Archive for the ‘2009 Reviews’ Category


09′ Kia Borrego

October 7, 2009

Another Surprise From Kia:

An Everything SUV

By Roger Witherspoon

It was late, cold, and downtown Peekskill, N.Y., was empty of pedestrians even though Main Street was brightly lit with floodlights and twinkling Christmas ornaments. I had stopped for a red light and a man in an old Ford Explorer SUV pulled up along side, rolled down his window, and asked “What is that? It looks way too good to really be a Kia.”

“That’s what it is, Buddy,” I informed him. “It’s a Kia Borrego SUV. They pack some surprises in their cars these days.”

He asked to see the car, so I pulled over in front of the fire station and gave him the short tour, starting from the rear. I opened the trunk, and he was surprised to see there was a third row of seats. It is actually an option – when the seats are up, the trunk disappears. On the other hand, the third row is actually usable, if you need it. There is more than enough space between the seat and the rear of the second row for two, properly positioned child seats, or two adults under six feet in height. These seats fold down at the touch of a button, however, to provide enough space to haul a washer or dryer.

Getting into the third row is awkward. The running board make it relatively easy to step up to enter the Borrego, but then the second row has to be folded down and slid forward to have access to the rear seats. It is a tight fit for adults.

The second row of wide, padded, leather seats have enough head and leg room for a pair of NBA players. This is an SUV designed for zoned climates, and there are a set of blowers and controls for the second and third rows .He noted that the décor of the doors was a mix of chrome, molded plastic, and padded, double-stitched leather – features he expected to find in expensive imports, but not Kias.

His real surprise came when he sat in the front passenger seat, rested a beefy arm on the wide, padded leather arm rest, and listened to the smooth sounds of Miles wafting over the 10 Infinity speakers. It took a moment for him to realize that the seat was heated, and I showed him where to adjust the temperature. The arm rest is in two sections, with the smaller, upper portion useful for holding and recharging cell phones.

I noticed he had an iPod in his pocket and pointed to the plug-in on the center, molded plastic console for USB Flash drives, iPods, and MP3 players. The console also has holders large enough for liter water bottles, and a deep tray which can hold transit passes and other items. Miles quickly gave way to Bluegrass, but the system didn’t mind at all.

And then he slowly took in the rest of the newest Kia SUV: The touch screen navigation system, the AM/FM/ and Sirius Satellite radio, the single disc CD player, sunroof, and fingertip controls on the adjustable steering wheel for both the cruise command and entertainment system.

“Can I ask how much this cost?” said my guest.

“It’s MSRP is about $36,000” I said.

“How do they pack all this into that price?” he asked.

“I don’t know, buddy,” I said. “That seems to be what Kia does.”

And on that note, we parted.

He wasn’t the first to ask me for a tour of the Kia, a brand which seems to draw as much interest as some of the extremely high end vehicles – primarily because Kias tend to look and sound a lot better than most people expect of a brand which has become a staple target of Jay Leno’s monologues.


09′ Infinity FX35

October 7, 2009

Infiniti’s Road Running

Home Away from Home

By Roger Witherspoon

It was after midnight, and the clouds depositing a soft rain over Bear Mountain State Park, just south of West Point, blocked any trace of light from the waning moon.

I rounded a curve and caught a flash of gray fur in the light from the high beams, then a second, more sluggish furball – a pair of foxes, with one carrying a woodchuck home for dinner. There wasn’t really time to brake, but there was a chance to weave.

I turned the wheel sharply left, so the 20-inch wheels on the driver’s side were riding on wet grass while the right side was on the highway, counting on Infiniti’s traction control to take care of the difference in the surfaces. The maneuver let the FX 35 slide behind the first fox, and then a sharp swerve into the right lane let me pass the second fox, the one carrying dinner. I hit the button on the rear camera and saw the furry tails bob into the brush on the other side of the road, and I continued on home.

There are advantages to driving a crossover which truly is one – an SUV built on the platform of a sedan which, in a pinch, maneuvers and feels like a sports car. It is a segment of the industry which Nissan more or less invented with its smaller, Nissan Murano, and has expanded with its upscale, Infiniti FX, which shares a frame with its luxury sport sedan, the M45. In this case the FX provides the room and height of a mid-sized SUV, as well as the luxury and the performance you might expect from a $54,000 sedan.

Well, most of the performance of the sedan. Under the hood, the FX 35 has a 303-horsepower V-6 engine which is not going to let you drag race, as you can with the sedan. But it is more than enough power to push the FX speedometer into the triple digits or easily tow 2,000 pounds of cargo. And if you are traveling above the posted speed limit, the FX is balanced enough that you do not feel as if you are about to lose control and roll off of its 20-inch wheels at every curve. There is a big brother version of the FX 35, the FX 50, which has larger wheels, a 390-horsepower V-8 engine, can tow 1,500 pounds more than the FX-35, and earn you an even stiffer traffic summons if you are heavy footed.

Outside, the design of the FX is unique. “Why does it have such big hips?” asked one female observer.

Why indeed. The Infiniti FX does have, outside, this wide, bold, broad stance with flaring wheel wells indicating something big underneath – a trick of the eye intended to entice more male buyers to this upscale vehicle. But, when you look at the FX, the wheels are those of a regular family sized sedan, and not particularly wide, either. But the appeal to men is there, from the aggressive slashing xenon headlights which turn in the direction of the wheel, through its low, wavy, racing profile, to the slashing tail lights.

But inside, there was nothing particularly masculine about it, except that it seems spacious, and you sit high as if you are in a gas guzzling SUV instead of a more modest, six-cylinder crossover sedan. The seats are comfortable, wide, deep, spacious, powered, feature cross-stitched leather, can be heated, and have power lumbar supports to sooth older backs. For those who are passengers, there is ample room in the back for those well over six feet in height without sacrificing their heads, knees or feet.

There are the refined touches, like the maple wood trim on the dash, the console, and in wide patches on the door flanked by more leather trim. And a few thoughtful touches, such as cutouts on the console to hold two cell phones which are easily mated to the Bluetooth communications system. There is a split level storage bin under the wide, leather arm rest and four 12-volt outlets for recharging the phones or powering other items.

On the electronic side, the information center is set in an 8-inch touch screen which makes every function easily accessible and understandable. It houses a navigation system which is among the easiest and most complete to use, on or off the road. But this is also responsive to voice commands.

There are a number of electronic safety features built into the FX, beginning with the cameras. The FX provides two views automatically when you place the car into reverse: a straight rear view, and an overhead view of the entire car showing what objects are in range of the door if it were opened. At the push of a button, however, you can switch the rear view to a forward view – something which is handy if you are trying to parallel park into a tight space. The side view is also helpful in parking lots, where toddlers may be strolling by who are too small for you to see through the expansive windows. The rear and front camera can also be used when the car is moving, a feature you don’t usually find, but one which may be helpful if you think the car gaining on you from behind is moving erratically.

Among the fingertip controls on the adjustable leather steering wheel is an adaptive cruise control, which lets you set both speed and distance between the FX and any car in front of you. If you are gaining on a vehicle, the FX will automatically match speeds until the slower car is out of the way, and then it will resume the preset speed.

For entertainment, the FX 35 features a 9.3 GB music box hard drive working with the entertainment system so you can download a few hundred of your favorites CDs and have, essentially, an in-house, rolling iPod. The music will float over a Bose sound system with 11 speakers and 2 subwoofers. There is only a single CD player, but that is mostly to let you record onto the music box, along with the USB port, and iPod and MP3 connections. In addition to the music of your choice, the FX has XM satellite radio and mates this to the navigation system with Real Time Traffic, thus allowing motorists to bypass the worst of the rush hour delays.

The FX35 is the antidote to vehicles which draw the query “Are we there, yet?” With the FX, you’re always eager for another, longer ride.

2009 Infiniti FX 35 AWD

MSRP: $53,915

EPA Mileage: 16 MPG City 21 MPG Highway

As Tested Mileage: 14.6 MPG Mixed

Towing Capacity: 2,000 Pounds

Performance / Safety:

3.5-Liter DOHC aluminum V-6 engine producing 303 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque; 7-speed automatic overdrive transmission with manual shift and snow mode; All wheel drive; front & rear vented disc brakes; independent double-wishbone front & multi-link rear suspension; 20” split 5-spoke aluminum alloy wheels; xenon headlights and adaptive front lighting system; integrated front fog lights; magnesium paddle shifts; brake assist; forward collision warning; lane departure warning system; distance control; around-view monitor and backup camera; dual stage supplemental airbags; roof mounted curtain side-impact air bags w/rollover sensor; traction control system.

Interior / Comfort:

AM/FM/XM satellite radio; navigation system with real time traffic; 9.3 GB MusicBox hard drive and compact flash slot; single CD player in dash; iPod and MP3 connection; 8-inch color touch screen display; Bose premium audio system with 11 speakers and 2 subwoofers; steering wheel audio controls; Bluetooth connection; power, heated front seats; power sunroof; tilt, telescope steering wheel; quilted leather seats.


Mid-Sized Luxury In a Mercedes C-350

October 7, 2009


By Roger Witherspoon

The drive down the New England Thruway had been just the way a motorist likes it: fast, uneventful, on an uncrowded roan under a warm fall sun.

Jon Lucien was crooning his Caribbean brand of soul, and the eight speakers in the Harman /Kardon Logic-7 surround sound system was so all-consuming that you could almost hear the ocean surf and the soft hum of flying birds as the miles slid by. The sound was contained in the Mercedes C-350, a sleek, trim, low, mid-sized sedan with the understated styling of a Jaguar and the quiet, effortless power of a high priced sedan.

So as I merged onto the Cross Bronx Expressway – a two-lane, under-paved, overly patched roadway slicing through New York City which is often just a parking lot for cross country trucks – I was not expecting to be bum-rushed by a tired, double-hulled trucker in a hurry. But as the lanes merged, I realize there was only room for one vehicle, the Mercedes or the truck, but not both of us. And we were fast running out of roadway.

So I jammed the accelerator to the floor and, with a rumble from the twin chrome exhausts, the sedan with the thin, aggressive-looking grill, shot forward. In an instant, the speedometer seemingly skipped every number between 65 and 100 as the Mercedes leaped out of the way of the hustling trucker, and put plenty of daylight between the two of us. Then I went back to enjoying the road.

There are advantages to driving a well built car, particularly one which can double as either a commuting, go-anywhere sedan, or a sports car. While not the fastest vehicle on the planet, the 2009 Mercedes C-350 can cruise all day in triple digits – if you’re in the wide open southwestern part of the country – or take you at a more sedate pace through the more crowded eastern roads. Either way, you travel in comfort and quiet style.

Under the hood is a 3.5-liter V-6 engine cranking out 268 horsepower, more than enough to let this car mix with the front of the road running pack. It rolls on 18-inch, AMG, light aluminum, twin-spoke, alloy wheels which hold the road as if coated with rubber cement. Its independent front and rear suspensions soften patched highways and suburban gravel roads. It comes with a seven speed automatic transmission which switches gears instantly and applies power immediately. And for those who like hands-on control, there is a manual, sport mode using the chrome gear shift to slide from first to seventh gear.

This may be a sedan, but the front styling is all sports car, with a thin chrome grill containing the Mercedes circled star over a thin black radiator in a combination that looks like a grimace. The headlights slope back like a motorcycle rider’s aviator glasses covering small, bi-Xenon headlights and fog lamps. The side mirrors have turning lights on them, so oncoming motorists know you are about to turn. The C-350 has a short, stubby rear which hides a large trunk that can be enhanced by laying down the rear seats.

Inside this quiet ride, the comfort starts on top with twin sunroofs to light the front and rear seats. Only the front sunroof opens, however. The interior décor is leather and maple wood trim, giving the C-350 the polish one would expect in a car carrying a price tag approaching $50,000. There is also enough room in the back for my six-foot, five-inch neighbor to relax and not worry about bumping his knees or head.

It is packed with the electronics one would expect in a luxury vehicle. There is a seven-inch, color, LCD information screen which pops out of the dash board when the engine is turned on. That provides access to the navigation system, which is not touch screen activated, but still easy to use and intuitive. There is AM/ FM, Weatherband, and Sirius satellite radio, as well as a six-disc, in-dash CD or DVD player, though the movie can only be shown when the car is still. There is an MP3 connection but not an iPod link. The 350 also has Bluetooth cell phone connections, and all of these can be activated and controlled by voice commands.

Are you in a strange town and have a taste for a pizza? No problem. Just tell the nice robot lady with the British accent that you want the nearest pizza restaurant and follow her turn by turn instructions to dinner. She’ll also play your favorite tune along the way.

If there is a negative note or two, it’s that the center posts are wide and, combined with high headrests, interfere with the sight lines for cars on either side of the vehicle. And the test car got about 14 miles per gallon, which is a drawback in this era of high gasoline prices. But the government also gave it five star crash test and four star rollover test ratings, making it one of the safest cars on the road.

But if you are looking for a, comfortable, safe, fast and sport set of wheels to go anywhere in style, the Mercedes C-350 isn’t a bad set to travel on.



09′ Ford Flex

October 7, 2009

The Flex:

Standing out in a Crowd

By Roger Witherspoon

There were five of them standing around the oddly-shaped SUV in the parking lot: four men in animated conversation as they walked around the car and pointed; and a woman who silently, slowly, ran her hands along the evenly spaced grooves along the side.

They hadn’t seen a Ford Flex, the deliberate break in SUV crossover styling which threw away the curved, smooth flowing lines typified by the Nissan Murano and instead emulates a child’s rectangular block on wheels. It has a long, low, flat roof resembling that of a squashed toy school bus, and inside are square seats – wide, comfortable, heated, power adjustable, leather seats – but square nonetheless.

The men were fascinated by the space in this rolling box, and walked away in animated discussion while the woman smiled and said “It just seems so nice.”

Two days later, there was an armed break-in a few doors away in a neighborhood so quiet that police are rarely seen except when they unlock someone’s car door. When they finished with their police work, three of them – two policemen and a sheriff — knocked on the door and asked to look at the Flex, a car they had heard about, but hadn’t seen. They sat in it, marveling at how much space there was around the head of an officer who stood six-foot four, and how much leg room was available in the third row of seats.

I showed them how to use SYNC – the voice activated system which controls the phone and entertainment networks – and they applauded the quality of the sound rolling out of the 10 speakers and the 390-watt Sony surround sound system as they switched from one Sirius satellite radio station to another.

I tossed them the keys and let them tool around the neighborhood, on the assumption that if you can’t trust a cop not to steal your car, you can’t trust anyone. Besides, I held their police car as hostage.

They soon returned the car and the keys and went back to work. But I couldn’t help but notice that, as they walked by the car one last time, they wistfully ran their hands along the grooves on its side.

This is a car designed by an artist who wanted to hint at things that just aren’t seen. It grew out of a brainstorming session among a group of Ford designers.

“The original working name for the car was the Hampton,” said design director Pat Schiavone. “It was derived from when Ford had a station wagon in the 1940s that was considered to be elegant for those vacationing and antiquing in the Hamptons. It was a classic, sophisticated vehicle with wood sides.

“We wanted to evoke that feeling, but we didn’t think that wood was the way to go because we wanted to modernize this vehicle. But the grooves evoke the feeling of wood.”

There is no reason to expect speed in an SUV, and racing lines would be out of place. But the grooves on the side seem to hark at performance, at the wind rushing by while driving a 60’s woody down the California coast. That’s a lot to read into a rolling block.

The Flex has a design which Ford admits either pulls you in or repels you. There doesn’t seem to be a neutral position on the geometrically precise, well crafted, spacious car which doesn’t resemble an SUV, a crossover, or a truck – though it is, in fact, built on a truck body. When Ford began test marketing the car to focus groups, asking people whether they liked or hated the car – with 1 meaning they loved it and 10 meaning they hated it – they ended up with a bathtub graph with a lot of ones and twos, nines and tens, and nothing in between. That meant the Flex was a risky bet for Ford, which lost nearly $9 billion last year and needs to produce cars which people really want to buy.

But they set out to build something that looked different from the SUV pack, and that is what they offer. In addition to its looks, the Flex doesn’t handle like its class mates either, acting more like a well tooled Lincoln sedan than a van with three rows of passengers.

Part of that illusion stems from the design. In addition to the squat roof, the body is built lower to the ground – a trick of the eye courtesy of its 20-inch aluminum wheels. As a result, there is a low center of gravity of the Flex, making it easier to handle in any road condition.

There was a cloud burst over Bear Mountain, at the base of the Hudson Highlands just south of West Point. It would drop two inches of water in little more than an hour, accompanied by winds gusting to 40 miles an hour.

The two lane highway through the mountain was awash with a film of fast running water, occasionally punctuated by deeper pools where nearby streams had overrun their banks and flooded the road. For many vehicles, winding through the mountain on such a night would be hazardous duty. But the Flex, with traction, stability and rollover controls rolled as easily through the fast running water as it did on my quiet, suburban street. The high density fog lamps made it easy to see both the road and the meandering deer.

Under the hood, the flex is powered by a 3.5-liter V-6 engine whose 262 horsepower were more than enough to keep the Flex ahead of traffic. Inside, it is surprisingly spacious, with thin door posts adding to the illusion of openness. The base model test car which enthralled the police carried a price tag of about $37,000. But for about $6,000 more, the Flex comes with a long sun roof with three panels, one for each row, as well as a navigation system and backup camera. In addition, instead of a second row bench with a 60/40 split, the souped-up model offers two captain’s chairs with a refrigerator in the middle.

One does not feel slighted by buying the base model. There is backup radar sending warning signals alerting the driver to solid obstacles or toddlers crawling by. The SYNC system shifts effortlessly between the AM, FM and Sirius radio, or the six-disc, in-dash CD player, or an iPod or MP3 player, or your cell phone. Just say the words.

Inside the wide, leather, center console is a button which lets you change the color of the ambient lighting in the cup holder and storage bin to any of seven different hues. And if you want to work on a computer – or video game – there is a110-volt socket behind the center console. And it runs on regular gas.

That’s packing a lot of goodies into a rolling block.

2009 Ford Flex Ltd

All Wheel Drive

MSRP: $36,555

EPA Estimate: 16 MPG City 22 MPG Highway

Performance/ Safety:

3.5-Liter, Duratec V-6 aluminum engine producing 262 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque; all wheel drive; 6-speed automatic transmission; traction and roll stability control; gas pressurized front suspension; independent rear suspension; power rack & pinion steering; 19-inch aluminum wheels; power lift gate; high density headlights and fog lamps; rear backup warning.

Interior / Comfort:

AM/ FM/ Sirius satellite radio; 6-disc, in-dash CD player; MP3, USB port, and iPod player; Bluetooth phone connection; Sony 390-watt audio system with 10 speakers; SYNC voice activated interface; leather seats; fold flat 2nd and 3rd row seats and front passenger seat; leather steering wheel with fingertip cruise command, cell phone and audio system; leather seats and wood trim; heated front and second row seats; 7 ambient lighting colors; rear audio and climate controls.


Meandering in the Ultimate Crossover

October 7, 2009

By Roger Witherspoon

 If Nissan didn’t invent the crossover category of SUVs when it unveiled the 2003 Murano, it certainly defined what has become one of the most popular segments in the auto industry.

Underneath, the Murano had the chassis of the company’s successful Maxima sedan. But the Murano was something new – a compact SUV which handled like the car it was, but had the roominess and utility of an SUV. Its styling also set a trend. It was bold and appealing, with rolling side lines that gently brought the side panel and roof together at the rear. And under the hood was a 240 horsepower V-6 engine which, if you chose, could propel the SUV comfortably into triple digits with none of the fear of a rollover that attends most SUVs when the speedometer goes much past 70.

It was such a trend setter that more than 20 auto makers – including Lexus, Kia, Ford, BMW, Acura, and Mazda – copied its basic design, crowding the field with cousins, if not out right clones.

But 2003 was a long time ago, and the marketplace continually demands something new. So what was Nissan going to do to update a winner? The decision from the guys wielding Nissan’s crayons was to keep their successful basic formula, but to upgrade virtually everything about the 2009 Murano.

Starting from the front, Nissan’s designers decided to modify the wide, open, grinning grill in the Murano and turn it into something of a teenager’s smirk – a change which gives the car a bit of an attitude, but not nearly as much as the aggressive stance of a Dodge Magnum.

Under the hood, the new Murano still has a V-6 engine, but it now produces 265 horsepower. The boost of 25 horsepower, coupled with the continuously variable transmission, makes the Murano even more responsive, whether one is weaving in and out of highway traffic, or cruising along the winding roads in the North Georgia mountains, just shy of Tennessee. That’s horse country, and the one lane roads seem to weave in and around the different pastures. But the Murano’s wide stance, coupled with its traction and stability controls, results in a ride that is as smooth on meandering mountain roads as it is on wide, straight federal highways.

Inside the Murano, Nissan decided to upgrade both the technology and comfort. If the car seems more spacious than before, that’s partly because the Murano now has two sunroofs providing both front and rear passengers an open view of the sky. The powered front sunroom can open fully, while the rear on can tilt to increase air flow.

The seats are wide, soft, and leather, and the front set can be heated. There is an easy to use, touch screen navigation system which works as well in the mountains as it does in better marked urban regions. There is a Bluetooth connectivity system which is easy to pair with virtually any cell phone. The trim is provided by a generous amount of real maple wood, providing the type of ambiance one might expect in a Lexus.

Nissan has significantly upgraded the entertainment capabilities of the Murano. In addition to AM/FM and XM satellite radio, the Murano has a 9.3 gigabyte hard drive Music Box which can copy tunes from the single disc, in-dash CD player, or tunes downloaded through a flash cube, USB port, or any of a thousand tunes or so from your iPod. The Music Box provides the capability to store and organize all of your music, with the sound emanating from a nine-speaker Bose system. The entertainment system and the phone can be conveniently controlled from the leather wrapped steering wheel.

With the 2009 Murano, Nissan has taken the best features of its segment leading crossover, and made it even better. It is likely to continue setting the standard for crossovers for quite some time.


2009 Nissan Murano SL AWD

MSRP: $37,745

EPA Mileage: 18 MPG City 23 MPG Highway

Performance/ Safety:

3.5-Liter DOHC V-6 engine producing 265 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque; continuously variable transmission; vehicle dynamic control; traction control; all wheel drive; 4-wheel powered vented disc brakes; 4-wheel independent suspension; 4-wheel anti-lock brakes; front & rear stabilizer bars; 18-inch alloy wheels; halogen headlights; fog lights; dual stage, seat mounted driver & front passenger side impact air bags; roof mounted curtain side-impact airbags for front & rear; rollover sensor.

Interior/ Comfort: 

AM/FM/ XM satellite radio; Bose audio system with 9 speakers, 9.3 GB Music Box hard drive, 6-disc CD player and compact flash slot; navigation system; leather seats; heated front seats; front and rear sunroofs; 60/40 fold flat rear seats with power lift; tilt & telescope steering wheel with fingertip audio and cruise controls; Bluetooth communications.

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