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Don Adair's Seat Time

XC60: Volvo’s pulse-pounding crossover

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Historically, Volvos have appealed more to my head than my heart.

Volvos define sensible transportation. Even the turbocharged trims of recent vintage have been more sporty-ish than sporty, stronger on reason than passion. 

Now comes the XC60, a premium crossover (from $36,675, including destination) that marries Volvo virtues with dynamics that approach Germany’s best. Whether paddling about in city traffic or trimming your favorite corner’s apex, the XC60’s reflexes are confident and assertive.

The nicely weighted, electrically assisted steering is communicative and accurate. The chassis and suspension work in lock-step to smooth out rough surfaces and check body lean. Its engines are responsive, efficient and innovative.

A distinctly Scandinavian cast informs cabin design, with its easy curves, intuitive controls and elegant “floating” center stack. Seats are beautifully sculpted, comfortable and supportive.

The rear seating area offers more legroom and headroom than most compact crossovers. Available integrated booster seats pop up from the seat bottoms. 

Interior features include a 3-spoke steering wheel, Off Black dash top, wood décor trim on front door panels, cloth-covered B-pillars, metal-trim vent surrounds, Quartz headliner, front door sill plates and a metal threshold for the cargo area.

The XC60 is available in front- and all-wheel-drive formats and in five well-equipped trims, topped by the $51,000 T6 AWD R-Design Platinum.

Standard gear includes front and rear foglights, heated mirrors, automatic wipers, dual-zone automatic climate control, eight-way power front seats, driver-side memory, a leather-wrapped, three-spoke tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, fabric upholstery, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, and an eight-speaker sound system with CD player, satellite radio, HD radio, an auxiliary audio jack and a USB/iPod audio interface.

Wi-Fi Hotspot gives the driver access to cloud-based Volvo services without an on-board smartphone. A Wi-Fi hotspot inside the car allows passengers to connect their portable devices to the Internet.

This year, Volvo debuts a new engine lineup, dominated by four-cylinder direct-injected powerplants. Front-drive trims are powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter four that makes 240 or, with the addition of a supercharger, 302 horsepower. 

Both engines are mated to a new eight-speed automatic transmission. EPA ratings are 27 mpg combined (24 city, 31 highway) and 25/22/30.

All-wheel-drive models get a turbocharged 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine that makes 240 horsepower or a 3.0-liter 300-hp turbocharged inline six. Both are paired with a six-speed automatic and return 20/17//24.

The ultimate XC60, the T6 AWD R-Design makes 325 horsepower. Its chassis is strengthened to handle the load and more-direct steering ratios enhance road feel.

Volvo’s AWD system transfers power to the wheels with the best grip. The torque-vectoring FWD system cuts power to the inside wheel during cornering, sharpening turn-in and reducing understeer.

In all trims, a new driver-selectable ECO+ fuel-saving technology optimizes shift points, engine control and throttle response to improve efficiency by as much as five percent.

Volvo continues to prioritize safety, and the XC60 earns top ratings in all government and insurance-industry crash tests.

The demands of head and heart often are in conflict, if not outright warfare; what a treat it is to discover a Volvo that satisfies both.

Don Adair is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Contact him at don@dadair.com.

2015.5 Volvo XC60 T6 AWD
Vehicle base price:
Trim level base price: $42,200
As tested: $51,675
Optional equipment included metallic paint; 20-inch alloy wheels; heated front seats; sport seats; integrated booster seats; adaptive Xenon headlights with active high-beams; keyless entry/ignition; premium audio system; adaptive cruise control; collision-warning with auto-brake; pedestrian/cyclist detection with auto-brake; more.
EPA ratings: 20 combined/17 city/24 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Mazda3: Small package, big fun

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Buyers today face a raft of good looking, economical and well-equipped compacts, whose starting prices fall well below $20,000. 

Only a handful can make the morning commute rewarding.

That’s the nut Mazda cracks with the 2015 Mazda3 ($17,765, including transportation). Even the entry-level 3, with its 155-horsepower four-cylinder engine and soaring EPA numbers (33 combined/29 city/41 highway), is a proper “driver’s car.”

Step up to the 184-hp 3s and you’ve stumbled upon a high-spirited daily driver.

Available in sedan and hatchback body styles, the 3 was fully made-over for 2014. It received striking new sheet metal, a pair of vigorous yet efficient four-cylinder engines and a new lightweight, high-strength chassis.

This year, the 3 receives a significant powertrain update; the optional 2.5-liter, 184-horsepower engine can be paired with a six-speed manual transmission. It’s perhaps the most fun a buyer can have for less than $25,000. So equipped, the 3 remains the model of efficiency (29 combined/25 city/37 highway).

Add a few choice options and the 3 slips into the near-luxury realm.

Every 3 is well equipped. The entry-level, sedan-only 3i SV includes such standard features as remote keyless entry and push-button start; power folding exterior mirrors; power windows with driver-side one-touch up/down; tilt-and-telescoping steering column; A/C with pollen filter and daytime running lights.
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My Grand Touring tester included not just the new powertrain but also nearly every bell and whistle on the dance card; rain-sensing wipers; navigation; adaptive, high-intensity-discharge headlights (with auto on/of high-beams); a nine-speaker Bose surround-sound audio system; heated leather sport seats; dual-zone automatic climate control, etc.

The price of entry: a modest $26,335.

Trade-offs include a cabin that’s less roomy than the class average and a ride that may be too firm for some buyers, especially with the 18-inch Dunlops aboard.

Mazda compensates for the 3’s shortcomings with inviting cabin design, first-rate ergonomics — including terrific sport seats — and some of the industry’s most intuitive controls. It solves the display-screen real estate challenge by stacking a 7-inch color display atop the dash, where it can be scanned at a glance. The optional head-up speedometer display is the best I’ve seen.

The infotainment system can be controlled either via the touchscreen or a rotary knob similar to those found in far more expensive cars.

But Mazda’s particular magic lies in its ability to merge efficiency, style and comfort with class-leading performance. One of the quickest of the compacts, its dynamics rival those with highfalutin pedigrees. Despite its diminutive size, the 3 feels substantial and stable at speed. 

Its drum-tight chassis allows precise suspension and steering-system tuning — and contributes to outstanding safety results. The 3 aces all crash tests and available technology includes Smart City Brake Support, which can bring the car to a stop at low speeds if the driver fails to react to an imminent collision.

Anyone who enjoys driving but can’t justify spending down the family fortune ought to install the Mazda3 at the top of the shopping list.

Don Adair is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Contact him at don@dadair.com.

2015 Mazda3 S 4DR Grand Touring
Vehicle base price: $16,945
Trim level base price: $25,045
As tested: $26,335
Optional equipment included stuff plates; door-sill trim plates
EPA ratings: 29 combined/25 city/37 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Acura TLX: Impressive newbie

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Acura’s all-new TLX sedan may be the ideal near-luxury car for the Inland Northwest.

It favors subtlety over flash, does its business quietly and gets the job done, fair weather and foul.

And, at $31,890, including transportation, it’s as affordably priced as the segment gets.

The TLX replaces two cars in the Acura lineup, the compact TLX and the midsize TL. It’s offered with a pair of familiar engines — a four-cylinder from the TSX and the TL's V-6. Both are paired with efficiency-inclined new transmissions. Acura’s sensational torque-vectoring SH-AWD AWD system is available on six-cylinder models.

On front-drive trims, the TLX resurrects the four-wheel-steering system Honda (Acura is Honda’s premium brand) debuted on the 1988 Prelude. Dubbed P-AWS (Precision All-Wheel Steer), its effects are subtle and critical only when some maniac is tossing the TL through the corners.

Just the way I like it. 

Like its forebears, the TLX is comfortable, well-equipped and sturdily built. It blends luxury and sport in a stew that skews too far in neither direction. Its interior improves on its predecessors’, with excellent materials quality and top-notch fit and finish. Noise-cancellation technology slashes cabin noise to a murmur and the plushly padded seats are nicely bolstered. 
 
There’s abundant rear legroom, though the sweeping roofline limits rear-seat headroom.

Up front, the TLX borrows heavily from the flagship RL, including Acura’s new twin-screen electronics interface. Mastering the system requires some book-time, but it works as promised.

Still, I assign Acura demerits for burying such fundamentals as the seat-heater controls behind a screen or two.

At 3,480 pounds in front-drive trim, the TLX is lighter than the TL it replaces. That’s a load for the base, 206-horsepower, 2.4-liter four, which is paired with an all-new eight-speed automated manual transmission. Some say the four-cylinder TLX is the more entertaining drive — less weight over the front wheels translates into sharper cornering — but for most drivers the payoff comes at the pump; four-cylinder trims earn EPA ratings of 28 mpg combined (24 city/35 highway). 

The up-level engine is a 290-hp, 3.5-liter six mated to a nine-speed automatic. Six-cylinder trims can be ordered with or without AWD.

So equipped, the TLX weighs in at 3,770 pounds and swaps the light-on-its-feet agility of front-drive trims for greater acceleration and improved stability in all conditions. Efficiency drops to an EPA-estimated 25/21/31.

In both trims, ride and handling approaches the Teutonic ideal. The ride is likely be too stiff for some sensibilities, but it’s never rough or harsh. The upside is a car that isn’t upset by undulations, railroad crossings or broken road surfaces. Even at speed,  the well-damped suspension keeps the works under control.

The electrically assisted power steering system is nicely weighted, with good on-center feel, but doesn’t communicate much information from the road surface. 

In the end, other midsize near-luxury sedans are more luxurious and some are sportier. Buy perhaps none matches the new Acura’s blend of attributes, including price. Similarly equipped competitive models are likely to cost thousands more. 

Don Adair is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Contact him at don@dadair.com.

2015 Acura TLX 3.5L SH-AWD ADV
Vehicle base price: $29,168
Trim level base price: $44,700
As tested: $45,595
Optional equipment: The 3.5L SH-AWD ADV includes such extras as navigation, premium audio and assorted safety systems, including collision-avoidance.
EPA ratings: 25 combined/21 city/31 highway
Unleaded premium fuel recommended

Mitsubishi Outlander: 7-passenger utility

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Earlier in the month, I wrote this about Mitsubishi’s Outlander Sport:

<em>Some compact crossovers are more refined. Some are sportier and others more utilitarian. But, for buyers facing winter weather on a limited budget, the Outlander Sport may be the value proposition they’re seeking.</em>

If you’ll concede that self-plagiarism in pursuit of truth is no sin, let’s make a small adjustment and repurpose that paragraph:  … <em>for buyers facing winter weather on a limited budget, the 7-passenger Outlander may be the value proposition they’re seeking.</em>. 

For reasons known only to itself, Mitsubishi broke the branding rules and assigned the name Outlander to a pair of vehicles, the 5-passenger Outlander Sport and the 7-passenger Outlander, which is longer by 14 inches.

The Sport is offered with a single, four-cylinder engine; the Outlander with either a 166-horsepower, 2.4-liter four or a 224-hp 3.0-liter six.

The four is paired with a continuously variable transmission (CVT), the six with a conventional six-speed automatic. We tested a top-of-the-line 2015 Outlander 3.0 GT S-AWC (shorthand for Mitsu’s Super All-Wheel Control System).

For 2015, the Outlander ($24,085, including transportation) receives minor styling tweaks to the front fascia, an expanded standard-features list and revised suspension tuning and CVT calibration. Improved sound insulation reduces noise, vibration and harshness.

Comfort and efficiency are the goal here, not performance. In fact, the six-cylinder engine — it’s standard on the GT and optional on the midlevel SE — is detuned slightly to boost efficiency. Furthering the effort, Mitsubishi boosts the use of high-tensile steel to reduce weight some 200 pounds.

With the 2.4-liter and front-wheel drive, the Outlander earns an EPA-estimated 28 mpg combined (26 city/33 highway); AWD trims fetch 26/24/29). Six-cylinder trims are rated at 23/20/28).

Standard features now include Bluetooth connectivity; automatic climate control; full power accessories; a 6-speaker AM/FM/CD/MP3-compatible audio syste m; leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob; redundant steering-wheel audio and cruise controls; sliding and reclining second-row seats; and a tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel.

The electronically controlled S-AWC system has four drive modes – Normal, Snow, Lock and AWD Eco. The Eco mode operates primarily as a front-wheel drive vehicle that switches to AWD when slippage occurs; Lock locks all four wheels into AWD to improve low-speed traction in snow and mud. Included brake-control technology reduces the likelihood of a skid in heavy braking.

Underway, the six-cylinder GT delivers a balanced ride-and-handling package, with sufficient power for effective freeway merging and two-lane passing. Seats are firm and supportive and visibility is good in all directions. Predictably, third-row seating is cramped.

Calibrated for efficiency, the transmission shifts early and often. Paddle shifters allow the driver to override the default settings.

Mitsubishi backs up the works with its 5-year/60,000-mile basic warranty and 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty.

The Outlander offers abundant evidence of the health of the auto industry. Its attractive sticker price belies a solid value. Budget-minded buyers seeking AWD security can start their search here.

2015 Mitsubishi Outlander 3.0 GT S-AWC
Vehicle base price: $23,195
Trim level base price: $28,195
As tested: $35,145
Options included navigation; lane-departure warning system; forward-collision mitigation; adaptive cruise control; sunroof; leather; power driver’s seat; power remote tailgate; silver roof rails.
Maximum towing capacity: 1,500 lbs
EPA rating: 23 combined/20 city/28 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Hyundai Sonata Sport: What’s in a name?

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I don’t envy the people who name cars, but I do reserve the right to question their judgment.

When I created this month’s review calendar, I scheduled a pair of midsize family sedans back-to-back. Each wore Sport trim badges, which seemed like a fair point of comparison.

Thus, last week’s tester, the 2015 Honda Accord Sport, and this week’s, the fully made-over 2015 Hyundai Sonata Sport.

Each is a front-drive, five-passenger, four-cylinder sedan. But beyond that, however, my plan was an apples-and-oranges exercise. In Hyundai’s view, <em>sport</em> is an elastic concept. The Sonata Sport is comfortable, roomy and very well-equipped, but sporty it’s not.   

To clarify, there’s more than one Sonata Sport trim. The base Sport ($23,985), which we tested, is powered by a 185-horsepower 2.5-liter four. The other, the 2.0T Sport ($29,385), gets a turbocharged, 245-hp 2.0-liter four and adds a unique power-steering system, a sport-tuned suspension — and those missing paddle shifters.

All 2015 Sonatas are built around a new platform comprising 50 percent lightweight, high-strength steel. Chassis rigidity is up substantially, which allows for more-precise suspension tuning and leads to reductions in noise, vibration and harshness.

Styling is more mature this year, though the Sport trim’s chrome accents undercut that effort. Suspension tuning favors comfort over performance and the Sonata confidently soaks up road-surface imperfections, while passing little of the impact into the cabin.

Body roll is well controlled but, though the Sport holds its own in the corners, it lacks the lively, light-on-its-feet feel of the Honda.

Surprisingly, a new turbocharged, 177-hp Eco trim ($24,085) is both quicker and more frugal than its four-cylinder sibs. It’s the only Sonata to get the company’s new six-speed automated manual transmission. All others get a six-speed automatic. 

Sonata standard gear includes air-conditioning, cruise control, full power accessories and heated mirrors. There’s Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity and a six-speaker sound system, with CD player, satellite radio, an iPod/USB audio interface and an auxiliary audio jack.

Sport and Eco trims add automatic headlights; a rearview camera; an eight-way power driver seat, with power lumbar; soft-touch door panels; and Hyundai's Blue Link telematics system, with smartphone integration, and a 5-inch touchscreen audio interface.

The Sport gets unique 17-inch alloys, chrome-tipped dual-exhaust pipes and a hands-free “smart trunk” that opens automatically when the key fob is held (it can be inside a pocket or a purse) near the trunk for three seconds. 

Hyundai packs considerable pizzazz into its interiors. Sonata cabin is vibrant and tasteful. A well-organized, easy-to-use control panel includes dedicated buttons for such functions as navigation, phone, radio and media. Sonatas equipped with navigation get an 8-inch touchscreen.

This is one of the segment’s quietest cabins, a calm disturbed only by the buzz of the 2.4-liter four under acceleration.

Sadly, my sport-trim scenario failed to play out as planned. Still, the exercise was useful. In the world of cars, nomenclature is a fluid affair.

Don Adair is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Contact him at don@dadair.com.

2015 Hyundai Sonata Sport
Vehicle base price: $21,960
Trim level base price: $23,175
As tested: $27,560
Options included blind-spot warning system, with cross-traffic alert; hands-free “smart trunk”; keyless entry and ignition; sport seats; leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob; dual automatic climate control; auto up/down front passenger-side window; navigation; Sirius XM Travel Link; premium audio; HD radio; electroluminescent gauges; auto-dimming rearview mirror with compass and Homelink.
EPA ratings: 28 combined/24 city/35 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Honda Accord Sport: Swimming against the tide

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Some automakers keep their fingers up, trying to figure out which way the wind blows. Others use theirs to take the pulse of the public.

Honda is among the best of the pulse-checkers. Though they’re rarely the most powerful,  beautiful or elegant cars in their segments, Hondas are always found hovering around the tops of the sales charts.

It’s not just customers who value its products. For 27 years running, <em>Car and Driver’s</em> has included the midsize Accord ($22,925, including destination) on its 10Best list for.

Successes aside, Honda can be an outlier. When convinced of the rightness of a strategy, it fearlessly swims against the tide. Despite the fading popularity of manual transmissions, for example, Honda embraces them, offering sticks on even the Accord, the most mainstream of cars.

So, as an old-school guy, I was pleased to spend a week testing a 2015 Accord Sport ($24,685) equipped with a standard transmission. 

The Sport is an odd trim. It builds on the basic Accord formula — front-wheel-drive, thrifty four-cylinder engine, five-passenger cabin — and adds 18-inch alloys, a decklid spoiler, a power driver’s seat and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.

That’s all well and good, since the Accord’s standard-features list includes dual-zone automatic climate control, full power accessories, cruise control, an 8-inch infotainment display, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity and a rearview camera. Its sound system includes a CD player, auxiliary audio jack, iPod/USB interface and Pandora Internet radio.

But that’s the end of it; the Sport is ineligible for additional options. If you want navigation, satellite radio or even heated seats, you’re out of luck. 

Also, you can have the Sport in any color you want, as long as it’s black or gray.

Whatever.

The 185-horsepower 2.4-liter engine that powers all four-cylinder Accords gets a four-horsepower bump in the Sport, due to a dual-exhaust system that improves airflow. 

Besides the stick, the Sport also can be had with a continuously variable transmission (CVT), which improves economy but hinders performance. Stick-equipped Sports run the 0-60 mph sprint in 6.6 seconds and return EPA estimates of 27 mpg combined (24 city/34 highway).

CVT-equipped Accord fours run the 0-60 sprint in 7.8 seconds and earn ratings of 31/27/36.

A 278-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 powers upper trims and can only be paired with a conventional six-speed automatic. Zero to 60 comes up in 6.1 seconds and EPA ratings are 26/21/34. 

In the Sport trim, the Accord’s essential virtues become crystal clear. Its rigid, lightweight chassis enables precise suspension tuning. The ride is a bit stiffer than a typical family sedan’s, but not punishing. The Sport is light on its feet and stable and surefooted in the corners. Its electrically assisted steering system is consistently communicative and accurate. It possesses the organic ease of a car engineered to be responsive to both driver and road conditions. It is  relaxed in demeanor and invigorating in spirit.

Still, if anyone at Honda has a finger in the air, can we at least have heated seats?

Don Adair is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Contact him at don@dadair.com.

2015 Honda Accord 4DR Sport
Base price: $22,105
Trim level base price: $23,865
As tested: $24,655
Optional equipment: No options are available for the Accord Sport trim.
EPA ratings: 27 combined/24 city/34 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Outlander Sport: Mitsubishi’s value proposition

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Top dog in Mitsubishi’s abbreviated U.S. lineup, the Outlander Sport claims an affordable price tag, a big warranty and a loyal following.

With winter in the offing, the compact crossover presents a solid value proposition: AWD trims start at $23,020, including destination, FWD at $20,420.

The 2015 Outlander Sport — the <em>Sport</em> differentiates it from its larger sibling, the midsize, three-row Outlander — receives numerous improvements. Outside, a freshly restyled grille and black-out lower valances jazz up its tidy proportions. Recessed fog lamps get new chrome surrounds. The upper SE trim ($23,620/$25,020) adds new LED tail lamps.

Inside, fabrics are new and improved. There are new chrome accents and the steering wheel and shift knob are leather-wrapped.

All models are quieter this year, thanks to thicker front-door window glass and new sound insulation in the rear quarter-panels. 

Standard gear includes automatic halogen headlights, heated mirrors, 18-inch aluminum alloy wheels, rear privacy glass, keyless entry, air conditioning, cruise control, a height-adjustable driver seat, 60/40-split-folding rear seats, Mitsubishi's voice-activated Fuse electronics interface, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity and a four-speaker audio system with CD player, auxiliary audio jack and USB/iPod interface.

Stepping up to the SE fetches heated front seats, rain-sensing wipers, xenon headlights and an upgraded six-speaker audio system with satellite radio come along for the ride. 

A navigation package, with 7-inch touchscreen, and a park assist program, with front and rear sensors, are available on both trims.

Antilock disc brakes, traction control and stability control, hill start assist, front side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags and a driver knee airbag. A rearview camera is optional.

All trims are powered by a 148-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engines. The base ES trim can be had with a five-speed manual transmission; all others get a continuously variable transmission (CVT) that has been revised this year for improved efficiency and acceleration. Modifications include programmed “shift points” that replicate the effect of a 7-speed automatic.

Even the electric power steering system is recalibrated this year for improved economy.

Front-drive trims equipped with the CVT earn an estimated 28 mpg combined (25 city/32 highway); AWD versions are rated at 27/24/30. With the five-speed stick, the FWD ES is rated at 26/24/30.

Despite the nomenclature and steering-wheel paddle shifters aside, not much “sport” is involved here. Manual-transmission models run the 0-60 sprint in just under 9 seconds, with CVT trims a few ticks slower. 

The Outlander Sport’s softly sprung all-independent suspension favors ride quality over handling, but at freeway speeds, it feels stable and planted. Decent on-center steering feel minimizes driver fatigue over long distances.

Every Outlander Sport is backed by a transferable 5-year/60,000-mile new vehicle limited warranty, a 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain limited warranty, a transferable 5-year/60,000-mile new vehicle limited warranty and a 5-year/unlimited miles roadside assistance program.

Some compact crossovers are more refined. Some are sportier and others more utilitarian. But, for buyers facing winter weather on a limited budget, the Outlander Sport may be the value proposition they’re seeking.

Don Adair is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Contact him at don@dadair.com.

2015 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport SE AWD
Vehicle base price: $18,942
Trim level base price: $24,195
As tested: $29,945
Optional equipment included navigation, with real-time traffic and 3D mapping; leather seating surfaces; premium sound system; auto-dimming rearview mirror; power driver’s seat; panoramic glass roof with LED illumination; black roof rails.
EPA ratings: 27 combined/24 city/30 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

VW CC: One pretty Passat

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In 2009, Volkswagen debuted the CC, a slick “four-door coupe” whose flowing silhouette suggested high-performance European luxury, but whose platform was strictly Passat.

Passat is Volkswagen’s mid-size, four-door family sedan. When the time came to introduce the expected two-door coupe, VW instead stretched the Passat a half-inch, lowered its roofline 2 inches and re-sculpted its sheet metal. Hands-down, the resulting four-door was one of the prettiest VWs ever.

Lexus RC F: F stands for fast

Halfway through my fourth of fifth fourth lap — almost time enough to sort out the braking points and apexes — I realized was driving a Lexus like I had never before driven a Lexus. Or ever expected to.

Tires squealed. Brakes stank. Ponies — 467 of them — pounded.

We were on the 1.8-mile road course at New Orleans’s NOLA Motorsports Park, testing Lexus’s new RC F sport coupe ($63,325, including destination). The RC F — yes, the F stands for fast — is top dog in a two-car family that includes the 306-hp, six-cylinder RC 350 ($43,715) and its derivative, the RC 350 F Sport.

Coming from a company known for playing it safe around the edges, the 350 F is a revelation. It proves that, given the challenge, Lexus engineers can build cars that can compete with the world’s best.

The 350 F’s most direct natural competitor is BMW’s M4. Both are rear-drive performance coupes. The Bimmer is a buck or two more dear ($65,150), a bit less powerful (425 horsepower) and considerably (400 pounds) lighter. 

Aside from its aggressive interpretation of Lexus’s new corporate “spindle” grille, the 350 F is not immediately recognizable as a Lexus. Its scoops, vents, bulges and bumps are purpose-driven, if polarizing.

There’s even a rear spoiler that emerges from the decklid at 50 mph. Its benefits won’t be evident at those speeds, but they help keep the F planted and stable as enormous disc brakes (15-inch front; 13.6-inch rear) haul down the 4,000-lb. coupe from speed. 

The snug aircraft-style cockpit borrows heavily from the LFA super-car. A tall console separates large, heavily bolstered front seats. The driver faces an LCD gauge pod that changes appearance as it cycles through four driver-selectable modes (Eco, Normal, Sport and Sport+).

The 5.-liter V-8 makes peak power at 7,100 RPM, while maximum torque (389 pound-feet) comes on at 4,100 RPM. Power is channeled to the rear wheels via an eight-speed automatic transmission. The engine and transmission seem perfectly paired. Running primarily in Sport+ during our track session, the gearbox snapped off super-quick and timely upshifts and perfectly timed downshifts, choreographed to ear-pleasing automatic throttle blips.

The zero-to-60 burst happens in a lusty 4.4-seconds.

The F’s <em>piece de resistance</em> is an available $5,500 Performance Package. It swaps out the standard limited-slip rear differential for a three-mode torque-vectoring unit. It can transfer 100 percent of available torque to either rear wheel, helping to guide the car around fast, hard corners without impinging on engine power or scrubbing off speed via the brakes.

Though we didn’t encounter any broken surfaces or rough patches, the F seemed unflappable no matter what kind of shenanigans — intentional and otherwise — we threw at it.

If the F has a fault, it’s that it can make a mediocre driver think he’s a good one, inviting all kinds of real-world trouble. That said, though, a special magic happens when the back wheels release their grip and allow the car to pivot and enter an induced skid. Assuming a) the driver dials in sufficient reverse-lock (i,e., turns the wheel in the direction of the skid) to keep the entire car pointed the right direction) or, b) the traction control system steps in to help, the 350 F dances its bulk right up to to the edge of the track (and beyond, if it’s carrying too much speed), its massive 19-inch Michelin Pilot Super Sports scrambling for traction the entire way.

Then comes the moment the tires bite, finding traction and hurtling the car under full throttle to the next turn entrance, 5.0 liters of titanium valves, lightweight crankshaft and connecting rods, et al., screaming their way back home to the 7,300 redline.

Oh, what fun.

Ultimately, a superior driver will likely find the M4 the quicker car, its weight being its key advantage. It’s maybe three-tenths quicker to 60, and has a livelier step and defter touch through the corners. 

The 350 F is a work in progress. It’s a sure bet Lexus engineers are already exploring ways to make more power, cut weight or produce some other magic fairy dust. Don’t think BMW isn’t watching.

Audi A3: Little, but all grown up

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My grandson Henry is smart, as well-read as a seven-year-old can be and fairly certain he’s right. All of the time. Also, he’s a car guy.

He wanted to know what I was driving on a recent visit. 

“It’s an Audi A3.”

“That’s not an A3; A3s are hatchbacks.”

Henry knows his A3s; his mother drives one. It’s a hatchback because, until this year, that’s all there was. Apparently, Henry hadn’t heard that Audi has booted the hatch for a four-door sedan and two-door convertible. 

The A3 ($30,795, including transportation) joins a new <em>entry premium</em> segment comprising such small, richly endowed Europeans as BMW’s 2 Series and Mercedes-Benz’s new CLA. 

The goodness is baked into these cars’ DNA, not grafted on in the form of high-profit options packages.  

Audi plans a flood of A3 variants, including a plug-in hybrid, a crossover, and a gaggle of high-performance models. For now, it’s available in a single, well-equipped trim, with a pair of major options packages; front- or all-wheel drive; and three lively and efficient four-cylinder engines, two gas and one diesel. 

The base engine is a 170-horsepower, 1.8-liter turbocharged four that returns an estimated 27 mpg combined (23 city/33 highway). An optional 2.0-liter four, also turbocharged, makes 220 hp and matches the smaller engine’s efficiency.

The 2.0-liter turbo-diesel ($33,495) makes 150 hp and 236 pound-feet of torque and is rated at
 36/31/43.

All engines are mated with a six-speed automated manual transmission.

A high-performance, 292-hp S3 sedan ($41,995) is marketed separately.

The A3 resembles a 3/4-scale A4, but cabin design strikes out in a fresh direction. Rather than cramming a busy display into a crowded dash, Audi uses a motorized screen that rises from the dash upon ignition. A quartet of circular, aircraft-inspired vents aside, the dash is uncluttered and elegantly spare. 

Materials quality and fit-and-finish are on par with the big-budget Audis. Switch-gear is flawless in feel and heft. At highway speeds, the cabin is hushed and tranquil. Meant to be driven vigorously, the A3 is nimble, balanced and responsive. Steering is light at low speeds but firms up nicely.

Standard equipment includes leather upholstery, automatic wipers, automatic xenon headlights, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity and a version of the MMI so fresh the A8 doesn’t have it yet. 4G LTE connectivity is available, and so is a 14-speaker Bang & Olufsen sound system.

Front seats are comfortable and supportive, but properly bolstered chairs require the $550 Sport package (it also includes a three-spoke sport steering wheel, paddle shifters and Drive Select, which lets the driver adjust throttle response, shift points, and steering effort).

Rear seating is scant, though a pair of average adults will ride comfortably for short periods. The split-folding rear seatbacks fold.
Old-school “technology” includes the knob-operated passenger-seat recline mechanism. If you can’t reconcile a $30,000-plus price tag with manual seatbacks, alternatives are available; just don’t expect any of them to deliver the way the littlest Audi does.

Don Adair is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Contact him at don@dadair.com.

2015 Audi A3 2.0T quattro S troni
Vehicle base price: $29,900
Trim level base price: $32,900
As tested: $37,195
Options included Scuba Blue Metallic paint; MMI Navigation Plus; heated front seats, exterior mirrors and windshield washer nozzles; aluminum trim; Audi music interface with iPod cable.
EPA ratings: 27 combined/24 city/33 highway
Premium unleaded fuel required

Escalade: Bigger and better

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As long as there are big buyers, big loads and big families, Cadillac’s Escalade will always find a home. 

A big home.

For 23015, Cadillac’s large luxury SUV is redesigned inside and out. It’s bigger, stronger and quicker. Its cabin is quieter and its ride smoother. GM’s most advanced electronics and infotainment systems bring luxury-level amenities to its 5,100-pound frame. 

Longer than last year by 1.4 inches, wider by 1.5 inches and heavier by about 100 pounds, the 2015 Escalade (from $72,690, including destination) carries eight, tows up to 8,300 pounds and accelerates from zero to 60 in 6.1 seconds.

We tested the extended-length Escalade ESV ($75,690), whose wheelbase is 14 inches longer than the standard edition.Approximately 20 inches longer than standard, it maximizes third-row seating and space nearly doubles the cargo space behind the third-row seat. 

On the outside, the edges and angles of Cadillac’s Art and Science design language bring an assertive edge to its blocky lines. Inside, an army of digital interfaces nests comfortably among the high-grade, cut-and-sewn leathers, genuine wood trim and lush soft-touch surfaces.

New functionality — i.e., power-operated third-row seatbacks, hands-free liftgate, running boards that retract automatically — increase utility. A new 16-speaker Bose surround sound system makes rich, full noise and can be configured to suit occupants’ preferences.

Triple-sealed doors, acoustic laminate glass and Bose Active Noise Cancelation cut wind and road noise. The latest version of OnStar includes 4G LTE and built-in Wi-Fi.

A new four-wheel-drive system has an Auto mode that automatically engages the two-speed transfer case when road conditions grow iffy. There are separate, driver-activated modes for difficult (4 Hi ) and normal (2 Hi) conditions.

Despite the upscale flourishes, the Escalade is at heart a body-on-frame sport-utility vehicle — a truck — with all the attendant pluses and minuses. Its fully boxed frame liberally uses high-strength steel — it’s both lighter and stronger than the standard stuff —to produce a platform  sturdy enough to support lofty towing and payload (1,500 lb.) ratings.

A two-mode air suspension helps control the Escalade’s bulk but never really tames it. Roll stiffness dialed into the chassis reduces body lean during cornering but contributes to a ride that can grow brittle on rough surfaces, a tendency exacerbated by the optional 22-inch wheels.

Paired with a six-speed automatic transmission, the Escalade’s 420-horsepower V-8 returns EPA ratings of 17 mpg combined (15 city/21 highway); 4WD trims  are rated at 16 mpg combined (14 city/21 highway).

As noted, acceleration is swift and sure, even between 40 and 60 mph, when it’s needed for passing.

The electrically assisted power steering system is well weighted but numb on-center.

The new power-operated third-row seat folds flat into the cargo floor, replacing a seat that until this year had to be physically removed. The new setup raises the cargo floor 4 inches. 

New owners must resign themselves to an electronics learning curve. Cadillac’s Cadillac User Experience (CUE) is a touch-screen system that uses proximity sensors to detect the approach of a user’s hand and automatically serve up a context-based menu. It’s powerful and elegant in theory, but its voice-recognition function may be its saving grace.

Escalade sales declined sharply in the wake of the recession, but this year’s model has reversed that trend. Big buyers with big needs — and big garages — take note.

Don Adair is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Contact him at don@dadair.com.
  
2015 Cadillac Escalade EXV AWD Premium
Vehicle base price: $71,695
Trim level base price: $85,795
As tested: $90,895
Optional equipment included Kona Brown interior with Jet Black accents; power retractable running boards; 22-inch dual 7-spoke ultra-bright finish aluminum wheels.
Towing capacity: 8,300 pounds
EPA ratings: 16 combined (14 city/20 highway)
Premium unleaded fuel recommended

Nissan Pathfinder: Efficient people-hauler

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In its first four iterations, Nissan’s Pathfinder has changed identities more often than most people change their minds.

The Pathfinder began life in 1985 as an old-school, truck-based, body-on-frame SUV. In 1995, it morphed into a car-based crossover, a “soft-ute” better suited to the daily commute than the great outdoors.

Someone at Nissan must once again have heard the call of the wild because in 2004 the Pathfinder reverted to its SUV roots.

Now, a 2012 makeover finds the Pathfinder back in the crossover fold, where it has established itself as a fuel-efficient, seven-passenger people-hauler.

North Idaho couple sells it all, hits the road

In October, Coeur d’Alene residents Jay and Jeanie Froehlich will put it all behind them and hit the road.

The Froelichs, both in their early 50s, say they’re not retiring. They’re escaping.

Their escape vehicle: A 20-foot, 2015 Lance four-seasons travel trailer.

“It’s exciting, to think that we’re not retiring; we’re quitting, we’re separating,” Jeanie said last week, sounding as exuberant as a kid at Christmas. “We’re walking away from our house and all of our worldly possession and now we own a truck and a trailer and two bicycles.

“It’s kind of scary,” she admitted. “It’s an adventure, for sure, but how many people get to say they walked way?”

The Froehlichs adventure began with a visit to the 2013 Spokane RV Show, where they were able to compare and contrast several vehicles in a single location. They knew they wanted a trailer that was small enough that they could easily tow it behind Jay’s half-ton GMC pickup, but large enough “that we wouldn’t kill each other,” Jeanie said.

She wanted a walk-around bed — “She didn’t want me crawling over her at night,” cracked Jay — and their 20-footer was “about the smallest size we could find that had one.”

They also wanted to be able to camp in national parks, which often do not accommodate larger rigs.

“The other thing we looked for was quality,” Jeanie said. “We looked at so many trailers; you could really tell the difference in how they were made. Some didn’t feel as sturdy; some even felt chintzy. We were willing to pay a little more for something that was built well.”

Because they knew they’d be traveling late in the year, they chose a four-seasons model. In addition to extending the traveling season, its extra insulation will help keep them cool in the summer months.

When they depart, the Froehlichs plan to drive east, across the Northern Tier, with New England as their destination, Jeanie said: “Our goal is to see Maine in October.”

They’ll visit family in North Dakota friends in Florida. Otherwise, they’ll make it up as they go, she said. Jay hopes to take in some major-college football games and they may hit a pro stadium or two. Otherwise, they expect to stumble upon unforeseen adventures and opportunities.

“We’re not going to put any time limits on ourselves,” Jeannie said. “We even heard about one place in Texas where you can park your RV and it’s a dollar a month.”

As members of their local Elks and Eagles lodges, they’ll be able to take advantage of the services and facilities those groups offer members who are traveling.

When we talked, the Froehlics had undertaken two overnight outings and are just beginning to confront the many contingencies that arise, including learning how to live with another person in a small space.

“I don’t think there are many people I could do this with,” Jeanie said. “Jay’s about the most easy-going guy around.”

Still, she confessed to being “a bit of a slob” and will likely need Jay’s help remembering to stash her dirty clothes; “He’s a little bit more of a neatnick; I’m sure he’s going to have to keep after me for a while on that one.”

But doesn’t she worry about taking on a new lifestyle, wholesale?

“I don’t think so,” she said, laughing. “I wanted to get license plates that said, ‘No regrets,’” but it wasn’t available.”

Don Adair is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Contact him at don@dadair.com.

K900: Kia’s $60,000 flagship

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Now and again a car comes along that challenges the established order and makes us rethink the idea of car.

Kia’s new $60,000 K900 flagship is one of them. Positioned to compete with flagship models from brands like Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Lexus, it undercuts the other’s prices by thousands. Many thousands, in some cases.

Thus the question: Is the Kia worth $60,000? And, if the answer is yes, are the others worth the premiums they demand?

As we will discover, the devil is in the details.

The K900 adheres to the front-engine/rear-drive luxury-class convention. Its roomy and richly appointed cabin bristles with high-tech features and with creature comforts both expected and not.

Its ride is smooth, its cabin serene, its footing sure.

Standard features include adaptive xenon headlights, LED foglights, power trunk lid, automatic wipers, front and rear parking sensors and keyless ignition and entry.

Inside, there are full power accessories, tri-zone automatic climate control, leather upholstery, eight-way power front seats, heated and ventilated front seats, heated rear outboard seats, a power rear sunshade, plus the usual voice-command, Bluetooth connectivity, touchscreen controls, et al.

The standard audio system is a 900-watt Lexicon, with a 12-channel digital amplifier and 17 speakers.

The top-level Limited trim can be optioned with a VIP package, which includes a 360-degree top-down camera system and a collision warning system that preps the seatbelts and brakes for an imminent impact. It also adds soft-close doors and reclining rear seats.

At the moment, the K900 is available only with a 420-hp V-8, with a 311-horsepower V-6 expected soon. Both incorporate direct injection and variable valve timing and match up with an eight-speed automatic transmission. 

The eight earns EPA ratings of 18 mpg combined (15 city/23 highway; the six will manage 21 mpg combined (18 city/27 highway).

The V-8 accelerates enthusiastically and shifts are smooth and quick. At its best, the K900 is an excellent road car, with comfortable and supportive seats, a great sound system and capable, if unexceptional, suspension and steering systems.

Although it’s a proper rear-drive car, ride and handling fail to attain the precision and control typical of the class. However, only auto writers and those who drive the competition every day would notice or care (and it’s a good bet no small number of them would not).

A close examination of the K900 turns up other small stumbles. The plastic on the shift-lever console is thin and brittle. The switchgear is less substantial in heft and feel than the competitions’ and Its touchscreen control system less intuitive. 

There’s also the cachet thing. Parking a Kia in the driveway won’t elevate your status like a Bimmer or a Benz would. 

Which brings us back to the beginning; what defines a car? Certainly, the K900 will meet your transportation needs. It will also do 90 percent of what cars costing much more will do. For some buyers, that will be buying proposition enough.

Don Adair is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Contact him at don@dadair.com.

2015 Kia K900
Vehicle base price: $59,500
Trim level base price: $59,900
As tested: $66,400
Options included intelligent cruise control; Advanced Vehicle Safety Management; power door latches; head-up display; surround-view monitor; power reclining rear seats; ventilated rear seats; rear-seat lumbar control; more.
EPA rating: 15 city/23 highway/18 combined
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Hyundai Tucson is a tidy package

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By the terms of the unwritten rules of the automotive world, every car must grow larger with each succeeding generation. 

Larger, roomier, more powerful. It’s the automaker’s mantra.

While Hyundai complies in nearly every case, its 2014 Tucson goes against the grain. The compact crossover has remained resolutely compact; it exists in a no-man’s-land between large hatchbacks like the Nissan Juke and almost-midsize crossovers like Honda’s CR-V.

The Tucson ($22,235, including destination) is ideally suited for the urban grind; it’s large enough to accommodate four adults but small enough to slip easily into tight parking spaces. Its dimensions translate into a small-car highway ride, but its rigid unibody and Euro-tuned suspension produce better-than-expected responsiveness. 

On the winding, two-lane road I drive into town, my Tucson Limited ($27,075) tester felt composed and stable. Body lean through the corners was controlled and the ride remained unruffled over broken surfaces.

The Tucson is updated for 2014 with refreshed sheet metal, standard projector headlights and LED running lights, new touch screens and an enhanced navigation system. Tucson’s two four-cylinder engines add direct injection for improved power delivery.

Its cabin is stylish, modern and smartly organized. Controls are clearly labeled and easily understood. Excellent Fit-and-finish and materials quality complete the picture. 

Rear-seat legroom is adequate for all but larger adults. The second row reclines in two stages, but doesn’t slide fore and aft.

For 2014, Hyundai drops last year’s entry-level GL, leaving the previous mid-grade GLS as the new base. Standard features include a/c, power accessories, 60/40-split folding and reclining second-row seats, 17-inch alloy wheels, a trip computer, privacy glass, rear spoiler, cloth upholstery, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity and a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel with redundant controls.

The six-speaker audio system includes iPod/USB connectivity and satellite radio. Illuminated cupholders and rear-seat a/c vents are useful flourishes.

The Tucson’s ride is stiff-legged by US standards, but most owners will judge that an acceptable trade-off for its dynamic handling characteristics. Hyundai’s SACHS Amplitude Selective Damping, standard this year across the line, allows improved shock-absorber control and better management of the tire-to-road contact patch.

A 164-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine powers the GLS. Front-wheel-drive models earn EPA-estimated fuel economy of 25 mpg combined (23 mpg city/29 mpg highway); AWD is rated at 23 combined (21 city/25 highway).

SE and Limited trims get a 182-hp 2.4-liter four rated at 23 mpg combined (21 mpg city/28 mpg highway) with FWD, and 22 combined (20 city/25 highway) with AWD.

Neither engine is much more powerful or efficient than before, but improved low-end torque produces quicker and more immediate acceleration at low speeds. All-wheel-drive is now available on all Tucson trims.

Equipped with the larger engine, my AWD test car had enough grunt to pass slower traffic easily, though the engine grew noisy when pushed hard. The six-speed automatic made smooth and relaxed shifts; a manual-shift function allows drivers to hurry things along as needed.

By defying the bigger-is-better convention, the Tucson carves out a unique, city-friendly niche for itself.

Don Adair is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Contact him at don@dadair.com.

2014 Hyundai Tucson Limited AWD
Vehicle base price: $20,633
Trim level base price: $27,700
As tested: $28,700
Optional equipment: carpeted floor mats
Tow rating: 2,000 lb
EPA rating: 20 city/ 25 highway/22 combined
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Mercedes-Benz E350: The not-so-retro wagon

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Few things in life are as retro as a station wagon.

Regardless, few cars are less retro than Mercedes-Benz's E350 Station 
 Wagon.

Once the wagon-of-choice for the well-heeled, Mercedes-Benz’s venerable mid-sizer has survived the wagon-killing onslaught of the SUV and its domesticated, sedan-based spawn, the crossover.

Its DNA dates to the late-‘70s, but the 2014 E Class wagon is fresh and vital. Fully made-over in 2010, the entire E Class family receives sweeping mid-cycle updates this year. A handsome new front end debuts, along with a batch of new safety technologies, an auto stop-start system and a new diesel engine.

There are four 2014 E-Class body styles — sedan, coupe, wagon and convertible — and they are available with a mix-and-match assortment of engine choices. Engine choices range from a turbocharged four-cylinder diesel, a gasoline V-6, a gas-electric hybrid and a pair of turbocharged gas V-8s.

None of the E Class cars is slow, but the top ranks are filled by performance-oriented AMG models rated at up to 577 hp. Should you be inclined, you could invest $103,000 in a 550-hp station wagon that moves out like a panicked cheetah.

The E-Class platform is rear-drive, with M-B’s 4Matic AWD system available on all trims and standard on several. 

We spent five days driving a E350 4Matic wagon in Northern Arizona. Swift and agile, it buried miles of string-straight stretches of AZ highway and wound through high-desert canyons with the insouciance of a grand touring machine. 

Its standard dual-zone automatic climate-control system beat back the withering heat as we relaxed in the 14-way power seats, with memory, enjoying tunes emanating from the optional harmon/kardon surround-sound system.

All E350s but the high-performance AMG variants are available in same-price Luxury and Sport trims, the latter bringing larger wheels, a lowered suspension, tauter ride and sharper handling. Our tester was equipped with the Sport package, which enhanced its corner-carving capabilities without any apparent degradation of ride quality.

Inside, a new “three-tube” gauge cluster looks cool and improves readability. A choice of wood veneers lets owners personalize the cabin. A new analog clock dresses up the dash. 

Four adults will enjoy high levels of comfort, but five is a crowd. A small rear-facing third-row seat accommodates small children, though motion sickness is an obvious threat.

Standard gear includes automatic LED headlights, sunroof, power tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, auto-dimming mirrors, Bluetooth and an eight-speaker sound system. The wagon adds a power liftgate and rearview camera.

Once mastered, the knob-based COMAND electronics interface remains requires less driver attention than touch-screen systems and its voice-command functionality is first-rate.

Mind-bending new safety technologies is one that knows when a driver has grown drowsy and can suggest a rest break. Another uses a stereoscopic camera to help keep the car in its lane. In a baby step in the direction of self-driving cars, it also enables the E to semi-autonomously follow a line of cars ahead. 

Which is as far from retro as it gets.

Don Adair is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Contact him at don@dadair.com.

2014 Mercedes-Benz E350 4Matic wagon
Vehicle base price: $51,400
Trim level base price: $58,600
As tested: $70,215
Options included 19-inch AMG wheels; 3-spoke sport steering wheel; harmon/kardon surround-sound stereo; rear side-window sunshades; adaptive, automatic high-beam LED headlights; parking assist with around-view camera; intelligent cruise control; steering assist; blind-spot warning; collision 
EPA rating: 20 city/27 highway/22 combined
Premium fuel required

2014 Highlander: Toyota delivers

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Now might be a good time for Toyota to revive the old “You asked for it, you got it” slogan.

Buyer input played a large role in this year’s make-over of the midsize Highlander crossover.
Customers asked for a roomier cabin, so the 2014 Highlander is three inches longer and a half-inch wider. A redesigned rear suspension makes room for a third passenger in the third row, boosting capacity to eight, and increases behind-the-seats cargo capacity by 34 percent. 

Men said they wanted the Highlander to lose its bland mom-mobile facade, so Toyota bulked it up with muscular wheel wells, bold body-side lines and a taller hood. The front fascia was redesigned around the new corporate wide-mouth grille.

The roofline is lowered for improved aerodynamics.

The fully redesigned cabin is roomier, more elegant and more refined. An array of noise and vibration-reducing measures elevate ambience to near-luxury levels. Soft-touch surfaces and silver-painted, satin, and chrome-plated accents add spice. 

Most trims include contrasting seat stitching.

High-tech features include a 6.1-inch touchscreen, Bluetooth connectivity, an optional 8-inch screen with phone-based Entune apps.

Controls are well laid out and easy to use. The 8-inch touch-screen responds quickly to touch, but could be improved with the addition of one-click access to the navigation menu. 

A backup camera and hill-start assist are standard on all ’14 Highlanders.

Toyota accounts for the needs of the modern family with abundant storage. A center-console storage bin is large enough to hide a small horse and shelf that runs nearly the width of the dashboard includes a pass-through for charging-cables.

Apparently, no one asked specifically for a personality upgrade,  but the Highlander got one. Like the rest of its recently redesigned siblings, the ’14 Highlander is more enjoyable to drive than its predecessor; it’s tauter and more responsive, with improved handling and crisper feel. Fast cornering induces the expected understeer. 

Safety features include a standard rearview camera, hill-start control, parking sensors, blind spot monitoring, lane departure alert, rear cross-traffic warning and a pre-collision system.

The Highlander's engines carry over from last year. The base 2.7-liter four generates 187 horsepower, while the optional 3.5-liter V-6 makes 270 hp. A hybrid model pairs the six with an electric motor for a cumulative 280 hp.

An excellent new six-speed transmission replaces last year’s five-speed. Front-wheel-drive is standard, with AWD optional.

To maximize efficiency, the AWD system now sends power only to the front wheels until wheel slippage occurs, or during mid-turn acceleration. At low speeds, a driver-selectable “lock” mode distributes power evenly between front and rear.

The new transmission helps bump six-cylinder efficiency to 21 mpg combined (19 city/25 highway) for front-wheel drive and 18/24/20 for all-wheel drive.

The four-cylinder engine, available only on the base LE, is only marginally thriftier, at 22 mpg combined (20 city/25 highway). The Hybrid is rated at 27/27/28.

Highlander owners asked and Toyota answered. If only everything in life went as smoothly.

Don Adair is a Spokane-based freelance journalist. Contact him at don@dadair.com.

2014 Toyota Highlander Limited AWD Vehicle base price: $26,673 Trim level base price: $43,590 As tested: $44,500 Towing capacity: 5,000 lb. Optional equipment: The Highlander Limited is a fully equipped trim; our tester included no options. EPA rating: 18 city/24 highway/20 combined Regular unleaded fuel specified

BMW 535d: BMW builds another brilliant diesel

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BMW’s midsize 5 Series sedan is a serious car, built for grown-ups and not easily outgrown. 

Its 3 Series sibling is smaller, edgier, more spirited. The kind of car some buyers will age out of on their way to the 5.

One step above the 5, the flagship 7 is a statement car. It’s sybaritic, accommodating and comfortable as all get-out, but not an essential step up from the 5.

You could spend many years in a 5 and never consider the temptations of a comely stranger.

The 5 has always been the sportiest of the world’s family sedans — to this day, it’s the only midsize luxury sport sedan available with a manual transmission — but It also has a sober side, a grown-up charisma.  

Since the 2010 debut of the sixth-generation 5 Series, BMW has been nudging the 5 along the latter path, with a growing focus on comfort, economy and utility.

For 2014, navigation and xenon adaptive headlights are standard across the line. Two new options packages enable buyers to put a personal stamp on their 5s, and a six-cylinder turbo-diesel powerplant comes aboard.

On the outside, there are modest sheet metal updates. Inside, storage compartments and cup holders boast increased capacity. Noise-reduction measures cut cabin noise to its lowest levels ever. 

Four-door 5 Series variants range from the 241-hp 528i ($50,425, including delivery) to the 443-hp 550i Gran Turismo ($68,825), a sedan/crossover hybrid with elevated ride height, a huge rear seat and a two-mode hatchback. 

Engine choices include turbocharged four-, six- and eight-cylinder gasoline variants, the new turbodiesel and a gas-electric hybrid. All 5 Series sedans are available in rear-drive or all-wheel-drive configurations.

Coupes and convertibles now fly under the new 6 Series banner.

We tested the 535d ($57,525). Its 3.0-liter diesel inline-6 engine makes 255 hp and 413 lb-ft of torque and is paired with an eight-speed automatic. It’s quick — 0-60 in 5.8 seconds — and thrifty. EPA-estimated fuel economy is 30 mpg combined (26/38) with RWD and 30 combined (26/37) with AWD.

The diesel’s performance is nearly identical to that of the six-cylinder, 302-hp 535i ($56,025), which sprints from zero to 60 in 5.9 seconds. Rear-drive models are rated at 24 mpg combined (20/30), with the automatic, and 23 combined (20/30), with the manual (the 535i is the only trim on which the stick can be had). The AWD 535i is automatic-only and achieves 23 combined (20/29).

The eight-speed gearbox works wonders with the torque-rich diesel. Shifts are smooth and quick and land the engine in the heart of its sweet spot. There’s abundant acceleration for passing situations and freeway on-ramps.

BMW's Driving Dynamics Control system is standard on the 5. It allows owners to customize engine, steering and transmission responses. Though BMW has blunted those responses to accommodate a broad range of tastes, the 5’s capabilities easily surpass those of all but an elite handful of drivers.

It’s a car to grow into, not one to grow out of.

Don Adair is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Contact him at don@dadair.com.

2014 BMW 535d
Vehicle base price: $45,540
Trim level base price: $56,500
As tested: $66,425
Options included M Sport appearance package; adaptive LED headlights; automatic high beams; keyless entry and ignition; multi-contour seats; sport automatic transmission.
EPA ratings: 26 city/38 highway/30 combined
Low-sulfur diesel required 

VW Jetta: Trickle-down theory at work

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Mention “trickle down” in a political crowd and watch the sparks fly. It’s a different ballgame in the car world, though.

This year, Volkswagen’s compact Jetta sedan enjoys the benefits of a trickle-down product strategy. New to Jetta is a turbocharged, 1.8-liter engine that arrived earlier on such models as Passat, Beetle and CC.

It’s stronger, lighter and more efficient than the 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine it replaces.

Similarly, VW’s Car-Net telematics (crash notification, roadside assistance, etc) migrates downstream from Passat, et al., into upper-tier Jettas.

An independent rear suspension that earlier replaced the old torsion-beam setup on upper trims is now standard across the board.

Otherwise, Jetta retains the qualities that have made it VW’s best-selling model. It easily accommodates four adults and on the road feels lively and solid. Its cabin is quiet at speed and the contoured seats are supportive and comfortable. Jetta’s rigid unibody, 104.4-inch wheelbase and Euro-style suspension give it a road-worthy, big-car feel.

Inside, materials quality and fit and finish are very good, though lower trims sport abundant hard plastics. Soft-touch surfaces lend an upscale feel to upper trims.

Standard features on the S ($17,715) trim include air conditioning, one-touch auto up/down power windows, power locks with keyless entry, aux-in for the radio/CD player, and power heated exterior mirrors.

A de-contented Base Jetta ($16,515) must be special-ordered through a dealership.

Jetta’s interior design is low-key and no-nonsense. Some will find its flat planes and unadorned surfaces uninspired; others will find it refreshingly straightforward.

Gauges are easy to read and the well-damped controls feel substantial.

The navigation system is easy to use but the smallish screen displays limited information. Its speed-limit function continues to be a god-send, though, displaying the posted speed limit whenever the Jetta is on a public road.

Three engines and three transmissions are available. A 110-hp, 2.0-liter four powers Base ($16,515, including shipping) and S trims and can be paired with a five-speed manual or six-speed DSG automated manual. Estimated fuel economy with the stick is 28 combined (24 city/34 highway) and 27 mpg combined (24 mpg city/32 mpg highway) with the DSG.

The 170-hp 1.8T powers SE ($19,715) and SEL ($26,745) trims. Fuel economy is 30 mpg combined (26 mpg city/36 mpg highway), with the manual, and 29 mpg combined (25 city/36 highway), with the DSG.

A 2.0-liter turbocharged diesel four (from $22,115) makes 140 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque and can be paired with the manual or the DSG. With either, estimated fuel economy is 34 mpg combined (30 city/42 highway).

The GLI’s sport suspension rides 0.6 inches lower than other trims and its turbocharged 2.0-liter four makes 210 hp — up 10 from last year. Its XDS+ Cross Differential System reduces understeer during hard cornering.

Originally conceived as a sedan alternative to the rowdy GTI hatchback, the GLI has evolved into a mildly worked-over Jetta. Though strong and responsive, my tester settled quietly into the daily routine, apparently happy without a daily romp.

Meantime, VW’s trickle-down strategy continues to bring good stuff to the compact segment. No argument there.

2014 Volkswagen Jetta GLI Autobahn w/Navigation
Vehicle base price: $15,695
Trim level base price: $29,595
As tested: $30,415
Optional equipment: Our GLI Autobahn tester was a fully equipped model, with no additional options.
EPA rating: 24 city/32 highway/27 combined
Premium fuel specified

Dodge Charger: Exuberant, economical muscle

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Retiring types should not become auto writers. We drive too many cars that draw too much attention.

Your basic Camry, Escape and Passat may go unnoticed, but the double-take cars — the ‘Vettes, the Bentleys, the Plasma Purple Mitsubishi Mirages — can drive a shy guy to distraction. 

I should have known the 2014 Dodge Charger would turn heads. Its waspish waist and muscular flanks carry more than a hint of the Viper’s menace. Its powerful and protuberant grill is as blatant as a Mac truck’s.

From behind the wheel, though, my six-cylinder Charger felt less drag-strip queen than roomy full-size sedan. A colorful, 8.4-inch touchscreen, Uconnect telematics and Beats by Dr. Dre audio provided a sophisticated modernity. Responsive and nimble, the big sedan rode with a grace not implied by its exuberant sheet metal. 

Only the snap of many necks reminded me of its audacious looks. 

To be sure, enough throttle will provoke the 300-horsepower, V-6 Charger into a 6.5-second 0-60 romp. Contrasted with the tumultuous, 4.6-second romp of which its 470-hp SRT8 sibling is capable, though, It’s a relatively serene romp, though.

The Charger is available in trims ranging from the 292-horsepower SE ($27,990, including destination) to the $48,380, V-8-powered SRT8.

My SXT ($30,290) carried the new-for-’14, $1,700 Redline package that bumps output from the 3.6-liter Pentastar engine to 300 hp. It also adds sport seats, a sport-tuned suspension, 20-inch wheels, a rear spoils and the 10-speaker, 552-watts Beats system. 

The six is paired in the SXT with an eight-speed transmission that gets steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters and a sport mode that quickens gear changes and holds revs higher for improved acceleration.

EPA ratings are 19 mpg city/31 mpg highway mpg/23 mpg combined. 

The five-speed is standard on the base SE, with the eight-speed optional.

The two V-8 trims, the SRT8 and the 370-hp R/T ($31,490), are available only with the five-speed automatic. Both engines are torque-rich, so the extra gears wouldn’t necessarily boost acceleration, but would improve efficiency.

All Chargers but the SRT8 are available in rear-drive or all-wheel-drive. 

There’s room inside for four adults, though the jaunty roofline limits rear-seat headroom and the large transmission tunnel renders the center rear position unsuitable for all but small children.

Materials quality is very good and the dashboard design incorporates a broad, horizontal, brushed-aluminum panel that encompasses the gauges and center touchscreen/control panel.

In most trims, the center stack incorporates an 8.4-inch touchscreen. The system is intuitive and user-friendly, but obscures such simple functions as the heated (and cooled) seats which should be accessible via conventional hard buttons.

I had no problem finding a comfortable driving position but the Charger’s beefy haunches and thick C pillar limit rearward vision.

The 2014 Charger proves that a) comfortable and capable full-size sedans needn’t be boring, and b) the muscle-car format is flexible enough to adapt to changing times. 

If only it didn’t attract so darn much attention.

Don Adair is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Contact him at don@dadair.com.

2014 Dodge Charger SXT Redline
Vehicle base price: $26,995
Trim level base price: $29,295
As tested: $39,390
Optional equipment: Our SXT Redline tester included too many options to list.
EPA ratings: 19 city/31 highway/23 combined
Regular unleaded fuel specified

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