjustable gauge-splitting navigation picture that is a Google map come to life.

There also are settings so you can switch the A7 from automatic to comfort, to dynamic to individual, the latter of which allows you to maybe set the steering and cornering to sportier dynamic levels, and the ride smoothness to comfort. Or whatever.

The car also is notably quieter than it, or any other luxury sedan, used to be. Audi has found the precise spots to add padding, and they doubled the thickness of the windshield gas to improve its acoustic qualities. You also get fantastic headlights and taillights, with their LED splendor, and their sequential operation. The test car also came with what Audi calls “HD Matrix” headlights, with laser high beam control. Audi has taken adaptive headlights one level behind, and these can detect an oncoming car around a curve while aiming the lights to show around the curve. The lights will outline without blinding the oncoming driver.

You’ve got to be kidding!

Everything you could ever want in a car, short of driving for you — and Audi has more autonomous-driving models plying the autobahns of Germany right now! — and it’s all in such a dramatically stunning package. Everything…except, oh yeah, that blasted rear window screen!

Back to my personal drama, sitting in the driver’s seat and having tried every button, switch and icon, and none of them folding down the rear sunscreen.

I was to the point where I simply wanted the blasted thing folded down, so I climbed out, and opened the hatchback, which pops up smoothly and precisely. I decided to reach in and see if I could manually fold down the sunscreen, which has its own little receptacle carved into the panel over the hatch. To my absolute shock, my touch caused the sunscreen to fold down and click into that receptacle!

Rear sunscreen defies easy fold-down control…

...Instead of power switch. you fold it down by hand. Simple!

If you flip the switch, you can readily pop the sunscreen back up and into place. I had to laugh. Audi fooled me again, in a foolproof sort of a way. Maybe in the back rooms at the home factory in Ingolstadt, some engineers are getting a major chuckle out of realizing that normal buyers will search and hunt for a power switch to operate the sunscreen, but when they finally give up and examine the thing first-hand, they will find that simple manual touch still works.

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