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Don Adair's Seat Time

Ford Fiesta ST: Euro-flavored fun

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There’s no good reason to want Ford’s new Fiesta ST. Fun is its own good reason.

The ST is a sharply focused, sport-tuned subcompact built by Ford in Spain. It debuted in Europe in 1976 and had a three-year US run, from 1978-80.

In 2010, Ford returned the Fiesta to the States, where it’s available in two body styles; sedan ($14,925, including destination) and five-door hatchback ($15,525).

Refined and well-equipped, the Fiesta is fun to drive and comfortable for two adults, with second-row room for a pair of kids.

This year, Fiesta receives a mild facelift and two new variants. A new 123-hp three-cylinder engine available on the midlevel SE trim is rated at 37 mpg combined (32 city/45 highway). 

The ST is a new stand-alone trim that’s available only as a hatchback. Instead of the 120-hp four that powers most models, it gets a turbocharged 197-hp turbocharged four mated to a six-speed manual.

The ST rides 15 millimeters lower than standard trims and gets a sport-tuned suspension, a quicker steering ratio and more powerful brakes. Electronic Torque Vectoring Control stabilizes handling by over-driving the inside front wheel during cornering. A three-mode electronic stability control system lets the driver choose the degree of skid-preventing electronic intervention. 

Recaro sport seats are available as a $2,000 option. Rational adults (i.e., my driving companion) are likely to find the narrow and heavy bolstered Recaros confining, but I like ‘em.

To say the ST is quick is to damn it with too-obvious praise. It’s more than 2 seconds quicker to 60 mph than the normally aspirated Fiesta (7.1 vs. 9.5) but, as always, balance is key. Torque vectoring keeps the tires planted and neutralizes the erratic handling common to high-powered front-drive cars and the buttoned-down suspension minimizes body roll. Gears two through four are tightly spaced to keep the engine in the heart of its power band, while tall final gearing keeps revs down at highway speeds.

Like Mazda’S MX-5 Miata, the ST can be driven to its limits without pushing the speedo into three-digit territory. It’s great, visceral fun to hear the wicked burble that emanates from the dual exhaust system during a downshift, whether it comes at 45 or 75 mph.

Ride quality is quite good, considering the Fiesta’s short wheelbase, aggressively tuned suspension and low profile tires. The cabin gets noisy at highway speeds and the short wheelbase can mean a choppy ride on some surfaces. The young me would have been happy with the ST as my daily driver but those days have fled.

Standard ST gear includes automatic climate control, keyless ignition and entry, MyFord Touch, Sony speakers and HD radio. ST-specific cosmetics include cloth sport seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel, aluminum-trimmed pedals, floor mats and door sill plates.

EPA estimates for the ST are 29 mpg combined (26 city/35 highway), which amounts to about as much fun per gallon as you’ll find this side of a BMW diesel.

If you like your fun on four wheels and don’t want to break the bank — or don’t have one to break — Ford’s little import might well be the answer to your transportation needs. 

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

2014 Ford Fiesta ST
Vehicle base price: $14,130
Trim level base price: $21,400
As tested: $25,995
Options included navigation, heated Recaro seats, heated mirrors, painted 17-inch wheels, Molten Orange tricoat exterior paint.
EPA ratings: 26 city/35 highway/29 combined

Updated Suburban wears refinement well

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For much of its 80-year lifespan, the Chevrolet Suburban was a blunt instrument. Heavy, inefficient and crude, it possessed a logging camp’s rustic charms. 

But as it enters its twelfth generation, the plus-sized SUV has evolved into a well-rounded rig, with virtues that extend beyond its massive people- and load-carrying capacity.

Fully made over for 2015, the Suburban ($48,295, including destination) rides on a sturdy new platform it shares with the Silverado pickup. Its cavernous, three-row cabin is quiet and comfortable and upper trims are luxuriously outfitted. OnStar with 4G LTE makes every Suburban a rolling WiFi hot-spot. 

Considering its heft and the ruggedness baked into its bones, ride and handling are better than what one might expect. We tested the top-grade LTZ trim ($62,695), whose adaptive suspension smoothed out rough road surfaces.

Twelfth-gen Interior upgrades include a new touchscreen, enhanced smartphone integration and a suite of electronic safety features that includes lane-departure warning, blind-spot monitoring and a frontal collision warning and mitigation system.

The Suburban can be equipped with three rows of bench seats, yielding seating for nine adults. New this year is a third row that folds into a well beneath the cargo floor. It replaces a pair of heavy and awkward seats that had to be removed completely and stored when not in use.

The new setup reduces total cargo capacity by a few cubic feet and elevates the cargo floor, but adds flexibility to the cargo hold. The split-folding seatbacks — a total of four — are power operated and raised and lowered via a set of buttons mounted at the back of the cargo area.

Chevy targeted fuel efficiency as a priority for the 2015 Suburban and developed a new 5.3-liter V-8 engine that makes 355 horsepower and 383 pound-feet of torque. A six-speed automatic transmission manages power distribution.

Chevy powertrain engineers employed direct injection, cylinder deactivation, continuously variable valve timing and an advanced combustion system to achieve substantial efficiency gains over last year’s ratings. 

The EPA estimates fuel economy at 18 mpg combined for both 2WD (16 city/23 highway) and 4WD (16/22).

All 4WD Suburbans are equipped with a locking rear differential that improves traction in deep snow or mud. A traditional 4WD system, with a two-speed transfer case and low-range gearing is available. 

In two-wheel-drive form, the Suburban can tow up to 8,300 pounds and, with 4WD, 8,000.

The 2015 Suburban has a more subtle and sophisticated feel from the outside. Its lines are simple and bold. The windshield has a deeper rake and projector-beam headlamps flank the familiar dual-port grille, wrapping deeply into the front fenders. An aluminum hood and liftgate panels help control weight, while new inlaid doors reduce wind noise and improve aerodynamics.

The quality of interior materials, along with fit and finish, are vastly improved, especially in the upper trims. Useful cargo spaces are scattered throughout the cabin.

The Suburban weighs in at nearly 6,000 pounds and building a head of steam requires a heavy throttle foot. Underway, the ride is settled and the cabin quiet. 

Its critics would assign the Suburban to the elephant burial ground, but the stubborn Suburban shows every sign of sailing past the century mark.

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

2015 Chevrolet Suburban 4WD LTZ 
Vehicle base price: $47,300
Trim level base price: $64,700
As tested: $71,880
Options included sunroof; MyLink audio system and navigation; adaptive cruise control; Max Trailering package.
Towing capacity: 8,300 pounds
EPA ratings: 15 city/22 highway/18 combined
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid: Subaru’s green-car bid

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In just its second year of sales, Subaru’s XV Crosstrek has become the company’s third most-popular vehicle.
It trails only Forester and Outback in the sibling sales race and easily outsells the compact Impreza it’s based on.

Following the trail blazed in 1994 by the original Outback, the XV Crosstrek plays off the company’s outdoor-friendly image. Its 8.7-inch ground height bests that of many crossovers and even an SUV or two. Lower body cladding fends off the nicks and scratches that accompany off-roading. Standard all-wheel-drive boosts its year-round utility and off-road chops.

This year, the Crosstrek, already one of the more fuel-efficient crossovers, gets a hybrid variant The hybrid inherits most features of the up-level Limited trim and offers a modest fuel-efficiency bump.

Regular trims are powered by a four-cylinder engine that makes 148 horsepower and 145 lb-ft of torque. It can be paired with a five-speed manual gearbox or a continuously variable transmission (CVT).

The same engine powers the hybrid, with the addition of an electric motor that adds 13 horsepower and 48 lb-ft. It is available only with the CVT.

EPA estimates for CVT-equipped Crosstreks are 28 mpg combined (25 city/33 highway). The manual drops those numbers to 26 mpg combined (23/30). 

The Crosstrek Hybrid registers 31 mpg combined (29/33).

The gas-only Crosstrek is available in 2.0i Premium ($22,820, including transportation) and 2.0i Limited ($25,320) trims. The Hybrid can be had in Limited ($26,820) and Touring ($30,120) trims.

Standard equipment on all Crosstreks includes heated mirrors, a windshield wiper de-icer, air-conditioning, full power accessories, cruise control, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, heated front seats, a 60/40-split-folding rear seat, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity and 17-inch alloy wheels.

The Limited adds automatic headlights, automatic climate control, leather upholstery and a rearview camera.

The Hybrid gets all the features of the Limited, less the leather upholstery, and adds keyless entry and ignition, chrome door handles, quick-ratio electric power steering, wind-cheating active grille shutters and foldable side mirrors.

The Hybrid Touring trim adds sunroof, leather upholstery, a 6.1-inch touchscreen, voice-activated navigation, smartphone integration (featuring Aha radio), high-definition radio and satellite radio.

The low-key Crosstrek cabin emphasizes utility at the expense of luxury. Soft-touch materials cover the dash and door panels and switchgear has a sturdy feel. Understated trim bits add visual variety but minimal flash. 

Even with such techie updates as voice-activation, iTunes tagging and SMS text-messaging, the Crosstrek’s cabin electronics fail to impress. Its audio systems are subpar and the navigation display is cramped and challenging.

The Crosstrek Hybrid suffers from lackluster performance and from the CVT’s distinctive elastic-feeling characteristics. Ride quality and handling are average for the class, though the Crosstrek’s unique drivetrain architecture minimizes body lean.

Subaru’s reputation for quality and its appeal to practical, no-nonsense buyers practically guarantees a market for the hybrid. And the tendency of Subaru owners to extract every last mile from their cars may enhance the hybrid’s cost-to-benefits outlook. However, a close look may tip the scales toward the conventional model.

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

2014 Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid
Vehicle base price: $20,876
Trim level base price: $29,295
As tested: $30,120
Optional equipment: The XV Crosstrek is a fully equipped trim; our tester came with no options.
EPA ratings: 29 city/33 highway/31 combined
Regular unleaded fuel specified

BMW 328d: Strong dose of diesel

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The EPA reckons you can drive your new BMW 3 Series diesel 678 highway miles between fuel stops.

According to my highly non-scientific reckoning, that’s probably about right.

The 2014 BMW 328d ($38,225) runs a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder diesel engine that compensates for its meager 181 horsepower with 280 pound-feet of torque.

<strong>Tech refresher:</strong> Torque makes acceleration, while horsepower relates to sustained speed. One expert explains it like this: “Torque is what gets you to the speed you want quickly; horsepower is what keeps you there.”

In other words, BMW’s new diesel not only sports sterling efficiency numbers (32 mpg city/45 mpg city/37 mpg combined), but does so in lively fashion. The 0-60 mph sprint comes up in the low-7-second range, about average for the sport-sedan class and quicker than the base, 180-hp/200 lb-ft 320i ($33,675; 24/36/28).

The new diesel joins a lineup that includes gasoline-powered four- and six-cylinder engines and a gas/electric hybrid. Most are available in either rear- or all-wheel-drive configurations, and  some can be had with either a six-speed manual gearbox or an eight-speed automatic.

Other 3 Series updates this year include two new AWD-only body styles, a wagon and a Grand Turismo (GT) Hatchback (both priced from $42,375). Under BMW’s new naming strategy, the 3 Series Coupe and Convertible go away and, going forward, will be branded as 4 Series models. 

All 3 Series cars (including the X3 crossover) are built on the same sturdy and responsive platform, and can be had with a series of options packages that allow owners to tweak their 3s in the direction of comfort or performance, or both. 

Of course, the price escalates accordingly. My AWD 328d tester included the $3,500 M Sport package (18-inch wheels, sport seats, aerodynamic body add-ons, more); $1,000 Dynamic Handling Package (adaptive M suspension, variable sport steering); and $500 Sport automatic transmission), and tipped the scales at $47,075.

But, oh my, what a ride.
 
I picked up my 328d tester in Snoqualmie Falls (see story below) and headed south for SeaTac. After returning to the Northwest, I spent a couple of days in the Skagit Valley, north of Seattle. I wrapped things up with a return to Spokane via Hwy. 2 and landed at home with the fuel gauge registering one-quarter full.

This account glosses over a multitude of passing opportunities (passed with flying colors, puns intended), hairy curves and high-speed sweepers. The optional sport transmission allowed me to alter transmission and stability control programs depending on road conditions and my immediate need for speed. 

In full-on Sport Plus mode, the engine runs, without shifting, to the redline and the stability control system shuts down, allowing the driver to let it all hang out. The optional adaptive suspension slashes body lean without turning the ride harsh.

Through it all, the well-equipped, attractive and roomy cabin remains tranquil, with only a hint of diesel clatter at low RPMs. 

Diesels are popping up across the automotive landscape. If the rest of them are half as good as BMW’s, hybrids could turn out to be a threatened species.

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

2014 BMW 328d xDrive Sedan
Vehicle base price:
Trim level base price: $40,500
As tested: $47,075
Optional equipment included sport seats; 18-inch wheels; aerodynamic kit; unique headlight and shadowing exterior trim; adaptive suspension; variable sport steering; sport automatic transmission; Estoril Blue paint.
EPA rating: 31 city/43 highway/35 combined
Clean diesel fuel required 

Bentley GT Speed Convertible proves surprisingly approachable

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By the end of my week with Bentley’s Continental GT Speed Convertible, I had learned that, with exposure, the extraordinary can become, if not commonplace, at least comfortable.

The $250,000 Speed Convertible is the flagship of Bentley’s historic Continental family. With a top speed of 202 mph, it’s the world’s fastest four-passenger convertible (though “four-passenger” is a small fiction). It’s beautifully designed inside and out, spare-no-expense opulent and engineered to the automotive world’s highest standards. 

But what stays with me is the ease with which it put itself at my service, the highest task of every great machine.

This helps explain why, after a few days, I no longer felt like an impostor dropping into the hand-stitched, diamond-quilted leather seats, or why the hairs on the back of my neck no longer quivered in expectation whenever the 12-cylinder, 616-horsepower engine burst into life.

I had stopped hyperventilating whenever the eight-speed automatic made an eye-blink-quick and perfectly timed downshift. I’d grown accustomed to trusting the air suspension to neutralize broken pavement, check body roll and keep the 21-inch tires glued to the asphalt when flying into a fast sweeper.

I had expected a lot of the Bentley, but I hadn’t expected it to act like it could be mine.

Most of us inhabit a world in which the thought of spending $50,000 on a car is beyond the pale and $250,000 explodes the head. For those with the resources, though, the Speed Convertible is one of a handful of very pricey, very good alternatives.

As the young people I encountered explained during my week with the car, the Speed Convertible and its 205-mph Coupe sibling are favored by entertainers and athletes. Apparently, the button-down money goes either to Bentley’s top-of-the-line Mulsanne or to one of a variety of Rolls-Royces.

Makes sense. The Speed Convertible is an athletic car that wants to be driven. Its 6.0-liter W-12 engine makes 590 pound feet of torque between 2,000 and 5,000 RPM, rendering its 5,500-pound bulk as invisible as a magician’s rabbit. Zero-to-60 happens in just 4.1 seconds.

All-wheel-drive is standard, with a 40 front/60 rear torque split that replicates the dynamics of a rear-drive car.

The Speed Convertible is outfitted with almost every conceivable extravagance, from high-end quilted leather and real wood veneers to its Naim for Bentley sound system that produces crystal-clear audio with tremendous dynamic range — even with the top down, at speed. 

Instead of a heavier hardtop, Bentley uses a four-layer canvas lid that seals so well that almost no road or wind noise intrudes. It raises and lowers in seconds, and at up speeds of up to 20 mph.

Should you venture out into the cool evening, optional fans blow warm air at the back of your neck. The front seats are heated, with optional ventilation and massage.

Downsides include scant casual storage and cupholders that sit out, uncovered, in the center console, for all the world to see. Bluetooth is not available, relegating the Bentley to a kind of second-tier status among the young and the wealthy.

We all find ways to compensate for our flaws. Fortunately, the Speed Convertible has a deep well of virtues working hard on its behalf.

Contact Don Adair at don@dadair.com.

2014 Bentley Continental GT Speed Convertible
Vehicle base price: $241,100
Trim level base price: $241,100
As tested: $265,270
Optional equipment included Naim premium audio; neck warmer; leather-trimmed shift paddles; ventilated front seats with massage; gas guzzler penalty.
EPA ratings: 12 city/20 highway/15 combined
Premium fuel required

Honda CR-V: Pint-size colossus

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Honda’s CR-V made its US debut in 1997. For most of the intervening years, it has stood like a pint-sized colossus over the compact crossover class, piling up a succession of sales titles.

Honda has proven remarkably surefooted as it tweaked its five-passenger crossover to meet demand and fend off the competition. Relying on solid engineering, efficient powertrains and a stream of passenger-friendly innovations, the CR-V’s tenders have kept it fresh and relevant.

The arrival of the fourth-generation CR-V in 2012 underscored Honda’s commitment to efficiency, safety and practicality. Marquee updates included a more powerful and efficient engine, a proactive new AWD system and an innovative second-row seat design.

A large center console became standard across the line, boosting the CR-V’s casual storage capacity. A revised rear suspension made room for a lower cargo floor that boosts cargo space and improves access. 

Other new features include an “intelligent” Multi-Information Display (i-MID), Pandora Internet radio interface, SMS text messaging function, and available rear entertainment system.

The new Easy Fold-Down 60/40 Split Rear Seat allows each section of seat’s sections to be folded nearly flat by using a pair of small levers located near the tailgate or a pull-strap positioned on the seat side. The operation is quicker and simpler than most other manual methods.

The CR-V also became the second North American Honda (after Civic) to adopt Honda’s new Motion-Adaptive Electric Power Steering. It works with the vehicle stability program and power steering system to detect the potential for a skid and helps the driver correct for understeer and oversteer, either of which can cause the vehicle to skid out of control.

Finally, Honda dramatically improved the overall feel of the CR-V. It stiffened its chassis, re-calibrated its suspension and added noise-suppressing insulation to reduced noise, harshness and vibration (known in the trade as NVH), within the CR-V cabin.

The new CR-V is more efficient than its predecessor and no less responsiveness or engaging. However, it’s now quieter and more serene underway. New high-capacity shock absorbers contribute to a more sophisticated driving feel.

The CR-V cabin is short on flash but long on practicality. Even when packed with the latest cabin tech, the controls remain intuitive and easy to use, with minimal reliance on a distracting touch screen.

There are more luxurious cabins in the class, but few are better organized, or more comfortable.

A 185-horsepower four-cylinder powers all CR-Vs. The only transmission offered is a five-speed automatic. With front-wheel-drive, the EPA-estimated fuel economy is 23 mpg city/31 mpg highway/26 mpg combined. Each number drops by one with AWD.

Large underbody covers and a rear spoiler enhance efficiency and reduce wind noise.

The new AWD system, Real Time AWD with Intelligent Control, improves performance in all conditions, whether slippery or stable. The electronically controlled system anticipates wheel slip and automatically acts to minimize its impact.

No brand clings to its sales lead forever; This year, Fin fact, Ford’s Escape is making a good run at the CR-V. Nevertheless, the little colossus of the compact crossover segment seems like a solid pick to retain its title.

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

2014 Honda CR-V EX-L AWD w Navigation
Vehicle base price: $21,718
Trim level base price: $30,620
As tested: $31,450
Options: Our EX-L tester was a completely equipped trim, with no optional equipment.
Tow rating: 1,500 lb
EPA ratings: 22 city/31 highway/26 combined
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Kia Optima: Midsize rule-breaker

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Though it has to yet find the sales chart’s upper reaches, Kia’s Optima has changed the rules of the midsize sedan market.

Thanks to Kia and its corporate parent Hyundai, the family sedan segment is awash in technology that a short time ago was the exclusive domain of the luxury segments.

Kia was among the first to understand that buyers of compact and midsize family sedans would spring for amenities common among larger cars. Hence the availability of such options as heated steering wheels, high-end leather upholstery, heated front and rear seats and ventilated front seats.

Ventilated seats in a mid-priced family sedan? Never thought I’d see the day.

This year’s Optima updates include available keyless ignition/entry, blind-spot monitoring, rear parking sensors and new display screens. Outside, the front and rear fascias are updated, with the brand’s signature tabbed grille making its Optima debut.

Standard gear on every 2014 Optima (from $22,300, including destination) includes foglights, full power accessories, cruise control, air-conditioning, a height-adjustable driver seat, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel and Bluetooth phone connectivity.

Fancy electronics don’t make a lackluster car worthy, of course, and Kia aggressively pursues new buyers with cutting-edge design, comfortable cabins and strong engines. A focus on quality has elevated Optima’s reliability ratings to about mid-pack in the segment.

The front-drive sedan is available in four trims — LX ($21,500, including destination), EX ($23,950), SX ($25,500) and Limited ($35,300) — and in gasoline and gas-electric hybrid formats. A 192-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine powers LS, EX and SX trims. A 274-hp 2.0-liter turbocharged four is standard on the Limited trim and optional on the SX. A six-speed automatic transmission is standard.

With the 2.4-liter, EPA-estimated fuel economy is 27 mpg combined (23 city/34 highway); the turbocharged engine is good for 24 mpg combined (20 city/31 highway). 

The 2014 Hybrid debuted at the Chicago Auto Show in February but has yet to reach dealerships. Updates include aerodynamic revisions to the front and rear fascias, new wheel designs, and unique grille and LED lighting elements.

Ever since Kia hired VW/Audi designer Peter Schreyer, Kia’s exteriors have grown more rakish and its interiors more Continental. Some interior plastics recall Kia’s old budget-aware days but  most surfaces are covered with soft-touch materials and overall otherwise materials quality is very good.

Kia’s voice-activated Uvo electronics interface system allows vocal control of cell phones, MP3 players and other devices and services, such as navigation points of interest and turn-by-turn directions. It’s among the most intuitive and useful of the systems on the market.

The Optima is reasonably responsive and entertaining to drive. Steering is a bit numb and artificially weighted, but is accurate and has good on-center feel. Ride quality is very good, though some drivers may find the SX and Limited trims’ sport-tuned suspension too firm.

Optima’s coupe-like silhouette curtails rear-seat headroom; otherwise, the cabin is spacious and comfortable.

It may not (yet) be the country’s best-selling midsize sedan, but the Optima is a major-league trend-setter. It belongs on the shopping list of every buyer committed to owning latest and the greatest.

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

2014 Kia Optima SX Turbo
Vehicle base price: $21,500
Trim level base price: $27,500
As tested: $33,900
Optional equipment included panoramic sunroof; UVO telematics; rearview camera; heated and ventilated front seats; heated rear seats; navigation with SIRIUS services; blind-spot warning system; rear parking sensors.
EPA ratings: 20 city/31 highway/24 combined

Honda Civic: Growing its game

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Last year, for what seems like the umpteenth year in a row, Honda’s Civic was the third-best-selling passenger car in the US and its best-selling compact.

This means that more than 350,000 Americans bought a car known for its reliability, not its flash. I find this oddly satisfying.

In recent years, the compact crowd has battled for supremacy with keyless ignitions, smartphone integration and ever-larger color touch screens. Honda, meanwhile, has been largely content to focus on efficiency, safety and comfort.
 
But Civic’s competitors are stylish and capable and Honda’s reluctance to join the cabin-tech race has seemed increasingly wrongheaded. Now, following a raft of major updates in 2012, the 2014 Civic arrives bearing another round of potential game-changers.

Interiors are freshened across the board, with improved materials, available push-button ignition, larger display screens and enhanced smartphone connectivity. Civic’s cabins are quieter and power and efficiency are improved.

Always one of the category’s most engaging rides, this year’s Civic sees ride-enhancing suspension tweaks on selected trims.

The Civic is available in sedan (from $19,180, including destination), and coupe ($18,980) body styles, and in gasoline, gas/electric hybrid and natural gas formats. The sedan can be had in fuel-efficient HF ($20,730), Hybrid ($25,425) and Natural Gas ($27,430) trims. The hot-shoe Si is available as a coupe ($23,580) or sedan ($23,780).

The 143-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that powers most trims is typically Honda —  smooth, efficient and responsive.

For 2014, Honda replaces last year’s five-speed automatic transmission with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) that boosts both fuel efficiency and acceleration. Like a conventional automatic, the Civic’s CVT “kicks down” under heavy throttle to a lower ratio, producing real acceleration and none of the noisy drama of most CVTs.

CVT-equipped Civics earn EPA ratings if 30 mpg city/39 mpg highway/33 mpg combined. with the base five-speed manual, those numbers dip to 28/36/31. The HF runs low-rolling-resistance tires, aerodynamic aluminum wheels, underbody panels and a rear spoiler to achieve 31/41/35.

The Si, with its  205-hp 2.4-liter four and six-speed manual, gets 22/32/25. The hybrid, 44/47/45.

Inside, the Civic retains its unique two-tier dash layout, with a 5-inch top-tier monitor that displays audio, phone and vehicle-system information. 
Four adults ride comfortably inside a cabin that grew dramatically quieter in 2012. There’s abundant incidental storage and the controls are thoughtfully designed and located — with the notable exception of the audio controls on the LX and on models equipped with navigation. Selecting and setting radio station “favorites” is needlessly complicated and the volume-control slide bar is useless. Better to employ the steering-wheel mounted controls.

Honda’s available HondaLink smartphone app includes Aha radio and Apple’s Siri Eyes voice-command functionality. Most functionality requires an iPhone 5.

All Civics include Honda’s new Motion Adaptive power steering system which helps the driver overcome oversteer or understeer, both of which can cause skids. Honda’s clever — and invaluable — LaneWatch passenger-side blind-spot monitor is standard on upper trims. 

With the Civic no longer the Luddite of the compact class, its No. One sales ranking seems more secure than ever. The competition has its work cut out for it. 

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

2014 Honda Civic EX Sedan
Base price: $18,390
Trim level base price: $21.090
As tested: $21,880
Options: Our EX tester included no options.
EPA ratings: 30 city/39 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Santa Fe: Hyundai’s standout crossover

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If you still don’t believe Hyundai is the real deal, it might be time to check out the Santa Fe crossover.

The midsize, seven-passenger Santa Fe (not to be confused with the smaller Santa Fe Sport), shines brightly in a segment that includes such luminaries as the Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, Dodge Durango and Nissan Pathfinder.

Its 290-horsepower V-6 is one of the most powerful engines in the class and its cabin is among the segment’s most attractive and best equipped. Under everyday conditions, ride and handling are very good.

At $30,775, the Santa Fe is no longer bargain priced, but its standard features list includes several items found only on the other guys’ upper trims, or not at all. They include satellite radio, parking assist, roadside assistance, heated and power-operated front seats, Bluetooth phone and audio, and turn-by-turn navigation.

High-quality materials and soft-touch surfaces dress up the crossover’s roomy cabin. Both front seats are heated and the driver’s seat boasts eight-way adjustability and adjustable four-position lumbar support. 

The 40/20/40-split second-row bench slides for and aft for adult-scale legroom. Taller passengers enjoy plenty of headroom, even with the optional panoramic sunroof in place. Standard second- and third-row HVAC controls, with vents, boost rear-of-the-cabin comfort.

The third row is easily accessed and can accommodate a pair of adults in a pinch.

Up front, gauges are clear and easily readable and the placement of the touchscreen-based controls is logical and ergonomic.

The Santa Fe’s 3.3-liter, 290-hp V-6 is mated with a six-speed automatic. Front-wheel-drive is standard, AWD is optional. EPA estimates are 21 mpg combined (18 mpg city/25 mpg highway) on front-wheel-drive models and 20 mpg combined (18 mpg city and 24 mpg highway) with AWD.

The optional Active Cornering Control All-Wheel-Drive (AWD) system works with the stability management program to anticipate traction losses and distribute torque to any single wheel. Braking force can also be sent to any single wheel.

A three-mode steering system allows the driver to adjust steering feel and power-assist levels. Most drivers will set it and forget it.

Acceleration is on the quick side of average for the class. Underway, the Santa Fe feels nimble and light, even through fast corners. A full load can push the rear suspension to its limits, though, turning handling mushy. 

All Santa Fes are equipped with foglights, rear spoiler, windshield-wiper deicers, cruise control, trip computer, full power accessories, air-conditioning, leather-wrapped tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, eight-way power driver seat (with four-way power lumbar), heated front seats, a 40/20/40-split sliding and reclining second-row seat and a 50/50-split-folding third-row seat.

Also standard are 18-inch alloy wheels, a rearview camera, Hyundai's Blue Link telematics system, and a six-speaker audio system with CD player, satellite radio, HD radio, USB/iPod integration and a 4.3-inch touchscreen display.

Despite robust sales throughout the recession and beyond, Hyundai still faces perception issues. Doubters should know perception is not necessarily reality.

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

2014 Hyundai Santa Fe LTD AWD
Vehicle base price: $29,900
Trim level base price: $35,450
As tested: $41,310
Key options included 19-inch alloy wheels; HID Xenon headlights; LED taillights, panoramic sunroof, heated steering wheel; ventilated front seats; heated rear seats; navigation; surround-sound audio.
Tow rating: 5000 lb.
EPA rating: 18 city/24 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Kia Soul: Growing up painlessly

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I suspect that on some level toddlers know growing up isn’t going to be much fun.

As in, “What’s going to happen when people realize my adorable personality is just a collection of annoying quirks?”

What’s true for kids also holds for cars. There should be a parlor game about cars that were cool in their first generation but lost it all in their second.

Fortunately, the second-generation 2014 Soul has grown up without giving up its cute.

The Soul is a little longer and wider this year, so its already-roomy cabin grows roomier still. A stiff new chassis and suspension upgrades calm what was once a jittery ride. A host of invisible updates isolate the cabin from noise, vibration and harshness, known in the industry as NVH. The more popular of its two engines grows more power. 

Kia campaigns the new Soul under the banner Totally Transformed, though a casual observer is hard pressed to see it. Mild sheet metal revisions include a more muscular front end and unique, body-colored “floating” lift-gate panel. They leave intact the Soul’s unmistakable profile.  

Inside, new and attractive soft-touch surfaces replace the previous model’s hard plastics. Materials quality is dramatically improved, reflecting Kia’s willingness to invest in its little superstar. Fit and finish bespeak careful assembly.

The original introduced a circular design motif, which is amplified here. Kia says the proliferation of circular shapes reflects the typical Soul owner’s affinity with music. It’s the idea of the “sonic ring” — the way sound flows concentrically from its source, like ripples in a pond

The real Soul comes into focus on the road, where its lightweight unibody and sweeping suspension revisions give the Soul a grown-up composure the first edition lacked. This car shrugs off road-surface flaws that would have sent shock waves through the old one.

Body roll is well controlled during high-speed cornering, though nothing about the Soul encourages aggressive driving.

A new one-piece steering assembly improves steering responsiveness and feel at all speeds. On-center feel is excellent and, despite the Soul’s upright stance, crosswinds don’t upset its composure.

Unfortunately, the electrically assisted system doesn’t communicate road-surface information to the driver.

Combatting cabin noise, Kia added new subframe bushings, relocated the steering box and front stabilizer bar, reconfigured the rear shocks and used a new type of foam insulation.

At speed, wind noise off the upright A pillars makes itself evident. Otherwise, the cabin is remarkably tranquil cabin.
 
Two engines are offered. A 1.6-liter four makes 130 horsepower and can be mated to a six-speed manual (which includes a hill-start-assist feature) or six-speed automatic. With either transmission, efficiency is rated at 24 mpg city/30 mpg highway/26 mpg combined. 

A 164-hp 2.0-liter four powers upscale trims. It can be paired only with the automatic and returns EPA numbers of 23/31/26. An available Eco package bumps the combined mileage to 27.

The larger engine is modified this year to produce more power at lower engine speeds, enhancing the Soul’s performance in city traffic.

Kia might easily have botched the Soul’s transition out of infancy. That it didn’t testifies to its own growing maturity.

Contact Don Adair at don@dadair.com.

2014 Kia Soul ! (Exclaim)
Vehicle base price: $14,900
Trim level base price: $20,300
As tested: $26,195
Options included automatic climate control; panoramic sunroof; Infinity audio system; speaker lights; HID low-beam headlights; keyless entry and ignition; leather seat trim; heated and ventilated front seats; heated rear seats; heated steering wheel.
EPA ratings: 23 city/31 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Honda Pilot: Old-timer scores heavily

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Park it among a crowd of slope-roofed, slippery-sided competitors, and Honda’s Pilot plays the role of grizzled old-timer.

Upright and boxy, it looks like the crossover that time forgot.

There’s a method behind that madness, though. That old-school styling obscures one of the segment’s roomiest, most comfortable and most utilitarian interiors. The Pilot’s slab sides and flat roof enable three rows of adult-size seating and a cargo hold that boasts superior real-world capacity.

The midsize Pilot debuted in 2002 and received its first makeover in 2008, when a larger, roomier version arrived. Since then, the segment has exploded and the Pilot faces a new generation of slick-skinned competitors. 

Despite its age, though, the Pilot remains a popular pick; 2013 sales soared to a record 126,628 units.

Most observers expected an all-new, third-generation Pilot this year. Honda appears to have pushed back its launch to fall 2015, however; perhaps in part to improve its performance in the Institute for Highway Safety’s new small front overlap test.

The last round of updates arrived last year, with the addition of a standard rear backup camera, 8-inch high-resolution LCD display, USB port, Bluetooth phone and audio and tri-zone climate control.
 
All pilots are powered by a 24-valve all-aluminum V-6 engine that makes 250 horsepower. It’s mated with one of a pair of five-speed automatic transmissions, depending on whether it’s FWD or AWD. Variable cylinder management allows the engine to run on fewer cylinders in light-load conditions for the sake of full efficiency.

Though dated, its drivetrain produces best-in-class efficiency and provides the Pilot with a 4,500-pound towing capacity. 

The Pilot's EPA-estimated economy stands at 21 mpg combined (18 city/25 highway) for front-drive models and 20 mpg combined (17 city/24 highway) for AWD variants.

Pilot is available in front- and all-wheel-drive configurations. Its AWD system automatically shifts as much as 70 percent of power to the rear wheels if the front tires begin to slip. For maximum traction in slippery conditions, the driver can select a “lock” feature that sends maximum available power to the rear wheels at low speeds.

Shoppers who place a premium on glitzy interiors and the latest gadgetry may find the Pilot wanting. Though materials quality is good and standard Honda fit-and-finish prevails, the cabin is a sober place and its layout and design could stand a good freshening.

Such desirable features as blind-spot monitoring, keyless ignition/entry and second-row captain's chairs are not available.

Honda masters the day-to-day practicalities, though. One example: The hood sheltering the multi-information display lacks glamour, but it effectively blocks those annoying — and fatiguing — nighttime windshield reflections. 

True to its throwback appearance, the Pilot is a large rig and drives like one. It’s stable and planted at speed and over rough surfaces the ride remains smooth and composed. The tradeoff is  body lean during fast cornering.

Ultimately, time respects no crossover and the world awaits the third-generation Pilot. In the meantime, this grizzled old-timer continues to hold its own in the company of younger and shinier competitors. 

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

2014 Honda Pilot 4WD Touring
Vehicle base price: $29,670
Trim level base price: $41,420
As tested: $42,250
Optional equipment: Our 4WD Touring tester came with no optional equipment.
EPA ratings: 17 city/24 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Mitsubishi Mirage: Value champ

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The 2014 Mitsubishi Mirage is the most fuel-efficient non-hybrid vehicle sold in America. With its base price of $13,790, including destination, the subcompact hatchback is also one of the country’s least expensive cars.

Only Chevy’s Spark ($12,995) and the Nissan Versa sedan ($12,800) better its price, and neither touches its sparkling EPA ratings: 37 mpg city/44 mpg highway/40 mpg combined.

“I love this car,” writes an owner at edmunds.com. “It gives me everything I need: a roof, an engine, and wheels  …  I'm able to get it up to 56 mpg if I drive it right … For the economically minded, this car can't be beat.”

Even price-aware entry-level buyers want more than a box on wheels, though, so Mirage comes well equipped. Standard equipment includes automatic climate control; electronic stability control; power side mirrors; power windows with driver's side auto-up/down; keyless entry; seven airbags, including a driver's knee bag; and 4-wheel ABS brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist.

The ES trim ($14,490) adds aluminum alloy wheels; fog lamps; leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob; smart-key passive entry; keyless ignition; steering wheel-mounted audio controls; cruise control and a Bluetooth® hands-free phone system.

The Mirage also can be optioned with a navigation system, rearview camera and parking sensors. 

“Getting a ‘loaded’ car, with Navi, for $17K was nice,” wrote another Edmunds commenter.

Buyers pick from eight “vibrant” colors, including Plasma Purple (pictured), a shade my Facebook friends found wildly amusing.

Mitsubishi covers Mirage with a five-year/60,000-mile basic warranty and 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain coverage.

So the Mirage is inexpensive to buy and operate. It boasts a decent array of standard content and a great warranty. Obviously, tradeoffs are involved.

They start with a cabin that, while comfortable for two, comes up short on second-row seating. With the seatbacks up, Mirage offers 17.2 cubic feet of cargo space. With the seatbacks down that number jumps to 47 cf.

Cabin furnishings are spare. Hard plastics dominate and fit-and-finish trails the competition. The steering column tilts but doesn’t telescope, but drivers of all sizes should find a comfortable driving position. 

Controls are close at hand and easy to operate.

Mirage is a light car, but its 74-horsepower, 1.2-liter three-cylinder engine labors loudly to accelerate, an effect underscored by the optional continuously variable transmission (CVT). While the standard five-speed manual transmission produces excellent EPA numbers —34/42/37, the CVT, a $1,000 option, gets the bragging rights that go with the 37/44/40 ratings. 

The Mirage joins a growing cohort of cars designed for the urban commute. It’s compact and easy to park and navigate in close quarters. However, its short wheelbase, small tires and suspension fundamentals are overmatched by rough and broken pavement. 

At speed, wind and wind noise intrude, steering is vague and the ride is unsettled. 

But let’s give the last word to satisfied owner, who wrote, “Great bargain, reliable, and feels like you spent more than you did.”

If that sounds like your car, there’s a Mitsu dealer with one in a color meant for you.

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

2014 Mitsubishi Mirage ES CVT
Vehicle base price: $12,995 
Trim level base price: $15,990
As tested: $15,990
Optional equipment: Our ES tester included no options
EPA rating: 37 city/44 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

RX 350 F Sport: Crossover kingpin

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Set your Wayback Machine to March 1998, and you’ll witness the first flash of a coming boom.

Today, high-end crossovers lurk at every stoplight. But for a brief moment 15 years ago, there was just one, the Lexus RX 300. Its leather-and-fine-audio aesthetic opened new vistas in a segment ruled by such humble rigs as the Toyota RX4, Honda CR-V and Subaru Forester.

It was a floodgates moment. BMW and Mercedes-Benz quickly countered, and the rest of the world followed. From Acura to Volkswagen, there’s a luxury crossover for every taste — if not every wallet.

Remarkably, after 15 years and a barrage of new competition, the RX remains by a wide margin the best-selling luxury crossover in the U.S. 

Lexus debuted the third-generation RX in 2012 and offers it today in three trims; standard ($40,670), F Sport ($48,360) and 450h hybrid ($47,320). Key third-gen updates included an AWD system that could send up to 50 percent of torque to the rear wheels, electrically assisted steering and a new rear suspension that improved handling and boosted cargo space.

The RX grew a bit and bolder styling incorporated Lexus’s new spindle grill.

The standard features list grew to include keyless entry and start, electrochromic heated side mirrors, U-V reducing glass, Bluetooth, power tilt/telescoping steering wheel, power 10-way driver and passenger seats, sliding and reclining rear seats and a power rear hatch.

A new F Sport Package added an eight-speed automatic transmission, 19-inch wheels, a sport-tuned suspension and an array of appearance upgrades.

For 2014, Lexus takes a deeper step into cabin technology, with the availability of Apple’s Siri Eyes Free Mode technology. Compatible with iPhone 4S and forward, Siri Eyes Free allows hands-free calling to iPhone contacts, iTunes access and turn-by-turn navigation. Siri can read calendar events and notifications and accept spoken input.

F Sport cabins are awash in black leather with contrasting silver stitching, ebony bird’s-eye maple wood trim, black headliner and aluminum pedals and footrest.

Our 2014 RX 350 F Sport tester brought a number of pricey options (dual-screen rear-seat entertainment system; Mark Levinson audio; parking assist; but not Siri) and rang the bell at $56,534.

A 270-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 power both the base and F Sport trims. The standard RX is available in FWD and AWD configurations and uses a six-speed automatic. F Sport is AWD only and gets an eight-speed gearbox.

The RX 350 can tow up to 3,500 pounds. 

EPA-estimated fuel economy for the base trim is 18 city/25 highway/21 combined, FWD, and 18/24/19 highway), AWD. The F Sport is rated at 18/26/21. The 295-hp 450h is rated at 28/32/30 and 30/28/29.

The F Sport is no quicker than the standard trim, but it’s clearly the enthusiast’s choice. Some may find its ride too stiff and track testing reveals its stopping distances to be longer than the base or hybrid trims, but it’s more engaging than either.

Fifteen years at the top is no small feat but Lexus seems reluctant to give up the crown. We’ll need a Wayforward Machine to learn how long it can hold on.

2014 Lexus RX 350 F Sport
Vehicle base price: $39,769
Trim level base price: $47,450
As tested: $56,534
Optional equipment included rear-seat entertainment system; navigation; backup camera; Lexus Enform; satellite radio; heads up display; Mark Levinson audio system; Intuitive Parking Assist; cargo net
EPA ratings: 18 city/21 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Honda Ridgeline: Right-sized trucklet

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Just as the first robin announces spring, the arrival of a Special Edition Honda foreshadows the arrival of an all-new model.

Honda’s short-bed Ridgeline pickup ($30,405, including destination) is due for its first full makeover since debuting in 2006. 

To sweeten the pot until the 2015 Ridgeline arrives, Honda gives us the new, top-of-the-line Special Edition (SE) trim ($38,335). The SE incorporates the stepped upgrades built into the Ridgeline’s five-trim strategy and adds navigation with voice recognition; Bluetooth phone connectivity; and a handful of cosmetic upgrades.

The SE is the full-meal deal, with 18-inch alloy wheels, foglights, sunroof, leather upholstery, ambient console lighting, heated front seats and side mirrors, a 115-volt AC power outlet and satellite radio.

Unibody construction provides car-like ride and handling and the Ridgeline cabin is as quiet and comfortable as any crossover’s. Honda’s latest infotainment and telematics systems aren’t here, though; they won’t be available until the new model arrives.

There’s no such thing as an under-equipped Ridgeline. All trims get a power-sliding rear window, air-conditioning, a 60/40-split lift-up rear seat (with under-seat storage), a rearview camera, full power accessories, cruise control, a trip computer and a six-speaker sound system with CD player.

The Ridgeline is available in a single four-door, five-passenger body style. It’s powered by an all-aluminum 3.5-liter V-6 that makes 250 horsepower and 247 pound-feet of torque. All Ridgelines are equipped with an integrated trailer hitch, oil and transmission coolers, heavy-duty brakes, dual radiator fans and the necessary prewiring for a 7-pin trailer hookup. Maximum towing capacity is 5,000 pounds.

All-wheel-drive is standard. The system can be locked in AWD mode at speeds of up to 18 mph.

The five-speed automatic transmission makes good, sure shifts and Grade Logic Control minimizes gear-hunting in hilly country. Its powertrain is dated, though, and produces anemic EPA numbers: 15 mpg city/21 mpg highway/17 mpg combined.

The Ridgeline’s broad seats provide abundant thigh and lumbar support and the rear bench accommodates two adults. Large knobs and buttons are easy to reach and to use. There’s plenty of storage for CDs and enough power sources to keep phones and tablets charged. 

One rides high in the Ridgeline cab and sight lines are ideal. The cabin is quiet at speed, body lean is minimal in turns and the unibody rides lightly over broken surfaces. 

The Ridgeline’s footprint is smaller than that of a conventional pickup, so it’s lighter on its feet and less of a handful in a parking lot.

For all its strengths, though, I hadn’t fully grasped the Ridgeline’s appeal until now. Its 5-foot bed seemed too short to be of real value.

But this time around, I piled my black Ridgeline tester full of pine branches and serviceberry limbs and carted them in the snow to the burn pile. I fetched firewood from the barn. I carted my bike to Portland for a grandson weekend. 

Neither fully fish nor fowl, car nor truck, the Ridgeline occupies a middle ground where comfort and versatility meet. Suburban ranchers, boaters and light-duty haulers can all find something here to like.

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

2014 Honda Ridgeline SE
Vehicle base price: $29,575
Trim level base price: $37,505
As tested: $38,335
Optional equipment: The Ridgeline SE is a fully equipped trim level; our test vehicle included no options.
EPA ratings: 15 city/21 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Jeep Cherokee: Old name, new crossover

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Jeep goes retro this year, dusting off the fabled Cherokee nameplate and affixing it to an all-new compact crossover.

The recipient, the 2014 Jeep Cherokee (from $23,990, including destination), doesn’t possess its namesake’s off-road cred, but a properly equipped Cherokee goes places most other compact crossovers won’t.

Other competitive advantages include a roomy, tech-festooned cabin and available six-cylinder engine. It’s a heavyweight among compact crossovers and has a stable, big-car feel on the road.

The original Cherokee debuted in 1974. A two-door variant of the Wagoneer, it gave rise to the term “Sport Utility,” which appeared that year in a Cherokee print ad. 

In a quirk obscured by time, the second-generation Cherokee (XJ) was the world’s first crossover, its unibody replacing the traditional body-on-frame structure. It retained the front-engine/rear-drive convention, though, and possessed legendary off-road chops. Today, the XJ remains the purist’s choice.

The Cherokee was replaced in 2002 by the Liberty, which failed to flourish and was decommissioned in 2012.

The new Cherokee offers a choice of engines and 4WD systems. The base 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine makes 184 hp and 171 pound-feet of torque. An optional 3.2-liter V-6 is rated 271 hp and 239 lb-ft of torque.

Jeep mates both engines with a new nine-speed automatic transmission.

Either engine can be paired with either 2WD or 4WD systems. A light-duty 4WD system called Active Drive I is standard on all trims but the trail oriented Trailhawk. An available Active Drive II system includes low-range gearing for improved off-road performance. It’s standard on the Trailhawk, which also adds a locking rear differential.

All 4WD Cherokees get Jeep’s Selec-Terrain system, with its driver-selectable Auto, Snow, Sport and Sand/Mud modes. The Trailhawk adds a Rock mode and hill descent control.

Four-cylinder models equipped with Active Drive I are rated at 21 mpg city/28 mpg highway and 24 combined; V-6-powered Cherokees are rated at 19/27/22. Active Drive II produces 21/27/23 and 19/26/21.

My tester included options packages that added the larger engine, leather upholstery, navigation and a tech bundle that included parallel and perpendicular park assist, adaptive cruise control, rain-sensitive wipers and more.

The vulnerability of such technology surfaced during periods of heavy snow, when blizzard-like conditions threw the adaptive system into a frenzy, setting off warnings, applying the brakes and generally misbehaving until I figured out how to shut it all down.

I suspect all radar-based systems would be equally useless in serious weather. 

On the other hand, Selec-Terrain worked like a champ in deep snow.

The Cherokee’s attractively designed cabin features an especially roomy second-row seat, though behind-the-seats cargo room suffers as a result. Ride and handling are very good, but heavy A and C pillars compromise driver sight lines.

Jeep would be foolish to let a name as rich in heritage as Cherokee sit on the shelf, collecting dust. How well the new rig lives up to the promise of its name is a matter of what you want from it.

Contact Don Adair at don@dadair.com.

2014 Jeep Cherokee Limited 4x4
Vehicle base price: $22,995
Trim level base price: $29,995
As tested: $37,030
Options included V-6 engine; Technology Group; Luxury Group; Uconnect with premium navigation system.
EPA ratings: 19 city/27 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Toyota Tundra: Work ready. Or not.

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Toyota’s redesigned 2014 Tundra pickup family adds a premium trim called the 1794 Edition.

It is, says Toyota, a “tribute to the ranch, founded in 1794, on which the Tundra plant is located in San Antonio.”

With its embossed “saddle-brown” leather upholstery, ultra-suede cabin trim and JBL audio system, the 1794 is a refuge of glitz in a world of straw bales and horse poo. It reminds us that not everyone thinks of “work” and “truck” in the same context.

Unless you consider towing a fifth-wheel or horse trailer work.

The 1794’s lesser siblings are better suited to the workaday world. Five trims include SR, SR5, Limited, Platinum and the 1794. Each gets its own interior design theme and all but the 1794 and Platinum are available in two-door regular cab, extended four-door double cab or four-door crew cab body styles. The 1794 and the similarly equipped Platinum are available only in the crew cab format.

The entire family is redesigned this year, with bolder styling and a more refined and user-friendly cabin.

Responding to complaints that the previous-generation Tundra looked like a “bubble truck,” Toyota squared off its rounded edges, elevated its hood line and fitted a larger, brighter grille. The tailgate is stamped with a big, bold “TUNDRA.”

Inside, a panel of easy-to-read gauges replaces last year's deep binnacles. The center stack moves 2.6 inches leftward, easing the reach required to access the HVAC controls. Knobs are large enough to be operated with gloved hands. Seats are redesigned for increased comfort. Interior materials have a higher-quality look and feel and Toyota has upgraded the quality of the leather used in upper trims.

A touchscreen display is now standard, and most Tundras can be had with the Entune suite of smartphone-based services, including the Bing search engine, Pandora streaming radio, real-time traffic and sports and stock information.

A rearview camera is now standard across the line, and blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert systems are newly available.

New noise-reduction measures reduce the amount of engine and transmission noise that reach the cabin.

But for a few suspension tweaks meant to improve ride quality over harsh road surfaces, mechanicals are essentially unchanged. The three engines — a 4.0-liter, 270-horsepower V-6; a 310-hp 4.6-liter V-8; and a 381-hp 5.7-liter V-8 — carry over. The six is mated with a five-speed automatic, the eights with a six-speed. Its engine choices are varied and, though none is especially fuel-efficient, all are strong enough to get the job done.

Toyota is the only manufacturer to employ the industry’s agreed-upon but seldom-used SAE J2807 tow-rating procedure. Ratings produced by J2807 appear lower than those resulting from other makers’ methods but are more realistic. Properly equipped, the Tundra can tow up to 10,400 pounds.

Tundra remains steadfastly a truck. Its ride is smooth and stable under normal conditions but grows bouncy and irregular when the road surface deteriorates. Its hydraulically assisted steering system is accurate during turn-in and in the corners but is not particularly responsive.

In all the ways that matter, the Tundra is all truck and ready for work. Or not. It’s your choice.

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

2014 Toyota Tundra 1794 4x4
Vehicle base price: $26,200
Trim level base price: $47,320 \
Optional equipment included blind-spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert; 20-inch chrome-clad wheels; running boards; bed liner.
EPA rating: 13 city/17 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

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

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