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Don Adair's Seat Time

Posts tagged: sport

Mazda3: Small package, big fun

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Buyers today face a raft of good looking, economical and well-equipped compacts, whose starting prices fall well below $20,000. 

Only a handful can make the morning commute rewarding.

That’s the nut Mazda cracks with the 2015 Mazda3 ($17,765, including transportation). Even the entry-level 3, with its 155-horsepower four-cylinder engine and soaring EPA numbers (33 combined/29 city/41 highway), is a proper “driver’s car.”

Step up to the 184-hp 3s and you’ve stumbled upon a high-spirited daily driver.

Available in sedan and hatchback body styles, the 3 was fully made-over for 2014. It received striking new sheet metal, a pair of vigorous yet efficient four-cylinder engines and a new lightweight, high-strength chassis.

This year, the 3 receives a significant powertrain update; the optional 2.5-liter, 184-horsepower engine can be paired with a six-speed manual transmission. It’s perhaps the most fun a buyer can have for less than $25,000. So equipped, the 3 remains the model of efficiency (29 combined/25 city/37 highway).

Add a few choice options and the 3 slips into the near-luxury realm.

Every 3 is well equipped. The entry-level, sedan-only 3i SV includes such standard features as remote keyless entry and push-button start; power folding exterior mirrors; power windows with driver-side one-touch up/down; tilt-and-telescoping steering column; A/C with pollen filter and daytime running lights.
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My Grand Touring tester included not just the new powertrain but also nearly every bell and whistle on the dance card; rain-sensing wipers; navigation; adaptive, high-intensity-discharge headlights (with auto on/of high-beams); a nine-speaker Bose surround-sound audio system; heated leather sport seats; dual-zone automatic climate control, etc.

The price of entry: a modest $26,335.

Trade-offs include a cabin that’s less roomy than the class average and a ride that may be too firm for some buyers, especially with the 18-inch Dunlops aboard.

Mazda compensates for the 3’s shortcomings with inviting cabin design, first-rate ergonomics — including terrific sport seats — and some of the industry’s most intuitive controls. It solves the display-screen real estate challenge by stacking a 7-inch color display atop the dash, where it can be scanned at a glance. The optional head-up speedometer display is the best I’ve seen.

The infotainment system can be controlled either via the touchscreen or a rotary knob similar to those found in far more expensive cars.

But Mazda’s particular magic lies in its ability to merge efficiency, style and comfort with class-leading performance. One of the quickest of the compacts, its dynamics rival those with highfalutin pedigrees. Despite its diminutive size, the 3 feels substantial and stable at speed. 

Its drum-tight chassis allows precise suspension and steering-system tuning — and contributes to outstanding safety results. The 3 aces all crash tests and available technology includes Smart City Brake Support, which can bring the car to a stop at low speeds if the driver fails to react to an imminent collision.

Anyone who enjoys driving but can’t justify spending down the family fortune ought to install the Mazda3 at the top of the shopping list.

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

2015 Mazda3 S 4DR Grand Touring
Vehicle base price: $16,945
Trim level base price: $25,045
As tested: $26,335
Optional equipment included stuff plates; door-sill trim plates
EPA ratings: 29 combined/25 city/37 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Honda Accord Sport: Swimming against the tide

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Some automakers keep their fingers up, trying to figure out which way the wind blows. Others use theirs to take the pulse of the public.

Honda is among the best of the pulse-checkers. Though they’re rarely the most powerful,  beautiful or elegant cars in their segments, Hondas are always found hovering around the tops of the sales charts.

It’s not just customers who value its products. For 27 years running, <em>Car and Driver’s</em> has included the midsize Accord ($22,925, including destination) on its 10Best list for.

Successes aside, Honda can be an outlier. When convinced of the rightness of a strategy, it fearlessly swims against the tide. Despite the fading popularity of manual transmissions, for example, Honda embraces them, offering sticks on even the Accord, the most mainstream of cars.

So, as an old-school guy, I was pleased to spend a week testing a 2015 Accord Sport ($24,685) equipped with a standard transmission. 

The Sport is an odd trim. It builds on the basic Accord formula — front-wheel-drive, thrifty four-cylinder engine, five-passenger cabin — and adds 18-inch alloys, a decklid spoiler, a power driver’s seat and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.

That’s all well and good, since the Accord’s standard-features list includes dual-zone automatic climate control, full power accessories, cruise control, an 8-inch infotainment display, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity and a rearview camera. Its sound system includes a CD player, auxiliary audio jack, iPod/USB interface and Pandora Internet radio.

But that’s the end of it; the Sport is ineligible for additional options. If you want navigation, satellite radio or even heated seats, you’re out of luck. 

Also, you can have the Sport in any color you want, as long as it’s black or gray.

Whatever.

The 185-horsepower 2.4-liter engine that powers all four-cylinder Accords gets a four-horsepower bump in the Sport, due to a dual-exhaust system that improves airflow. 

Besides the stick, the Sport also can be had with a continuously variable transmission (CVT), which improves economy but hinders performance. Stick-equipped Sports run the 0-60 mph sprint in 6.6 seconds and return EPA estimates of 27 mpg combined (24 city/34 highway).

CVT-equipped Accord fours run the 0-60 sprint in 7.8 seconds and earn ratings of 31/27/36.

A 278-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 powers upper trims and can only be paired with a conventional six-speed automatic. Zero to 60 comes up in 6.1 seconds and EPA ratings are 26/21/34. 

In the Sport trim, the Accord’s essential virtues become crystal clear. Its rigid, lightweight chassis enables precise suspension tuning. The ride is a bit stiffer than a typical family sedan’s, but not punishing. The Sport is light on its feet and stable and surefooted in the corners. Its electrically assisted steering system is consistently communicative and accurate. It possesses the organic ease of a car engineered to be responsive to both driver and road conditions. It is  relaxed in demeanor and invigorating in spirit.

Still, if anyone at Honda has a finger in the air, can we at least have heated seats?

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

2015 Honda Accord 4DR Sport
Base price: $22,105
Trim level base price: $23,865
As tested: $24,655
Optional equipment: No options are available for the Accord Sport trim.
EPA ratings: 27 combined/24 city/34 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Lexus RC F: F stands for fast

Halfway through my fourth of fifth fourth lap — almost time enough to sort out the braking points and apexes — I realized was driving a Lexus like I had never before driven a Lexus. Or ever expected to.

Tires squealed. Brakes stank. Ponies — 467 of them — pounded.

We were on the 1.8-mile road course at New Orleans’s NOLA Motorsports Park, testing Lexus’s new RC F sport coupe ($63,325, including destination). The RC F — yes, the F stands for fast — is top dog in a two-car family that includes the 306-hp, six-cylinder RC 350 ($43,715) and its derivative, the RC 350 F Sport.

Coming from a company known for playing it safe around the edges, the 350 F is a revelation. It proves that, given the challenge, Lexus engineers can build cars that can compete with the world’s best.

The 350 F’s most direct natural competitor is BMW’s M4. Both are rear-drive performance coupes. The Bimmer is a buck or two more dear ($65,150), a bit less powerful (425 horsepower) and considerably (400 pounds) lighter. 

Aside from its aggressive interpretation of Lexus’s new corporate “spindle” grille, the 350 F is not immediately recognizable as a Lexus. Its scoops, vents, bulges and bumps are purpose-driven, if polarizing.

There’s even a rear spoiler that emerges from the decklid at 50 mph. Its benefits won’t be evident at those speeds, but they help keep the F planted and stable as enormous disc brakes (15-inch front; 13.6-inch rear) haul down the 4,000-lb. coupe from speed. 

The snug aircraft-style cockpit borrows heavily from the LFA super-car. A tall console separates large, heavily bolstered front seats. The driver faces an LCD gauge pod that changes appearance as it cycles through four driver-selectable modes (Eco, Normal, Sport and Sport+).

The 5.-liter V-8 makes peak power at 7,100 RPM, while maximum torque (389 pound-feet) comes on at 4,100 RPM. Power is channeled to the rear wheels via an eight-speed automatic transmission. The engine and transmission seem perfectly paired. Running primarily in Sport+ during our track session, the gearbox snapped off super-quick and timely upshifts and perfectly timed downshifts, choreographed to ear-pleasing automatic throttle blips.

The zero-to-60 burst happens in a lusty 4.4-seconds.

The F’s <em>piece de resistance</em> is an available $5,500 Performance Package. It swaps out the standard limited-slip rear differential for a three-mode torque-vectoring unit. It can transfer 100 percent of available torque to either rear wheel, helping to guide the car around fast, hard corners without impinging on engine power or scrubbing off speed via the brakes.

Though we didn’t encounter any broken surfaces or rough patches, the F seemed unflappable no matter what kind of shenanigans — intentional and otherwise — we threw at it.

If the F has a fault, it’s that it can make a mediocre driver think he’s a good one, inviting all kinds of real-world trouble. That said, though, a special magic happens when the back wheels release their grip and allow the car to pivot and enter an induced skid. Assuming a) the driver dials in sufficient reverse-lock (i,e., turns the wheel in the direction of the skid) to keep the entire car pointed the right direction) or, b) the traction control system steps in to help, the 350 F dances its bulk right up to to the edge of the track (and beyond, if it’s carrying too much speed), its massive 19-inch Michelin Pilot Super Sports scrambling for traction the entire way.

Then comes the moment the tires bite, finding traction and hurtling the car under full throttle to the next turn entrance, 5.0 liters of titanium valves, lightweight crankshaft and connecting rods, et al., screaming their way back home to the 7,300 redline.

Oh, what fun.

Ultimately, a superior driver will likely find the M4 the quicker car, its weight being its key advantage. It’s maybe three-tenths quicker to 60, and has a livelier step and defter touch through the corners. 

The 350 F is a work in progress. It’s a sure bet Lexus engineers are already exploring ways to make more power, cut weight or produce some other magic fairy dust. Don’t think BMW isn’t watching.

BMW 535d: BMW builds another brilliant diesel

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BMW’s midsize 5 Series sedan is a serious car, built for grown-ups and not easily outgrown. 

Its 3 Series sibling is smaller, edgier, more spirited. The kind of car some buyers will age out of on their way to the 5.

One step above the 5, the flagship 7 is a statement car. It’s sybaritic, accommodating and comfortable as all get-out, but not an essential step up from the 5.

You could spend many years in a 5 and never consider the temptations of a comely stranger.

The 5 has always been the sportiest of the world’s family sedans — to this day, it’s the only midsize luxury sport sedan available with a manual transmission — but It also has a sober side, a grown-up charisma.  

Since the 2010 debut of the sixth-generation 5 Series, BMW has been nudging the 5 along the latter path, with a growing focus on comfort, economy and utility.

For 2014, navigation and xenon adaptive headlights are standard across the line. Two new options packages enable buyers to put a personal stamp on their 5s, and a six-cylinder turbo-diesel powerplant comes aboard.

On the outside, there are modest sheet metal updates. Inside, storage compartments and cup holders boast increased capacity. Noise-reduction measures cut cabin noise to its lowest levels ever. 

Four-door 5 Series variants range from the 241-hp 528i ($50,425, including delivery) to the 443-hp 550i Gran Turismo ($68,825), a sedan/crossover hybrid with elevated ride height, a huge rear seat and a two-mode hatchback. 

Engine choices include turbocharged four-, six- and eight-cylinder gasoline variants, the new turbodiesel and a gas-electric hybrid. All 5 Series sedans are available in rear-drive or all-wheel-drive configurations.

Coupes and convertibles now fly under the new 6 Series banner.

We tested the 535d ($57,525). Its 3.0-liter diesel inline-6 engine makes 255 hp and 413 lb-ft of torque and is paired with an eight-speed automatic. It’s quick — 0-60 in 5.8 seconds — and thrifty. EPA-estimated fuel economy is 30 mpg combined (26/38) with RWD and 30 combined (26/37) with AWD.

The diesel’s performance is nearly identical to that of the six-cylinder, 302-hp 535i ($56,025), which sprints from zero to 60 in 5.9 seconds. Rear-drive models are rated at 24 mpg combined (20/30), with the automatic, and 23 combined (20/30), with the manual (the 535i is the only trim on which the stick can be had). The AWD 535i is automatic-only and achieves 23 combined (20/29).

The eight-speed gearbox works wonders with the torque-rich diesel. Shifts are smooth and quick and land the engine in the heart of its sweet spot. There’s abundant acceleration for passing situations and freeway on-ramps.

BMW's Driving Dynamics Control system is standard on the 5. It allows owners to customize engine, steering and transmission responses. Though BMW has blunted those responses to accommodate a broad range of tastes, the 5’s capabilities easily surpass those of all but an elite handful of drivers.

It’s a car to grow into, not one to grow out of.

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

2014 BMW 535d
Vehicle base price: $45,540
Trim level base price: $56,500
As tested: $66,425
Options included M Sport appearance package; adaptive LED headlights; automatic high beams; keyless entry and ignition; multi-contour seats; sport automatic transmission.
EPA ratings: 26 city/38 highway/30 combined
Low-sulfur diesel required 

CTS: Caddy alive!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acura TL: Out of the shadows

 
Obscured in the shadows cast by showier models, Acura’s midsize TL doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
 
Call it a very good outlier in the near-luxury sport-sedan segment, where BMW’s 3 Series rules. 
 
Two things set the TL apart from its rivals — its front-wheel-drive architecture (AWD is available, and more about that in a moment) and Acura’s commitment to six-cylinder engines.
 
Enthusiasts prefer the rear-drive for its superior driving dynamics. Here in the North, though, front-wheel-drive have obvious advantages. Regarding the cylinder count, Acura’s been right all along; the V-8 is disappearing before our eyes.
 
As it happens, the TL is in the final year of its current life span. You can tell because there’s a new, 2013 Special Edition (SE) trim.
 
Automakers often use special editions to shine one last light on a car before moving on to next year’s model. Special editions juice last-year sales by bundling desirable options into value-priced packages.
 
The TL’s SE package comprises a modest collection of convenience and cosmetic add-ons — keyless access and pushbutton start; a color-matched deck lid spoiler; 10-spoke, 18-inch alloy wheels; the requisite trunk-mounted badging.
 
It amounts to $3,000 worth of premiums for a $1,500 bump, says Acura.
 
It’s worth noting that the base TL ($36,030, including destination) comes standard with power everything, a brilliant audio system, Bluetooth connectivity and — perhaps my favorite feature — world-class xenon high-intensity discharge headlights.
 
They light up my driveway like the deck of an aircraft carrier. 
 
Also standard in the TL quiver is a handsome, well-appointed cabin suitable for four full-size adults, a sport-tuned suspension and one of the most accurate and communicative electrically assisted steering systems in the business.
 
The TL is, as they say, a “driver’s car.” The suspension is tuned to reduce body roll in the corners, but is compliant enough to smooth out potholes. Sport seats cradle passengers’ backsides, holding them tight when the going gets rambunctious.
 
The SE package is only available on FWD TLs. If you want AWD, you’ll need to fork over another $3,550 for the TL SH/AWD. 
 
Acura’s Super-handling All-Wheel-Drive (SH/AWD) system popularized torque vectoring in the States. Without getting into the weeds, I’ll just say it’s the most surefooted system I’ve driven this side of a Porsche Carrera 4.
 
A 280-horsepower V-6 powers FWD TLs. It’s mated with a 6-speed automatic transmission, which can be optioned with steering-wheel paddle shifters. AWD trims get a 305-hp 3.7-liter V-6 that can be had with the automatic or a no-cost optional 6-speed manual.
 
Eight cylinders be damned. The engines are quiet, smooth and strong enough to satisfy any sensible person. The transmissions work with the usual Acura efficiency.   
 
All TLs are eligible for two options packages. TheTechnology package adds handsfree keyless entry, perforated leather, navigation with real-time traffic and weather, rearview camera and 10-speaker surround sound audio. The Advance package adds heated and ventilated front seats and a blind spot monitoring system.
 
With or without AWD, Acura’s TL is a legitimate near-luxury, sport-sedan contender. It deserves all the attention it gets. 
 
Don Adair is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Contact him at don@dadair.com.
 
2013 Acura TL SE
Vehicle base price: $35,905
Trim level base price: $37,405
As tested: $38,300
Optional equipment: The TL SE is a self-contained package; the test vehicle included no optional equipment.
EPA ratings: 20 city/29 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

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