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Don Adair's Seat Time

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

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

Ford Fiesta ST: Euro-flavored fun

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There’s no good reason to want Ford’s new Fiesta ST. Fun is its own good reason.

The ST is a sharply focused, sport-tuned subcompact built by Ford in Spain. It debuted in Europe in 1976 and had a three-year US run, from 1978-80.

In 2010, Ford returned the Fiesta to the States, where it’s available in two body styles; sedan ($14,925, including destination) and five-door hatchback ($15,525).

Refined and well-equipped, the Fiesta is fun to drive and comfortable for two adults, with second-row room for a pair of kids.

This year, Fiesta receives a mild facelift and two new variants. A new 123-hp three-cylinder engine available on the midlevel SE trim is rated at 37 mpg combined (32 city/45 highway). 

The ST is a new stand-alone trim that’s available only as a hatchback. Instead of the 120-hp four that powers most models, it gets a turbocharged 197-hp turbocharged four mated to a six-speed manual.

The ST rides 15 millimeters lower than standard trims and gets a sport-tuned suspension, a quicker steering ratio and more powerful brakes. Electronic Torque Vectoring Control stabilizes handling by over-driving the inside front wheel during cornering. A three-mode electronic stability control system lets the driver choose the degree of skid-preventing electronic intervention. 

Recaro sport seats are available as a $2,000 option. Rational adults (i.e., my driving companion) are likely to find the narrow and heavy bolstered Recaros confining, but I like ‘em.

To say the ST is quick is to damn it with too-obvious praise. It’s more than 2 seconds quicker to 60 mph than the normally aspirated Fiesta (7.1 vs. 9.5) but, as always, balance is key. Torque vectoring keeps the tires planted and neutralizes the erratic handling common to high-powered front-drive cars and the buttoned-down suspension minimizes body roll. Gears two through four are tightly spaced to keep the engine in the heart of its power band, while tall final gearing keeps revs down at highway speeds.

Like Mazda’S MX-5 Miata, the ST can be driven to its limits without pushing the speedo into three-digit territory. It’s great, visceral fun to hear the wicked burble that emanates from the dual exhaust system during a downshift, whether it comes at 45 or 75 mph.

Ride quality is quite good, considering the Fiesta’s short wheelbase, aggressively tuned suspension and low profile tires. The cabin gets noisy at highway speeds and the short wheelbase can mean a choppy ride on some surfaces. The young me would have been happy with the ST as my daily driver but those days have fled.

Standard ST gear includes automatic climate control, keyless ignition and entry, MyFord Touch, Sony speakers and HD radio. ST-specific cosmetics include cloth sport seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel, aluminum-trimmed pedals, floor mats and door sill plates.

EPA estimates for the ST are 29 mpg combined (26 city/35 highway), which amounts to about as much fun per gallon as you’ll find this side of a BMW diesel.

If you like your fun on four wheels and don’t want to break the bank — or don’t have one to break — Ford’s little import might well be the answer to your transportation needs. 

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

2014 Ford Fiesta ST
Vehicle base price: $14,130
Trim level base price: $21,400
As tested: $25,995
Options included navigation, heated Recaro seats, heated mirrors, painted 17-inch wheels, Molten Orange tricoat exterior paint.
EPA ratings: 26 city/35 highway/29 combined

Updated Suburban wears refinement well

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For much of its 80-year lifespan, the Chevrolet Suburban was a blunt instrument. Heavy, inefficient and crude, it possessed a logging camp’s rustic charms. 

But as it enters its twelfth generation, the plus-sized SUV has evolved into a well-rounded rig, with virtues that extend beyond its massive people- and load-carrying capacity.

Fully made over for 2015, the Suburban ($48,295, including destination) rides on a sturdy new platform it shares with the Silverado pickup. Its cavernous, three-row cabin is quiet and comfortable and upper trims are luxuriously outfitted. OnStar with 4G LTE makes every Suburban a rolling WiFi hot-spot. 

Considering its heft and the ruggedness baked into its bones, ride and handling are better than what one might expect. We tested the top-grade LTZ trim ($62,695), whose adaptive suspension smoothed out rough road surfaces.

Twelfth-gen Interior upgrades include a new touchscreen, enhanced smartphone integration and a suite of electronic safety features that includes lane-departure warning, blind-spot monitoring and a frontal collision warning and mitigation system.

The Suburban can be equipped with three rows of bench seats, yielding seating for nine adults. New this year is a third row that folds into a well beneath the cargo floor. It replaces a pair of heavy and awkward seats that had to be removed completely and stored when not in use.

The new setup reduces total cargo capacity by a few cubic feet and elevates the cargo floor, but adds flexibility to the cargo hold. The split-folding seatbacks — a total of four — are power operated and raised and lowered via a set of buttons mounted at the back of the cargo area.

Chevy targeted fuel efficiency as a priority for the 2015 Suburban and developed a new 5.3-liter V-8 engine that makes 355 horsepower and 383 pound-feet of torque. A six-speed automatic transmission manages power distribution.

Chevy powertrain engineers employed direct injection, cylinder deactivation, continuously variable valve timing and an advanced combustion system to achieve substantial efficiency gains over last year’s ratings. 

The EPA estimates fuel economy at 18 mpg combined for both 2WD (16 city/23 highway) and 4WD (16/22).

All 4WD Suburbans are equipped with a locking rear differential that improves traction in deep snow or mud. A traditional 4WD system, with a two-speed transfer case and low-range gearing is available. 

In two-wheel-drive form, the Suburban can tow up to 8,300 pounds and, with 4WD, 8,000.

The 2015 Suburban has a more subtle and sophisticated feel from the outside. Its lines are simple and bold. The windshield has a deeper rake and projector-beam headlamps flank the familiar dual-port grille, wrapping deeply into the front fenders. An aluminum hood and liftgate panels help control weight, while new inlaid doors reduce wind noise and improve aerodynamics.

The quality of interior materials, along with fit and finish, are vastly improved, especially in the upper trims. Useful cargo spaces are scattered throughout the cabin.

The Suburban weighs in at nearly 6,000 pounds and building a head of steam requires a heavy throttle foot. Underway, the ride is settled and the cabin quiet. 

Its critics would assign the Suburban to the elephant burial ground, but the stubborn Suburban shows every sign of sailing past the century mark.

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

2015 Chevrolet Suburban 4WD LTZ 
Vehicle base price: $47,300
Trim level base price: $64,700
As tested: $71,880
Options included sunroof; MyLink audio system and navigation; adaptive cruise control; Max Trailering package.
Towing capacity: 8,300 pounds
EPA ratings: 15 city/22 highway/18 combined
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid: Subaru’s green-car bid

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In just its second year of sales, Subaru’s XV Crosstrek has become the company’s third most-popular vehicle.
It trails only Forester and Outback in the sibling sales race and easily outsells the compact Impreza it’s based on.

Following the trail blazed in 1994 by the original Outback, the XV Crosstrek plays off the company’s outdoor-friendly image. Its 8.7-inch ground height bests that of many crossovers and even an SUV or two. Lower body cladding fends off the nicks and scratches that accompany off-roading. Standard all-wheel-drive boosts its year-round utility and off-road chops.

This year, the Crosstrek, already one of the more fuel-efficient crossovers, gets a hybrid variant The hybrid inherits most features of the up-level Limited trim and offers a modest fuel-efficiency bump.

Regular trims are powered by a four-cylinder engine that makes 148 horsepower and 145 lb-ft of torque. It can be paired with a five-speed manual gearbox or a continuously variable transmission (CVT).

The same engine powers the hybrid, with the addition of an electric motor that adds 13 horsepower and 48 lb-ft. It is available only with the CVT.

EPA estimates for CVT-equipped Crosstreks are 28 mpg combined (25 city/33 highway). The manual drops those numbers to 26 mpg combined (23/30). 

The Crosstrek Hybrid registers 31 mpg combined (29/33).

The gas-only Crosstrek is available in 2.0i Premium ($22,820, including transportation) and 2.0i Limited ($25,320) trims. The Hybrid can be had in Limited ($26,820) and Touring ($30,120) trims.

Standard equipment on all Crosstreks includes heated mirrors, a windshield wiper de-icer, air-conditioning, full power accessories, cruise control, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, heated front seats, a 60/40-split-folding rear seat, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity and 17-inch alloy wheels.

The Limited adds automatic headlights, automatic climate control, leather upholstery and a rearview camera.

The Hybrid gets all the features of the Limited, less the leather upholstery, and adds keyless entry and ignition, chrome door handles, quick-ratio electric power steering, wind-cheating active grille shutters and foldable side mirrors.

The Hybrid Touring trim adds sunroof, leather upholstery, a 6.1-inch touchscreen, voice-activated navigation, smartphone integration (featuring Aha radio), high-definition radio and satellite radio.

The low-key Crosstrek cabin emphasizes utility at the expense of luxury. Soft-touch materials cover the dash and door panels and switchgear has a sturdy feel. Understated trim bits add visual variety but minimal flash. 

Even with such techie updates as voice-activation, iTunes tagging and SMS text-messaging, the Crosstrek’s cabin electronics fail to impress. Its audio systems are subpar and the navigation display is cramped and challenging.

The Crosstrek Hybrid suffers from lackluster performance and from the CVT’s distinctive elastic-feeling characteristics. Ride quality and handling are average for the class, though the Crosstrek’s unique drivetrain architecture minimizes body lean.

Subaru’s reputation for quality and its appeal to practical, no-nonsense buyers practically guarantees a market for the hybrid. And the tendency of Subaru owners to extract every last mile from their cars may enhance the hybrid’s cost-to-benefits outlook. However, a close look may tip the scales toward the conventional model.

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

2014 Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid
Vehicle base price: $20,876
Trim level base price: $29,295
As tested: $30,120
Optional equipment: The XV Crosstrek is a fully equipped trim; our tester came with no options.
EPA ratings: 29 city/33 highway/31 combined
Regular unleaded fuel specified

BMW 328d: Strong dose of diesel

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The EPA reckons you can drive your new BMW 3 Series diesel 678 highway miles between fuel stops.

According to my highly non-scientific reckoning, that’s probably about right.

The 2014 BMW 328d ($38,225) runs a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder diesel engine that compensates for its meager 181 horsepower with 280 pound-feet of torque.

<strong>Tech refresher:</strong> Torque makes acceleration, while horsepower relates to sustained speed. One expert explains it like this: “Torque is what gets you to the speed you want quickly; horsepower is what keeps you there.”

In other words, BMW’s new diesel not only sports sterling efficiency numbers (32 mpg city/45 mpg city/37 mpg combined), but does so in lively fashion. The 0-60 mph sprint comes up in the low-7-second range, about average for the sport-sedan class and quicker than the base, 180-hp/200 lb-ft 320i ($33,675; 24/36/28).

The new diesel joins a lineup that includes gasoline-powered four- and six-cylinder engines and a gas/electric hybrid. Most are available in either rear- or all-wheel-drive configurations, and  some can be had with either a six-speed manual gearbox or an eight-speed automatic.

Other 3 Series updates this year include two new AWD-only body styles, a wagon and a Grand Turismo (GT) Hatchback (both priced from $42,375). Under BMW’s new naming strategy, the 3 Series Coupe and Convertible go away and, going forward, will be branded as 4 Series models. 

All 3 Series cars (including the X3 crossover) are built on the same sturdy and responsive platform, and can be had with a series of options packages that allow owners to tweak their 3s in the direction of comfort or performance, or both. 

Of course, the price escalates accordingly. My AWD 328d tester included the $3,500 M Sport package (18-inch wheels, sport seats, aerodynamic body add-ons, more); $1,000 Dynamic Handling Package (adaptive M suspension, variable sport steering); and $500 Sport automatic transmission), and tipped the scales at $47,075.

But, oh my, what a ride.
 
I picked up my 328d tester in Snoqualmie Falls (see story below) and headed south for SeaTac. After returning to the Northwest, I spent a couple of days in the Skagit Valley, north of Seattle. I wrapped things up with a return to Spokane via Hwy. 2 and landed at home with the fuel gauge registering one-quarter full.

This account glosses over a multitude of passing opportunities (passed with flying colors, puns intended), hairy curves and high-speed sweepers. The optional sport transmission allowed me to alter transmission and stability control programs depending on road conditions and my immediate need for speed. 

In full-on Sport Plus mode, the engine runs, without shifting, to the redline and the stability control system shuts down, allowing the driver to let it all hang out. The optional adaptive suspension slashes body lean without turning the ride harsh.

Through it all, the well-equipped, attractive and roomy cabin remains tranquil, with only a hint of diesel clatter at low RPMs. 

Diesels are popping up across the automotive landscape. If the rest of them are half as good as BMW’s, hybrids could turn out to be a threatened species.

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

2014 BMW 328d xDrive Sedan
Vehicle base price:
Trim level base price: $40,500
As tested: $47,075
Optional equipment included sport seats; 18-inch wheels; aerodynamic kit; unique headlight and shadowing exterior trim; adaptive suspension; variable sport steering; sport automatic transmission; Estoril Blue paint.
EPA rating: 31 city/43 highway/35 combined
Clean diesel fuel required 

Bentley GT Speed Convertible proves surprisingly approachable

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By the end of my week with Bentley’s Continental GT Speed Convertible, I had learned that, with exposure, the extraordinary can become, if not commonplace, at least comfortable.

The $250,000 Speed Convertible is the flagship of Bentley’s historic Continental family. With a top speed of 202 mph, it’s the world’s fastest four-passenger convertible (though “four-passenger” is a small fiction). It’s beautifully designed inside and out, spare-no-expense opulent and engineered to the automotive world’s highest standards. 

But what stays with me is the ease with which it put itself at my service, the highest task of every great machine.

This helps explain why, after a few days, I no longer felt like an impostor dropping into the hand-stitched, diamond-quilted leather seats, or why the hairs on the back of my neck no longer quivered in expectation whenever the 12-cylinder, 616-horsepower engine burst into life.

I had stopped hyperventilating whenever the eight-speed automatic made an eye-blink-quick and perfectly timed downshift. I’d grown accustomed to trusting the air suspension to neutralize broken pavement, check body roll and keep the 21-inch tires glued to the asphalt when flying into a fast sweeper.

I had expected a lot of the Bentley, but I hadn’t expected it to act like it could be mine.

Most of us inhabit a world in which the thought of spending $50,000 on a car is beyond the pale and $250,000 explodes the head. For those with the resources, though, the Speed Convertible is one of a handful of very pricey, very good alternatives.

As the young people I encountered explained during my week with the car, the Speed Convertible and its 205-mph Coupe sibling are favored by entertainers and athletes. Apparently, the button-down money goes either to Bentley’s top-of-the-line Mulsanne or to one of a variety of Rolls-Royces.

Makes sense. The Speed Convertible is an athletic car that wants to be driven. Its 6.0-liter W-12 engine makes 590 pound feet of torque between 2,000 and 5,000 RPM, rendering its 5,500-pound bulk as invisible as a magician’s rabbit. Zero-to-60 happens in just 4.1 seconds.

All-wheel-drive is standard, with a 40 front/60 rear torque split that replicates the dynamics of a rear-drive car.

The Speed Convertible is outfitted with almost every conceivable extravagance, from high-end quilted leather and real wood veneers to its Naim for Bentley sound system that produces crystal-clear audio with tremendous dynamic range — even with the top down, at speed. 

Instead of a heavier hardtop, Bentley uses a four-layer canvas lid that seals so well that almost no road or wind noise intrudes. It raises and lowers in seconds, and at up speeds of up to 20 mph.

Should you venture out into the cool evening, optional fans blow warm air at the back of your neck. The front seats are heated, with optional ventilation and massage.

Downsides include scant casual storage and cupholders that sit out, uncovered, in the center console, for all the world to see. Bluetooth is not available, relegating the Bentley to a kind of second-tier status among the young and the wealthy.

We all find ways to compensate for our flaws. Fortunately, the Speed Convertible has a deep well of virtues working hard on its behalf.

Contact Don Adair at don@dadair.com.

2014 Bentley Continental GT Speed Convertible
Vehicle base price: $241,100
Trim level base price: $241,100
As tested: $265,270
Optional equipment included Naim premium audio; neck warmer; leather-trimmed shift paddles; ventilated front seats with massage; gas guzzler penalty.
EPA ratings: 12 city/20 highway/15 combined
Premium fuel required

Honda CR-V: Pint-size colossus

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Honda’s CR-V made its US debut in 1997. For most of the intervening years, it has stood like a pint-sized colossus over the compact crossover class, piling up a succession of sales titles.

Honda has proven remarkably surefooted as it tweaked its five-passenger crossover to meet demand and fend off the competition. Relying on solid engineering, efficient powertrains and a stream of passenger-friendly innovations, the CR-V’s tenders have kept it fresh and relevant.

The arrival of the fourth-generation CR-V in 2012 underscored Honda’s commitment to efficiency, safety and practicality. Marquee updates included a more powerful and efficient engine, a proactive new AWD system and an innovative second-row seat design.

A large center console became standard across the line, boosting the CR-V’s casual storage capacity. A revised rear suspension made room for a lower cargo floor that boosts cargo space and improves access. 

Other new features include an “intelligent” Multi-Information Display (i-MID), Pandora Internet radio interface, SMS text messaging function, and available rear entertainment system.

The new Easy Fold-Down 60/40 Split Rear Seat allows each section of seat’s sections to be folded nearly flat by using a pair of small levers located near the tailgate or a pull-strap positioned on the seat side. The operation is quicker and simpler than most other manual methods.

The CR-V also became the second North American Honda (after Civic) to adopt Honda’s new Motion-Adaptive Electric Power Steering. It works with the vehicle stability program and power steering system to detect the potential for a skid and helps the driver correct for understeer and oversteer, either of which can cause the vehicle to skid out of control.

Finally, Honda dramatically improved the overall feel of the CR-V. It stiffened its chassis, re-calibrated its suspension and added noise-suppressing insulation to reduced noise, harshness and vibration (known in the trade as NVH), within the CR-V cabin.

The new CR-V is more efficient than its predecessor and no less responsiveness or engaging. However, it’s now quieter and more serene underway. New high-capacity shock absorbers contribute to a more sophisticated driving feel.

The CR-V cabin is short on flash but long on practicality. Even when packed with the latest cabin tech, the controls remain intuitive and easy to use, with minimal reliance on a distracting touch screen.

There are more luxurious cabins in the class, but few are better organized, or more comfortable.

A 185-horsepower four-cylinder powers all CR-Vs. The only transmission offered is a five-speed automatic. With front-wheel-drive, the EPA-estimated fuel economy is 23 mpg city/31 mpg highway/26 mpg combined. Each number drops by one with AWD.

Large underbody covers and a rear spoiler enhance efficiency and reduce wind noise.

The new AWD system, Real Time AWD with Intelligent Control, improves performance in all conditions, whether slippery or stable. The electronically controlled system anticipates wheel slip and automatically acts to minimize its impact.

No brand clings to its sales lead forever; This year, Fin fact, Ford’s Escape is making a good run at the CR-V. Nevertheless, the little colossus of the compact crossover segment seems like a solid pick to retain its title.

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

2014 Honda CR-V EX-L AWD w Navigation
Vehicle base price: $21,718
Trim level base price: $30,620
As tested: $31,450
Options: Our EX-L tester was a completely equipped trim, with no optional equipment.
Tow rating: 1,500 lb
EPA ratings: 22 city/31 highway/26 combined
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Kia Optima: Midsize rule-breaker

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Though it has to yet find the sales chart’s upper reaches, Kia’s Optima has changed the rules of the midsize sedan market.

Thanks to Kia and its corporate parent Hyundai, the family sedan segment is awash in technology that a short time ago was the exclusive domain of the luxury segments.

Kia was among the first to understand that buyers of compact and midsize family sedans would spring for amenities common among larger cars. Hence the availability of such options as heated steering wheels, high-end leather upholstery, heated front and rear seats and ventilated front seats.

Ventilated seats in a mid-priced family sedan? Never thought I’d see the day.

This year’s Optima updates include available keyless ignition/entry, blind-spot monitoring, rear parking sensors and new display screens. Outside, the front and rear fascias are updated, with the brand’s signature tabbed grille making its Optima debut.

Standard gear on every 2014 Optima (from $22,300, including destination) includes foglights, full power accessories, cruise control, air-conditioning, a height-adjustable driver seat, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel and Bluetooth phone connectivity.

Fancy electronics don’t make a lackluster car worthy, of course, and Kia aggressively pursues new buyers with cutting-edge design, comfortable cabins and strong engines. A focus on quality has elevated Optima’s reliability ratings to about mid-pack in the segment.

The front-drive sedan is available in four trims — LX ($21,500, including destination), EX ($23,950), SX ($25,500) and Limited ($35,300) — and in gasoline and gas-electric hybrid formats. A 192-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine powers LS, EX and SX trims. A 274-hp 2.0-liter turbocharged four is standard on the Limited trim and optional on the SX. A six-speed automatic transmission is standard.

With the 2.4-liter, EPA-estimated fuel economy is 27 mpg combined (23 city/34 highway); the turbocharged engine is good for 24 mpg combined (20 city/31 highway). 

The 2014 Hybrid debuted at the Chicago Auto Show in February but has yet to reach dealerships. Updates include aerodynamic revisions to the front and rear fascias, new wheel designs, and unique grille and LED lighting elements.

Ever since Kia hired VW/Audi designer Peter Schreyer, Kia’s exteriors have grown more rakish and its interiors more Continental. Some interior plastics recall Kia’s old budget-aware days but  most surfaces are covered with soft-touch materials and overall otherwise materials quality is very good.

Kia’s voice-activated Uvo electronics interface system allows vocal control of cell phones, MP3 players and other devices and services, such as navigation points of interest and turn-by-turn directions. It’s among the most intuitive and useful of the systems on the market.

The Optima is reasonably responsive and entertaining to drive. Steering is a bit numb and artificially weighted, but is accurate and has good on-center feel. Ride quality is very good, though some drivers may find the SX and Limited trims’ sport-tuned suspension too firm.

Optima’s coupe-like silhouette curtails rear-seat headroom; otherwise, the cabin is spacious and comfortable.

It may not (yet) be the country’s best-selling midsize sedan, but the Optima is a major-league trend-setter. It belongs on the shopping list of every buyer committed to owning latest and the greatest.

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

2014 Kia Optima SX Turbo
Vehicle base price: $21,500
Trim level base price: $27,500
As tested: $33,900
Optional equipment included panoramic sunroof; UVO telematics; rearview camera; heated and ventilated front seats; heated rear seats; navigation with SIRIUS services; blind-spot warning system; rear parking sensors.
EPA ratings: 20 city/31 highway/24 combined

Honda Civic: Growing its game

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Last year, for what seems like the umpteenth year in a row, Honda’s Civic was the third-best-selling passenger car in the US and its best-selling compact.

This means that more than 350,000 Americans bought a car known for its reliability, not its flash. I find this oddly satisfying.

In recent years, the compact crowd has battled for supremacy with keyless ignitions, smartphone integration and ever-larger color touch screens. Honda, meanwhile, has been largely content to focus on efficiency, safety and comfort.
 
But Civic’s competitors are stylish and capable and Honda’s reluctance to join the cabin-tech race has seemed increasingly wrongheaded. Now, following a raft of major updates in 2012, the 2014 Civic arrives bearing another round of potential game-changers.

Interiors are freshened across the board, with improved materials, available push-button ignition, larger display screens and enhanced smartphone connectivity. Civic’s cabins are quieter and power and efficiency are improved.

Always one of the category’s most engaging rides, this year’s Civic sees ride-enhancing suspension tweaks on selected trims.

The Civic is available in sedan (from $19,180, including destination), and coupe ($18,980) body styles, and in gasoline, gas/electric hybrid and natural gas formats. The sedan can be had in fuel-efficient HF ($20,730), Hybrid ($25,425) and Natural Gas ($27,430) trims. The hot-shoe Si is available as a coupe ($23,580) or sedan ($23,780).

The 143-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that powers most trims is typically Honda —  smooth, efficient and responsive.

For 2014, Honda replaces last year’s five-speed automatic transmission with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) that boosts both fuel efficiency and acceleration. Like a conventional automatic, the Civic’s CVT “kicks down” under heavy throttle to a lower ratio, producing real acceleration and none of the noisy drama of most CVTs.

CVT-equipped Civics earn EPA ratings if 30 mpg city/39 mpg highway/33 mpg combined. with the base five-speed manual, those numbers dip to 28/36/31. The HF runs low-rolling-resistance tires, aerodynamic aluminum wheels, underbody panels and a rear spoiler to achieve 31/41/35.

The Si, with its  205-hp 2.4-liter four and six-speed manual, gets 22/32/25. The hybrid, 44/47/45.

Inside, the Civic retains its unique two-tier dash layout, with a 5-inch top-tier monitor that displays audio, phone and vehicle-system information. 
Four adults ride comfortably inside a cabin that grew dramatically quieter in 2012. There’s abundant incidental storage and the controls are thoughtfully designed and located — with the notable exception of the audio controls on the LX and on models equipped with navigation. Selecting and setting radio station “favorites” is needlessly complicated and the volume-control slide bar is useless. Better to employ the steering-wheel mounted controls.

Honda’s available HondaLink smartphone app includes Aha radio and Apple’s Siri Eyes voice-command functionality. Most functionality requires an iPhone 5.

All Civics include Honda’s new Motion Adaptive power steering system which helps the driver overcome oversteer or understeer, both of which can cause skids. Honda’s clever — and invaluable — LaneWatch passenger-side blind-spot monitor is standard on upper trims. 

With the Civic no longer the Luddite of the compact class, its No. One sales ranking seems more secure than ever. The competition has its work cut out for it. 

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

2014 Honda Civic EX Sedan
Base price: $18,390
Trim level base price: $21.090
As tested: $21,880
Options: Our EX tester included no options.
EPA ratings: 30 city/39 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Santa Fe: Hyundai’s standout crossover

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If you still don’t believe Hyundai is the real deal, it might be time to check out the Santa Fe crossover.

The midsize, seven-passenger Santa Fe (not to be confused with the smaller Santa Fe Sport), shines brightly in a segment that includes such luminaries as the Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, Dodge Durango and Nissan Pathfinder.

Its 290-horsepower V-6 is one of the most powerful engines in the class and its cabin is among the segment’s most attractive and best equipped. Under everyday conditions, ride and handling are very good.

At $30,775, the Santa Fe is no longer bargain priced, but its standard features list includes several items found only on the other guys’ upper trims, or not at all. They include satellite radio, parking assist, roadside assistance, heated and power-operated front seats, Bluetooth phone and audio, and turn-by-turn navigation.

High-quality materials and soft-touch surfaces dress up the crossover’s roomy cabin. Both front seats are heated and the driver’s seat boasts eight-way adjustability and adjustable four-position lumbar support. 

The 40/20/40-split second-row bench slides for and aft for adult-scale legroom. Taller passengers enjoy plenty of headroom, even with the optional panoramic sunroof in place. Standard second- and third-row HVAC controls, with vents, boost rear-of-the-cabin comfort.

The third row is easily accessed and can accommodate a pair of adults in a pinch.

Up front, gauges are clear and easily readable and the placement of the touchscreen-based controls is logical and ergonomic.

The Santa Fe’s 3.3-liter, 290-hp V-6 is mated with a six-speed automatic. Front-wheel-drive is standard, AWD is optional. EPA estimates are 21 mpg combined (18 mpg city/25 mpg highway) on front-wheel-drive models and 20 mpg combined (18 mpg city and 24 mpg highway) with AWD.

The optional Active Cornering Control All-Wheel-Drive (AWD) system works with the stability management program to anticipate traction losses and distribute torque to any single wheel. Braking force can also be sent to any single wheel.

A three-mode steering system allows the driver to adjust steering feel and power-assist levels. Most drivers will set it and forget it.

Acceleration is on the quick side of average for the class. Underway, the Santa Fe feels nimble and light, even through fast corners. A full load can push the rear suspension to its limits, though, turning handling mushy. 

All Santa Fes are equipped with foglights, rear spoiler, windshield-wiper deicers, cruise control, trip computer, full power accessories, air-conditioning, leather-wrapped tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, eight-way power driver seat (with four-way power lumbar), heated front seats, a 40/20/40-split sliding and reclining second-row seat and a 50/50-split-folding third-row seat.

Also standard are 18-inch alloy wheels, a rearview camera, Hyundai's Blue Link telematics system, and a six-speaker audio system with CD player, satellite radio, HD radio, USB/iPod integration and a 4.3-inch touchscreen display.

Despite robust sales throughout the recession and beyond, Hyundai still faces perception issues. Doubters should know perception is not necessarily reality.

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

2014 Hyundai Santa Fe LTD AWD
Vehicle base price: $29,900
Trim level base price: $35,450
As tested: $41,310
Key options included 19-inch alloy wheels; HID Xenon headlights; LED taillights, panoramic sunroof, heated steering wheel; ventilated front seats; heated rear seats; navigation; surround-sound audio.
Tow rating: 5000 lb.
EPA rating: 18 city/24 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Kia Soul: Growing up painlessly

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I suspect that on some level toddlers know growing up isn’t going to be much fun.

As in, “What’s going to happen when people realize my adorable personality is just a collection of annoying quirks?”

What’s true for kids also holds for cars. There should be a parlor game about cars that were cool in their first generation but lost it all in their second.

Fortunately, the second-generation 2014 Soul has grown up without giving up its cute.

The Soul is a little longer and wider this year, so its already-roomy cabin grows roomier still. A stiff new chassis and suspension upgrades calm what was once a jittery ride. A host of invisible updates isolate the cabin from noise, vibration and harshness, known in the industry as NVH. The more popular of its two engines grows more power. 

Kia campaigns the new Soul under the banner Totally Transformed, though a casual observer is hard pressed to see it. Mild sheet metal revisions include a more muscular front end and unique, body-colored “floating” lift-gate panel. They leave intact the Soul’s unmistakable profile.  

Inside, new and attractive soft-touch surfaces replace the previous model’s hard plastics. Materials quality is dramatically improved, reflecting Kia’s willingness to invest in its little superstar. Fit and finish bespeak careful assembly.

The original introduced a circular design motif, which is amplified here. Kia says the proliferation of circular shapes reflects the typical Soul owner’s affinity with music. It’s the idea of the “sonic ring” — the way sound flows concentrically from its source, like ripples in a pond

The real Soul comes into focus on the road, where its lightweight unibody and sweeping suspension revisions give the Soul a grown-up composure the first edition lacked. This car shrugs off road-surface flaws that would have sent shock waves through the old one.

Body roll is well controlled during high-speed cornering, though nothing about the Soul encourages aggressive driving.

A new one-piece steering assembly improves steering responsiveness and feel at all speeds. On-center feel is excellent and, despite the Soul’s upright stance, crosswinds don’t upset its composure.

Unfortunately, the electrically assisted system doesn’t communicate road-surface information to the driver.

Combatting cabin noise, Kia added new subframe bushings, relocated the steering box and front stabilizer bar, reconfigured the rear shocks and used a new type of foam insulation.

At speed, wind noise off the upright A pillars makes itself evident. Otherwise, the cabin is remarkably tranquil cabin.
 
Two engines are offered. A 1.6-liter four makes 130 horsepower and can be mated to a six-speed manual (which includes a hill-start-assist feature) or six-speed automatic. With either transmission, efficiency is rated at 24 mpg city/30 mpg highway/26 mpg combined. 

A 164-hp 2.0-liter four powers upscale trims. It can be paired only with the automatic and returns EPA numbers of 23/31/26. An available Eco package bumps the combined mileage to 27.

The larger engine is modified this year to produce more power at lower engine speeds, enhancing the Soul’s performance in city traffic.

Kia might easily have botched the Soul’s transition out of infancy. That it didn’t testifies to its own growing maturity.

Contact Don Adair at don@dadair.com.

2014 Kia Soul ! (Exclaim)
Vehicle base price: $14,900
Trim level base price: $20,300
As tested: $26,195
Options included automatic climate control; panoramic sunroof; Infinity audio system; speaker lights; HID low-beam headlights; keyless entry and ignition; leather seat trim; heated and ventilated front seats; heated rear seats; heated steering wheel.
EPA ratings: 23 city/31 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Honda Pilot: Old-timer scores heavily

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Park it among a crowd of slope-roofed, slippery-sided competitors, and Honda’s Pilot plays the role of grizzled old-timer.

Upright and boxy, it looks like the crossover that time forgot.

There’s a method behind that madness, though. That old-school styling obscures one of the segment’s roomiest, most comfortable and most utilitarian interiors. The Pilot’s slab sides and flat roof enable three rows of adult-size seating and a cargo hold that boasts superior real-world capacity.

The midsize Pilot debuted in 2002 and received its first makeover in 2008, when a larger, roomier version arrived. Since then, the segment has exploded and the Pilot faces a new generation of slick-skinned competitors. 

Despite its age, though, the Pilot remains a popular pick; 2013 sales soared to a record 126,628 units.

Most observers expected an all-new, third-generation Pilot this year. Honda appears to have pushed back its launch to fall 2015, however; perhaps in part to improve its performance in the Institute for Highway Safety’s new small front overlap test.

The last round of updates arrived last year, with the addition of a standard rear backup camera, 8-inch high-resolution LCD display, USB port, Bluetooth phone and audio and tri-zone climate control.
 
All pilots are powered by a 24-valve all-aluminum V-6 engine that makes 250 horsepower. It’s mated with one of a pair of five-speed automatic transmissions, depending on whether it’s FWD or AWD. Variable cylinder management allows the engine to run on fewer cylinders in light-load conditions for the sake of full efficiency.

Though dated, its drivetrain produces best-in-class efficiency and provides the Pilot with a 4,500-pound towing capacity. 

The Pilot's EPA-estimated economy stands at 21 mpg combined (18 city/25 highway) for front-drive models and 20 mpg combined (17 city/24 highway) for AWD variants.

Pilot is available in front- and all-wheel-drive configurations. Its AWD system automatically shifts as much as 70 percent of power to the rear wheels if the front tires begin to slip. For maximum traction in slippery conditions, the driver can select a “lock” feature that sends maximum available power to the rear wheels at low speeds.

Shoppers who place a premium on glitzy interiors and the latest gadgetry may find the Pilot wanting. Though materials quality is good and standard Honda fit-and-finish prevails, the cabin is a sober place and its layout and design could stand a good freshening.

Such desirable features as blind-spot monitoring, keyless ignition/entry and second-row captain's chairs are not available.

Honda masters the day-to-day practicalities, though. One example: The hood sheltering the multi-information display lacks glamour, but it effectively blocks those annoying — and fatiguing — nighttime windshield reflections. 

True to its throwback appearance, the Pilot is a large rig and drives like one. It’s stable and planted at speed and over rough surfaces the ride remains smooth and composed. The tradeoff is  body lean during fast cornering.

Ultimately, time respects no crossover and the world awaits the third-generation Pilot. In the meantime, this grizzled old-timer continues to hold its own in the company of younger and shinier competitors. 

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

2014 Honda Pilot 4WD Touring
Vehicle base price: $29,670
Trim level base price: $41,420
As tested: $42,250
Optional equipment: Our 4WD Touring tester came with no optional equipment.
EPA ratings: 17 city/24 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Mitsubishi Mirage: Value champ

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The 2014 Mitsubishi Mirage is the most fuel-efficient non-hybrid vehicle sold in America. With its base price of $13,790, including destination, the subcompact hatchback is also one of the country’s least expensive cars.

Only Chevy’s Spark ($12,995) and the Nissan Versa sedan ($12,800) better its price, and neither touches its sparkling EPA ratings: 37 mpg city/44 mpg highway/40 mpg combined.

“I love this car,” writes an owner at edmunds.com. “It gives me everything I need: a roof, an engine, and wheels  …  I'm able to get it up to 56 mpg if I drive it right … For the economically minded, this car can't be beat.”

Even price-aware entry-level buyers want more than a box on wheels, though, so Mirage comes well equipped. Standard equipment includes automatic climate control; electronic stability control; power side mirrors; power windows with driver's side auto-up/down; keyless entry; seven airbags, including a driver's knee bag; and 4-wheel ABS brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist.

The ES trim ($14,490) adds aluminum alloy wheels; fog lamps; leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob; smart-key passive entry; keyless ignition; steering wheel-mounted audio controls; cruise control and a Bluetooth® hands-free phone system.

The Mirage also can be optioned with a navigation system, rearview camera and parking sensors. 

“Getting a ‘loaded’ car, with Navi, for $17K was nice,” wrote another Edmunds commenter.

Buyers pick from eight “vibrant” colors, including Plasma Purple (pictured), a shade my Facebook friends found wildly amusing.

Mitsubishi covers Mirage with a five-year/60,000-mile basic warranty and 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain coverage.

So the Mirage is inexpensive to buy and operate. It boasts a decent array of standard content and a great warranty. Obviously, tradeoffs are involved.

They start with a cabin that, while comfortable for two, comes up short on second-row seating. With the seatbacks up, Mirage offers 17.2 cubic feet of cargo space. With the seatbacks down that number jumps to 47 cf.

Cabin furnishings are spare. Hard plastics dominate and fit-and-finish trails the competition. The steering column tilts but doesn’t telescope, but drivers of all sizes should find a comfortable driving position. 

Controls are close at hand and easy to operate.

Mirage is a light car, but its 74-horsepower, 1.2-liter three-cylinder engine labors loudly to accelerate, an effect underscored by the optional continuously variable transmission (CVT). While the standard five-speed manual transmission produces excellent EPA numbers —34/42/37, the CVT, a $1,000 option, gets the bragging rights that go with the 37/44/40 ratings. 

The Mirage joins a growing cohort of cars designed for the urban commute. It’s compact and easy to park and navigate in close quarters. However, its short wheelbase, small tires and suspension fundamentals are overmatched by rough and broken pavement. 

At speed, wind and wind noise intrude, steering is vague and the ride is unsettled. 

But let’s give the last word to satisfied owner, who wrote, “Great bargain, reliable, and feels like you spent more than you did.”

If that sounds like your car, there’s a Mitsu dealer with one in a color meant for you.

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

2014 Mitsubishi Mirage ES CVT
Vehicle base price: $12,995 
Trim level base price: $15,990
As tested: $15,990
Optional equipment: Our ES tester included no options
EPA rating: 37 city/44 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

RX 350 F Sport: Crossover kingpin

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Set your Wayback Machine to March 1998, and you’ll witness the first flash of a coming boom.

Today, high-end crossovers lurk at every stoplight. But for a brief moment 15 years ago, there was just one, the Lexus RX 300. Its leather-and-fine-audio aesthetic opened new vistas in a segment ruled by such humble rigs as the Toyota RX4, Honda CR-V and Subaru Forester.

It was a floodgates moment. BMW and Mercedes-Benz quickly countered, and the rest of the world followed. From Acura to Volkswagen, there’s a luxury crossover for every taste — if not every wallet.

Remarkably, after 15 years and a barrage of new competition, the RX remains by a wide margin the best-selling luxury crossover in the U.S. 

Lexus debuted the third-generation RX in 2012 and offers it today in three trims; standard ($40,670), F Sport ($48,360) and 450h hybrid ($47,320). Key third-gen updates included an AWD system that could send up to 50 percent of torque to the rear wheels, electrically assisted steering and a new rear suspension that improved handling and boosted cargo space.

The RX grew a bit and bolder styling incorporated Lexus’s new spindle grill.

The standard features list grew to include keyless entry and start, electrochromic heated side mirrors, U-V reducing glass, Bluetooth, power tilt/telescoping steering wheel, power 10-way driver and passenger seats, sliding and reclining rear seats and a power rear hatch.

A new F Sport Package added an eight-speed automatic transmission, 19-inch wheels, a sport-tuned suspension and an array of appearance upgrades.

For 2014, Lexus takes a deeper step into cabin technology, with the availability of Apple’s Siri Eyes Free Mode technology. Compatible with iPhone 4S and forward, Siri Eyes Free allows hands-free calling to iPhone contacts, iTunes access and turn-by-turn navigation. Siri can read calendar events and notifications and accept spoken input.

F Sport cabins are awash in black leather with contrasting silver stitching, ebony bird’s-eye maple wood trim, black headliner and aluminum pedals and footrest.

Our 2014 RX 350 F Sport tester brought a number of pricey options (dual-screen rear-seat entertainment system; Mark Levinson audio; parking assist; but not Siri) and rang the bell at $56,534.

A 270-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 power both the base and F Sport trims. The standard RX is available in FWD and AWD configurations and uses a six-speed automatic. F Sport is AWD only and gets an eight-speed gearbox.

The RX 350 can tow up to 3,500 pounds. 

EPA-estimated fuel economy for the base trim is 18 city/25 highway/21 combined, FWD, and 18/24/19 highway), AWD. The F Sport is rated at 18/26/21. The 295-hp 450h is rated at 28/32/30 and 30/28/29.

The F Sport is no quicker than the standard trim, but it’s clearly the enthusiast’s choice. Some may find its ride too stiff and track testing reveals its stopping distances to be longer than the base or hybrid trims, but it’s more engaging than either.

Fifteen years at the top is no small feat but Lexus seems reluctant to give up the crown. We’ll need a Wayforward Machine to learn how long it can hold on.

2014 Lexus RX 350 F Sport
Vehicle base price: $39,769
Trim level base price: $47,450
As tested: $56,534
Optional equipment included rear-seat entertainment system; navigation; backup camera; Lexus Enform; satellite radio; heads up display; Mark Levinson audio system; Intuitive Parking Assist; cargo net
EPA ratings: 18 city/21 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Honda Ridgeline: Right-sized trucklet

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Just as the first robin announces spring, the arrival of a Special Edition Honda foreshadows the arrival of an all-new model.

Honda’s short-bed Ridgeline pickup ($30,405, including destination) is due for its first full makeover since debuting in 2006. 

To sweeten the pot until the 2015 Ridgeline arrives, Honda gives us the new, top-of-the-line Special Edition (SE) trim ($38,335). The SE incorporates the stepped upgrades built into the Ridgeline’s five-trim strategy and adds navigation with voice recognition; Bluetooth phone connectivity; and a handful of cosmetic upgrades.

The SE is the full-meal deal, with 18-inch alloy wheels, foglights, sunroof, leather upholstery, ambient console lighting, heated front seats and side mirrors, a 115-volt AC power outlet and satellite radio.

Unibody construction provides car-like ride and handling and the Ridgeline cabin is as quiet and comfortable as any crossover’s. Honda’s latest infotainment and telematics systems aren’t here, though; they won’t be available until the new model arrives.

There’s no such thing as an under-equipped Ridgeline. All trims get a power-sliding rear window, air-conditioning, a 60/40-split lift-up rear seat (with under-seat storage), a rearview camera, full power accessories, cruise control, a trip computer and a six-speaker sound system with CD player.

The Ridgeline is available in a single four-door, five-passenger body style. It’s powered by an all-aluminum 3.5-liter V-6 that makes 250 horsepower and 247 pound-feet of torque. All Ridgelines are equipped with an integrated trailer hitch, oil and transmission coolers, heavy-duty brakes, dual radiator fans and the necessary prewiring for a 7-pin trailer hookup. Maximum towing capacity is 5,000 pounds.

All-wheel-drive is standard. The system can be locked in AWD mode at speeds of up to 18 mph.

The five-speed automatic transmission makes good, sure shifts and Grade Logic Control minimizes gear-hunting in hilly country. Its powertrain is dated, though, and produces anemic EPA numbers: 15 mpg city/21 mpg highway/17 mpg combined.

The Ridgeline’s broad seats provide abundant thigh and lumbar support and the rear bench accommodates two adults. Large knobs and buttons are easy to reach and to use. There’s plenty of storage for CDs and enough power sources to keep phones and tablets charged. 

One rides high in the Ridgeline cab and sight lines are ideal. The cabin is quiet at speed, body lean is minimal in turns and the unibody rides lightly over broken surfaces. 

The Ridgeline’s footprint is smaller than that of a conventional pickup, so it’s lighter on its feet and less of a handful in a parking lot.

For all its strengths, though, I hadn’t fully grasped the Ridgeline’s appeal until now. Its 5-foot bed seemed too short to be of real value.

But this time around, I piled my black Ridgeline tester full of pine branches and serviceberry limbs and carted them in the snow to the burn pile. I fetched firewood from the barn. I carted my bike to Portland for a grandson weekend. 

Neither fully fish nor fowl, car nor truck, the Ridgeline occupies a middle ground where comfort and versatility meet. Suburban ranchers, boaters and light-duty haulers can all find something here to like.

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

2014 Honda Ridgeline SE
Vehicle base price: $29,575
Trim level base price: $37,505
As tested: $38,335
Optional equipment: The Ridgeline SE is a fully equipped trim level; our test vehicle included no options.
EPA ratings: 15 city/21 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

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