Jeep Compass still here, finds bold new path

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

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

By John Gilbert

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

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

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

Shows what I know.

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

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

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

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

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

Driver vantage point is familiar Jeep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Impreza hidden in plain view

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

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

By John Gilbert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As biggest Mazda, CX-9 fills key niche

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

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

 By John Gilbert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ram Power Wagon lives up to lofty image

March 31, 2017 by · Comments Off on Ram Power Wagon lives up to lofty image
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

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

By John Gilbert

All right, we’ve established a few ground rules for large pickup truck wars, which have escalated to the point where the full-size trucks are so huge, the new breed of midsize trucks seems more than large enough. But if we did have to have a monster truck truck-off, so to speak, what would we pick to win?

That’s pretty impossible to say, because truck wars have such indelibly inscribed sets of favorites you’re sure to offend somebody when you pick something different. More likely, everybody makes their contribution.

Having previously reported on the Ford monster dualie F350, it’s hard to find anything bigger or bossier. The F250 Super Duty, meanwhile, is a monster that could be a candidate for king of the reasonably-sized monster trucks. And Ford’s Raptor is a specially built performance king for serious off-road duty with an ultra-macho on-road presence.

None of that prepares us for today’s topic, however. Which would be Dodge. Now Dodge, for example, gets no choice any more because Dodge trucks are no longer Dodge trucks; they are Rams. We will accept as a valid candidate the newest and most monster-like Ram of them all, the “Ram 2500 Power Wagon Crew Cab 4X4.” Got all that?

If a Power Wagon needs power, how about a 6.4-liter Hemi V8? This is the basic engine that powers the Hellcat Charger and Challenger models, with 707 tire-screeching horsepower, only this one is normally aspirated, and it is beefed up for heavy-duty trucking.

If you’re taking a group to see, for example, a Monster Truck competition, the Ram Power Wagon would be the ideal conveyance.

Neatly stowed inside the front bumper is a 12,000-pound winch.

The heavy-duty grille rollbars add to the impression that you’re ready for some heavy use. And imbedded horizontally into the front bumper is a small cable with a little tag on the end. It is a 12,000 pound winch. Pull the tab and it uncoils. I figure you could use this thing to drive along after a blizzard and pull your neighbor’s semi out of a ditch, if necessary.

This monster is, indeed, a monster, and it even has a feature or two that puts it onto a higher monster plateau than the huge Fords. It is a “bad”-looking truck, in the manner of current vernacular where “bad” means “real good,” or, as humans used to say, “cool.” Only the Ford Raptor rivals the visual impact of the Power Wagon. Read more

Metris offers new reasons to tour auto show

March 16, 2017 by · Comments Off on Metris offers new reasons to tour auto show
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

 

Mercedes Metdris vans offer reasonable size for cargo or riders.

By John Gilbert

When the Twin Cities Auto Show arrived on the same weekend as the Minnesota state high school hockey tournament, I knew I’d find a way to get to both events, even though they are separated by the 10 miles from the Minneapolis Convention Center to St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center ice arena.

The Twin Cities Auto Show, scheduled through March 19, is not one of the nation’s major shows, more of a dealer-oriented and operated show with vehicles contributed by the regional dealerships, and without the Detroit-Chicago-L.A.-New York displays of concept cars and futuristic things. The theme is similar, however, with an emphasis on trucks and SUVs, and reflecting the nation’s sudden urge for compact crossovers (CUV), and electrified vehicles.

The “Car of the Show” was the new Chevrolet Cruze Coupe, and after strolling through the dozens of Chevrolets looking for a two-door Cruze, I asked somebody and learned that the “Coupe” term is in roofline silhouette only, which other manufacturers call “Four-door coupe” styling.

Chevrolet’s Cruze “Coupe.”

Aside from drawing the scorn of our new President Trump for having the audacity to build the Cruze Coupe in Mexico, instead of the United States, Chevrolet has designed a winner with the Cruze Coupe, which has a neat style and a fastback roofline that ends in a hatchback.

While I never tire of strolling among a lot of new cars at any auto show, I had a couple of specific reasons for my search at the Minneapolis Convention Center. I had been doing a test drive on a 2017 Mercedes Metris that week, and I was quite curious about that vehicle, spooky as it was handling a light snowfall on top of some serious melt-then-freeze ice in my driveway.

The Metris has a front engine with rear-wheel drive, which is not the right prescription for driving through Duluth, MN., in wintertime in any reasonably competent manner. But I made it.

Metris in the wild.

Metris seats.

 

 

 

 

 

Metris cargo hold.        

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