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Don Adair's Seat Time

Archive for December 2012

Too many miles; too few words

I’ve been driving lots but not writing; here's a quick and dirty update:

dashboard stitching, 2013 GMC Terrain Denali

The GMC Terrain Denali aspires for near-luxury quality in the compact crossover category and largely succeeds. Inattention to important details undermines the effort, though. Hint: If you’re going to indulge in stitched dashboards, sew straight or don’t sew.

Hyundai Elantra Coupe

2013 Hyundai Elantra Coupe

I left the Terrain at the Spokane airport and on the other end - the Newark, New Jersey, airport - picked up a Hyundai Elantra Coupe. The coupe, which is new to the Elantra lineup, performed valiantly over 10 days of high-speed New Jersey Turnpike warfare. It 1.8-liter four makes 148 hp, which is plenty, though the optional six-speed automatic is geared for economy and the quick downshifts required by the parry-and-thrust of freeway driving weren’t in the cards.

“Maple-syrup shifts,” my notes read.

Sidebar: New Jersey drivers are fast but also polite and predictable. They understand the art of the merge, get it that letting the other guy into your lane is not a sign of weakness and stay out of the far left lane except when passing.

2013 Mazda3

2013 Mazda3

On Christmas Eve, we were met at the Seattle airport by a 2013 Mazda3 sedan. Smaller even than the Elantra and incredibly efficient (40 mpg highway) the 3 was, as always, a fun drive, lively and responsive. Our tester wore brand-new Goodyear Blizzak winter tires, which earned their keep on a Christmas-night Snoqualmie Pass run. Adaptive Xenon headlights shined up the road like the deck of an aircraft carrier, a complete godsend out on that dark and snow-splotched piece of road.

2013 Honda Accord Sport

2013 Honda Accord Coupe

In October, I wrote admiringly about the ninth-generation, 2013 Honda Accord, a return to form for a car that had lost its edge. Now there’s a new trim, called Sport (from $24,470), which slots into the lineup just above the base LX. On the heels of the short-wheel-base imps I’d been driving, the Accord felt like a grown-ups’ car; quiet, solid and settled on the road. I’ll write more in coming days, but will wrap with the observation that this Accord could reign again as America’s best-selling passenger car.

Subaru Crosstrek: Putting a point on practical

I’ve been distracted by other chores this week, but I’d be remiss if I were to move on without a parting nod to the Subaru Crosstrek.

Truthfully, it’s such an unassuming little car it’s hard to know where to start.

How about this? With its 8.7 inches of ground clearance (up 3 inches from the base Impreza), the Crosstrek is perfect for those days when the snow piles so deep a normal car turns into a snowplow.

It happens often enough around here — especially at higher elevations — that a little extra ground clearance can be a godsend.

Then there are those times when you find yourself wondering what lies down that goat trail marked “Primitive Road.”

With its extra ground clearance and standard all-wheel-drive, the Crosstrek goes places others can’t.

As we’ve already mentioned, fuel efficiency is exceptional (23/30 with the 5-speed manual; 25/33 with the optional CVT) and the price of entry ($22,000-plus) is attractive.

Just don’t expect fancy. Subaru doesn’t do fancy. Subaru does utilitarian, which is the point of the enterprise.

We'll leave it at that. Watch for a full review Dec. 29.

VW Passat: The affordable European

Though European carmakers dominate the upper end of the automotive market, they are largely absent from the segments where most of us shop.

The chief exception is Volkswagen, which of course made its mark flogging the humble Beetle.

2013 Volkswagen Passat interiorVW has flirted with going upscale — most notably with the excellent but short-lived Phaeton sedan — and yes, one may still drop $60 Large on the hybrid version of the Toureg, but the brand’s offerings tend to fall well below $35,000, even when well equipped.

The compact Jetta starts $16,430, including destination, while the 2013 Passat competes in the family sedan segment with a $21,650 base price.

That fetches a Passat that’s 4 inches longer than its predecessor and rides on a wheelbase that’s grown 3 inches. Its cabin is among the roomiest, quietest and most comfortable in the segment.

The front seats are firm and well bolstered and rear-seat legroom rivals that of some full-size cars. Fit-and-finish and materials quality are very good.

The Passat’s touchscreen-based center console is a model of clarity and crisp efficiency. It’s faster, better designed and less distracting than most. Most importantly, it’s flanked by buttons that simplify its operation.

Passat no longer hangs its hat on razor’s-edge handling but its fully independent suspension (front struts, rear multilinks) produces a lively and controlled ride, while tuning out the harsh impacts of potholes and freeway expansion joints.

In the VW tradition, steering is accurate and responsive, though numb on center and a bit heavy at low speeds.

Three engines are available; a 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter five-cylinder; a 140-hp, 2.0-liter turbodiesel that makes 236 pound-feet of torque; and a 280-hp 3.5-liter V-6.

I’ve driven only the six, which is a lovely engine. Quiet and smooth, it possesses a broad power band that VW’s DSG automated manual eagerly exploits.

The base, five-cylinder engine also powers the lighter Jetta, where its output is sufficient. In the heavier Passat, it’s overmatched. For best results it should be paired with the six-speed manual gearbox, not the optional six-speed automatic.

The torque-rich TDI (turbo-diesel) could be the pick of the litter. It’s rated at 31/43 (manual) and 30/40 (DSG) and some testers say real-world numbers are 8-10 mpg better than that.

Herein lies the rub: Take a pass on the 2.5 and soon you’re talking real money. The TDI starts at $26,675 and the six starts at $29,765.

If it’s any consolation — and it should be — the base Passat is equipped with automatic headlights, keyless entry, full power accessories, air-conditioning, a six-way manual driver seat with lumbar adjustment, cloth upholstery, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, redundant steering-wheel audio controls, cruise control, trip computer, Bluetooth with streaming audio and a six-speaker sound system with a CD player and auxiliary audio input.

Word is VW plans to sweeten the package in 2013, replacing the five with a 200-hp, 1.8-liter turbocharged four.

The 2013 Passat is sized, equipped and priced to win the hearts and minds of Americans — and it’s built at a new plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. It’s as clear as it can be: This European wants a piece of the action.

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

2013 Volkswagen Passat SE w/Sunroof
Vehicle base price: $20,845
Trim level base price: $29,235
Optional equipment: Our SE w/Sunroof tester included no optional equipment.
EPA ratings: 20 city/28 highway
Premium unleaded fuel required

Subaru Crosstrek: Wait! Haven’t we been here before?

“That looks like a fun little car. That’s the kind of car you’d just go out and have fun in.” Uniformed agent of the US gov’t, peering through the coffee shop window at the Subaru XV Crosstrek parked outside.

“That’s the kind of car I’d have bought for myself, but my wife wanted something more comfortable.” Friendly neighborhood barristo

Subaru has done it again. They’ve altered the bones of the compact Impreza, lifted it three inches, bulked up selected suspension bits, added body cladding and created a new model.

Last time it was the Outback; this one they call the XV Crosstrek (from $22,790, including destination). Roomier than the base Impreza — four full-size adults can get comfy — it boasts class-leading fuel efficiency - 23 city/30 highway with the base 5-speed manual; 25/33 with the optional CVT.

Hint: Get the manual. The Crosstrek checks in at a not-svelte 3,100 lbs and the 148-hp flat-four needs all the help it can get.

Subaru XV Crosstrek dash with navigationThe postal carrier was right; the Crosstrek looks spry and engaging, though performance isn’t its strong suit.

The barristo was also right: it’s a bit down on power, but with standard AWD, short wheelbase and elevated stance, it will handle light-duty off-roading. Once again, best to avoid the CVT if trail-running is on your agenda.

He was also right on the comfort score. With Its elevated ride height and truncated wheelbase, the Crosstrek’s ride is choppy on city streets, though not bad on the open road.

The little four labors to get to speed and road and wind noise are present at speed. Something has to give when budgets are involved and the compromise between weight and silence is a perpetual challenge.

So is cabin tech, where Subaru lags. The base trim, ironically dubbed “Premium”) fails to quality for navigation, which would have provided the otherwise dour dash with its only splash of color.

People buy Subie’s for qualities other than flash, though, and this one will doubtless find its market.

Cadillac ATS: Meant to be missed

2013 Cadillac ATS

I felt a twinge of loss when it came time to give up Cadillac ATS tester yesterday.
 
It happens now and again, but only when a car strikes a very specific chord. For me, that chord is all about how the car feels under and around me; how it responds to inputs given it via the steering wheel, pedals and, sometimes, the transmission; how it reacts to the road surface and how much it tells me about what’s going on down there.
 
Does it remain alien — separate from me — or does it welcome me into its world, invite me into its processes?
 
It’s an esoteric standard, I admit, and presents a high bar that few cars try and fewer surpass.
 
Failed attempts litter GM’s history; at one point, it seemed that every car Pontiac built was going to be a BMW-killer.
 
More recently, Cadillac’s CTS came very close to ringing my bell, but the ATS finally did the trick. Its particular combination of chassis dynamics, mechanics and driver orientation triggered all the right synapses.
 
Its optional Magnetic Ride Control System (see yesterday’s post) is a marvelous innovation that seemingly has lain in wait for the ATS. In this 3,300-pound car it finds its highest expression of compliance and responsiveness.
 
Though its benefits are apparent at any speed, they’re most notable when the driver has committed to a hard corner where the pavement is broken or rutted.
 
When pushed, MRC pushes back — through the hands, the feet and the seat of the pants — communicating the action of the electromagnetic dampers as they react to the broken pavement and fight to keep the tires planted. 
 
When one is fully in tune with the car, one can detect the initial soft response — and its instantaneous rush to firmness.  
 
Initially, this sensation of hydraulics at work is a bit strange but the driver quickly comes to appreciate the stability it provides.
 
Trick hydraulics aside, this chassis has been sorted properly. Coming from a German maker — read BMW — it would be praiseworthy; coming from GM, it’s a revelation.
 
There are elements of the ATS of which I’m not as fond. CUE — the voice-activated/touchscreen infotainment system — is overly ambitious and a bit of a muddle and the back seat and trunk are smaller than they should be; but this Cadillac is meant to be missed when it goes away.

Cadillac ATS: Taming the wild road

In 2002, GM debuted a new suspension technology called Magnetic Ride Control (MRC).

That name sounds like it came rolling straight from the Hype Machine, but MRC was a breakthrough in suspension design. It’s behind the FE3 sport suspension that’s available on the ATS.
 
So let’s get geeky.
 
Suspension engineers are challenged with striking a balance between ride compliance — the ability of a suspension to absorb impacts — and the stiffness required to keep the tires firmly planted when the car leans in a fast corner.  
 
MRC solves the problems with a single, ingenuous solution.
 
magnetic ride control shock aborbersThe system employs dampers — a fancy word for shock absorbers — at each corner of the car. Inside each damper is a tube which is filled with a fluid in which iron particles are suspended.
 
A pair of elecromagnetic coils flanks each fluid-filled tube. 
 
When sensors distributed throughout the car detect body roll, they send electrical impulses to the coils.
 
Receiving the impulse stream, the coils switch on, creating a magnetic field that shoots through the fluid and causes the iron bits to line up like trees in an orchard. So aligned, they cause the damper fluid to thicken.
 
The greater the degree of body roll, the greater the degree of alignment. As the fluid thickens, it exerts greater force on the suspension components that steady the wheel.
 
MRC reads the road every millisecond and can change damping in five milliseconds, says Cadillac.

2013 Toyota Avalon: Swinging for the fences

For 2013, Toyota set out not to merely update the full-size Avalon; instead, it gave its underachieving flagship a personality transplant.

For the first 12 years of its existence, the Avalon lacked focus and, consequently, a true identity. It was the Toyota of choice for owners seeking Toyota reliability and Lexus comforts but who, for whatever reason, preferred not to move up to Lexus.
 
The new Avalon erases that past. Shunning its Lexus-lite ID, it has become a car that’s meant to be driven and not merely piloted. 
 
Sharp reflexes replace previous vagaries. Handling is crisp, steering is quick and accurate. The ride is firm — while remaining supple and compliant — and unwanted body motions are eased into retirement. 
 
Speaking of which, Toyota aims the new Avalon at a younger set of buyers. Today’s average buyer is 65; Toyota is shooting for 55. 
 
To this purpose, designers re-skinned the Avalon. Exterior dimensions are tighter and styling is crisper and more dynamic. A strong, lifting shoulder line flows from the front fender to the short decklid, where it meets up with a tapering roofline.
 
Toyota is especially proud of the front fascia, where a whisper-thin grille floats above a protuberant and oversized lower air intake. The look may not be entirely cohesive but at least we can no longer accuse Toyota of not trying.
 
In the transition from boulevard cruiser to something more engaging, the Avalon has lost 160 pounds and gained stiffness; chassis rigidity is up 16 percent, reducing body flex and allowing suspension engineers to strike a balance between ride firmness and compliance.
 
Toyota has spared little expense to elevate the Avalon’s cabin to the highest standards of the near-luxury class — and, perhaps, beyond. Hand-stitched leather (available in two grades) covers the seats, while a soft-touch, hand-stitched material wraps the sculpted, bi-level dash. Smoked-chrome accents and glossy panel pieces add subtle flash. 
 
A variable-rate window motor powers the windows, slowing them near the top of their travel to reduce wind noise and, says Toyota, “add refinement.”
 
Despite its trimmer dimensions, Avalon’s interior and trunk have grown more spacious. There is, of course, almost no end to available cabin technology.
 
Two powertrains are available, a conventional V-6, and a hybrid.
 
A 268-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6, paired with a three-mode six-speed automatic, powers conventional models. Tuned for efficiency, the gearbox delivers smooth, no-rush shifts that always land the engine in the heart of its power band. In Sport mode, the gearbox matches engine revs on downshifts, an unexpected bit of sport geekery. Toyota claims sub-7-second Zero-to-60 times and a best-in-class efficiency ratings of 21 mpg city/31 mpg highway. 
 
Running the latest version of Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive system, the Avalon Hybrid produces a seamless hybrid experience, while delivering 39 mpg city/40 mpg highway.
 
More good news: Avalon’s base price ($31,750, including destination) drops $1,445. Hybrids, which are available in premium trims only, start at $36,315.
 
Under new CEO Akido Toyoda, Toyota and Lexus are redefining themselves. “Toyota’s back and we’re going to be swinging for the fences again,” one exec said at the Avalon launch.
 
Welcome back.
 
2013 Toyota Avalon
Various conventional and hybrid models reviewed
Price range: $31,750-42,160
V-6 fuel efficiency: 21 city/31 highway
Hybrid fuel efficiency: 40 city/39 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

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