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Don Adair's Seat Time

Archive for January 2013

Kia Optima: The most beautiful family sedan?

Is it possible that Kia has created the best-looking family sedan on the market?

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, and all the main contenders have stepped up their games lately (think Fusion, Camry, Accord), so I don’t know that I’m prepared to go out on that limb.

But still.

The possibility occurred to me Monday. Dusk had morphed into full-on dark and my Titanium Silver tester waited for me in the halogen glow of a nearly empty parking lot.

In that light, and with a clear view of the car’s flanks, its crisp clean lines and ideal proportions cohered in a way that belied its modest roots. Quite elegant. Shouldn’t be a surprise, I suppose, since Kia’s lead designer is a fellow named Peter Schreyer*. Schreyer designed for VW/Audi until Kia stole him away.

I do have reservations about the Optima; I find the front fascia/grille underwhelming. In that regard, I much prefer Schreyer's work with Audi. Otherwise, the thing is a home run.

Photos don’t do the Optima justice. Check it out next time you see one sitting by its lonesome in a grocery store parking lot. At dusk. Bathed in a halogen glow.

*Postscript: When I Googled Schreyer to make sure I'd spelled his name correctly, I learned he'd been named president of Kia in December. Two weeks later, it was announced he'd take over lead designer chores for both Kia and its parent company, Hyundai.

2014 Acura MDX: SH-AWD still on the job

In my previous post, I promised the lowdown on the 2014 Acura MDX, which should start arriving in dealerships by summer.

As you may recall, I’d come across a rumor that Acura would dropSuper Handling All-Wheel-Drive (SH-AWD) from upcoming versions of the MDX. PR boss Chuck Shifsky was quick to respond to my query to that  effect.

“Bad rumor,” he said.

Acura show the new MDX at the Detroit Auto Show today and, in fact, SH-AWD is still onboard. 

The only real change, traction-wise, is that for the first time the MDX will be available in a front-wheel-drive format. This comes in response to requests from Sun Belt dealers.

Otherwise, the ’14 MDX gets a full facelift. Its new “Aero Sculpture” styling not only looks good but also improves aerodynamic efficiency by up to 16 percent.

It will be shorter by 1.5 inches and ride on a longer wheelbase, which should enhance ride quality and boost cabin and cargo space. A new chassis is lighter and more rigid and new front and rear suspension designs are expected to produce in a sportier ride-and-handling package.

There’s a new engine, a 3.5-liter V-6 that’s expected to produce more torque while improving fuel efficiency to class-leading levels.

Acura will load the MDX with a host of safety technologies and expect to see the next generation of Acura’s cloud-based AcuraLink connectivity initiative.

Acura aims to make me happy

I’m never going to own a large crossover — i.e., one with three rows — but if I did, it would be Acura’s MDX.

The MDX rides well, though it’s not the least bit sporty. It’s strong and handsome, though not at all flashy. It’s comfortable and quiet, though a bit old-school in certain ways.

To wit: Unless I’m misreading the spec sheet, that spiffy, new 2013 MDX you’re eyeing isn’t available with such a commonplace feature as keyless entry and ignition.

This isn’t a huge surprise. Acura is Honda’s up-market division and Honda’s strong suit is engineering. They’re less interested in key-fob transponders than in the greasy bits down below. When they do engage ones and zeros, it's generally in an effort to tackle a pressing need, not whether I can open the car without taking the keys out of my pocket.

Many buyers value Honda's go-slow approach — it tends to reduce failures and increase resale value, though I’m certain it costs the company sales.

There is one piece of Acura tech I’m particularly fond of. Its Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive (SH-AWD) system — is simply the best of the breed. I've never driven a more surefooted car in the snow.

A new, 2014 MDX is coming in 2013 and there are rumors afloat that Acura will drop SH-AWD for a lesser system, presumably in an effort to reduce the price of the MDX.

I’m not a prospective owner, so my vote doesn’t count for much. Still, I look forward to my annual winter test, simply because it’s so much fun to drive a capable rig in ugly conditions. Plus, largely because of SH-AWD It’s a car I never hesitate to recommend.

Let's just say I have an interest.

Today, I reached out to Chuck Shifsky in Acura’s PR office, asking for the official line on the SH-AWD question.

“Bad rumor,” he wrote. “We’ll share more on 14 MDX next week in Detroit.”

I won’t be at the Detroit Auto Show next week, but I’ll look forward to getting the lowdown — and when there’s more to tell, I’ll pass it along.

Honda Accord Sport: New trim scores big

Today, I give up my 2013 Honda Accord Sport sedan. In its place, I’ll get an Acura MDX, so life isn’t all bad. Still, I’ll miss the Accord.

The ’13 is the first iteration of the 9th-generation Accord, long one of America’s favorite midsize sedans. It’s a bit smaller and lighter this year, but has a roomier interior and larger trunk.

No one buys an Accord for glam or racetrack cred. It’s your basic car. But basic doesn’t have to be boring. Even equipped with a continuously variable transmission (CVT), my tester was nimble, responsive and light on its feet. The electrically assisted steering system felt natural and had a pleasing heft. The suspension, firm enough to limit body lean during turns, was also sufficiently compliant to laugh off our pocked city streets.

The Sport is a new trim level this year and, other than puzzling packaging choices, I’m impressed. The price is right — $24,180 with the standard 6-speed transmission; $24,980, with the CVT — and the features set makes sense.

The base Accord ($23,270/23,780) is equipped with dual-zone automatic climate control, full power accessories, cruise control, an 8-inch video display, Bluetooth (phone and audio), a rearview camera, cruise control, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, a height-adjustable manual driver seat, a folding rear seat and a four-speaker sound system with a CD player, an auxiliary audio jack, iPod/USB audio interface and Pandora functionality.

One step up from the base, the Sport gets a bit more power from the standard 2.4-liter four (189 hp vs. 185), 18-inch wheels, rear spoiler, eight-way power driver seat with power lumbar, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift paddles for the CVT.

This is one of the better CVTs I’ve driven — its pseudo shifts are clean and sharp and Honda has dialed out all but a hint of the CVT’s traditional rubber-band responses — but I’d take the stick anyway. Fuel efficiency is a hair better with the CVT but I prefer the superior engagement a stick makes possible.

Here’s what puzzles me about the Sport: a host of desirable options — heated seats, up-level audio system, navigation, etc. — are not available. To qualify for those and other options, buyers must move up to the EX-L trim ($28,785).

There’s more to say, most of which I already said back in October.

Mazda: Taking the hard road back

In a typical year, Mazda sells fewer total vehicles in the U.S. than Toyota sells Camrys, or Honda sells Accords. Or Civics, for that matter.

In 2010, in the heart of the Great Recession, Ford and Mazda unwound their longtime partnership, casting a shadow of the brand's future here. Still, in 2011, Mazda introduced a new efficiency initiative called Skyactiv, which it implemented partially on the 2012 Mazda3 compact and then fully on the CX-5 crossover. 
 
Skyactiv doesn't re-engineer the internal combustion engine as much as refines it. Piece by piece, system by system, Mazda engineers seek out inefficiencies to resolve. Weight and friction are the two biggies and receive a lion's share of the attention.
 
In the end, both cars achieve high levels of efficiency and neither compromises Mazda's focus on performance. 
 
2013 Mazda3 interiorNow, the end-of-year sales numbers are in and the company's future looks brighter than it has in a good long time.
 
Total sales were 277,046, Mazda's best since 2007 and second-best since 1994.
 
The 3 sold 123,361 units, of which 69 percent were Skyactiv models.
 
At 43,319 units, the CX-5 was Mazda's second-best-selling vehicle and is a finalist in the North American Truck/Utility of the Year competition, the winner of which will be announced Jan. 14.
 
I recently spent a week testing a Mazda3 sedan (it's also available as a hatch), and once again was taken both with its lively, responsive attitude and its 28/40 fuel efficiency ratings. I reviewed the original Skyactiv 3 this time last year and I'm not sure I'll do a full review this time around.
 
However, if you're shopping in the compact segment, it deserves a serious look.

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