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Archive for December 2013

Honda Odyssey: The modern minivan

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Minivans may have been last century’s big news, but you wouldn’t know it from behind the wheel of the 2014 Honda Odyssey. 

A mid-cycle refresh has the Odyssey feeling as fresh and contemporary as any of the crossovers that have displaced vans in the public’s wayward heart. 

The Odyssey (from $29,655, including destination) seats up to eight in a cabin that’s easily reconfigured to accommodate an apocalypse-worthy Costco run. Despite its large capacity, the Odyssey drives small. It’s responsive and easy to maneuver in traffic. On the road, it’s quiet and stable.

For 2014, mild sheet metal updates freshen curb appeal. A new six-speed automatic transmission replaces the five-speed found on last year’s lower trims. EPA ratings are a class-leading 19 city/28 highway/22 combined.

New infotainment features and a touch-screen control system modernize Odyssey’s twin-cockpit cabin. Controls for the optional navigation and infotainment systems are intuitive and user friendly.

All 2014 Odysseys include 8-inch color displays, Bluetooth streaming audio, Pandora radio and SMS text messaging. New lighting casts a soft blue ambience over upgraded cabin materials.

A four-way power front-passenger seat and one-touch turn signals are standard. The Expanded View driver’s mirror, also standard, reveals a field of vision that’s 19 percent greater than that of traditional mirrors.

The third-row bench slips simply into a well in the cargo-area floor and the three-piece center row can be removed piece by piece, creating a flat cargo floor and total cargo space of 148 cubic feet.

Rear-seat cinephiles will appreciate the entertainment system’s VGA screen resolution and split-screen capabilities. The ultra-wide screen of the Touring Elite trim ($45,280), has four times the screen resolution.

The Touring Elite also features the industry’s first in-vehicle vacuum cleaner. Housed in the cargo compartment sidewall, it’s powerful enough to clean up after hauling a load of firewood.

Assorted new features, both standard and optional, enhance comfort and safety. Among them: keyless ignition/entry, forward-collision and lane-departure warning systems.

Honda’s tres cool LaneWatch system shows a live 80-degree view down the length of the Odyssey’s passenger side when activated by the right-turn signal or a signal-stalk button,  

All Odysseys are powered by a 3.5-liter, V-6 engine with variable valve timing and Variable Cylinder Management. It’s paired with a new six-speed automatic that, despite its focus on efficiency, makes smooth, quick shifts.
Inland Northwest drivers might wish for an AWD option; Honda gives us only front-wheel-drive. 

Strategic use of high-strength steel boosts structural rigidity. An aluminum hood, fenders and suspension components help control weight.

Relative to crossovers, the Odyssey’s low center of gravity produces a stable, surefooted feel at highway speeds and through fast corners. Honda’s subtle, sure-handed approach to suspension and chassis dynamics give it a lively quality underhand. The ride is firm and controlled but compliant over rough surfaces. Steering is responsive and nicely weighted, with good on-center feel.

Though crossovers have stolen their box office thunder, the Odyssey gives buyers plenty of reason to reconsider the humble minivan. Sometimes old news is still good news.

2014 Honda Odyssey Touring Elite
Vehicle base price: $28,000
Trim level base price: $44,450
As tested: $45,280
Our fully loaded Touring Elite trim had no options.
EPA rating: 19 city/28 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Buick LaCrosse: Affordable American luxury

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Sandwiched between volume-minded Chevrolet and performance-focused Cadillac in General Motor’s post-bankruptcy landscape, Buick takes the middle way. It aims to satisfy the middle-class need for affordable luxury.

Since the bankruptcy, the company’s persistent focus on comfort, reliability and affordability has produced cars of the quality of the full-size LaCrosse sedan. 

During our recent cold snap, I enlisted a 2014 LaCrosse as my go-to ride. Every Inland Northwestern driver knows the value of warm hands and a surefooted mount and, with its all-wheel-drive system and heated steering wheel (both optional), the LaCrosse was an easy pick.

The LaCrosse (from $34,060, including transportation) is a five-passenger, front-drive sedan. Its roomy, well-equipped cabin is swathed in high-quality, soft-touch materials. When the sun sets, LED accent lighting casts the interior’s fluid lines into soft relief. 

For 2014, the LaCrosse receives a mild freshening and adds a batch of tech updates, including a blind-spot warning system, rear cross-traffic alert and an updated touchscreen interface. 

Outside, redesigned headlights and wing-shaped LEDs flank a sculpted hood and prominent waterfall grille. Lower-front active grille shutters close at highway speeds to reduce aerodynamic drag. 

If there were any doubt about the LaCrosse’s mainstream mission, the abundance of chrome would seal the deal. My tester’s brightwork included 19-inch chrome alloys, a pair of shiny, rectangular exhaust tips and, wrapping the rear deck, a body-spanning chrome accent line. 

You won’t find the word <i>performance</i> in Buick’s lexicon. Efficiency is the new paradigm. The base powerplant, available only on front-drive trims, is a mild hybrid (it can’t run on electricity alone) that makes a combined 189 horsepower and earns EPA ratings of 25 mpg city/36 mpg highway/29 mpg combined.

An available 303-hp V-6 powers up-level trims and AWD models (FWD, 18/28/21; AWD, 17/26/21).

My six-cylinder AWD tester accelerated at a leisurely pace which, in fact, suited the car’s built-for-comfort personality. Similarly, real-time shock damping is used not to enable racetrack cornering but to control body lean while smoothing out bumpy roads surfaces. 

The new front seats are large and comfortable. Multiple adjustments — including four-way-adjustable headrests — make easy work of finding a comfortable driving position, but the sweeping roof line and thick C pillars compromise sight lines. The rear seating area easily accommodates large passengers. The split seat-backs fold to increase cargo space, helping compensate for the LaCrosse’s smallish trunk.

Buick’s IntelliTouch touch-screen control interface is slow to react and complicates simple tasks. The capacitive-touch system requires the touch of a bare finger. No gloves allowed.

Kudos to Buick for its lane-departure warning system. Instead of sounding a chime or beep when the car crosses the center or shoulder line, it vibrates the driver-side seat cushion. This subtlety increases the likelihood that the system will be used. 

Middle-class aspirations build the auto business, and few companies understand that better than Buick. The 2014 LaCrosse is good evidence that the middle way is the right way.      

Don Adair is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Contact him at

2014 Buick LaCrosse Premium 1 AWD
Vehicle base price: $33,135
Trim level base price: $38,810
As tested: $45,595
Optional equipment included forward collision alert; rear cross-traffic alert; blind-spot warning; lane departure warning; high-intensity discharge headlights; forward adaptive lighting; head-up display; fog lamps; adaptive cruise control; automatic collision preparation; sunroof; premium audio.
EPA ratings: 18 city/28 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Nissan Versa Note: Agreeable reality check

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In the weeks before the redesigned 2014 Nissan Versa Note landed in my driveway, I’d driven a succession of not-inexpensive vehicles.

The Note (from $14,800, including destination) is on the near end of the cost continuum and I admit to approaching it with a certain reserve. (It’s distressing to realize how quickly one grows accustomed to the good life.) 

As it turned out, the Note provided a surprisingly gentle return to reality. Amid the hard plastics and fabric seat covers, I found a more-than-competent and generally agreeable little piece of basic transportation.

The Note is the compact, five-door hatchback version of Nissan’s entry-level Versa sedan ($12,800). It delivers a quality ride, accommodates four full-size adults and swallows a substantial amount of gear or groceries in its roomy cargo hold.

The Note’s redesigned sheet metal is also a big plus. Its steeply slanted windshield provides a visual transition between the short, sloping hood and extended roofline. A so-called “squash line” — named for the trajectory of a squash ball — is carved deeply the door panels. It all comes together quite nicely.

Though almost entirely utilitarian in approach, the Note’s cabin is well-ordered and comfortable. High-end trims, like my well-equipped SV ($16,800) tester, can be outfitted with such upscale accoutrements as keyless ignition and entry and a 360-degree parking camera system.

Also available is NissanConnect. It includes the usual — color touch-screen, handsfree text messaging assistant, Bluetooth streaming and Pandora radio — plus Google’s new Send-to-Car service that allows the user to send any address to the navigation system using a computer. When the car is started, directions are delivered and loaded into the system.

All Notes are powered by a 109-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that delivers attractive fuel efficiency numbers. Paired with the five-speed manual transmission that’s available only on the base S trim, it earns EPA numbers of 27 mpg city/36 mpg highway and 30 mpg combined. In the other two trims, SL and SV, the engine mates to a continuously variable transmission (CVT) and garners 31/40/35.

The rubber-band quality characteristic of CVTs is most pronounced when paired with a small four-cylinder engine and the Note is no exception. It’s not notably slower than most of its competition, but there’s a lot of fuss under acceleration, as the transmission struggles to find its optimal ratio. At stable speeds, the effect diminishes, and most drivers are likely to enjoy the Note’s smooth, shift-free performance.

CVT-equipped models include Nissan's first-ever Active Grille Shutter, which limits the amount of air entering the engine compartment, reducing drag force. The Active Grille Shutter is generally closed at speeds above 20 miles per hour.

Despite the Note’s short wheelbase and torsion-bar rear suspension, its ride is for the most part smooth and forgiving. Despite its sporty appearance, though, broken pavement and highway grooves can upset its composure, though without any real negative effect on handling.

Life’s realities are always less appealing than its fantasies. But Nissan’s newest baby proves that reality isn’t necessarily painful. It may not be the stuff of which automotive dreams are made, but the 2014 Versa Note is a nice little slice of real life.

Don Adair is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Contact him at

2014 Nissan Versa Note SV
Vehicle base price: $13,990
Trim level base price: $15,990
As tested: $20,015
Optional equipment included splash guards; SL package (Intelligent Key, Easy Fill Tire Alert, rearview monitor & more); Technology package (NissanConnect with navigation; Around View Monitor, Pandora radio, Google Send-to-Car and POIS, streaming audio & more); cargo cover and spoiler.
EPA rating: 31 city/40 highway
​Regular unleaded fuel specified

Jeep Grand Cherokee: Diesel revisited

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Among many updates to the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee, none is more important than the return of diesel.

Jeep deleted the diesel option in 2009 but restores it this year with a powerful new turbodiesel. The 3.0-liter V-6 can tow up to 7,200 pounds and, with rear-wheel-drive, return 30 mpg highway.

Like the other engines in the Grand Cherokee family, the diesel is paired with a new eight-speed automatic transmission. It replaces last year’s five-speed on all trims and  makes smooth, quick shifts while boosting efficiency.

The exterior gets attention, too, with new LED daytime running lights, available bi-xenon headlights and mildly freshened sheet metal. Inside, there’s a configurable driver-information screen and an available 8.4-inch touch-screen control panel.

Grand Cherokee trims range from the entry-level, V-6-powered Laredo ($30,985, RWD/$31,990, AWD) to the rear-drive-only 470-hp, $64,500 SRT, which is marketed as a separate model. 

All other trims (Limited, Overland and the new top-level Summit) are available with a choice of three engines, a 290-hp V-6, the 360-hp Hemi V-8 or the turbodiesel, which makes 240 hp and 420 stump-pulling pound-feet of torque.

Back in 2009, when Grand Cherokee transitioned from truck-based SUV to car-based crossover, fans feared the loss of its off-road chops. Electronics saved the day, though, and today buyers choose from three 4WD systems, a height-adjustable air suspension and a traction-control system that can be adjusted for optimal performance on varying surfaces (snow, mud, sand and rocks).

Few true SUVs, let alone crossovers, can best the Grand Cherokee’s capabilities in rugged terrain.

Equipped with the top-level QuadraTrak II 4WD system and Quadra-Lift air suspension, my loaded Overland 5.7L was smooth and quiet around town and on the road. At speed, ride quality was very good and the air suspension quickly damped excessive body motions. 

The GC’s cabin is spacious and nicely finished, though the driver’s seat cushion lacks thigh support and. In the mother of all first-world problems, the seat warmed unevenly. 

The new transmission includes an Eco mode that optimizes shift points for fuel efficiency and, in V-8 models, deactivates cylinders under light loads. On models equipped with air suspension, Eco mode lowers ride height by a half-inch at highway speeds, enhancing aerodynamics.

Equipped with 4WD, the 3.6L V-6 earns EPA ratings of 17 mpg city/24 mpg highway/19 mpg combined; RWD fetches 17/25/20. Properly equipped, a 3.6L Grand Cherokee can tow up to 6,200 lb. 

The EcoDiesel optional is good for 21/28/24 4WD and 22/30/25 RWD. The 5.7L V-8 weighs in at a substantially lower 14/20/16 and 14/22/17. 

Less expensive than the diesel by $1,300, the gas engine matches the diesel’s towing power, though with a hefty efficiency penalty. At current fuel prices, diesel owners should recoup their investment at about 35,000 miles.

Its superior low-end power gives diesel the edge when towing and in low-speed, off-road conditions. Grand Cherokee buyers owe it to themselves to explore its many benefits.

Don Adair is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Contact him at

2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland 4X4
Vehicle base price: $29,990
Trim level base price: $46,195
As tested: $51,680
Optional equipment included adaptive cruise control; Forward Crash Warning with Accident Mitigation; Advanced Brake Assist; blind-spot warning and Rear Cross Path Detection; 5.7L Hemi with engine fuel-saver technology; heavy-duty brakes; 3.09 rear axle.
EPA rating: 14 city/20 highway
Mid-grade fuel recommended

VW Jetta, Reinvigorated

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You’d never know by looking at it, but Volkswagen’s compact Jetta receives a batch of updates that make it the most desirable Jetta in recent years.

For 2014:

  • a new direct-injected turbocharged four replaces the five-cylinder engine that has powered the majority of Jettas sold;
  • an independent rear suspension replaces the old solid rear axle;
  • the ’14 Jetta introduces VW’s new Car-Net telematics;
  • on most trims, increased use of soft-touch materials enhances cabin quality.

Though they may seem underwhelming, these updates are significant. The new engine is refined, smooth and quiet. It makes the same 170 horsepower as the old 2.5-liter five, but boosts torque by 7 pound-feet (to 184), while improving fuel efficiency by 5 mpg. It runs on regular unleaded fuel and, equipped with a five-speed manual transmission, returns EPA numbers of 26 mpg city/36 mpg highway/30 mpg combined. With the optional six-speed automatic, city mileage drops to 25 mpg.

A 115-hp 2.0-liter four powers the S trim and a turbocharged 2.0-liter diesel four powers the TDI ($24,015). It makes 140 hp and 236 pound-feet of torque and earns EPA ratings of 30/42/34.

The GLI, which is marketed as a separate model, gets its power from a 200-hp turbocharged 2.0-liter four.

Until this year, all Jettas but the performance-oriented GLI ($25,075) ran an old-school solid rear axle, whose primary advantage was cost. This year, all Jettas receive the GLI’s multilink independent rear suspension that improves both ride quality and handling.

The Jetta has grown less athletic and more mainstream in recent years, and the new rear suspension recaptures some of the car’s old dynamism. My SEL tester was noteworthy for its quiet ride, stable handling and lively feel.

A new electric power-assist steering system is quick, responsive and accurate, and offers good feedback from the road surface.

Car-Net, VW’s new telematics system, includes automatic crash notification, roadside assistance, remote vehicle access, stolen vehicle location and geo-fencing, which allows parents to set limits for inexperienced drivers. It’s available on SE ($19,715) trims and above.

Though hard plastics still dominate lower-trim cabins, the SEL ($26,410) and TDI trims join the GLI with its abundant use of soft-touch materials.

The new Jetta’s upper trims feel upscale, while maintaining VW’s no-nonsense approach to design and layout. Even with the optional infotainment and navigation systems, controls are straightforward and easily parsed. 

In a world increasingly dominated by touch screens and other attention-demanding controls, VW’s one-touch cruise-control mechanism is refreshingly direct. 

The 5-inch nav display is smaller and less sophisticated than competing systems, but requires less of the driver’s attention than more complex setups.

Both cabin and trunk are generously sized, though old-school hinges cut into trunk space. Six-footers enjoy plenty of room in both front and back seats. All seats provide abundant thigh and lower-back support.

VW’s best-selling model, Jetta plays a big role in the company’s drive to become the world’s largest automaker. The reinvigorated 2014 Jetta is an excellent place to start.

Don Adair is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Contact him at

2014 Volkswagen Jetta SEL
Vehicle base price: $16,720
Trim level base price: $25,590
Optional equipment: The Jetta SEL is a fully equipped trim; our tester included no options.
EPA ratings: 25 city/36 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified


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