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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

Lexus CT 200h F Sport

Wearing the F Sport badge while rocking the same powertrain as a Prius gives the Lexus CT 200h a mixed bag of credentials to say the least. The concept of a “performance hybrid” is still regarded as more of an oxymoron than anything else, and for good reason.


But is the CT 200h really trying to posture itself as a sporty hybrid hatchback?

Consider the raw numbers. As mentioned above the 200h uses the same 134hp hybrid system found in the Prius. Each car reaches 60mph in 9.8 seconds. Those aren’t the sort of numbers that will throw Doc Brown back in his seat and leave a set of flaming tire marks on the ground.

Without digging much deeper it’s safe to say Lexus wasn’t very concerned with blowing the doors off a Volkswagen GTI or Subaru Impreza hatchback. In fact those cars aren’t even on the 200h’s radar. At its core Lexus is a luxury brand.

Starting at just under $30,000 the CT 200h is aimed at the burgeoning entry-level luxury market. With 43mpg city, 40mpg highway (only 8mpg less combined than the Prius) it boasts the best fuel economy in the segment.

Impressive as those numbers are they run the risk of losing their luster when compared to the 200h’s real competition: Audi A3, BMW 1 Series and Volvo C30. None of these cars come close to matching the 200h’s fuel economy but all will run circles around it any day of the week.

That isn’t to say there isn’t a healthy degree of fun to be had in the 200h. Using the same double A-arms found in the HS 250h, the suspension was retuned for sportier driving with a Yamaha front and rear damping system that firms up ride quality and reduces body vibration. 

An optional F Sport package includes a tuned suspension, 17-inch wheels, mesh grill, larger rear spoiler, aluminum sport pedals and F Sport badging that insists sporty hybrids are sports cars too.

The first time I sat behind the wheel of the 200h, before pushing the start button to hear the soft hum of hybrid power, it gave every impression of being a car that was destined to have 300hp at the front wheels and an aggressive suspension to do battle with an Impreza STI – gas mileage be-damned.

In the driver’s seat the cabin fits like a glove. The steering wheel has the feel of a meaty performance car, the well-bolstered seats hold you snug in place. Switching to Sport mode cranks up the RPM’s, tightens steering response and increases battery thrust from 500 to 600 volts. The stability and traction control back off to allow for a bit more reckless abandon here and there.

When kept in Sport mode the car’s unimpressive power is far less noticeable, especially around town where there’s not enough room to wait for the Prius-esque acceleration to rear its eco-friendly head on a long freeway onramp. 

That said, even when mashing the accelerator to the floor like a burning bag left on a front porch it’s hard to manage much less than 35mpg.

Handling is a mixture of what you should expect from a Lexus combined with hints of Toyota. It gets the job done in style and lives up to luxury segment standards but isn’t set up to handle any more fun than the synergy drive can muster.

By hybrid standards the 200h is by all means near the top the fun factor list. The closest comparable rival could be the 2012 Honda CR-Z hybrid. Then again, nether car is going to completely satisfy an enthusiast who doesn’t want to compromise performance for fuel efficiency.

Those who are willing to spend a bit more time at the pump in exchange for more jollies behind the wheel should look to the Audi A3 TDI, another fuel-efficient entry level luxury car starting at close to $30,000. The A3 bests the Lexus with 140hp and 236 ft-lb of torque. 

On the comparative downside the A3 only manages 30mpg city, 42mpg highway for a combined estimate of 34mpg, or about the worst you can expect to get out of the 200h.

There lies the rub. In the entry-level luxury market buyers who want performance versus outstanding gas mileage would be better suited to look towards the cars mentioned above to quench their sports car needs.

Drawing on Lexus F-Sport and Prius DNA, the CT 200h deserves a serious look for anyone who wants best in class fuel economy and just enough thrills to keep themselves entertained during a week’s commute.

In the end, regardless of how much sport the F-Sport badge can exude from the 200h, most people still buy a hybrid to save gas and the planet, not because their supposed to be fun to drive.

Looking at it that way the 200h goes above and beyond the call of duty. That’s what a luxury car is supposed to do.

Lexus CT 200h slideshow: http://tinyurl.com/6wq6oea

Trying to broker a way out of a longstanding fish war…

From this morning’s paper:

OLYMPIA _ Trying to broker a truce in a long-running dispute, state lawmakers are considering stripping the state Fish and Wildlife Commission of its role overseeing commercial fishing.

The move – likely to be voted on in a House committee today – caps a tug-of-war with high emotions on both sides.

The nine-member citizen commission, appointed by Gov. Chris Gregoire, oversees fishing and hunting policy.

Critics – including some key lawmakers and Indian tribes – say the current members are biased in favor of sport fishing.

But the commission’s defenders say the group is simply doing the best it can to preserve struggling fish populations. And fishing with a rod instead of a net, they say, is far more selective at a time when the state’s trying to preserve wild fish runs.

The commissioners “are acting on behalf of conservation,” said Ed Wickersham, a sport fisherman from Ridgefield. “They’re frightening interests that have lived by exploiting these resources.”

One of the most high-profile critics of the commission is Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle. He has allowed the Senate to confirm just one of the commissioners, Spokane’s George Orr.

Jacobsen is unhappy that agency director Jeff Koenings – perceived as a commercial-fishing ally – resigned under heavy pressure in December. He’s also offended that the commission snubbed commission vice chairman Fred Shiosaki two years ago, deciding against making the Spokane angler chairman. Shiosaki later resigned from the commission.

“He’s a wonderful gentleman, and they blighted his career at the end,” Jacobsen said.

This year, Jacobsen proposed a bill to shrink the commission, shorten the terms, and strip it of authority to choose the head of the Department of Fish and Wildlife. The governor would do that instead.

“They’ve managed to enrage the tribes, the commercial fishermen, the hunting community. And that’s pretty hard to do,” he said. “They’ve proved it doesn’t work.” The Senate approved the bill and sent it to the House earlier this month.

Jacobsen’s clear about the goal.

“If this bill passes,” he told lawmakers this week, “we neutered ’em.”