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Archive for September 2013

Encore: Buickā€™s pint-size proposition

My father-in-law Jack was a proper Buick owner, a self-made businessperson with a South Hill rancher and a Century wagon in the driveway.

He worked hard to buy that car and I never saw him happier than the day he drove it home.

Like most achieving Americans of his generation, Jack lived the ethos of Large. He couldn’t have imagined what passes for full-size these days, nor could he have fathomed Buick’s new subcompact Encore crossover.

The smallest Buick ever built, the Encore is 10 inches shorter than Honda’s CR-V, and about the same size as a Kia Soul or a Scion xB.

Jack’s wagon would have outweighed it by two tons.

Since the day Jack brought home his Buick, the company has moved quietly downstream — it no longer builds wagons the size of Manhattan — and has grown increasingly global. Jack would have struggled to understand Buick’s popularity in China, whose middle class appreciates the brand’s focus on understated, affordable luxury.

With the Encore, Buick targets the same sliver of demand responsible for BMW’s X1 and Audi’s soon-to-arrive Q3. Each was built in the belief that buyers want a comfortable city-sized commuter rig. Buick’s answer is this small, affordably priced (from $25,085, including destination) crossover.

As with all modern Buicks, the Encore’s chief asset is its comfortable, well equipped and uncannily silent cabin.

Assorted sound-deadening measures, include Buick ’s first application of the Bose Active Noise Cancellation technology. Front-seat occupants enjoy broad and supportive seats and a tall seating position. I’d have preferred narrower seats and a broader center console; the existing arrangement prevents use of the handbrake when the cupholders are in use. Otherwise, four adults of average size will be comfortable in commute-length bits.

Rear-seat legroom is quite good, though hip and shoulder room is tight. Standard features highlights include A/C, cruise control, full power accessories, power driver’s seat, rearview camera, heated side mirrors, Bluetooth connectivity, OnStar telematics, satellite radio, a USB/iPod interface and auxiliary audio jack. Buick's IntelliLink control interface features a 7-inch touchscreen and integrated smartphone apps.

Front-wheel-drive is standard, AWD is optional.

Power is by a 138-horsepower turbocharged 1.4-liter four rated at 25 mpg city/33 mpg highway/28 mpg combined (FWD) and 23/26/30 (AWD). It’s yoked to a six-speed automatic tuned to maximize efficiency, which means quick upshifts and slow (sometimes painfully so) downshifts. The Encore saunters from zero-to-60 in 9.8 seconds. Passing requires care, especially with a full load.

That said, we folded the rear seatbacks, packed the cargo hold with camping gear and headed into British Columbia’s high country. The Encore was willing, if not robust. Ride quality is good, though the Encore’s short wheelbase and 18-inch wheels can produce choppy performance over broken pavement. The electrically assisted steering is responsive and has good on-center feel, but at speed may strike some as twitchy.

Despite a handful of quibbles with interior materials — most notably, the hard-plastic surround housing the Intellilink screen — and the poorly located handbrake, the Encore succeeds quite admirably.

Jack might not have understood, but Buick wagers a new generation will.

Contact Spokane freelancer Don Adair at don@dadair.com.

2013 Buick Encore FWD Premium
Vehicle base price: $24,160
Trim level base price: $28,190
As tested: $29,735
Optional equipment: Our tester included navigation.
EPA rating: 25 city/33 highway Regular unleaded fuel specified

Redesigned Corolla preps for compact segment battle

As of 2012, the Toyota Corolla had gone longer without an update than any other car in the compact segment. Even so, it outsold every competitor but the Honda Civic.
 
This week in Seattle, Toyota showed West Coast journalists the 11th-generation, 2014 Corolla (from $17,610, including destination). Updates are both sweeping and surprisingly limited.
 
Buyers told Toyota they wanted a roomier, more stylish Corolla, and that’s what they’re getting. Aside from a new, limited-production fuel-management system and a new continuously variable transmission, little changes on the tech front.
 
Corolla’s dramatic sheet metal redesign includes massive grill and oversized lower air-intakes. Short overhangs produce a taut, dynamic stance. Sloping C pillars flow into an elevated rear deck.
 
2014 Toyota Corolla - dashboardOverall length and wheelbase grow by nearly four inches.The cabin boasts a whopping 5.1 new inches of rear-seat legroom. Front-seat occupants face a redesigned dash whose clean, strong horizontal lines and linear surfaces contribute to a spacious, open feel.
 
Our pre-production test vehicles seemed well assembled, showing a level of fit and finish expected of more expensive vehicles. A variety of sound-deadening measures significantly reduce cabin noise.
 
On the road, the Corolla’s lengthened wheelbase helps produce a mature, big-car feel. Our short and regimented drive route (we proceeded, caravan-style, from downtown Seattle to Snoqualmie via the East side of Lake Sammamish’s) precluded any chance of evaluating handling. No matter; performance is well down on the list of features Corolla drivers care about. 
 
My drive partner and I tested two trims, the efficiency-oriented LE Eco ($19,510) and the sportier (though not truly sporting), top-of-the-line S ($19,810) Despite its 15-inch, low-rolling-resistance tires, the LE Eco’s steering felt more direct, with better on-center feel, than the S, with its sport-tuned suspension and 17-inch wheels. 
 
All Corolla trims are powered by a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine. In all trims but the LE Eco, the engine makes 132 horsepower and, paired with a new continuously variable transmission earns EPA ratings of 28 mpg city/39 mpg highway. LE Eco showcases a new Toyota valve-timing technology called Valvematic that boosts power to 140 hp and efficiency to 30/42. Valvematic is available only on the midlevel LE trim, with a $400 premium.
 
Toyota’s phone-based enTune infotainment system adds a pair of apps this year and is now standard on all trims except the base L, as is a rearview monitor. LED headlights are standard across the line.
 
The compact segment has never been more competitive, but the 11th-gen Corolla is ready for the battle. As always, when the competition heats up the customer wins.
 
Contact Don at don@dadair.com.

Juke Nismo: More fun from Nissan

Since corporations are people, does it not follow that a business — even a really big business — can experience emotion?
 
Joy and sorrow, hope and despair?
 
I hope so. I’d like to think Nissan is having fun. 
 
Otherwise, how to explain the Juke?
 
You may love it, you may hate it, but the Juke will get your attention. Those big, goofy fender-topping frog’s-eye markers, the monumental arcs the fenders carve, the funky, squished-in rear hatch. 
 
Like it or loathe it, though, there’s no denying the Juke is a fun little handful. A blast to drive and quirky enough to start a conversation in any crowd.
 
The little five-door hatchback debuted in 2010 and first-year sales surprised everyone — even Nissan. Now the company is out with a new performance trim, the Juke Nismo (for Nissan Motorsports).
 
Software tweaks bump the Nismo’s horsepower by 9, from 188 to 197. A stiffened suspension and lowered ride-height reduce body roll. Eighteen-inch summer tires ride on aluminum alloys and measure 10 mm wider than standard. Unique bumpers and body skirts boost downforce and lend a hunkered-down, all-business bearing. Smart red  pinstripes and matching mirrors splash things up.
 
Inside the Nismo’s (admittedly tight) cabin, styling cues include red accent stitching on the steering wheel, seats and dash. Red serves as the tachometer’s background color and a red hash mark sits at top dead center on the alacantara-and-leather steering wheel.
 
Deeply bolstered and suede-trimmed sport seats are butt-worthy for even the broad-beamed. The rear seats fit two small-to-medium adults or, better, a couple of kids. Most owners will fold the seatbacks flat, as cargo space is a somewhat limited commodity here.
 
The Juke is available in front- or all-wheel-drive, and with either a six-speed manual or continuously variable (CVT) transmission. AWD models can be had only with the CVT which, luckily, is one of the best of the breed.
 
This year, AWD Jukes get a new torque vectoring system. It reads several inputs to calculate traction needs and can split power 50/50 front-and-rear and side-to-side in back. Great for handling stability at speed and in slippery conditions.
 
In hard cornering, FWD Nismos exhibit understeer. AWD trims take a line and hold it, though the Nismo’s tall profile tempers irrational exuberance.
 
The 1.6-liter turbocharged and direct-injected four shows a bit of turbo-lag off the line but quickly comes up to speed. Expect 0-60 times in the mid-7s.
 
Around town, the Nismo rides comfortably. At highway speeds, it’s settled and composed, though a bit of wind and road noise are evident.  
 
A new Integrated Control system manages the automatic A/C as well as a three-mode drive selector that adjusts throttle, transmission and steering feel. It’s a mash-up that just sort-of works.
 
Nissan has always been up for a little fun. Good to see them back on their game.
 
Don Adair is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Contact him at don@adair.com.
 
2013 Nissan Juke Nismo AWD
Vehicle base price: $22,990
Trim level base price: $25,290
As tested: $27,710
Optional equipment included all-wheel-drive, carpeted mats, center armrest, navigation, premium audio, USB port, rearview camera
EPA ratings: 25 city/30 highway
Premium fuel required

Is a lightweight RV right for you?

There’s a new buzzword in the RV trade. Seems like half the trailers, campers and fifth-wheels one sees these days are emblazoned with a logo bearing some — usually misspelled — version of the word “light.”

Super Lite! Ultra Lite! Ever Lite!

Like every buzzword, this one must be taken with a grain of salt, says Jerry Wagner, general manger at Spokane’s R&R RVs. 

“Every brand in the industry claims they have a light or ultra-light product,” Wagner warns, “but they use that term pretty loosely.” 

The benefits of weight reduction are obvious. A 30-foot travel trailer built using lightweight materials and construction techniques can weigh hundred of pounds less than a conventional trailer.

There are savings at the gas pump — towing a lightweight may reduce fuel consumption by a mile per gallon, Wagner says — but equally important is the impact of weight loss on the tow vehicle.

“If you’re towing less weight, there’s less strain on the tow vehicle, on the drive train and brakes, especially,” Wagner notes. “Over time, any extra weight takes a toll on the vehicle.”

But, despite their virtues, not all lightweight towables are built equally. “Normally, ‘lightweight’ means there’s more aluminum in the frame structure,” Wagner says, “but some manufacturers use that as a big tease.” 

Some cut corners using lightweight but substandard materials; others simply make less extensive use of aluminum.

For years, most RVs had a wood frame to which aluminum sidewalls were attached. More recently, the advent of fiberglass and modern composites enabled another style of construction from which the lightweight segment emerged.

In this new style of construction, several layers of materials are laminated or vacuum-bonded into a single piece, which is joined to a frame made either of wood or aluminum.

The more aluminum, the greater the weight savings.

Some makers use aluminum only in the segments of the structure to which the sidewalls are attached, while using wood trusses for the floors, roofs and end caps.

Besides its vulnerability to moisture, “There's nothing wrong with wood,” Wagner says. Indeed, some manufacturers pride themselves in the quality of their wood-frame construction.

There are those who worry that lightweight construction techniques produce less durable trailers. But Wagner says lightweights built by reputable firms are as durable as those that use traditional methods. However, some manufacturers use the lightweight banner as a reason to cut corners.

Like sidewalls, floors are built in layers. To attain weight savings, some makers substitute chip board or plywood for a sturdier, more rigid material.

“You can walk into some ultra-light trailers and the floor feels bouncy and springy,” Wagner says. 

Manufacturers also tout other weight-saving techniques and materials, including such items as tankless “instant-heat” hot water systems and European-style window assemblies.

Each offers benefits, says Wagner, but not without attendant downsides. Plastic European windows weigh less than conventional glass windows, but are easily scratched during cleaning. 

Water from conventional storage-tank systems is hotter than the water from tankless system. Moreover, tankless systems can be powered only by electricity, while conventional systems can run on either propane or electricity.

Finally, says Wagner, the choice to go lightweight or go traditional is a personal one.  

Buyers should educate themselves about the techniques and materials — or mix of them — that were used in the construction of any trailer they’re considering, he says. He urges buyer to “slow down and really look at the method of construction. Reputable manufacturers will include that information in the brochures and websites.”

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

 

Volkswagen shakes a bad case of car flu

Volkswagen summoned journalists to Napa Valley last week, purportedly to introduce its 2014 U.S. product line.
 
The unveilings included a family of innovative and efficient new engines, a new satellite-based connectivity system called Car-Net and an expanded lineup of “performance-inspired” R-Line cars.
 
But the event’s real story was a comeback tale, an accounting of a company on the rebound from a nasty spell of car flu. The symptoms: flagging quality, soaring warranty claims, unhappy customers.
 
As recently as 2007, VW was a “challenged company,” said Marc Trahan, Executive VP of Group Quality. But at about that time, a U.S.-focused initiative called Mach 18 began to bear fruit: 
  • VW has reduced initial quality defects to within a hair’s breadth of the industry standard and should surpass it within the next year. 
  • Since 2009, the number of customer warranty claims has been halved.
  • VW’s JD Power Consumer Satisfaction Index numbers have improved each year for the past five years.
Consequently:
  • Volkswagen has more than doubled its U.S. sales.
  • Customer loyalty is at its highest point in six years.
  • VW tops all non-premium brands in JD Power’s APEAL survey, which measures a brand’s desirability among consumers.
There’s been internal growth, too. Since 2009, VW has added 41 new U.S. dealers. In the global sales battle, the VW Group is closing in on leaders Toyota and General Motors.
 
But because such growth is unsustainable, the company will hit the pause button on new-product introductions, Trahan said. For the next 24 to 36 months, it will focus on refining its lineup and consolidating its gains. 
 
In Napa, VW showed its newest gasoline and diesel engines, which are lighter, more powerful and more efficient than their predecessors.
 
Volkswagen is justifiably proud of its innovative new gasoline engines, which pioneer a breakthrough exhaust-gas management strategy. Integrating the exhaust manifold directly into the cylinder head, VW improves engine output and efficiency and creates an extraordinarily broad and flat power curve.
 
The new engines are quicker to reach operating temperatures, reducing the friction and wear that accompany lower temps and cutting the time needed to heat the cabin.
 
We sampled the new engine architecture in a pair of cars, a 1.8-liter, 170-horsepower 2014 Passat and a 210-hp, 2.0-liter 2015 GTI hatchback, which will be available here early next year.
 
With either engine, peak power comes on at very low engine speeds (1.8L at 1,500 RPM; 2.0L at 1,750) and with virtually no turbo lag. Both engines are extremely responsive, with power available across a broad torque band. 
 
The 1.8L runs on regular unleaded; the 2.0L needs premium.
 
The 1.8L will gradually replace the existing 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine in the Jetta, Beetle and Passat. The 2.0L will power performance trims.
 
Other 2014 updates include: 
  • A retro-themed, limited-edition Beetle GSR.
  • R-Line expanded to include Beetle Coupe and Convertible, CC, Touareg and Tiguan. 
  • Car-Net, a satellite-based in-car connectivity system provides crash notification, roadside assistance, stolen vehicle location assistance; remote vehicle access, onboard and remote diagnostics, enhanced navigation services and more. Available this fall on Beetle, CC, Eos, Jetta, Passat and Tiguan.
 
VW’s 2014-15 lineup reveals a company enjoying strong health and renewed confidence. Its new products are comfortable, attractive, well equipped and competitively priced. New cabin technology brings them into the modern age.
 
It’s VW’s renewed focus on quality, though, that speaks loudest for the brand’s prospects. 

Kia Sorento turns up the heat

Determined to be a big-time player in the States, Kia continues to turn up the heat on its competitors.
 
Just three years ago, Kia replaced its compact, truck-based Sorento SUV with an all-new crossover of the same name. The new Sorento quickly began to ring up sales against such august company as the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Ford Escape.
 
But vehicles in competitive categories can take nothing for granted. So, with the 2014 model year, Sorento gets a mid-cycle refresh so extensive other brands would pitch as a full makeover.
 
Indeed, Kia calls the updated Sorento “80 percent new.” Its chassis is new, interior materials are updated and the telematics and infotainment systems are refined. Last year’s base, four-cylinder engine goes away and a new and more powerful V-6 debuts in the premium-level slot.
 
Its optional all-wheel-drive system adds torque-vectoring, a sophisticated technology that sends power to individual wheels, improving handling in slippery conditions and fast corners. 
 
The Sorento is one of the larger compact crossovers and one of just two to offer third-row seating (the other being the recently reviewed Mitsubishi Outlander). Though its wheelbase is unchanged, this year’s chassis revisions boost rear-seat legroom. A pair of  full-size adults will find abundant leg- and headroom. 
 
As always, the vestigial third row is best left for children too young to know a better world exists just inches ahead.
 
The new chassis produces an 18 percent gain in structural rigidity, allowing the fitment of a new front suspension and a significant retuning of the rear suspension. Both measures improve ride and handling. In town, the Sorento rides smoothly over broken patches. At speed, it’s composed, with minimal body lean in fast corners.
 
Focused on helping consumers forget its cut-rate origins, Kia has replaced hard plastic cabin materials with soft-touch surfaces. Extensive sound-reduction measures cut cabin noise to impressively low levels.
 
Kia pioneered cabin tech in the lower price ranges. The new Sorento’s upper trims feature the latest version of Kia’s voiced-activated UVO eServices infotainment and telematics systems. The color touch screen grows to eight inches, the menu structure has grown more intuitive and graphics are sharper. 
 
The addition of a secondary control knob makes this one of the most user-friendly interfaces available, regardless of price (though I continue my one-man campaign against onboard touch screens).
 
Sorento engine choices include a 2.4-liter, 191-horsepower four-cylinder engine. The optional six measures 3.3 liters and makes 290 hp. A six-speed automatic transmission is standard. Front-wheel drive is standard and all-wheel drive is available.
 
The weak link here is efficiency. The FWD four is rated at 20 mpg city/26 mpg highway and 22 combined. AWD cuts that to 19/24/21. The six is rated 18/25/21 and 18/24/20.
 
The four is generally regarded as a bit underpowered. The six, which on most trims represents a $1,600 upgrade, provides abundant power without a significant efficiency penalty.
 
Other significant ’14 updates include available blind-spot monitoring, front-seat cooling and a height-programmable power liftgate.
 
Whatever you want to call it — makeover or refresh — is immaterial. Fact is, the updated Sorento adds fuel to the already incendiary compact crossover battle.
 
Don Adair is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Contact him at don@dadair.com.
 
2014 Kia Sorento SX AWD
Vehicle base price: $24,100
Trim level base price: $36,700
As tested: $38,550
Optional equipment included third-row seating; rear air conditioning.
EPA ratings: 18 city/24 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Chrysler 300: Promise fulfilled

In 2004, the Chrysler 300 landed like a body slam to the midsection of the full-size sedan segment, its brooding, broad-shouldered presence a poke in the eye of convention.

 

The 300’s dark beauty masked an array of shortcomings, though. On the verge of bankruptcy, Chrysler cut more than a few corners. Neither the interior nor the suspension fulfilled the exterior’s promise.

 

Six years, one recession and a change of ownership later, the second-generation 300 arrived. No less bold stylistically than the original, the new 300 was more than just a comely face. 

 

Suspension upgrades tamed the 300’s wayward ways and mechanical updates boosted fuel efficiency. The cabin finally received the attention the first-gen 300 so richly deserved.

 

Now, in 2013, the 300 ($31,340, including destination) has matured into a comfortable, efficient and sumptuously outfitted adult conveyance. Its 122-inch wheelbase dwarfs the domestic competitions’. Its cabin is large enough and back seat roomy enough that it’s sold in other parts of the world as a limousine. 

 

The 300 is built on a rear-drive platform, with available all-wheel-drive. This RWD architecture produces a driveline hump that reduces rear-seat foot-room but yields superior driving dynamics. Despite its bulk, the new 300 handles confidently, even through fast sweepers.

 

Ride quality is very good, although larger wheel sizes — base trims come with 17s, AWD gets 19s and 20s are available — reduce compliance on rough surfaces. With its large and supportive seats, compliant suspension and well-weighted steering, the 300 will doubtless prove to be an efficient and comfortable long-distance cruiser.

 

And, though it won’t be mistaken for a sport sedan the equal of BMW’s 7 Series or an engineering marvel like Mercedes-Benz’s S Class, the 300 takes a back seat to none in the value sweepstakes. It’s with comfort, convenience and safety features at surprisingly low price points.

 

The base 300 receives automatic headlights, heated mirrors, keyless entry and ignition, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, cruise control, an 8.4-inch central touchscreen interface, dual-zone automatic climate control, leather upholstery, heated front seats, an eight-way power driver seat (with adjustable lumbar), tilt-and-telescoping steering, Bluetooth connectivity and a six-speaker sound system with a CD player, auxiliary audio jack, iPod/USB connectivity and satellite radio.

 

A 292-horsepower V-6 is standard (it’s tweaked to 300 hp on the sport-tuned 300S). Paired with a new eight-speed automatic, it produces EPA estimates of 19 mpg city/31 mpg highway/23 mpg combined; AWD fetches 18/27/21.

 

A 363-hp eight is available on all but the base trim and the high-performance, 470-hp SRT8. Mated with a six-speed gearbox, the eight earns RWD ratings of 16/25/19 and 15/23/18 with AWD. The RWD-only SRT8 earns EPA numbers of 14/23/17.

 

The handful of downsides include limited rearward visibility and vague shift-lever detents. A balky storage-cubby door hinted at cabin cost-cutting.

 

Our admiration for Chrysler’s reborn flagship remains undimmed, though. A roughhewn beauty in its youth, the 300 wears its new maturity like a champion. 

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

2013 Chrysler 300 AWD
Vehicle base price: $30,345
Trim level base price: $32,845
As tested: $35,840
Options included back-up camera; power passenger seats with four-way lumber adjust; fog lamps, security alarm; remote start; universal garage door opener; center high-mount stop lamp.
EPA ratings: 18 city/27 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

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