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Don Adair's Seat Time

Posts tagged: compact

Hyundai Tucson is a tidy package

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By the terms of the unwritten rules of the automotive world, every car must grow larger with each succeeding generation. 

Larger, roomier, more powerful. It’s the automaker’s mantra.

While Hyundai complies in nearly every case, its 2014 Tucson goes against the grain. The compact crossover has remained resolutely compact; it exists in a no-man’s-land between large hatchbacks like the Nissan Juke and almost-midsize crossovers like Honda’s CR-V.

The Tucson ($22,235, including destination) is ideally suited for the urban grind; it’s large enough to accommodate four adults but small enough to slip easily into tight parking spaces. Its dimensions translate into a small-car highway ride, but its rigid unibody and Euro-tuned suspension produce better-than-expected responsiveness. 

On the winding, two-lane road I drive into town, my Tucson Limited ($27,075) tester felt composed and stable. Body lean through the corners was controlled and the ride remained unruffled over broken surfaces.

The Tucson is updated for 2014 with refreshed sheet metal, standard projector headlights and LED running lights, new touch screens and an enhanced navigation system. Tucson’s two four-cylinder engines add direct injection for improved power delivery.

Its cabin is stylish, modern and smartly organized. Controls are clearly labeled and easily understood. Excellent Fit-and-finish and materials quality complete the picture. 

Rear-seat legroom is adequate for all but larger adults. The second row reclines in two stages, but doesn’t slide fore and aft.

For 2014, Hyundai drops last year’s entry-level GL, leaving the previous mid-grade GLS as the new base. Standard features include a/c, power accessories, 60/40-split folding and reclining second-row seats, 17-inch alloy wheels, a trip computer, privacy glass, rear spoiler, cloth upholstery, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity and a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel with redundant controls.

The six-speaker audio system includes iPod/USB connectivity and satellite radio. Illuminated cupholders and rear-seat a/c vents are useful flourishes.

The Tucson’s ride is stiff-legged by US standards, but most owners will judge that an acceptable trade-off for its dynamic handling characteristics. Hyundai’s SACHS Amplitude Selective Damping, standard this year across the line, allows improved shock-absorber control and better management of the tire-to-road contact patch.

A 164-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine powers the GLS. Front-wheel-drive models earn EPA-estimated fuel economy of 25 mpg combined (23 mpg city/29 mpg highway); AWD is rated at 23 combined (21 city/25 highway).

SE and Limited trims get a 182-hp 2.4-liter four rated at 23 mpg combined (21 mpg city/28 mpg highway) with FWD, and 22 combined (20 city/25 highway) with AWD.

Neither engine is much more powerful or efficient than before, but improved low-end torque produces quicker and more immediate acceleration at low speeds. All-wheel-drive is now available on all Tucson trims.

Equipped with the larger engine, my AWD test car had enough grunt to pass slower traffic easily, though the engine grew noisy when pushed hard. The six-speed automatic made smooth and relaxed shifts; a manual-shift function allows drivers to hurry things along as needed.

By defying the bigger-is-better convention, the Tucson carves out a unique, city-friendly niche for itself.

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

2014 Hyundai Tucson Limited AWD
Vehicle base price: $20,633
Trim level base price: $27,700
As tested: $28,700
Optional equipment: carpeted floor mats
Tow rating: 2,000 lb
EPA rating: 20 city/ 25 highway/22 combined
Regular unleaded fuel specified

VW Jetta: Trickle-down theory at work

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Mention “trickle down” in a political crowd and watch the sparks fly. It’s a different ballgame in the car world, though.

This year, Volkswagen’s compact Jetta sedan enjoys the benefits of a trickle-down product strategy. New to Jetta is a turbocharged, 1.8-liter engine that arrived earlier on such models as Passat, Beetle and CC.

It’s stronger, lighter and more efficient than the 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine it replaces.

Similarly, VW’s Car-Net telematics (crash notification, roadside assistance, etc) migrates downstream from Passat, et al., into upper-tier Jettas.

An independent rear suspension that earlier replaced the old torsion-beam setup on upper trims is now standard across the board.

Otherwise, Jetta retains the qualities that have made it VW’s best-selling model. It easily accommodates four adults and on the road feels lively and solid. Its cabin is quiet at speed and the contoured seats are supportive and comfortable. Jetta’s rigid unibody, 104.4-inch wheelbase and Euro-style suspension give it a road-worthy, big-car feel.

Inside, materials quality and fit and finish are very good, though lower trims sport abundant hard plastics. Soft-touch surfaces lend an upscale feel to upper trims.

Standard features on the S ($17,715) trim include air conditioning, one-touch auto up/down power windows, power locks with keyless entry, aux-in for the radio/CD player, and power heated exterior mirrors.

A de-contented Base Jetta ($16,515) must be special-ordered through a dealership.

Jetta’s interior design is low-key and no-nonsense. Some will find its flat planes and unadorned surfaces uninspired; others will find it refreshingly straightforward.

Gauges are easy to read and the well-damped controls feel substantial.

The navigation system is easy to use but the smallish screen displays limited information. Its speed-limit function continues to be a god-send, though, displaying the posted speed limit whenever the Jetta is on a public road.

Three engines and three transmissions are available. A 110-hp, 2.0-liter four powers Base ($16,515, including shipping) and S trims and can be paired with a five-speed manual or six-speed DSG automated manual. Estimated fuel economy with the stick is 28 combined (24 city/34 highway) and 27 mpg combined (24 mpg city/32 mpg highway) with the DSG.

The 170-hp 1.8T powers SE ($19,715) and SEL ($26,745) trims. Fuel economy is 30 mpg combined (26 mpg city/36 mpg highway), with the manual, and 29 mpg combined (25 city/36 highway), with the DSG.

A 2.0-liter turbocharged diesel four (from $22,115) makes 140 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque and can be paired with the manual or the DSG. With either, estimated fuel economy is 34 mpg combined (30 city/42 highway).

The GLI’s sport suspension rides 0.6 inches lower than other trims and its turbocharged 2.0-liter four makes 210 hp — up 10 from last year. Its XDS+ Cross Differential System reduces understeer during hard cornering.

Originally conceived as a sedan alternative to the rowdy GTI hatchback, the GLI has evolved into a mildly worked-over Jetta. Though strong and responsive, my tester settled quietly into the daily routine, apparently happy without a daily romp.

Meantime, VW’s trickle-down strategy continues to bring good stuff to the compact segment. No argument there.

2014 Volkswagen Jetta GLI Autobahn w/Navigation
Vehicle base price: $15,695
Trim level base price: $29,595
As tested: $30,415
Optional equipment: Our GLI Autobahn tester was a fully equipped model, with no additional options.
EPA rating: 24 city/32 highway/27 combined
Premium fuel specified

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

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 

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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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Kia Sorento turns up the heat

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

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