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Don Adair's Seat Time

Hyundai Equus: Aiming for the top

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Quickly, now: Name the first five luxury sedans that spring to mind.

Done? Good. I’m guessing the Hyundai Equus was not among them. I’ll also guess that in five year’s time, it could well be.

The Equus is a $62,000, full-size, rear-drive sedan, with its sights set on the industry’s best. It won’t be easy, but Hyundai can never be counted out. 

Following a disastrous U.S. debut, in which it replaced Yugo as the punchline in a million lousy-car jokes, the Korean giant roared back to become one of three makes whose sales grew during the recession.

Hyundai introduced the Equus to U.S. buyers in 2011 and has given it a 2014 model-year refresh.

Exterior styling is updated front and rear and the instrument panel and controls are all-new. The suspension has been modified and blind-spot and rear cross-traffic alert systems join the standard-features list.

That list also includes such exotica as heated and ventilated front seats, heated power-reclining rear seats, with rear-seat climate controls, and a power rear sunshade.
A 17-speaker Lexicon audio system has discrete surround-sound capability and includes satellite radio, HD radio, a six-CD/DVD changer, an auxiliary audio jack and an iPod/USB audio interface.

The system is so good Hyundai doesn’t bother to offer an upgrade.

This is the Hyundai game plan, played out a higher level than usual. As large as its competitors — and stronger than most in their base forms — the Equus lays on the tech and goes heavy on standard features, while undercutting the competition by several thousands of dollars.

Hyundai pitches the Equus as a sport-luxury vehicle, with the clear focus on luxury. In many ways, the car reminiscent of the first Lexus LS — it’s quiet, comfortable and well behaved, but perhaps gentle to a fault. 

Its two-mode air suspension is updated this year to produce a firmer ride in the Sport setting and a softer one in Comfort. And while the Equus rides agreeably over the roughest of surfaces, it never holds out the promise of a little back-roads entertainment.

Similarly, while the seats are large and soft, they may prove to be too soft for comfortable long-distance driving.

Equus is available in two trims, Signature and Ultimate. Both employ a 9.2-inch navigation display and most functionality is controlled by way of a console-mounted rotary knob.

Traditionally the master of tech, Hyundai comes up short with this nav system. Though its rotary controller is preferable to a touchscreen, it has frustrating inconsistencies. Online, some owners say they prefer handheld GPS devices to the Equus’s system.  

While other makers have invested their big cars with turbocharged sixes, the Equus relies on good, old eight-cylinder power. Its 5.0-liter V-8 makes 429 horsepower and is mated to an eight-speed automatic. Zero-to-60 comes up in a mid-pack 5.7 seconds but efficiency suffers. The Equus is EPA-rated at 15 mpg city/23 mpg highway and 18 mpg combined.

Over time, Hyundai is certain to build on the Equus’s strengths and rectify its weaknesses. As it sits, Hyundai’s flagship will make value-oriented buyers a happy bunch indeed.

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

2014 Hyundai Equus Signature
Vehicle base price: $61,000
Trim level base price: $61,000
As tested: $61,920
Optional equipment: Our Equus Signature tester included no options.
EPA ratings: 15 city/23 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified 

Nissan Rogue: Smart choice

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There is no shortage of choice in the compact crossover segment. Virtually every maker of any size fields a small crossover, ranging from the barebones to the ultra-luxurious, each with its own unique value proposition.

For its part, the fully made-over 2014 Nissan Rogue hangs its hat on a roomy cabin, with available three-row seating and a spacious cargo compartment; class-leading fuel-efficiency; and a healthy supply of cabin tech. 

The Rogue’s truncated overhangs and bold character lines lend it a strong physical presence. The fully — and handsomely — redesigned cabin sports abundant soft-touch materials and looks and feels more upscale than its $23,350 price tag suggests.

The Rogue loses an inch in overall length, but its wheelbase grows by a half-inch and height is up by 1.2 inches. By reducing the front and rear overhangs, Nissan increases overall cabin space and boosts behind-the-seats cargo capacity by 10 cubic feet, from 29 to 39 cf.

Total cargo space of 70 CF handily bests the class average.

Redesigned rear doors open a full 77 degrees to improve ingress and egress and make it easier to install child seats. Every seat but the driver's folds down to allow transport of long items. The 50/50 split-folding third row bench is tight for adults but the second row is not just roomy; it also offers 9 inches of fore-and-aft travel. 

Up front, a pair of bucket seats borrow from NASA’s space-capsule “zero gravity” design. Articulated to provide continuous support from pelvis to chest, they’re designed to reduce fatigue over long distances.

The new cabin is rife with storage cubbies. There are six front storage areas, two front cupholders and two front bottle-holders.

The Rogue’s 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine makes 170 horsepower and is paired with a continuously variable transmission (CVT). The combination can be noisy under acceleration and, though Nissan’s CVTs are among the best in the business, the rubber-band effect exacerbates engine noise.

To cut aerodynamic drag, improve efficiency and reduce wind noise, Nissan redesigned the A pillar and mirrors, installed a new roof spoiler and implemented a number of underbody devices.

Fuel economy is rated at 33 mpg highway for front-wheel drive models – an 18 percent improvement. City fuel economy is rated at 26 mpg, while combined fuel economy is 28 mpg. AWD Rogues are rated 25/32/28 mpg combined.

All 2014 Rogues receive standard halogen headlights, with LED running lights; power mirrors with LED turn-signal indicators; cruise control; a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, air-conditioning with rear climate vents; a 5-inch color infotainment display; a rearview camera; and Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity. 

Available tech includes NissanConnect telematics, with navigation and smart-phone apps; 360-degree Around View Monitor with Moving Object Detection, Blind Spot Warning, Lane Departure Warning and Forward Collision Warning.
 
Though Nissan positions itself as a sporty alternative to more mainstream makers, it dials out of the Rogue any hint of sportiness. Its newly lengthened wheelbase pairs with a number of suspension upgrades to reduce ride firmness and give the Rogue a smooth, comfortable ride.

It’s doubtless the correct choice in a segment where practicality and comfort trump performance.

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

2014 Nissan Rogue SV AWD
Vehicle base price: $22,490
Trim level base price: $25,580
As tested: $27,985
Optional equipment included NissanConnect telematics with navigation, touch-screen display, traffic, weather, SXM TraveLink, Google Places; USB/iPod port; Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity; handsfree text messaging; AroundView monitor; blind-spot warning, lane-departure warning; moving object detection; heated outside mirrors; floor mats.
EPA ratings: 25 city/32 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Audi Q7 a rare combination

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Audi’s Q7 is a big, meaty slice of German engineering, a seven-passenger crossover with a lust for the open road.

Though it hasn’t had a significant makeover in its seven-year existence, the Q7 offers fully modern levels of comfort, safety and luxury.

Three engine choices — two gas, one diesel — provide the motivation. A silken eight-speed automatic dishes torque to the standard quattro all-wheel-drive system. Four or five adult occupants ride in sumptuous comfort. Small children will survive in vestigial third-row seating.

From behind the wheel, the Q7 feels exactly like the large, powerful rig it is. It’s a road-going machine, designed to cover large distances and rugged conditions. Because it’s an Audi, ride and handling is a sizable cut above. 

And though its best side shines brightest out on the two-lane blacktop, the Q7 also has a city side. Ride quality is very good and instant throttle response provides the thrust and surge necessary for successfully negotiating traffic-clogged thoroughfares.

At its $47,700 base price, the Q7 is well-equipped. Leather, adaptive xenon headlights and a premium 11-speaker sound system are just the tip of the standard-features iceberg. Too many ticks of the options list, thought, elevate the price into astronomical ranges — and can impair performance.

To wit, our diesel-powered tester was optioned with the S line plus appearance package, which replaces the 18-inch all-season radials with 21-inch summer tires that perform poorly on rutted and snow-covered roadways.

Such as the hill that gets me home. 

Twice during my weeklong test, I was forced to park at the bottom of the hill and hoof it home, and every drive on packed snow evoked a tense tiptoe ballet between traction and skid.

This is not to warn buyers off the S plus line — it comes with killer titanium-finish 5-spoke alloys — but to illustrate the hazards of ill-chosen options. Just keep a good set of snow tires to back up the hotrod rubber.

The turbocharged 3.0-liter diesel that powered my tester ran quiet and smooth. It makes 240 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque and earns EPA ratings of 18 mpg city/28 mpg highway/22mpg combined.

Despite those lofty numbers, the diesel doesn’t lack for get-up-and-go. Acceleration is strong and certain and the Tiptronic gearbox makes swift, sure shifts that keep the engine in the heart of its power band.

A supercharged 3.0-liter gasoline engine produces 280 hp on base trims and 333 hp on the performance-oriented S line. Both versions earn a 18 combined mpg (16 city/22 mpg highway).

The Q7 cabin earns top marks for style, materials quality and ergonomics. Audi’s MMI electronics interface presents the usual learning-curve issues, but is easier and safer to use than the current crop of touchscreen systems.

Cargo capacity is the weak link in the Q7 chain, with a total capacity of about that of a compact crossover. 

The Q7 offers a rare combination of drivability, functionality and comfort. Crossover buyers seeking something out of the ordinary would do well to shoot it a glance.

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

2014 Audi Q7 TDI quattro Tiptronic
Vehicle base price: $47,700
Trim level base price: $52,900
As tested: $81,795
Key options included navigation; Bang & Olufsen sound system; air suspension; corner-view camera system; S line and S line plus appearance packages; parking system with rearview camera
EPA rating: 19 city/28 highway
Diesel fuel required

Toyota 4Runner: One of a kind

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My traveling companion wasn’t sure what to make of the 2014 Toyota 4Runner.

“It’s not quite as comfortable as some of the other cars you drive,” she offered. 

“Of course, not,” I said, trying to scrub any hint of condescension from my reply. “It’s not a car; it’s a truck.”

I may have proceeded to elaborate on the difference between a true SUV, like the 4Runner, and the more common car-based crossover. The 4Runner, I probably explained, as her eyes glazed over, is a throwback, a truck-based SUV of the old school.

She demurred when I offered to take her out to the off-road park to show her what this baby could do. She probably thought I’d scare her within an inch of her life and most likely was right.

Not everyone wants or needs a rig as durable, sturdy and rugged as Toyota’s venerable midsize SUV. For those who do, there are precious few alternatives. 

What my TC couldn’t know is that the today’s 4Runner is a far more refined version of its former self, with ride and handling that would have been thought impossible just a few years ago. 

For 2014, the 4Runner receives a handful of exterior updates, including a more aggressive front fascia. On the inside, there’s a redesigned instrument panel and touchscreen audio interface with smartphone integration.

A rearview camera is newly standard across all trim levels. Three-row seating continues to be available, though the third row is only marginally useful. With the second- and third-row seats folded, 4Runner has a healthy 90-cubic-foot cargo capacity. 

4Runner is available in three trims, SR5, Limited and Trail. Each has its own 4WD system, a kind of Goldilocks scenario. For hardcore off-roaders, there’s the Trail edition, with its part-time 4WD system, locking rear differential, crawl control and driver-selectable terrain-responsive modes.

The SR5 has a part-time 4WD system that includes a low-range transfer case.

Limited gets a full-time AWD system, with low-range gearing, that requires no driver intervention. It also adds Toyota’s X-REAS suspension enhancement system that provides a car-like ride.Less capable off-road than either the Trail or SR5, it will meet the needs of most drivers. 

Every 4x4 4Runner is outfitted with underbody skid plates and a traction control system that sends torque to the wheel with the most traction. A 4.0-liter, 270-horsepower V-6, paired with a five-speed automatic transmission, powers all Runners. A properly equipped 4Runner tows up to 4,700 pounds.

Fuel efficiency counts for little in this segment. EPA estimates for the 4Runner are typical: 19 mpg combined (17 mpg city/22 mpg highway) for rear-wheel-drive models and 18 mpg combined (17 city/21 highway) for four-wheel-drive 4Runners.

4Runner is a proud holdout in a world of unibodies and electronic mediation. Sure, you’ll give up something in terms of ride quality (though not as much as you’d think) and fuel efficiency, but I argue that’s a small price to pay for the Runner’s durability and go-anywhere capabilities.

Even my traveling companion would grant me that.

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

2014 Toyota 4Runner Trail Premium
Vehicle base price: $
Trim level base price: $38,645
As tested: $42,175
Options included sliding rear cargo deck; Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System; rigid running boards; carpet floor mat & cargo mat.
EPA ratings: 18 city/21 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Jeep Compass: Transmission transformation

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Jeep’s 2014 Compass crossover earns my nod as the year’s most improved car.

Achieving this crowning standard didn’t cost Jeep much; mainly, it meant adding a conventional six-speed automatic to the transmission mix, where in most instances it replaces last year’s continuously variable transmission (CVT).

CVTs use engine power more efficiently than conventional transmissions do, but their downsides are well documented. In particular, they tend when accelerating to produce an elastic — or rubber-band — feel as the belts and pulleys race to catch up with engine speed.

Not all CVTs are created equal, of course, and the Compass’s was particularly distracting. It’s not entirely gone — the optional Freedom Drive II Off-road system requires it — but for most buyers it’s now a non-issue.
 
The compact Compass (from $20,085, including destination) also receives a handful of styling updates. The best and most important are found inside, where materials are improved and the console and armrests are now vinyl-wrapped.

A comprehensive standard features list — air conditioning, power windows, power locks, heated exterior mirrors, keyless entry, fog lamps, etc. — includes such useful novelties as a cooled glovebox, a rechargeable LED cargo light that can be removed and used as a flashlight and optional liftgate speakers. Bluetooth and a USB port are optional.

Compass is available in three trims — Sport, Latitude and Limited — and three drivetrain configurations. Besides the standard front-wheel-drive, there are the AWD packages, Freedom Drive I and Freedom Drive II.

Freedom Drive I is a conventional full-time AWD system with locking AWD, a bonus in deep snow. Freedom Drive II adds low-range gearing and hill-descent control.

FWD Sport and Latitude trims are powered by a 2.0-liter, 158-horsepower four. A 2.4-liter four that produces 172 hp is standard on the Limited trim and on all AWD models.

Sport comes standard with a five-speed manual transmission, while Latitude and Limited get the new automatic. With the stick and the smaller engine, FWD Compasses earn EPA ratings of 23 city/30 highway/26 combined. The automatic reduces that to 21/28/24. 

With the 2.4-liter engine and the automatic, mileage is 21/28/24. The manual bumps that to 23/28/25. With AWD and the 2.4, the automatic manages 21/27/23, the manual 23/28/25.

Freedom II requires the 2.4 and CVT and adds 17-inch all-terrain tires and aluminum wheels, a one-inch raised ride height, full-size spare, skid plates, tow hooks, fog lamps and manual seat-height adjuster. Fuel economy lags at 20/23/21.

A properly equipped Compass can tow up to 2,000 pounds.

My AWD Latitude tester paired the 2.4-liter engine with the new transmission, and found it transformative. The slightest nudge on the throttle no longer produces a roaring engine and muted forward motion. Throttle response is immediate and the gearbox makes quick, clean shifts.

Among compact crossovers, the Compass’s ride is on the firm side and can grow harsh when the road surface deteriorates. Cabin noise and other comforts are about average, though some of the competitive rigs offer greater sophistication.

Sometimes the only way to go forward is with a step backwards. Jeep’s decision to move away from the CVT was the right thing to do. 

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

2014 Jeep Compass Latitude 4x4
Vehicle base price: $18,395
Trim level base price: $24,295
As tested: $27,275
Optional equipment included security alarm; tire-pressuring monitoring system; auto-dimming rearview mirror; remote USB port; satellite radio; rearview camera; upgrade audio system with voice activation and display screen; remote start.
EPA rating: 21 city/27 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

 

Acura ILX: Affordable, tech-laced luxury

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Two years ago, Acura introduced the compact ILX sedan in hopes of easing young buyers into the near-luxury classes.

Its ILX (from $27,795, including destination) wraps Acura’s core values — affordability, quality and low-key, tech-laced luxury — in an attractive and well-equipped package. 

Though it’s Acura’s entry-level vehicle, the ILX doesn’t scrimp. The base price brings a raft of standard equipment, including sunroof, leather upholstery, keyless entry and ignition, automatic dual-zone climate control, heated seats, active noise cancellation and all the expected connectivity.

A pair of packages — Premium and Technology — take buyers deep into options land, with such extras as xenon headlamps, foglamps, navigation and a terrific 10-speaker surround-sound audio system with digital music storage.

A loaded ILX slips off the dealership floor for $32, 495.

The ILX is unexpectedly roomy given its exterior dimensions and will accommodate four adults comfortably, though the sunroof reduces headroom. The cabin lacks the elegance of both design and materials as those found in some of its stablemates, but it’s attractively designed and ergonomically sound.  

Seats are well designed and provide plenty of lumber and thigh support. The noise cancellation system cuts cabin noise to well below compact-class standards.

Acura bills the ILX as a sport sedan and makes a reasonable case for itself. The ILX’s front-wheel-drive platform is rigid enough to allow suspension tuning that yields a ride that’s firm but not punishing, and that handles fast corners with minimal body lean.

The electrically assisted power steering system is over-boosted at highway speeds and lacks road feel, but it’s accurate and has excellent on-center feel.

Three powertrains are available. The standard 2.0-liter inline four makes 150 horsepower. It’s paired with a five-speed automatic transmission and returns EPA ratings of 24 mpg city/35 mpg highway/28 mpg combined.

Buyers hoping to exploit the ILX’s sporty nature can step up to a 201-hp 2.4-liter four that can be mated with either a close-ratio, six-speed manual transmission or the automatic. It’s rated at 22/31/25.

Acura also offers the ILX in hybrid form ($28,900). Its Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) technology comprises a 90-hp four-cylinder engine and a 23-hp electric motor and produces a combined output of 111 hp and 127 lb-ft of torque. 

The system can’t power the ILX on electricity alone; the electric motor occasionally helps boost power but primarily functions to convert braking energy into electricity that helps charge the battery pack.

Opting for the hybrid fetches efficiency ratings of 39/38/38. Be advised, however, that a) the ILX Hybrid needs 10.4 seconds to arrive at 60 mph from a standstill and b) this version of IMA is not as refined as the one that debuts in this year’s Honda Accord — and that will someday make its way to the family’s Acura wing.

The battery pack’s location reduces the trunk capacity from 12.3 cubic feet to 10 cf, though the rear seatbacks fold in compensation. 

Buyers are turning in increasing numbers to small cars that offer big comfort and compelling efficiency. It’s an attractive scenario into which Acura’s ILX slips comfortably. 

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

2014 Acura ILX Hybrid w/Tech Package
Vehicle base price: $26,900
Trim level base price: $34,600
As tested: $35,495
Options: The ILX Hybrid with Technology is a fully equipped trim; our tester included no options.
EPA ratings: 39 city/39 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

2014 Accord Hybrid: Second-chance sensation

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I once hailed the Honda Accord Hybrid as the car that would bring hybrid technology into the mainstream.

He shoots. He misses.

That car, the original Accord Hybrid, circa 2005-07, had everything going for the one that mattered — fuel efficiency. Apparently wanting it both ways, Honda had built its hybrid system around a V-6 gas engine. The car had the kick of a V-6 but managed just-better-than-average efficiency.

Honda shoots. Honda misses.

Honda is back in the game this year, though, with the 2014 Accord Hybrid ($29,945, including destination). It’s based on a four-cylinder powertrain and marries sterling EPA numbers — 50 mpg city/45 mpg highway/47 mpg combined — with convincing performance.

In the real world, some testers report average mileage of about 44 mpg, while others go as high as 50. My daily drive requires occasional spurts of prolonged acceleration, so my mileage numbers mean nothing. I can offer this, though: The Accord has power when it’s needed. It runs the zero-to-60 sprint in about 7.5 seconds, which is quick by any midsize sedan measure.

Honda’s new hybrid system teams a 141-horsepower 2.0-liter four with two electric motors. The gas engine sends power to the front wheels, while one electric motor sends torque to the rear wheels as needed. 

The other motor acts as a generator, converting gas into electricity and boosting battery charge.

In operation, the system is virtually seamless. If you try hard, it’s possible to feel the point at which the gas engine kicks in to supplement the electrical system, which in ideal conditions can power the car to about 35 mph. The brakes operate with the smooth fluidity of any good system and the continuously variable transmission never lapses into the familiar CVT rubber-band frenzy. 

Ride quality is very good, although the low-rolling-resistance tires give the steering a light and somewhat disconnected feel. Cornering and high-speed handling are excellent.

Inside, rich materials flood the attractive cabin. A three-tier dash effectively segregates a pair of display panels from the control cluster. Front- and rear-seat quality and passenger space are tops among midsize sedans. 

All Accord Hybrids come standard with keyless ignition and entry, dual-zone automatic climate control; full power accessories, including an eight-way power driver’s seat; cruise control, 8-inch video display, Bluetooth phone and audio; rearview camera; and Honda's groundbreaking LaneWatch blind-spot display.

A handful of structural changes — including an all-aluminum front subframe and an aluminum rear bumper beam — are meant primarily to reduce weight. The beam helps offset the weight of the battery pack, which lives behind the rear seat, and improves front-to-rear weight balance.

Hybrid sedans lose about a third of their trunk to the batteries, though the Accord’s trunk  is a bit shallower than most. Complicating matters, the rear seatbacks don’t fold, nor is there a pass-through for long objects.

In the world of compromises, this is not a tough one for most buyers to suffer. And though it’s a bit late to proclaim the Accord Hybrid the first-coming of hybrid sedans, it’s not too late to declare it a second coming of the first order.

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

2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Touring
Base vehicle price: $29,155
Trim level base price: $34,905
As tested: $35,695
Optional equipment: Our fully loaded Touring tester included no options.
EPA ratings: 50 city/45 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

 

2014 Cadenza: Kia growth strategy shapes up

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Kia walked away from the full-size segment in 2009, when it discontinued production of the Amanti sedan.

The late Amanti mirrored the then-current state of affairs at Kia. Its design was confused and derivative, ride and handling were soft and lazy. Still, build quality was sound and fit and finish first-rate. Even the base, $25,000 Amanti impressively showcased new technologies.

Now, just four years after the Amanti’s departure, Kia is back, knocking on the full-size door with a front-drive sedan called Cadenza (from $35,900, including destination).

The all-new Cadenza reflects Kia’s growth over the past half-dozen years. Like its predecessor, it’s nicely assembled and boasts excellent tech and that great warranty.

Unlike the Amanti, the Cadenza is sharply focused. Bearing a clear European imprint, its sweeping roofline caps a shape that manages to be both aggressive and mature. Interior design is contemporary, clean and bold.

Cadenza is powered by a 293-horsepower V-6 that drives the front wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission. The EPA rates fuel efficiency at 19 city/28 highway/22 combined.

Acceleration is reasonably swift. Estimates place the 0-60 sprint at about 7 seconds. While most modern transmissions shift early in the power band for fuel economy benefits, Cadenza’s allows the engine to run up into its upper ranges for performance gains.

Kia tiptoes around the sport-sedan question, with vague allusions to the Autobahn and winding Swiss Alps roads. Despite its European influences, though, the Cadenza is cast in the mold of the original Lexus. Its suspension is nicely sorted, checking body lean in corners while swallowing road-surface irregularities, but the Cadenza won’t have you seeking out the curviest route home. 

At highway speeds, the ride is composed and serene and cabin noise is minimal. Rear-seat legroom is excellent, but the couple-like roofline limits headroom. 

Kia and its parent company Hyundai introduced tech-heavy interiors to the non-luxury classes. Their experience in sorting out the fine — and sometimes contradictory — demands of the human-machine interface pays off in the Cadenza. Kia piles on the tech goodies without forcing the novice to the indignity of the owners manual.

Every Cadenza comes equipped with a rearview camera, rear park assist, an 8-inch touchscreen display, Kia's Uvo voice command system, navigation, Bluetooth phone and audio and a 12-speaker Infinity sound system.

Kia supplements the touchscreen with assorted old-school buttons, preventing the user paralysis that overachieving systems can cause.

Emboldened by recent successes, Kia no longer sweetens the pot with bargain-basement pricing. The Cadenza is available in a single, well-equipped trim whose$35,900 (including destination) price tag sits at the upper end of the midsize spectrum.  

A trio of options packages augments the single-trim strategy, which can create awkward combinations. If you desire the safety benefits of Xenon headlights and the comfort of ventilated seats, you must order the $3,000 Luxury Package. However, the panoramic sunroof it includes reduces headroom, a potential challenge for tall drivers. 

Kia has managed to grow its sales even without being able to offer a credible full-size sedan. Now, the more-than-credible Cadenza gives buyers something entirely new to think about.

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

2014 Kia Cadenza
Vehicle base price: $35,100
As tested: $41,900
Optional equipment: Our tester included the Technology ($3,000) and Luxury ($3,000) packages.
EPA ratings: 19 city/28 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Acura MDX: Hitting its stride

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This should be a very good year for Acura’s MDX.

Fully made over, the 7-passenger crossover went on sale last year and enters 2014 already smashing its own sales records. Built on a new platform and featuring a new powertrain, updated cabin tech and more, the MDX is as fresh as the day it debuted in 2001 — and far more modern.

For the first time in its 13-year history, the MDX is available in a front-wheel-drive version. FWD pricing starts at $43,185, while $45,185 fetches Acura’s brilliant SH-AWD system. 

This year’s updates have an efficiency bias, but affect every aspect of the MDX. The new platform is narrower than before, for improved aerodynamics, yet cabin space grows.

A longer wheelbase, stiffer chassis and revised suspension improve driving dynamics and ride quality, already MDX hallmarks. The MDX sheds 275 pounds, due largely to increased use of high-strength steel.

In tandem with a revised steering system, its svelte new form gives the MDX a lighter and more agile feel from behind the wheel. 

It also enables a more efficient powerplant. The 290-horsepower V-6 that powers the new MDX is less powerful on paper than its predecessor but has a broader power band.  Despite a 17-percent efficiency bump, the ’14 MDX is quicker than before and can still tow up to 5,000 pounds.

EPA-estimated fuel economy with front-wheel drive is 20 mpg city/28 mpg highway and 23 mpg combined, while the AWD version rates 18/27/21.

Inside the fully redesigned cabin, materials quality improves and new noise-abatement measures — ranging from thicker three-layer acoustic glass to a new floor “sealing plane” and Active Noise Control technology — significantly reduce cabin noise.

A new touchscreen system slashes the instrument-panel button count from 41 to nine. At first blush, the system seems to complicates such simple functions as seat-temperature adjustments but Acura says customizable shortcuts override that concern.

The large and comfortable front seats lose an inch of fore-aft travel, which may bother a handful of long-legged drivers, but second-row legroom grows. Second-row seats have a five-position recline feature and slide 5.9 inches fore and aft. At the touch of a button, second-row seats tip and slide forward to allow easy access to the third-row seating area.

Suspension changes drop the vehicle height by 1.5 inches and step-in height by 1.8 inches, easing ingress and egress and boosting aerodynamics. 
 
A new Integrated Dynamics System (IDS) offers three driving modes – Comfort, Normal and Sport. Comfort and Normal affect steering effort. Sport firms up steering feel and adjusts throttle response and SH-AWD torque proportioning. 

Good as it is in every other way, SH-AWD is the MDX’s true strength. It uses a network of sensors to anticipates and proactively offset traction losses, instantaneously directing power to the wheel(s) with the best grip. 

SH-AWD provides tremendous cornering power in dry conditions and is matchless in wintery conditions. As of this year, it’s also available in Acura’s all-new midsize RLX sedan.

Now in its thirteenth year and third generation, the MDX is just hitting its stride. A very good year, indeed.

2014 Acura MDX AWD ADV ENT
Vehicle base price: $42,290
Trim level base price: $56,505
As tested: $57,400
Optional equipment: Our AWD tester bundled the optional Tech, Advanced and Entertainment packages.
EPA ratings: 18 city/27 highway
Premium unleaded fuel recommended

 

Mitsubishi Lancer: AWD on a budget

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Should you be shopping for a compact, all-wheel-drive sedan, you have a choice of two — Subaru’s Impreza and the Mitsubishi Lancer.

As the entry-level Subie, the Impreza’s bona fides are well established. But Mitsubishi is an enigma in the U.S. After partnering here with Chrysler for many years, the company went solo in 1981 and didn’t mount its first national ad campaign until 1989.

Mitsubishi currently offers seven vehicles here; the iMIEV electric vehicle, the subcompact Mirage (made over for 2014), two crossovers (Outlander and Outlander Sport), and three Lancer variants; the sedan, a five-door hatchback called the Sportback and the high-performance Evo. The Sportback and Evo are marketed as separate vehicles.

The Lancer sedan (from $17,990, including destination) is a frugal, well-built and agreeable five-passenger sedan, with crisp styling, excellent rear-seat legroom and a healthy standard-features list. Some studies call it the most reliable car sold in North America.

Today’s tester, the Lancer SE AWD, occupies the second rung of a four-trim lineup that mixes and matches powertrains and drivetrain configurations.

Below the SE ($21,490, including destination), lies the base, front-drive-only ES ($17,990); above it are the front-drive GT ($21,240) and AWD Ralliart ($29,990).

A 148-hp four-cylinder engine powers the front-drive ES, which is available with either a five-speed manual transmission or optional CVT.

The middle pair, ES and GT, share a 168-horsepower four. ES can be had only with a continuously variable transmission (CVT); GT is available with the CVT or a five-speed manual. 

The Ralliart gets a turbocharged 237-hp four and can be had only with AWD and a dual-clutch automated manual.

Fuel efficiency runs about mid-pack among compact sedans, ranging from the 26 mpg city/34 mpg highway/29 mpg combined for an automatic-equipped ES to the Ralliart’s 18/25/20.

New this year on all but the ES are a standard touchscreen audio-system interface and rearview camera. Upper trims get new upholstery and soft-touch door panels, help dress up a cabin that otherwise lacks sparkle.

Standard features on the ES include automatic headlights, keyless entry, full power accessories, air-conditioning, cruise control, front and rear center armrests, height-adjustable driver seat and steering-wheel audio controls.

Besides the larger engine and all-wheel drive, the SE adds four-wheel disc brakes (the ES runs rear drums), heated front seats and side mirrors, chrome exterior accents and the new 6.1-inch touchscreen audio interface with rearview camera and HD and satellite radio.

The Lancer, which was last made over in 2007, faces stiff new competition and is due for a refresh. Taller drivers may regret the absence of a telescoping steering wheel and the short front-seat cushions provide too little thigh support. Others in the segment feel fresher and more refined. 

Even so, its good looks, top-notch build quality and available all-wheel-drive make the Lancer a solid choice. If an AWD compact sedan is on your shopping list, this is one that must be reckoned with.

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

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 don@dadair.com.

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 don@dadair.com.

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 don@dadair.com.

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 don@dadair.com.

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

 

Subaru Outback: Beyond Crocodile Dundee

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If Crocodile Dundee comes to mind when you hear the words “Subaru Outback,” it’s time for a reboot. That car went away in 2009.

The Outback debuted in 1996.  A lifted version of the Legacy wagon, it was quick, nimble and durable and went places other wagons wouldn’t. It was a huge hit and gave birth to the crossover craze. The new competitors were larger and roomier but generally less capable than the Outback off-road. Americans couldn’t get enough of them. 

Subaru retaliated in 2009, with an all-new Outback. Predictably, it was larger, roomier and more SUV-like than the original. 

Use of high-tensile steel cut weight and boosted chassis strength. Structural revisions improved ride quality and cut noise and vibration. A trio of safety technologies — electronic stability control, brake assist and electronic brake-force distribution — joined all-wheel-drive on the standard features list.

The new-gen Outback boasted an SUV-like 8.7 inches of ground clearance, yet had a lower profile than other crossovers, easing the task of loading gear onto its roof. 

Last year, Subaru debuted its new crash avoidance system, called EyeSight. EyeSight uses a pair of windshield-mounted cameras, to produces a stereo image that informs the adaptive cruise control, pre-collision braking and lane departure warning systems. It can detect pedestrians, tell you if you’re swaying within your lane and, under certain conditions, bring the vehicle to a complete stop.

Almost immediately, EyeSight-equipped Subies earned Superior ratings in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s new Front Crash Prevention test. This year, it’s available as part of a $2,740 package that includes a moonroof and is available on the Limited ($26,620) and 2.5i Premium ($25,795) trims.

The 2014 Outback ($24,320) is offered with two engines. A 173-hp 2.5-liter horizontally opposed (“boxer”) four-cylinder engine powers 2.5i trims and is paired with either a six-speed manual or continuously variable transmission (CVT).

EPA estimates for the four-cylinder with CVT are 24 mpg city/30 mpg highway/26 mpg combined. Models with the manual return 22/29/24. Excellent numbers for an AWD crossover.

The Outback 3.6R Limited comes with a 256-hp 3.6-liter six-cylinder boxer engine. The only transmission offered is a five-speed automatic that earns so-so ratings of 17/25/20.
 
I tested a 2.5i Limited, with CVT. Given the choice, I’d have preferred the manual gearbox. Though it improves efficiency, the Subaru CVT has the high-revving rubber-band feel that afflicts the breed. 

The new Outback is less spry than its predecessor. Ride quality is quite good, but the tradeoff for SUV-like ground clearance is excess body motion during transitions. 

Subaru customers tend to be outdoorsy, “active-lifestyle” types to whom opulence holds limited appeal. Strong sales — Subaru is experiencing its fifth straight year of sales growth — suggest that hard-plastic interior surfaces and lackluster navigation and audio systems are of little concern.   

The world changes and we move on. The Outback of Crocodile Dundee notoriety is history but there’s a new Outback in town and it’s ready to make you forget the old one.

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

2014 Subaru Outback 2.5i Limited
Vehicle base price: $23,495    
Trim level base price: $29,395
As tested: $35,260
Optional equipment included keyless access and start; auto-dim mirror with Homelink; unique wood-patterned trim; rear bumper cover; leather trim; floor mats; unique 17-inch wheels; power driver seat with memory and adjustable lumbar; rearview camera; voice-activated navigation system with Aha infotainment; Eyesight driver-assist program.
EPA ratings: 24 city/30 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Kia Forte: Raising expectations

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I was prepared for a letdown the first time I drove the 2014 Kia Forte. It was not my fault. I’d been set up, first by an afternoon in the $285,000 Rolls-Royce Wraith and then a week in the Cadillac CTS ($39,990 base/$66,000 as-tested). 

Forget for a moment that Kia will launch its own $50,000 K900 luxury sedan next year; the brand is known not for mind-bending lux but for entry-level value. How could the humble Kia ($16,700) hope to measure up?

A funny thing happened, though. Perhaps it was because I knew that the Kia was the only one of the three cars I might ever own. Maybe I was relieved that I could make the navigation and infotainment systems work without effort. Or maybe it was the Forte’s lack of pretension. In any case, the Forte quickly won me over. 

Actually, the Forte surprised me — largely, I suppose, because the first-gen Forte had been a mid-pack underachiever. Nice sheet metal; otherwise just a car.

Since that car debuted in 2009, the compact class has exploded with strong new entries. Being left behind is not an option, so Kia reengineered the Forte from the ground up. It’s now longer, lower and wider. Overall interior quality is vastly improved and new insulation reduces cabin noise to unexpectedly low levels.

Cabin space is largely unchanged, but remains plenty roomy for four adults. Despite the stylish sloping roofline, there’s even decent rear-seat headroom.

Though it was a massive step down from my previous rides, nothing about the Forte seemed haphazard, cheesy or off-putting. 

The base LX trim is powered by a 148-horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder that can be mated with a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic. The EX ($20,200) gets a 173-hp four-cylinder that can be had only with the automatic.

All the engine/transmission combos produce city mileage in the mid-20s and highway mileage in the mid-30s. Kia could likely eke out another mile or two with a continuously variable transmission, but the existing automatic is so good it would be a shame to see it go.

A sizable standard features list includes air, full power accessories, Bluetooth phone connectivity and USB/iPod/auxiliary input jack. My loaded EX tester, complete with the Premium Package (leather seats, push-button start, heated and ventilated front seats) and Technology Package (xenon headlights, navigation, electroluminescent gauges, heated rear seats) rang the bell at $25,515.

There’s nothing remotely sporty about the Forte. Its MacPherson-strut front and twist-beam rear suspension provides a decent balance ride and handling, with a bias toward comfort. The EX features a three-setting electric power-assisted steering system, but it’s essentially meaningless. 

Two new models are more likely to interest enthusiasts, one a hatchback, the other a coupe. Due at dealers any day, they will be offered with a 201-hp turbocharged 1.6-liter engine, sport-tuned suspension and 18-inch wheels.

I don’t expect that either one will let me down.

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

2014 Kia Forte EX sedan
Vehicle base price: $15,900
Trim level base price: $19,400
As tested: $25,515
Optional equipment included 17-inch allow wheels; sunroof; leather seats; driver’s seat memory; heated and ventilated front seats; heated rear seats; push-button start; heated steering wheel; auto-dimming mirror with Homelink; front-door-handle pocket lights; puddle lights; engine immobilizer; xenon HID headlights; dual-zone automatic climate control; navigation with Sirius Traffic; electroluminescent gauges; LED taillights; carpeted floor mats.
EPA ratings: 24 city/36 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

CTS: Caddy alive!

Now that it has picked a fight with BMW, Cadillac has to put up or shut up.

As a taxpaying GM shareholder, I’m pleased to report it’s putting up.

Cadillac recently debuted the third-generation of its CTS midsize luxury sport sedan. It debuted in 2002 as a BMW fighter and has been in a state of evolution ever since.

The 2014 CTS ($46,025, including destination) is new from the ground up and presents the most convincing evidence yet that Cadillac is prepared to back up its bluster. The CTS is larger than its predecessor, or about the same size as BMW’s 5 Series. Its cabin grows in refinement and its infotainment and safety systems are more capable. A new platform and longer wheelbase boost ride and handling.   

Two new engine choices — one thrifty, the other sporty — expand the CTS’s mission.

On the outside, Cadillac’s edgy Art & Science design language softens into a more organic — though no less bold — state. The CTS is longer by four inches and slightly shorter and wider. The grille, with the familiar Caddy crest front and center, is flanked by projection headlights, LED running lights and a pair of massive lower-grille intakes.

Counterintuitively, the new midsize rides on a platform developed for the compact ATS. It’s stiff and strong and is 200 pounds lighter than the one it replaces. 

I haven’t tested the CTS’s base suspension, but by all accounts it’s a good one. The CTS is balanced, with 50 percent of its weight up front and 50 percent in back. Its steering is quick, accurate and communicative. Unwanted body motions are well modulated.

My test car added the available Magnetic Ride Control (MRC) system. MRC is a remarkable suspension damping system that produces an ideal — almost unreal — blend of ride comfort and tire grip.
 
The new base engine is a 220-hp turbocharged four (20 city/30 highway) that’s mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. Also new is a twin-turbocharged six that makes 420 hp and powers a new Vsport trim (17/25), which will compete with BMW’s 550i.  

They flank the 321-hp 3.6-liter V-6 (18/29) that carries over from last year.

A new eight-speed automatic transmission is tuned to make aggressive shifts under acceleration but in normal conditions seeks the most efficient — i.e., fuel-sipping — gear.    
All trims but the rear-drive Vsport are available in FWD and AWD configurations. 
 
Inside, all but the base trim are finished in leather. Other materials — the wood, carbon fiber and aluminum — are the genuine item. Premium, hand-sewn, semi-aniline leather seating is available.

Despite its outward growth, the CTS’s interior dimensions remain largely unchanged. Tall passengers may run short on rear-seat legroom; otherwise the cabin is comfy for four.  

Cadillac’s CUE (Cadillac User Experience) solidifies my distaste for touchscreen-based navigation and infotainment systems. CUE’s capabilities are vast but in operation it’s clumsy and distracting. 

For Cadillac, success doesn’t hinge on outselling BMW. It’s almost enough to be considered worthy competition, and you’ll get no argument from here on that score.

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

2014 Cadillac CTS Premium Collection
Vehicle base price: $45,100
Trim level base price: $64,500
As tested: $67,170
Optional equipment on our up-level Premium Collection tester included Black Diamond tricoat paint and 18-inch polished aluminum wheels.
EPA ratings: 18 city/29 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Rolls-Royce Wraith redefines value

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Unbelievably, four days passed before someone asked the question.

Halloween day, I flew to Arizona to drive the newest Rolls-Royce, the $295,000, 624-horsepower, two-door Wraith. 

Not until the following Tuesday did a friend ask the inevitable: “Is it worth it?”

Of course, a thing is worth whatever someone will pay for it. By that measure, 3,575 people found it worth dropping a minimum of $265,000 — the cost of the Wraith’s four-door Ghost sibling — to join the R-R club.

That is, by the way, a new Rolls sales record.

  • Perhaps we could framed it this way. You might find it worth spending $295,000 (plus taxes and a gas guzzler penalty) if you want a car:
  • that’s built by hand, on a production line pushed by craftsmen, not machines;
  • whose GPS-aided transmission knows about corners before you do and shifts in advance;
  •  whose mammoth rear-hinged doors open and close at the touch of a button;
  • that weighs just south of three tons, yet blasts from 0-60 mph in 4.4 seconds and stops nearly as quickly;
  • whose designers wax rhapsodic over a so-subtle-you-might-not-see-it bodyside crease they call the “waftability line.”

There is only one Rolls-Royce.

It wasn’t always so. A 1971 bankruptcy spurred a bout of legal wrangling that at one point saw Volkswagen in possession of the “Spirit of Ecstasy” mascot and the iconic Rolls grille, but BMW owning the name. Due to Its long engineering association with Rolls, BMW won out  

Today, Rolls-Royce is a British company under BMW ownership. British craftspeople build the Wraith atop a version of BMW’s 7 Series platform. Its twin-turbocharged, 6.2-liter V-12 engine, 8-speed transmission and suspension are BMW-derived.

Even so, Rolls execs say the Wraith should not be considered a sporting machine, but a spirited one. Luxury with a dynamic quality, they say.

Underway, the Wraith is serene, swift and poised. It slices through traffic like a yacht in a harbor full of dinghies. Surrounded by club-quality leather and wood — the Wraith’s open-grain wood panelling is hand-cut and installed at a 55-degree bias throughout — driver and passenger cocoon themselves against worldly travails.

During hard acceleration, the big engine roars to life in a symphony of detonation and the transmission flows seamlessly through its cogs. Steering is light and frictionless and the suspension moderates unwanted body motions. At speed in the Arizona desert, the Wraith flowed down into washes and out of them into curving uphill grades with controlled ease. It’s not much for quick transitions, though, and its 41-foot turning circle discourages close-quarter parking-lot maneuvers. 

Rolls owners seem to derive as much pleasure from personalizing their cars as they do driving them. As many as 95 percent the cars it sells are delivered with some degree of personalization, says Rolls, whether it’s a unique thread color on the hand-sewn dash, a custom-built, trunk-mounted picnic hamper done up in teak and tartan or a one-of-a-kind candy-apple-red carbon fiber dashboard.

Bespoke services can add 30 percent to the cost of a typical Rolls. If you don’t have time to fly to the Isles to meet with the Bespoke Department design team, they’ll come to you. 

And that has to be worth something.

Mazda CX-9: Three-row virtuoso

LIke seeing an old friend after a long absence, it was good having Mazda’s CX-9 back in my driveway.

The CX-9 is Mazda’s largest vehicle, a midsize, three-row crossover with all the expected virtues — a comfortable, high-tech cabin, abundant cargo capacity, available all-wheel-drive. 

What distinguishes the CX-9, though, is the best ride and handling package in the class. It’s a big crossover with Mazda’s trademark small-car feel. Underway, it feels taut and sturdy. Steering is sharp and precise. Just-so suspension damping limits body roll without going harsh on city streets. 

Other crossovers may appeal to those who enjoy driving, but only a handful can challenge the CX-9‘s $31,000 cost of entry. 

The big rig looks good, too. A 2013 makeover tamed the excesses of its grinning-grill front facia and left it with a trim, but still distinctive, nose. With 20-inch alloys filling its flared wheel wells, my loaded Grand Touring AWD tester bore a vigorous, youthful air that photos don’t do justice. 

On the inside, the CX-9 is comfortable and spaciousness, though casual cabin storage is limited. Woodgrain and matte-finish metallic trim frame a handsome waterfall instrument panel. Leather wraps the steering wheel and shift knob, and soft-touch materials cover the touch points. 

Hard plastics are attractively textured. Seats are comfortable and well bolstered. The center console houses a large bin, partial compensation for the shortfall of storage opportunities. 

The second-row seat reclines and slides fore and aft to allow easy third-row access. Large rear doors assist ingress and egress.

Simpler access or no, the third row is the kid zone, roomy enough for ‘tweens but in no more that short doses for everyone else. 

The CX-9’s standard audio system includes Bluetooth connectivity, a USB port and Pandora radio compatibility. A 5.8-inch multi-information display debuted last year as standard equipment. A new smartphone-based message system can receive and read text messages out loud. The user can reply using a set of fixed phrases. 

The available TomTom-based, voice-activate navigation system allows consumers to input custom maps as well as regularly update mapping content and software via their home computer.

Powered by a 273-horsepower V-6 mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, the 4,500-pound crossover provides satisfactory acceleration. The gearbox makes quick, clean shifts and in manual-shift mode gives the driver near-complete control.

The available AWD system monitors wheel slippage, steering angle, yaw rate, lateral acceleration and available torque in deciding how much power to send to the rear wheels when the front wheels begin to slip.

One assumes Mazda engineers are working overtime on the next-gen CX-9, which will incorporate the company’s SkyActiv efficiency technology. Doubtless, a new engine and transmission are in the works. As it stands, 2014 front-drive models are rated at 17 mpg city/24 mpg highway/17 mpg combined, AWD models at 16/22/18.

Whenever it comes, the new CX-9 will be welcome in my driveway.

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

2014 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring AWD

Vehicle base price: $29,985
Trim level base price: $36,625
As tested: $40,005
Optional equipment included navigation, Bose premium audio and moonroof.
EPA rating: 16 city/22 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

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