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Don Adair's Seat Time

Archive for July 2014

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

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