Archive for the ‘2011 Reviews’ Category


The Prius Triplets: Saving Gas and Avoiding Lightning

May 1, 2011


By Roger Witherspoon


            A decade ago, when gas was reasonably cheap, and SUVs approaching the size of buses dominated the roadways, Toyota did something unusual.

Instead of following the prevailing wisdom and building bigger, they came out with a new class of small cars, the Toyota Prius hybrid, whose claim to fame was that it could get about 50 miles per gallon. The Prius was about the size of the popular Honda Civic, but had a bit less space in the back because there was this large battery pack under the rear seat and trunk. It was an innovative, dual motor system in which the car could drive at low speeds – under 30 miles per hour – on battery power and an electric motor and at higher speeds with a standard gasoline engine. At that time, however, consumers openly wondered if the batteries could explode, if drivers could be electrocuted, and if the dual system would last 50,000 miles or more.

And it was an open bet whether fuel economy would sell in a market where Detroit automakers scoffed at the technology and the five-mile-per-gallon Hummer and 12 MPG Cadillac Escalade were major status symbols.

A decade later, the Hummer is gone, Detroit is climbing out of bankruptcy, the Escalade comes in a hybrid version and the pioneering Prius closes out April with the sale of its one millionth American Prius. Toyota could have stopped with minor adjustments to the Prius, now a slightly larger, four-door model with a better lithium-ion battery.

            But to mark the occasion, Toyota decided it was time for the Prius to develop siblings. So at the New York International Auto Show, the Prius is flanked by a larger, hybrid crossover model called the Prius V, and a tri-engine, plug-in electric Prius.

There is little new in the iconic standard Prius which has set the standard for fuel efficiency with a 50 MPG average. The Prius V is, literally, a stretch. It looks pretty much like the standard Prius – resembling a rolling trapezoid – only gown up.  In size, it’s a Prius and a half, and intended to more comfortably meet standard family needs. In that arena, it has a lot more room and electronic gadgets while delivering an estimated EPA rating of 42 MPG in city driving and 38 MPH on the highway.

The second row seats are versatile in that they can fold flat to enlarge the cargo area, or recline 45 degrees for more comfortable napping. For entertainment, the V has Toyota’s new “Entune” multimedia system which provides distracting links to the internet in addition to a wide variety of music. The car offers XM satellite and HD radio in addition to a CD player and connections for iPods, MP3 players, smart phones, and USB drives. The system accesses the internet for Bluetooth streaming and, using Bing, will locate and read your email and allow limited voice responses.

The crossover field is a crowded one. The Prius V will have to try and elbow room between Asian competitors like the Honda Crosstour and Nissan Murano – which now has a convertible model – or slide upscale to the Cadillac SRX.

The company is seeking a different niche with the new Prius Hybrid Plug-in electric vehicle. Toyota is circulating 160 of them around the country at this time, gathering user feedback in anticipation of a formal launch next year. The initial Prius was revolutionary in that Toyota envisioned and developed a car which could fully operate on two different power plants. The new plug-in goes a step further, allowing you to drive with three power systems.

The hybrid power systems are standard. What is different is that the new battery pack powers the electric motor for about an hour, or 13 miles, at speeds up to 60 miles per hour. After that, the charge is depleted and the car reverts to the standard hybrid combination with the interplay between the gas engine and electric motor. The difference is incremental. What the 13 electric power only miles do is extend the miles per gallon average of the car.

Wade Hoyt, Toyota’s east coast director, who commutes 42 miles each way into Manhattan from the northern Westchester County suburbs, said “my commute includes the hilly, twisting Depression-era Taconic and Saw Mill Parkways, Manhattan’s Westside Highway and congested mid-town traffic. In a conventional 2011 Prius, I can average about 51 mpg into town (downhill on balance) and 48 mpg or so going home (uphill on balance).
“With a full charge in the Prius PHV, I got 73.2 mpg going into Manhattan!  That’s what those 13 gas-free miles did for me. Since I can’t charge up at the parking garage near my office, I was reduced to 48 mpg on the return trip. That resulted in a round-trip average of 61 mpg – an 11.5 mpg or 23% improvement over the “normal” Prius on my 84-mile commute.  A 20-mile trip could have given me about 145 mpg, and a 10-mile trip infinite mileage!”

There is no free electric lunch, however.   The use of a plug-in electric car on a regular basis can boost the cost of a household’s electric bill by up to 50%. At times when gasoline prices are hovering around $2 per gallon, the additional electric costs – particularly in high priced areas like the New York metropolitan region – it may be cheaper to drive a regular Prius or other hybrid. The gasoline vs. electricity cost equation can change, however, as gas prices float towards $5 per gallon.

As with anything new, the plug-in takes getting used to. It has a lithium-ion battery which is “filled” in about three hours on a standard, 110 volt plug, and about half that time with a 220-volt outlet.  I plugged the car into the garage outlet when I retired for the evening. The car sat quietly in the driveway, the long cord snaking under the garage door, quietly drinking. Then, as the nightly news was heading into sports, I realized it was pouring rain and there was this rolling electrical machine in the driveway. While I wouldn’t give a second thought to leaving Christmas lights outside in the snow and rain, this felt odd. So I unplugged it.

As it stands, Toyota says the existing system is as safe as the typical outdoor plugs used for lighting displays, though they recommend the charging be done indoors. But, to reassure motorists, the car’s plug is being redesigned for the 2012 model to make it even more waterproof.



Toyota’s Surprise Coupe: The Scion tC

May 1, 2011

By Roger Witherspoon


            It was not a night for driving.

The rain fell in a continuous, sheet at a rate of more than an inch an hour, turning visibility into a macabre version of peek-a-boo where you were allowed just a glimpse of roadway with each swipe of the windshield wiper blades. The small portion of the parkway visible in the headlights was black with a moving sheen of about an inch of water from the swollen, muddy, pollutedSawMillRiverthat usually meanders slowly from suburbanWestchesterCountydown past the elephants in the Bronx Zoo inNew York City.

The traction control in the Toyota Scion tC was working overtime trying to keep the Sport Coupe’s 18-inch alloy wheels rolling in a semblance of a straight line. Suddenly, there was a dip in the road and the sloping, aggressive face of the Scion turned submarine and hit what seemed like a wall of water, which splashed up and over the compact sports car. The water in that stretch of roadway turned out to be about a foot deep – six inches higher than the Scion’s clearance.

But there was no point in stopping. The rain was falling harder, the river was rising and, about a hundred yards ahead, the receding tail lights of another car were visible. There was no way to tell if the other vehicle was a tall SUV or another small car whose door jams were under water – but it did show the way to go.

We slowed down and plowed through the rising, fast moving water. The double sunroof, which illuminated the front and rear seats during the day and made the small car seem roomier than it really was, now was lit by intermittent bursts of lightning which provided fleeting glimpses of how much water there was.

The Scion, like the high end Toyotas and Lexus models, is tightly sealed to keep out wind noise, something that is appreciated when cruising along and listening to the mellow sounds of jazz musician Keiko Matsui. But on this occasion the seals were appreciated for keeping the water out as the car parted the waters and slid along the parkway until, finally, we reached higher ground and saw the police coming to close off the roadway.

Rain or shine, the Scion has a lot going for it. It is a stylish little coupe whose sloping teardrop shape stands out among the extremely boxy, ungainly machines that have characterized the Scion fleet presented at the New York International Auto Show in theJacobJavitsCenter. The show opens today and runs through May 1. And the Scion tC needs to be very distinctive: at $21,400 it is competing with the VW Jetta, the sporty Honda CR-Z, the Nissan Cube and the technologically exceptional Ford Fiesta, which costs $3,000 less.

Under the Scion’s sloping hood is a 2.5-liter in-line, four cylinder, aluminum alloy engine cranking out 180 horsepower—10 more than the Jetta and 60 more than the Fiesta. That provides a lot of juice in a light car like this.  Scion is a front wheel drive car, and comes with either a six speed manual transmission or, for $1,000 more, a six speed automatic transmission with an electronic manual mode. With either engine, the EPA estimates the Scion tC gets 23 miles per gallon of regular gas in city driving, and 31 MPG on the highway – not counting the parking lots that pass for highways in cities likeAtlantaandNew York.

            The Scion’s designers gave some thought to the interior, making sure that a low end price did not mean cheap.  To begin with, there is that double sunroof, and the one over the front seats is power adjustable.  The console and its dash-mounted controls are easy to find in the dark without a lot of fumbling.

The test car had a small, four-inch color information screen which was touch activated. Scion also offers a navigation system for an additional $1,000 and, with that, comes a clear, color backup camera. There are gauges for outside temperature, average MPG, and an “ECO-drive” monitor showing the present rate of fuel usage, which is useful in helping one drive in the most fuel efficient manner.

   The entertainment options were ample. The car had AM/FM and XM satellite radio, as well as HD radio and a single disc CD player, as well as a USB and iPod ports. The adjustable sound is provided by a 300-watt Pioneer unit with eight speakers and a subwoofer. It automatically adjusts according to the car’s speed, though that really isn’t necessary: a car built tightly enough to swim and keep your feet dry also lets you hear every distinct, soft note in Keiko Matsui’s Whisper from the Mirror without unwanted interference from the passing wind. The tC also sports one of the easiest, most efficient Bluetooth systems on the road. Both the entertainment and cell phone systems can be operated from the dash or via fingertip controls on the leather steering wheel.

As one might expect, the seats were manually operated and covered in cloth instead of leather – score one for Jetta. But the front seats are wide, thick, and comfortable. The rear seats recline have enough leg room for the average six-footer to nap contentedly. And in the absence of passengers or kids, the rear seats can fold flat in a 60/40 split to enhance an already ample trunk.

The Scion is in a tough market. It is facing stiffer competition from the Germans and a resurgentDetroit.  AndToyota’s production line has been slowed because of the tragic confluence of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disasters back inJapan.

Still, people walking past the hulking, square Scion SUV do an involuntary double take at the sight of the sleek Scion tC.  They may find a longer look worthwhile.


            2011 Toyota Scion tC Coupe


MSRP:                                                                        $21,417

EPA Mileage:                        23 MPG City                          31 MPG Highway


Performance / Safety:


2.5-Liter, 4-cylinder, aluminum alloy engine producing 180 horsepower and 173 pound/feet of torque; 6-speed automatic transmission with electronic manual shift; front wheel drive; MacPherson strut front suspension; double wishbone rear suspension; anti-lock brake system; 18-inch alloy wheels; stability and traction control; driver and front passenger seat-mounted side, knee and front airbags; front and rear side curtain airbags.

Interior / Comfort:

AM/FM/XM satellite and HD radio;  Pioneer 300-watt sound system with 8 speakers and subwoofer; USB and iPod connections; CD player; Bluetooth; front powered, and rear sunroof; tilt & telescoping, leather wrapped steering wheel with fingertip audio, cruise and Bluetooth controls; 60/40 folding rear seats.


Sliding Along in a Suzuki

April 1, 2011

By Roger Witherspoon


It was the kind of rainstorm that makes the TV weather folks look sternly into the camera and tell motorists to stay home.

The wind was rushing past 20 miles an hour and the rain slashed sideways in long blinding sheets as if continuously hurled from celestial buckets straight into the windshield. Visibility alternated with the blink of an eye between a second of clarity as the windshield wiper swooshed by followed a second later by another blinding bucket of rain.

In these conditions, the highway coursing along the Palisades some 400 feet above the Hudson River held a rolling sheet of water which, in unpredictable places, got suddenly deeper as a nearby stream rumbled over its embankment and gurgled down the pavement.

With some cars, conditions like these turn a leisurely drive into a challenging, motorized version of Slip-n-Slide – but without the laughter normally accompanying the game. On this occasion, however, I was rolling down the Palisades waterway in the low end edition of Suzuki’s Kizashi Sport, a $23,000, mid-sized sedan with all wheel drive that is designed to take the work out of driving. It is so stable, that it also took the worry out of the weather.

So there was nothing to do but slip a flash drive into the USB port, tune to Spencer Rich, crank up the base through the seven, surround sound speakers, and sing loudly off key to his signature tune Till You come Back to Me. All things considered, it was a great trip home, flooded mountain highways and all.

If you’re looking for a small sedan, the Kizashi has a few things going for it. To begin with, Suzuki’s designer gave it a long, steep, sloping front windshield fading into a longer, steeper, sloping hood ending in a narrow grill which was intended to look aggressive but bears more of a resemblance to a smile. The slope gives it a sleek silhouette that – in addition to dodging raindrops – looks good. While this car sits at the low end of the Suzuki line, it does not look cheap or appear as an after-thought.

It features 18-inch alloy wheels and looks sportier than it actually is. Underneath that long hood is a 2.4 liter, four-cylinder engine chugging out only 180 horsepower and 170 pound/feet of torque. Drag racing, therefore, is not what this car is about. But it is a light car, so there is plenty of horsepower to let you roll into triple digits if you’re anxious to lose your license. And if you drive it in manual mode the Kizashi can feel like a more powerful sports machine.

But this is actually intended as a young family car and, in that regard, has a few things to offer. Its trunk is large enough to store a month’s worth of luggage and, if you need more, there is a ski slot through to the rear section, or you can fold the rear seats flat. In that mode, it carries as much as a small crossover.


There are a few thoughtful touches, such as a deep slot in the dash on the left side of the telescoping steering wheel which easily holds a cell phone. The side pockets on the doors are easy to reach into with the doors closed, and are wide enough to hold a water bottle in an accessible slot.

On the downside, Suzuki offers few amenities for $23,000. There is an excellent sound system, but there is only AM/FM radio. There is no satellite radio, no navigation system, no Bluetooth, and the CD player holds only one disc. There is a slot for a USB port, but leave the iPod and MP3 player at home. And while the sight lines are excellent, there is no sun roof.

The front seats are wide, thickly padded, and comfortable. The driver’s seat is power adjustable while the passenger’s seat is manually operated. But the seats are cloth covered and can’t be heated.  The rear seats are comfortable, but those who dwell over the six-foot range might have trouble with leg room. The lack of amenities may make it difficult for the Kizashi to compete with touring technology toy like the Ford Fiesta or Volkswagen Jetta.

All things considered, the Kizashi is a sedan that earns a second look and, perhaps, a permanent ride home.

2011 Suzuki Kizashi

MSRP:                                                                       $23,554

EPA Mileage:                        22 MPG City                          29 MPG Highway


Performance / Safety:

2.4-Liter, 4-cylinder engine producing 180 horsepower and 170 pound/feet of torque; all wheel drive; automatic transmission;  4-wheel independent suspension; 4-wheel disc brakes; traction and stability control;  18-inch alloy wheels; dual front facing and side seat mounted airbags;  rear seat side and head curtain airbags.


Interior / Comfort:

AM/FM radio; single disc CD and  USB port; powered front drivers’ seat;  tilt and telescoping steering wheel; fold flat rear seats with 60/40 split.


A Taste of Green Sports: The Hybrid Honda CR-Z

February 18, 2011


By Roger Witherspoon


A car doesn’t have to be ugly to be fuel efficient.

Nor does a car have to sacrifice pizzazz to save the planet.

Starting with those dictates, the challenge to the guys with the crayons at Honda was to come up with a low end, compact sports car, which had hybrid technology and better gas mileage than the little, Plain Jane, Honda Fit or its stalwart workhorse, the Honda Civic.  So the designers threw out the old templates, melted their crayons drawing something that oozed a sense of hot and, since they couldn’t think of a clever name for it, settled on the CR-Z.

Outside, the CR-Z is a stunning little sports car with a tapered front and aggressive little grill, sliding to a flared rear end. From its profile, the CR-Z resembles a jet engine waiting to be ignited. It is the kind of car that easily passes the whiplash test – it fairly screams for a second glance. And there is nothing about it that says, well, Honda.

That part’s the good news. The rest of the car needs some work.

Under that sloping hood is a two-part power system: the gasoline engine, and the electric motor. The primary power comes from  a 1.5-liter, four-cylinder gas engine producing just 122 horsepower, followed by an electric motor feeding off a 100-volt, nickel-metal hydride battery pack. The combination is mated to a six-speed manual transmission that, in typical Honda fashion, is quick and responsive. The car is not as fast as it looks, however, and the handling is, well, ordinary.

This is not, however, a full hybrid in that you can’t drive on just the electric motor. Rather, the motor serves as an augmenting system for the gasoline engine, shutting it off when you are idling or stopped.  That boosts fuel efficiency to an EPA estimated 37 mpg. That is still good  fuel mileage, and places the CR-Z fifth among all cars behind the 50-mile per gallon Toyota Prius, 42 MPG Honda Civic Hybrid, 41 MPG  Honda Insight, and the 39 MPG  Ford Fusion.

The power system in the CR-Z differs from other hybrids in another manner: it is not automatically activated when you turn the car on. While the electric motor does shut the gasoline engine off when you are in gear, if you turn on the car to warm it up, the gasoline engine just keeps chugging away. The car is also noisy at higher speeds, something that comes as a surprise given its svelte shape and the fact that Honda’s are generally quiet cars.

Unlike the Honda Civic which has four seats – even though the ones in the rear have very little leg room – the CR-Z is not designed for rear passengers. There is no second row of seats, just two bins on a shelf, or you can lay the trunk lid down and extend the rear cargo area. There are usable storage areas for cell phones and other items, including a small pop up bin on top of the dash.

The test car had a navigating system and a 6.5-inch screen and voice recognition. Surprisingly, however, the CR-Z only offered AM/FM radio and a single-disc, CD player but no satellite radio system or capability.  Lack of satellite radio is surprising for a $23,000 car, but the navigation system is a good one. And the backup camera is crystal clear.  The sound, from a 360-watt system with seven speakers, was more than enough to envelope the small passenger compartment.

The car does have Bluetooth for easy cell phone pairing, and the layout of the dash was eye catching, with back-lit blue dials surrounded by a pulsing red line which let you know how fuel efficient you were. You can make up for the absence of satellite radio by bringing along your iPod, MP3 player or USB drive and plugging into the car’s sound system.

If there is a major problem it is that the sight lines are atrocious.

The rear side windows are small triangles, which means you can’t really see traffic out of them and you have to depend on the small side mirrors to see if any cars are approaching. That makes changing lanes something of a rolling guess. The rear roof tapers and then is cut off in a four-inch square back. That little window slit is not enough to see what is behind the car, particularly at night.

There are always tradeoffs when you have a roadster. But Honda needs to rethink that one. The Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution initially had a wide spoiler across the center of its back window which pretty much blocked out everything except oncoming Mack Trucks. They dropped that spoiler in the 2011 edition of the Evolution because it blocked too much of the rear view. Instead, they mounted a spoiler at the end of the trunk, where it is functional, attractive, and not a road hazard.  The hatchback design of the CR-Z doesn’t lend itself to that solution, but the current system leaves a lot to be desired and is not up to Honda’s usual thoughtful standards or the promise of such a good looking car.

But nearly all new iterations of a car have design pains. And if one is in the market for an attractive, fuel efficient roadster, the CR-Z isn’t a bad place to start.


2011 Honda CR-Z

MSRP:                                                                       $23,310

EPA Mileage:                        31 MPG City                          37 MPG Highway

As Tested Mileage:                                                   34 MPG Mixed

Performance / Safety:

1.5-Liter, SOHC, 4-cylinder engine producing 122 horsepower and 128 pound/feet of torque; 100.8 volt electric motor; 6-speed manual transmission; power assisted Rack & Pinion steering; anti-lock brakes;  vehicle stability assist; daytime running lights; 16-inch alloy wheels; fog lights; high density headlights; dual stage front and side airbags; side curtain airbags.


Interior / Comfort:

AM/FM radio; 360-watt, 7-speaker sound system; CD and MP3 player; iPod and USB port; tilt & telescope steering wheel with fingertip audio and cruise controls; navigation system with voice activation; Bluetooth.


The VW Jetta: Running With the Big Boys

February 9, 2011

By Roger Witherspoon

The mix of sleet and snow left the driveway covered with five inches of ice leading to an ice-covered street. The city’s snow plows had succeeded only in putting ice blockades in front of every driveway, and packing the streets’ ice surface till they were hard and slick enough for qualify for National Hockey league play.

But on this frigid, gray morning staying home was not an option. I poured a cup of tea and then, while it brewed, went outside and pushed three buttons: The first button started the ignition of the five-cylinder Volkswagen Jetta; the second began heating the driver’s soft leather seat; and the third defrosted the side mirrors. Then I went back inside to savor the tea and watch the bad weather deteriorate.

Inevitably, it was time quit procrastinating and leave. Driving on ice can be problematic for even the best of cars. For the traction control to work properly, at least one all-weather or winter tire has to grip something solid – even if just for a fraction of a second. In this case, the front wheel drive Jetta’s 17-inch wheels and Continental, all-weather tires treated that ice as just another hard surface and the car moved easily forward, crunched over the ice mound at the end of the driveway and smoothly rolled down the street. It wasn’t a bad way to start the day.

The new 2011 Jetta is a mid sized sedan which seeks to offer a lot in a package that’s just shy of $25,000. It needs to offer a lot, since this is a crowded field with fierce competition in style, perks, and performance from auto makers in Detroit, Japan and Korea.  But in many ways, VW succeeded in crafting a visually appealing, comfortable, workhorse of a sedan.

Their top of the line SEL model with the power sunroof has a sleek profile and a long, sloping front reminiscent of sportier sedans. Under that long hood is a five cylinder engine cranking out just 170 horsepower. But this is a relatively light car and, with a top speed of 127 miles per hour, it won’t linger at the rear of the motoring pack or need a push to get up steep hills. It drinks regular gas and, according to the EPA, gets 24 miles to the gallon in city driving and 31 MPG on the highway – which isn’t bad for a mid sized sedan.

Inside is a pleasant surprise. The design is relatively simple – its flat dash does not have the wavy flair of the Hyundai Sonata, for example. But the use of real and faux leather interspersed with brushed aluminum is pleasant and looks more expensive than it is. In addition, at this price, cloth seats and limited entertainment options – which are normal on many mid-sized sedans – could be expected. But the Jetta has wide, leather seats, though the front pair are manually adjustable. The rear seats, which can fold down to expand the trunk area, provide more than a yard of leg room  and can easily accommodate passengers on the high side of six feet tall.

It comes with an easy to use navigation system, and while the five-inch screen is small, it is easy to see and, paired with the Sirius satellite radio, provides up to the minute traffic and weather alerts. The navigation screen also provides a useful and rarely seen feature: a box in the upper left corner showing the posted speed limit for whatever street you are driving on. The touch screen also makes it easy to use the entertainment functons.

In addition to satellite radio, the Jetta’s entertainment system includes a single CD player, as well as an MP3 and iPod connection. There is also an easy to pair Bluetooth cell phone connection which automatically reconnects every time you turn the car on. The phone and entertainment functions can be accessed on the dash, via fingertip controls on the leather steering wheel, or by using voice commands.

The doors lock automatically after the car starts moving, and this function can only be turned off at the dealership. It’s annoying to park, go to retrieve your briefcase from the back seat, only to find the rear door still locked. Volkswagen’s engineers should have included an on/off switch for those who don’t like being locked in by robots. But that’s a minor point.

The new Jetta packs a lot into a mid-sized package, making it a viable option in a hotly contested field.



2011 Volkswagen Jetta SEL

MSRP:                                                                       $24,165

EPA Mileage:                        24 MPG City                          31 MPG Highway

Performance / Safety:

0 – 60 MPH                            8.2 Seconds

Top Speed:                             127 MPH

2.5-Liter, 5-cylinder, aluminum alloy engine producing 170 horsepower and 177 pound/feet of torque; 6-speed automatic transmission; independent front struts; semi-independent rear; front & rear power assisted disc brakes; 17-inch alloy wheels; fog lights; heated mirrors; halogen head lamps; traction and stability controls; driver & front passenger front and side airbags; front and rear, side curtain, head impact airbags.

Interior / Comfort:

AM/FM/Sirius satellite radio; Bluetooth; CD and MP3 player; iPod connection; navigation system with 5-inch touch screen; tilt & telescoping steering wheel with fingertip phone, entertainment, and cruise controls; power sunroof;  leather seats, heated in front, fold flat in rear.


Regal Roading by Buick

February 9, 2011

By Roger Witherspoon

The weather forecast called for 60 mile per hour wind gusts, and eight inches of rain.

Unfortunately, that really didn’t explain the condition on the ground, on single lane roadways meandering through Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountain region. It seemed as if the sky had simply opened, dumping its liquid contents on the region in a continuous, eye-blurring splash. The picturesque brooks serenely coursing around the expanse of the Poconos Raceway had turned into ugly, 20-foot wide expanses of white water rapids that left their little banks and took over the track.

And the roadways out of the region were no better. Wetlands by the roadway became lakes, spilling little rivers and racing streams across roads and turning any dip in the roadway into an instant pond. The road itself was covered with a sheet of fast moving water. These were the kinds of conditions that made one wish for a Hummer, Land Rover or some other heavy duty off road vehicle.

But this was a day for luxury roading and I was cruising along in a new Buick Regal. Mary Mary was embedded in the entertainment system’s 10-gigabyte hard drive, belting “Get Up” from the sedan’s nine Harmon-Kardon speakers – a tune which seemed appropriate as the Regal pounded through puddles and parted streams, sending mini- mountains of spray in all directions.  At times, it seems as if the sharply sloping hood of the Buick was diving into a pool, as it plunged into a deep, road crossing stream and the spray rolled up the front and over the windshield.

At this point, there was a nod of thanks to the GM engineers who developed a computer-coordinated stability and traction control system so the Regal always moved in a straight line, whether or not individual wheels were on the road or in the sea. It is not the most powerful of sedans: the Regal has a 2.4 liter, I-4 engine cranking out just 182 horsepower. And while the EPA says the small engine can get up to 29 miles per gallon in highway driving, in the real world it drank regular gas at a modest rate of 22 MPG.

But this is a relatively light sedan, designed to counter the popular, aggressive, Acura TSX and Volvo S-60, so the small engine is not problematic.  For those who want a little more Zoom from their cars, the Regal does offer twin turbos for the engine, which boosts its horsepower to 220. Still, this was never intended to be a racing car, or leave tracks in the road from tire-squealing take-offs. It is a mid-sized sedan intended for comfortable cruising and, in that regard, the power plant is quite sufficient.

The rain didn’t let up. But after 60 miles of back roads, running water and the occasional lost frog I hit Interstate 80 and it was time to switch from the driving gospel of Mary Mary to a mellower sound of Miles.  It continued to rain, but after slogging through the mountain roads, the six lane interstate was a welcome treat.

Outwardly, the Buick Regal CXL is a teardrop-shaped, wide bodied, smooth-rolling vehicle whose most distinctive feature is the trademark,  big, grinning grill. It’s attractive, though not a head-turner. A lot more care went into designing the interior, which is characterized by a décor that is two-toned leather accented by wood paneling, with front seats that are wide, power adjustable, and heated.

There is an entertainment system, which is controlled by voice command, fingertip wheels on the leather steering wheel, or from the dashboard console. The system has a single disc CD player, XM satellite radio, a USB port and iPod and MP3 connections. The hard drive allows you to copy an entire CD or individual songs from the disc and arrange your music box any way you choose. The satellite radio also is coordinated with the navigation system, providing real time traffic and weather warnings and, where possible, allowing you to change your route to detour around the problem. In this case, the storm blanketed the East coast, and there was nothing to do but plow through it and trust the 19-inch wheels to hold the road.

The rear seats don’t recline, but there is enough room between the front and back for the average 6-footer to travel long distances comfortably.  At night, soft lighting emanates around the dash and in the cup holders and door pockets, making it unnecessary to fumble around for items.

BM, which has made quite a comeback from its recent bankruptcy, is counting on the understated Buick Regal to make a mark against its flashier rivals. Considering all that is offered in this $31,000 package, it may give the big boys a run for their money.

2011 Buick Regal CXL Sedan

MSRP:                                                                       $31,030

EPA Mileage:                        18 MPG City                          29 MPG Highway

As Tested Mileage:                                                   22.4 MPG Mixed

Performance / Safety:

2.4-Liter I-4, DOHC, cast aluminum engine producing 182 horsepower and 172 pound/feet of torque; 6-speed automatic transmission; stability and traction controls; daytime running lamps; 4-wheel disc brakes; fog lamps; Halogen headlamps; 19-inch painted alloy wheels; front & side impact front and driver airbags; head curtain front & rear airbags.


Interior / Comfort:

AM/FM/XM satellite radio; OnStar communication; Bluetooth; 9-speaker Harmon-Kardon sound system; navigation system; CD and MP3 player; iPod and USB port with 10-GB hard drive; power sunroof; tilt & telescoping leather steering wheel with fingertip audio, phone, and cruise controls; 120-volt power outlet; heated front leather seats; power adjusted driver seat.


Style, Snow and the Honda Accord

January 23, 2011

By Roger Witherspoon


There was more than a foot of snow on the ground and the stuff was still falling fast.

It was a fine, light, white powder, the kind my SkiDoc sister flies to Colorado and Montreal to zip through for a week. But skiing isn’t my passion, I had errands to run, the street was a compacted, white blanket and the pending car trip looked less and less inviting. The two foot tall barrier mound of dirty snow left by the town’s snow plows did not make things any better.

So what would your average Honda Accord, with 18-inch wheels, standard Michelin all-season radial tires, make of this mess?

The Honda’s V-6 engine had been running, and while its 271 horsepower were just in reserve at the moment, the heaters under the front seats, the front and back windshields, and the side mirrors meant I could easily see where I wanted to go or where the ice slid me. This was a two-door, six-speed manual coupe, the sporty model of the popular Honda sedan, and it was designed more for drag racing than snow plodding.

But errands could not wait. I slid the chrome and leather gear shift into first, popped Sly Stone’s Hot Fun in the Summertime into the six-disc CD player and eased down the unshoveled driveway to the snow hurdle at the curb. There was a slight wiggle in the rear of the car as the Honda’s traction control figured out the parameters to the snowy surface. Then it treated the snow as any other pavement, and the Honda went straight down the driveway and over the snow mound as if it were just another traffic speed bump.

Over the next few miles there were more than a few occasions for the front-wheel drive Accord to swerve around stalled or sliding cars. But none of these conditions seemed to trouble the car’s traction and stability controls. While part of that was due to the tread pattern on the Michelin radials, a good portion of the credit goes to Honda. With many vehicles, it is necessary to disconnect the traction control in ice or snow conditions because the skidding crashes their computer system. With Honda,  you might as well pop in and enjoy your favorite half dozen CDs, or run through 1,000 or so jams from your iPod or USB because the car will treat the worst snow day as, well, just another day on the road.

The 2011 Honda Accord is an updated version of one of the most popular cars on the road and packs a lot into a $33,000 package. On the minus side, the car is missing a backup camera, which is a safety item you expect to find in well made cars priced over $25,000. In addition, the driver’s seat is power driven but the front passenger seat is only manually operated.

But as far as complaints go, that’s it.

The Honda Accord has stayed a top selling car because it is thoughtfully designed, reliable, appealing outside and comfortable inside. All things considered, the 2011 Coupe doesn’t stray from that formula. It can’t afford to.  Ford never forgave Honda from stealing the title of best selling sedan from its stylish Taurus two decades ago. The new, revitalized Ford Motor Company is roaring back and is tied in JD Power’s 2010 assessment for the highest quality among mass market brands with its Ford Fusion.

Outside, the new two-door Accord Coupe has a wide, sloping hood and a more aggressive grill holding its trademark, lopsided H. The company has never made a gas-guzzling V-8 engine, though its V-6 power plant gets only moderate fuel economy with an EPA rating of 17 miles per gallon in city driving and 26 MPG on the highway. The test car averaged 19 miles per gallon in mixed driving, though some of that fuel was burned while warming up the car on frigid mornings. The six-speed manual transmission takes some getting used to because the transition between gears can be abrupt and, if unprepared, you can find the car jerking to a halt. But once you have adapted to the rhythm of the car, it is both smooth, aggressive, and has more in common with a BMW 335 diesel than with the Ford Fusion or its Japanese competitors, the Toyota Camry or Nissan Altima.

Inside, the Accord has surprising room for a coupe. The seats are soft, supple leather, and passengers who live north of six feet can ride comfortably in the rear seats. The rear seats also fold flat to enlarge the already ample trunk. The front seats can be heated which is appreciated in snow country.

In terms of gadgets, the Accord comes with a navigation system tied to its XM radio, providing traffic and weather updates if they affect a planned route. For entertainment, the coupe does have a 270-watt premium sound system with seven speakers, to amplify jams from your iPod, MP3 player, or USB drive.  Its Bluetooth system is easy to use and, once set, automatically reconnects with the cell phone whenever it is in range.

Honda is in the automotive equivalent of a dogfight these days, but has stayed competitive with style and performance at a reasonable price. The company is not likely to lose ground with the new Accord Coupe.

2011 Honda Accord Coupe EX-L

MSRP:                                                                       $32,480

EPA Mileage:                        17 MPG City                          26 MPG Highway

As Tested Mileage:                                                   19 MPG Mixed

Performance / Safety:

3.5-Liter, aluminum alloy, SOHC V-6 engine producing 271 horsepower and  254 pound/feet of torque; 6-speed manual transmission; 4-wheel disc brakes; front wheel drive; rack and pinion steering; double wishbone front suspension;  18-inch, aluminum wheels; fog lights; heated side mirrors; stability and traction control; driver’s and front passenger’s front and side airbags; side curtain airbags.


Interior / Comfort:

AM/FM/XM satellite radio; 270-watt audio system with 7 speakers; MP3, iPod, and USB connections; navigation system with traffic and weather updates; Bluetooth; leather wrapped, tilt and telescoping steering wheel with audio controls; leather seats, heated in front, fold flat in rear; power sunroof..

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