Archive for the ‘Auto Industry’ Category

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Rolling Through a Superstorm In a Mazda CX-5

December 4, 2012

13 Mazda CX-5 - front profile

 

By Roger Witherspoon

 

            The full moon over the Hudson River was just a faint, fuzzy ball behind the swirling band of clouds marking the passage of Super Hurricane Sandy.

It was a strange sort of hurricane, in that there was virtually no rain. But the gravitational pull of that obscure moon and the winds that roared down from the Hudson Highlands at speeds approaching 100 miles per hour were pushing the river’s salt-water tides to record heights. That made it a perfect time to cruise along the river and watch the effects of a superstorm in action.

It was less than two miles from my home to the river’s edge. But it took time to navigate the normally short, direct route over or around the downed trees, the occasional, bouncing, live wire, broken branches and other blowing debris that littered the streets and highways of Westchester County, New York City’s northern suburb. Periodically, I opened the window of the Mazda CX-5 to listen to the raging wind or the cracking sound of trees coming down, turning down streets that seemed particularly noisy.

At the entrance to a short causeway over a Hudson River inlet, a utility worker emerged from a Ford F-150 truck dripping muddy river water off its hood and put flares across the road, blocking it off.  The Bear Mountain Extension provided the shortest route to Camp Smith, an Army base, and the winding road up to the Bear Mountain Bridge, about 10 miles south of West Point.  The lowest point of the road, he said, was under about four feet of water in a 20-yard stretch, and the river was still rising.

That did not deter the drivers of two, huge, military trucks headed for CampSmith.  The trucks were armored on the sides and bottoms better deflect the blast from roadside mines.  Slowly, the convoy drove in to the fast moving water – and got stuck at the deepest part.

The utility worker called for police support and raced down the roadway. In minutes, dozens of police cars drove onto the causeway, the officers piling out in an effort to help the trapped soldiers.

I left the Mazda at the side of the four-lane roadway and played traffic cop until a real officer came and took over. Then I slid back behind the leather steering wheel, hit the Bluetooth button to connect the audio from my Smartphone to the 225-watt, nine-speaker, Bose sound system, and continued rolling through Superstorm Sandy as the Temptations belted their ‘60s classic “Runaway Child.”

13 Mazda CX-5 - side

The Mazda CX-5 is a mid-sized, five-passenger SUV that is not particularly intended for off-road driving and certainly wasn’t designed for moonlight swims in swollen rivers. But its 19-inch aluminum wheels, and all-wheel drive makes it a pretty secure mode of transport even in abnormal conditions. It is not a Jeep or FJ Cruiser, and downed tree trunks would have brought the CX-5 to a lurching halt. But rolling over small branches and through hubcap-deep puddles and fast-moving streams was not a problem for a well-balanced SUV with traction and stability controls.

While all Mazda’s are marketed under the “zoom-zoom” logo, that speedy phrase really applies only to their sports cars. The CX-5 has a small, 2-liter, four-cylinder power plant cranking out just 155 horsepower – which is pretty anemic when you are taking off. The CX-5 is rated with a towing power of 2,000 pounds, though that may well be a strain for the little engine that could. As it is, the CX-5 has little power for passing, unless you shift into the electronic manual mode and downshift for extra torque. It is an easy maneuver, and in manual mode, the Mazda is extremely responsive and the pickup is instantaneous.

It has the sleek silhouette common among crossovers. And along its sides are soft, subtle lines which help deflect airflow as the car moves faster.  This both reduces drag and lessens the wind noise.

In their design studios, the Zoom-Zoom guys gave some thought to the quality of the interior of the CX-5.  It is a quiet car, regardless of whether the wind is moving at 100 miles an hour or the speedometer is approaching that mark. There is little exterior noise to intrude on the music or conversation.13 Mazda CX-5 - dash

All the surfaces have thickly padded real or simulated leather, accented with chrome and brushed aluminum. It is a five-seater, with the second row designed to actually hold three, average-sized adults.  Each of these seats can fold flat to add to the already ample cargo area. The front seats can be heated, though only the driver’s seat is power adjustable.

If there is a drawback, it’s that the navigation system is mediocre. Mazda uses the Tom-Tom system, which was designed originally for hand held devices and, in that mode, competed with the more popular Garmin.   Tom-Tom is more difficult to use than either Garmin or the standard navigation systems designed for cars. Its personal settings are hard to find, and it is not intuitive to operate. The 5.8-inch screen, on the other hand, is small and individual street names are harder to see. However, the screen is crystal clear, and the backup camera is lighted so you can actually use it at night.

The crossover SUV market is a crowded one and Mazda will have a tough fight to carve its own niche from the likes of a Nissan Murano or Ford Escape. But the Mazda CX-5 offers a lot for $30,000 and is sure to be competitive. It’s a comfortable way to roll, whether running on the open, sunny road, or running away from a runaway river.

13 Mazda CX-5 - rear

 

 

2013 Mazda CX-5

 

MSRP:                                                                        $30,415

EPA Mileage:                        25 MPG City                          31 MPG Highway

As Tested Mileage:                                                   20.9 MPG Mixed

Towing Capacity:                                                      2,000 Pounds

 

Performance / Safety:

 

2.0-Liter, 4-cylinder, DOHC, aluminum  engine producing 155 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque; all-wheel drive; 6-speed automatic transmission; independent MacPherson strut front suspension; independent, multi-link rear suspension; front & rear stabilizing bars; 4-wheel dies brakes; 19-inch alloy wheels; power assisted steering; anti-lock brakes; blind spot monitoring; Halogen headlights; fog lamps; stability and traction controls; hill launch assist; dual front airbags;  front and rear, side impact airbags.

 

Interior / Comfort;

 

AM/FM/Sirius Satellite and HD radio; 9-speaker, 225-watt, Bose surround sound system; iPod, MP3, and USB ports; Bluetooth; navigation system with 5.8-inch touch-screen; backup camera;  tilt & telescoping, leather wrapped steering wheel with fingertip audio and cruise controls; powered sunroof; fold-flat rear seats in 40/ 20/40 split; leather seats; heated front seats; powered driver’s seat – manually operated passenger seat.

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Battle of the Asian Bantams: Hyundai Veloster and Nissan Juke

October 5, 2012

   

 

By Roger Witherspoon

            Let’s say you’re a car manufacturer looking to carve a niche from the crowded market for 20-somethings.

There are, of course, a host of well-made compact and sub-compact sedans and hatchbacks for under $25,000. But you don’t want to produce just another pretty metal face in a big motorized crowd. So you get a bit more selective and tell the folks with the crayons to draw something that would appeal to young men on the go, guys who want something different and fast, but still economical and suited for urban areas.

Nissan came out the box with a powerful little compact SUV called the Juke, which has the character of a Bantam rooster, but the critics at Car and Driver thought it most resembled an alligator emerging from the water. It wasn’t long before Hyundai answered with something equally formidable and reptilian, a compact SUV intended to evoke images of the fierce, prehistoric Velociraptor, and named, appropriately, Veloster.

Oh No They Didn’t! 

            There was nothing subtle about Nissan’s launch of the Juke. A fire engine red compact with an angry face roared through streets and drifted arrogantly in and around cars in a parking lot while the announcer said, smugly: “That’s right. We put a turbo in a four cylinder compact.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3RdALFkwvHg )

And in a car that small, a turbo makes quite an impact. The Juke is an arrogant, independent, smugly stylish little car that draws attention whether it’s parked or zipping past all the big cars on the road. Its looks are not traditional, which accounts for the alligator label, though a bullfrog in a hurry is probably more apt. The front is wide and high, and the car slopes and thins towards the rear. The bulging headlights fit right in with the amphibian motif. But this is not a sluggish, ungainly, wobbling little critter.

But the Jukes are definitely eye catching, whether parked or on the highway. So just what do they offer for $27,000?

Under that wide, bulging front hood is a four-cylinder, inter-cooled turbocharged aluminum engine producing 188 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque.  For comparison purposes, the turbo charged engine of the Mini Cooper S cranks out 181 horsepower. The Juke’s turbocharger lets the small car take off from 0 – 60 miles per hour in 7.3 seconds, and tops out at 137 miles per hour.  Those aren’t serious racing speeds, and the Juke won’t catch a Mini Cooper, which is nearly as small. But the Mini Cooper, a smaller cousin of BMW, costs thousands of dollars more and has a bigger engine. The Juke’s turbo power plant will let the relatively light car run rings around most of the small roadsters and pretty much every compact on the road.

It has front wheel drive and a manual transmission which slides easily between its six gears. On the road, it actually handles more like a go-kart version of its heavier, more expensive, IPL sport sedan.

For those who prefer cars which are, essentially, leather seats on top of an engine, Nissan has a racing version of this sport compact called the Juke-R.  In this case, the alligator dumps the turbocharged engine in favor of a 545 horsepower motor which toe company says has a designed top speed of 160 miles per hour (  http://bit.ly/QB0KWT   ) though it has been clocked at over 200 MPH.

Inside, there are strengths and weaknesses to the Juke.  That amphibian look, with a broad front and a sharply sloping roofline means that there is a loss of space in the rear passenger area.  The seats can fold flat in a 60/40 split to provide ample space for luggage for a week-long getaway for two. But putting four adults in the car would be rough on the rear two. One doesn’t feel claustrophobic in the Juke – that wide windshield and long, powered sunroof provide the illusion of more space than the car actually has.

Nissan didn’t scrimp on comfort, however. There is ample use of leather, from the adjustable steering wheel to the thickly padded doors and arm rests to the heated but manually operated seats. On the entertainment side, the Juke has a Rockford Fosgate sound system with an eight-inch sub-woofer and six speakers – more than enough to deafen anyone in the car. The Juke offers satellite radio, as well as iPod, MP 3 and USB connections, Bluetooth and a CD player. There is an easy to use navigation system, though the five-inch color screen is a bit small.

But screen size is a minor item for a car that is pretty unique except for its lone competitor, another bantam-weight from Asia.

A Little Korean Dinosaur 

            There is no love lost between the Koreans and Japanese. So it was not surprising that a year after the introduction of the Juke, Hyundai responded at the same $27,000 price with a compact speedster whose name, Veloster, evokes another reptile. But instead of a toothy amphibian, the muse for Hyundai’s designers was the meat eating, Velociraptor, which was known for running down its red-blooded prey.

            And to live up to its billing, the Koreans gave the Veloster a turbocharged engine cranking out 201 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque. That is just 13 horsepower more than the Juke’s power plant, but at 2,800 pounds, the Veloster is 300 pounds lighter than its Japanese competition.  Between the two, the Veloster is faster on the takeoff, but its top speed is 130 miles per hour. As a result the Juke, which tops out at 137, will eventually dust it.

Outside, the Veloster looks every bit as aggressive as its designers intended. There is a wide, black grill which pretty much consumes the face. It has a high front tapering towards the rear, a design cue that is reminiscent of the Kia Soul, but much meaner. The design has something of the stealth fighter mode with sharp and exaggerated angles rather than soft, wavy lines like those found on the popular Hyundai Sonata.  The company will not use big-bellied, hip-hop hamsters to advertise the Veloster.

This speedster is essentially a hatchback, with a double sunroof leading right into the glass rear and effectively presenting an all glass ceiling. The expanse of glass on the sides of the car is not symmetrical. The driver’s side door is longer, and has a longer window than the opposite passenger door. But the second row window behind the driver is a small, immobile triangle while the rear window on the passenger side is larger and actually opens.

On the comfort side, the Veloster offers a 450-watt, Dimension Premium audio with 8 speakers to make it easy to become deaf. It also has iPod, USB and MP 3 ports, a CD player and Bluetooth for the phone or audio. It has a seven-inch color screen, however, for its navigation system and backup camera, and augments the standard 12-volt power outlet for cell phone chargers with a 115-volt, three-pronged outlet to plug in computers or game consoles.

Hyundai also has Blue Link, which is Hyundai’s version of General Motors’ successful OnStar satellite communications system. At the push of the Blue Link button located on the rear view mirror, a live person will answer who can provide directions or contact road aid or emergency assistance. Like OnStar, if the Veloster is in an accident and the airbags deploy, Blue Link will automatically locate the car and notify the nearest emergency services.

For parents, Blue Link also offers something called “Geo Fence.” If your child is out with the car and it goes past pre-set boundaries the car will call home and tell you. The Fence works for wives, too.

The Veloster and Juke make for an interesting pair of compact sport competitors. A decade ago, the Mini Cooper burst on the scene as a co-star in the action movie “The Italian Job.”  It has had the compact turbo niche pretty much to itself since then and hasn’t really changed.

The Veloster and Juke will give the Mini Cooper and all the other little speedsters – and each other – quite a spirited run.

 

 

2013 Hyundai Veloster Turbo

 

MSRP:                                                                        $27,520

EPA Mileage:                        26 MPG City                          38 MPG Highway

 

Performance / Safety:

 

                                    Top Speed:                             130 MPH

                                    0 – 60 MPH                            6.9 Seconds

 

1.6-Liter, 4-cylinder, DOHC, twinscroll turbocharger, aluminum engine producing 201 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque; 6-speed manual transmission; independent MacPherson strut front suspension; V-torsion beam rear suspension; 18-inch alloy wheels;  11.8-inch ventilated front disc brakes; 10.3-inch solid rear disc brakes;  power rack and pinion steering; electronic stability and traction control; projection headlights; fog lights; backup warning signal and rear view camera; front, side impact, and side curtain airbags.

 

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/Sirius satellite radio; Bluetooth; iPod, MP3, and USB ports; Hyundai BlueLink; 450-watt, Dimension Premium audio with 8 speakers; 7-inch touch screen; navigation system; leather wrapped, tilt & telescope steering wheel with fingertip cruise, audio, and phone controls; leather, power operated seats; heated front seats; 12-volt and 115-volt power outlets; panoramic sunroof; 60/40 fold flat rear seats.

 

2012 Nissan Juke

 

MSRP:                                                                                                $27,180

EPA Mileage:                        25 MPG City                          30 MPG Highway

As Tested Mileage:                                                   36 MPG Highway

 

Performance / Safety:

 

                                    Top Speed:                             137 MPH

                                    0 – 60 MPH                            7.3 Seconds

 

1.6-Liter, 4-cylinder, direct injection, DOHC, intercooled turbocharged aluminum engine producing 188 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque;  6-speed manual transmission; all wheel drive; 11.7-inch, vented disc front brakes; 11.5-inch solid disc rear brakes; independent strut front suspension; rear multi-link stabilizer bar suspension; traction and stability control; speed sensitive power steering; 17-inch gunmetal wheels; automatic Halogen headlights; fog lights; front seat mounted side-impact air bags; roof-mounted curtain airbags.

 

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/XM satellite radio; Bluetooth; CD player; MP3, iPod, and USB ports; Rockford Fosgate sound system with 8-inch subwoofer; navigation system with 5-inch color touch screen; backup camera; leather wrapped, tilt & telescoping steering wheel with fingertip audio, cruise, and Bluetooth; powered sunroof; 12-volt power outlet; leather, manually operated seats; heated front seats; 60/40 fold flat rear seats.

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The Toyota Camry: Still the one to Beat

August 19, 2012

By Roger Witherspoon

 

The Toyota executive was beaming.

He stood in the cavernous entrance hall at the New York Mets’ Citifield last August, in front of a glistening, redesigned, stylish Camry, the flagship of the company’s fleet and the nation’s best-selling mid-sized sedan. It had been a rough two years for Toyota and its personnel: lurid stories of runaway cars and stuck accelerators had eroded confidence in the company’s quality controls and the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami had caused thousands of deaths and seriously eroded the company’s manufacturing pipeline. Both events contributed to Toyota losing its hard fought status as the world’s biggest car company to a resurgent General Motors.

But the unveiling of the 2012 Camry was supposed to change that, to herald the start of a new, resurgent time for the Japanese car maker. With a flourish, the cover was whisked off the prototype model to appreciative nods from the automotive press.

And then, the Earth moved. Literally. And the walls shook. And the floor moved. And a panicky voice on the loudspeaker shouted: “This is an earthquake. Evacuate the building immediately!”

Toyota’s pre-launch media hoopla may have been lost in the aftermath of the major east coast earthquake which caused minor damage to buildings and major worries about the safety of American nuclear power plants. It was not the most auspicious introduction to the car that Toyota hoped would restore its luster as the one to beat in a field with strong competition from a resurgent Detroit and an upstart Korea. But as the car made its way to showrooms this year, it has proved to be as special as the company hoped it would.

“Toyota has done extraordinarily well,” said Alec Gutierrez, manager of vehicle valuation for Kelly Blue Book. “For the first seven months of this year compact car sales were flat compared to last year with an increase of just 1.4%. But mid-sized cars accounted for 18.6% market share in June, a 44% increase year over year. The surge in mid-sized car sales can largely be attributed to the strength of the redesigned Toyota Camry, which posted more than 32,000 sales in June alone.

“The mid-sized segment traditionally has been dominated by Camry and the Honda Accord. When they are redesigned there are so many people out there who will only buy from Toyota or Honda. The Camry until now was conservative in terms of styling. For 2012, they didn’t stray too far in terms of design, but it was upgraded in terms of fuel economy and is competitive with compact cars. They didn’t increase the price much and there is the Toyota brand loyalty. Anyone considering a mid-sized car is going to consider Camry. It’s the long standing reputation they built in terms of Camry’s reliability and long term desirability that keeps it in the top position.”

According to a national survey by KBB, the 10 best-selling mid-sized cars from January through July of this year are:

 

Camry – Sales 243,800. Up 40% over 2011

Honda accord – 183,800. Up 18%

Nissan Altima, 183,700. Up 20%

Ford Fusion – 160,200. Up 6%

Chevy Malibu – 153,800. Up 8%

Hondai Sonata – 138,400. Up 2%

Kia Optima – 86,500. Up 99%

Chrysler 200 – 78,400. Up 105%

VW Passat – 64,100. Was not available

Subaru Outback – 63,300. Up 6%

 

Gutierrez added that “Toyota has played a large role in the nation’s auto market in general, and account for 18.5% of all car sales this year, compared to only 16% last year.” The company is still in third place, however, behind General Motors and Ford, who’s revamped Fusion may threaten Nissan and Honda for the Number 2 spot on the mid-sized list.

But for the foreseeable future, the Toyota Camry is still the one to beat.

            To start understanding the allure of the 2012 Camry, take a look at the outside styling. It is still a family sedan, but now has an aggressive-looking, low-scooped, front grill similar to that of its sporty, costlier Lexis IS 350. It is a distinct departure from the sedate, conservative appearance of previous generations of Camry, with a face that is more grimace than smile.

At a glance of its side profile, the Camry’s styling is not as eye-popping as that of the drawn-in-America Hyundai Sonata. But Toyota has definitely dropped the laid-back look and opted for a more flowing, artistic design which draws the eye approvingly from that charging face, over the wide wheel rims to a flare at the rear. It is not a car that is sitting on its laurels.

Under the hood, the Camry has a 3.5-liter, V-6 engine producing 268 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque, which is more than enough to let the Camry run with the best of the highway pack. The engine drinks regular unleaded gasoline, but is thirstier than one might expect from a Toyota. The Camry’s EPA rating is just 21 miles per gallon in city driving and 30 MPG on the highway. And if you opt for the less expensive, 178-horsepower, four-cylinder engine the Camry has an EPA rating of 25 miles per gallon in city driving and 35 MPG on the highway – which is about what you would get from a compact car like the Honda Civic.

If one is really looking to cut down on trips to the gas station, Camry has a hybrid edition carrying an EPA rating of 40 miles per gallon in the stop and go city traffic, and 38 MPG on the highway. The Camry hybrid has a 2.5-liter gasoline engine producing just 156 horsepower and 156 pound-feet of torque. But it is mated to a 105 kilowatt electric engine that gives the Hybrid power plant a combined rating of 200 horsepower.  The electric motor’s 199 pound-feet of torque added to that of the gas engine makes the Hybrid significantly more responsive and quick – in taking off or passing – than the standard Camry with the big gas engine.

There are, of course, tradeoffs when one buys a hybrid. The combined power plant adds about $2,000 or more to the price of the car, which can be partially offset by cutting back on the options. In addition, the hybrid’s regenerative braking system uses the heat generated by the brake pads to make more electricity. As a result, Toyota Hybrid owners avoid having a large brake repair job five or six years down the road. So it may be more productive to consider a full hybrid system such as this one as a performance enhancement with a higher upfront cost but reduced carrying costs and less stress on the average budget.

           

            Aside from the gas mileage the differences between the standard and the hybrid models are slight. The rear seats in the standard Camry can fold down, thus enlarging an already ample storage area. In the hybrid version, that middle area between the rear seat and the trunk, however, is occupied by the battery, so the trunk is a bit smaller and the seats do not fold down.

Inside, the Camry offers the type of real wood trim on the doors, center console and dash that is usually reserved for more upscale, full sized sedans. The seats are leather, power adjusted and can be heated in the regular Camry. And though one may opt for cloth covered seats in the hybrid for economic reasons, these, too, can be heated, which is a boon in cold weather climes or if you’re just plain tired.

For entertainment, the Camrys are now part of the Toyota/Lexus Entune system, which lets you set up your musical tastes and folders on your computer at home and these are instantly available in the vehicle.  They come with AM/FM and Sirius satellite HD radio for standard enjoyment over 10 JBL speakers. In addition, there is Bluetooth connectivity both for phone use and playing music. The system also has connections for iPods, MP3 players and USB drives. There is also a CD changer.

The system can be controlled via fingertip controls on the leather steering wheel or through the seven-inch, color, touch screen, which also provides navigation and a crystal clear backup camera.

The fully loaded Camry will tap your wallet for $32,500, which is packing an awful lot into a well-designed package. It is not surprising that the Camry still sets the standard for all the rest.

 

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Getting an Edge from Ford

July 8, 2012

By Roger Witherspoon

I was putting groceries into the back of the SUV when I noticed the teenager loading groceries behind another SUV parked two spots away staring at me.  She said something and her mother poked her head around the rear of their car, smiled broadly, and gave her daughter a high five.

I thought it odd, shrugged it off, and got into the driver’s seat. That’s when the mother sauntered over, looked into the passenger side window and said “we’ve got an Edge, too!”

The influence of Derek Jeter, captain of the New York Yankees, and the tag line to the Ford Edge commercials he stars in (  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qpem4xp9upQ  )   is, apparently, more ubiquitous in the New York metropolitan area than the car itself.  I did notice, however, that the Edge she and her daughter were shopping in was red, not white and black Yankee pinstripe.

But catchy ad lines aside, the Edge is a mid sized, well stocked SUV that’s easy to look at and easy to like.  Stylistically, it’s hard to characterize. The front is short and stubby, with a wide-mouthed grill that seems to be smiling and blunts the more common long, flowing silhouette usually seen on popular SUVs from the Nissan Murano to the upscale Lexus RX or Porsche Cayenne. The effect, though, is an SUV that fits comfortably with modern styles without copying or looking boxy.

Behind that chrome grin is a four-cylinder, 2.0-liter engine which produces just 240 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque. That is more than enough to give pep to this two-ton vehicle – I was half way through a very off-key rendition of an old Temptations hit song before I realized the speedometer had nudged past 90 miles per hour. There had been no engine whine or air noise to provide audible clues that my license was in danger, and its low, wide stance and traction control let it handle winding roads more like a sedan than an SUV. It is also helpful that the four cylinder engine drinks regular unleaded gasoline and carries an EPA estimate of 30 miles per gallon on the highway, and can tow up to1,500 pounds.

For those who need their SUV for heavier duty work, however, there is a 3.7-liter, V-6 option providing 305 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque and a towing capacity of 2,000 pounds. The tradeoff is the bigger engine is thirsty – its mileage rating is  17 MPG in city driving and just 23 MPG on the open road.

            Inside, the Edge has the amenities one might expect from a $38,000 vehicle. The décor is a mix of plastic and leather, and the feel is one of unlimited space. The windows are extra large with narrow, unobtrusive, center posts. The Edge did not, however have a sun roof – which would have augmented the open-space feeling.

The leather wrapped steering wheel tilts, telescopes, can be heated, and has fingertip controls for Bluetooth, cruise control, audio, and voice commands. The seats are wide, thickly padded leather and, at the touch of a button, the front seats can be adjusted for comfort and the rear seats can fold flat.  The front set can also be heated.

The center console is wide enough for the passengers to share the arm rest, and the cup holders in front can hold a pair of Big Gulps. There is a wide, eight-inch color touch screen and easy to see control surface which is backlit with soft blue lighting. As a result, one doesn’t have to go searching for controls when driving at night. Behind the console is an open-sided storage area which can easily hold a small purse and cell phones, and has a power charging outlet.

Under the arm rest is a foot deep storage bin with a second power outlet, a pair of USB ports for music, a second power outlet, iPod, MP3 and video connections. For entertainment, the Edge also has a CD player, Sirius Satellite radio, or can utilize Bluetooth to play music stored on a smartphone.  Whatever medium is used, the music comes through a 390-watt Sony sound system with 12 speakers that are easily capable of enveloping the cabin in your noise of choice or providing amplified boom for the average block party.  The system can be activated either manually through the touch screen or console dials, or using the Ford SYNC voice commands. These vocal instructions, however, take some getting used to. The voice system is not necessarily intuitive and the SYNC robot lady is not especially helpful. I never could get her to increase the volume so the Temptations could sing louder than me. It takes time to memorize the command manual which, frankly, shouldn’t be necessary.

The rear section has more than a yard of leg room space, making it a comfortable place for tall passengers to stretch and, when parked, enough floor space for toddlers to play in. The seats are adjustable and can lay back far enough for a comfortable nap. For hauling larger cargo, the seats will conveniently fold flat at the push of a button.

Overall, the Edge is a sound set of wheels, though at that price, it is going to have tough competition from Hyundai and Nissan in particular. Whether Jeter’s acclaim on the baseball field will help in markets throughout the country where the Yankees are unloved competitors remains to be seen.

2012 Ford Edge

           

MSRP:                                                                        $38,910

EPA Mileage:                        21 MPG City                          30 MPG Highway

Towing Capacity:                                                      1,500 Pounds

 

Performance / Safety:

 

2.0 – Liter DOHC, 4-cylinder, aluminum block engine producing 240 horsepower and  270 pound-feet of torque; 6-speed automatic transmission;  power rack and pinion steering; MacPherson strut front suspension; Independent rear suspension; power assisted disc brakes; front wheel drive; dual stage front airbags; side impact and safety canopy airbags.

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/Sirius Satellite Radio; CD and MP3 player; USB and iPod connections; Bluetooth; navigation system with 8-inch touch screen; tilt and telescoping, leather steering wheel with  fingertip audio, voice, and cruise controls; SYNC voice command system; powered leather seats; heated front seats and steering wheel; power liftgate; fold flat rear seats.

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The Volvo C-30 Sport Machine

June 12, 2012

 


By Roger Witherspoon

It was a raining on a Friday evening – a really bad time to be on the Taconic Parkway.

The scenic highway starts about 20 miles north ofNew York Cityand winds its way to theMassachusettsborder. But about 40 miles north of the City limits it narrows from three lanes each way to two and the wide shoulders are abruptly replaced by imposing, encroaching concrete walls.  The transformation from a scenic, six-lane, rustic highway to a narrow fast-moving blind alley is akin to forcing a wide, placid river through a steep canyon, transforming it in the process into unruly rapids. In this case, rapids with wheels and bumpers.

Traffic was comprised of an unholy mixture of tired motorists hurrying to get home after a week’s work, including some who were afraid of water and didn’t drive faster than a brisk walk; and a dangerous few had already started their weekend partying and shouldn’t have been allowed behind the wheel.

The Dodge Charger getting ever larger in my rear view mirror was easy to spot. The driver was evidently one of the early party crowd, whose car moved faster than the other vehicles on the Taconic and he could not manage to color within the white dotted lines. His weaving was forcing one car after another to squeeze either dangerously close to the concrete wall or the puny center divider while the Charger weaved obliviously past.

It did not take long to realize the fast moving drunk driver in the sports car was likely to hit me unless I found a way to make room. Unfortunately, that meant accelerating from about 50 miles an hour to about 80 and weaving past two cars in the left and right lanes while on a wet S-curve on an unlit, rain-soaked highway. That was not a normally sane option, but the idiot driver with the fine muscle car didn’t leave much choice – he intended to barrel through whether I got out of his way or not.

So I downshifted the six-speed Volvo C-30 from 5th to 4th gear and hit the accelerator. The turbocharged, sport hatchback jumped forward in the right lane as if kicked and the speedometer spun past 80 as I zipped around the first car and then moved left into the fast lane in the middle of a sharp rightward curve. I noted gratefully that the Volvo’s 18-inch wheels were hugging the road as tightly as a newly minted NBA player hugs his signing bonus, and there was daylight between me and madman in the Charger. So I slid the transmission into 5th gear, accelerated to 85, zipped past the second car while on the leftward curve and then passed the second car and moved into the slow lane.  I had slowed back to 60 before the Charger caught up, straddling the middle line and rolled by, picking up both speed and attracting the attention of a State Trooper.

With or without drunks or rain on the road, the Volvo C-30 combines the safety characteristics long associated with this brand, with the performance characteristics associated with Detroit muscle cars and refined imported sports sedans from the likes of Mercedes or BMW. If you are single and like a performance car in the $35,000 range, then that’s the good news. On the other hand, the C-30 is not a family car. It’s small, can feel cramped, has little in the way of storage space and, at that price, can face stiff competition from a variety of its bigger, badder competitors.

Volvo has long been associated with safe, reliable vehicles. But in recent years the company has sought to add pizzazz to the brand by offering more appealing designs. The C-30 is, essentially, a sleek, fast-moving cross between a sport hatchback and a small station wagon that seeks to act like a roadster.  Outside, there is none of the safe boxy look long associated with Volvos. Instead, there is a long, aggressive snout with a low black grill just six inches off the pavement and running lights low and outside resembling the eyes of a pouncing cat. The roofline tapers to a sawed-off glass rear that’s too short and sporty to be a hatchback and too big for a standard rear view mirror. Thematically, the C-30 is its own niche.

Under that hood is a five-cylinder, turbocharged engine cranking out 227 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque – which is a lot for a small, lightweight car. The C-30 jumps from 0 – 60 miles per hour in 6.2 seconds, and can cost you your license at 149 miles per hour.

Inside, the C-30 offers a variety of amenities, but can appear Spartan and cramped. The dash is functional and the center console has Volvo’s trademark design of a flat panel with a storage space behind it. That’s an acquired taste, like Ikea furniture, because the space is small and awkward to get to, and if you push an item out the other side you will either have to forget about it or pull off the roadway and stop to retrieve it. That can be more than a little annoying at night or on long trips.

            The car has a pop-up navigation system which is not intuitive and is designed for those who grew up playing computer games.  It has a hand held joy stick to control the navigation functions, or a duplicate joystick built into the steering wheel column. Once you’ve climbed the learning curve, however, it is not difficult to operate and the joystick can be operated by a passenger, while the driver concentrates on the road.  The navigation system is tied to the Sirius satellite system, with useful traffic and weather detour updates.

There is a central storage bin that is deep enough for 10 CDs and has the USB and MP3 connections, as well as a 15-volt power outlet. But it is situated too far back and too small to serve as a useful arm rest. The deep, bucket leather seats are a bit narrow for spreading old guys, but they are thickly padded, power adjusted, and can be heated.

The trunk area is about large enough for an overnight bag. The rear seats, which have enough leg room for a pair of average sized adults, can fold flat if needed and provide room for a reasonable luggage for two.

In the end, the C-30 is a sporty innovation from a company primarily known for well-made family cars. How it will fare in the rough and tumble competition for upwardly mobile young professionals remains to be seen.


2012 Volvo C30 T5

 

MSRP;                                                                        $35,720

EPA Mileage:                        21 MPG City                          29 MPG Highway

 

Performance / Safety:

                                    Top Speed:                             149 MPH

                                    0 – 60 MPH                            6.2 Seconds

 

2.5-Liter, 5-cylinder, turbocharged, DOHC alloy engine producing 227 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque; front wheel drive; 6-speed manual transmission; stability and traction control; Independent front suspension; multi-link rear suspension with coil springs; 4-wheel power disc brakes; anti-lock braking system; power assisted rack & pinion steering; 18-inch alloy wheels; front and rear fog lights; dual Xenon, bending headlights; curtain side impact head protection.

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/Sirius satellite radio; MP3 and USB ports; CD player; Bluetooth phone and audio; tilt and telescope, leather steering wheel with fingertip navigation, audio and cruise controls; remote controlled, Sirius satellite  navigation system with 6-inch color, pop-up screen; fold flat rear seats with 60/40 split; powered sunroof; powered, heated front seats; 10-speaker, 650-watt Dolby  Pro Logic II Sound system.

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Fiat 500: The Italian Gem From Detroit

April 11, 2012


By Roger Witherspoon

            The old guy with the shaggy white beard and wide grin started it all.

“Hey,” he shouted from two parking rows away. “A Fix It Again Tony! I had one back in the ‘70s and it was always in the shop. This one looks a lot better! How is it?”

The initial shout breaking the calm on a Sunday afternoon drew attention in the parking lot. But the word “Fiat” hooked everyone in the area.

“Hey,” said a woman who was trailed by a teenage girl with braces wearing a high school jacket. “My daughter is starting high school and is begging for something other than my eight year old heap. Do you mind if she sat in this one and turned on the music?”

And for the next 20 minutes, the copper-colored, sub-compact, four seater 2012 Fiat 500 became as way station for a score of shoppers who wanted to look at, sit in, listen to, and imagine owning the European side of the resurrected Chrysler. Fiat bought Chrysler in a shotgun marriage arranged early in the Obama administration that offered something for each company: Chrysler got to stay alive with a partner knowledgeable about small, fuel efficient cars; and Fiat got a second chance to enter the American auto market.

So far, Chrysler has gotten a lot out of the marriage with an entirely revamped domestic line, including the iconic muscle car, the Dodge Charger and its off-road Jeep group. But Fiat has been slow to hit American roadways, with the company taking time to make sure it had a stylistic winner that could appeal to American tastes. Which is why the Fiat draws a crowd: everyone has heard of it and seen the Jennifer Lopez commercials, but few have had a chance to get close to one.

The 500 is a head turner. It is a sub compact car and at 11.5 feet in length and just under five feet high the Fiat is not much larger than the Smart-for-Two and smaller than the Mini Cooper. The style can best be described as “cute” as it turns heads wherever you go.  Under the hood is a small, four-cylinder engine producing just 101 horsepower and 98 pound-feet of torque. While those numbers seem anemic, the power plant provides more than enough juice to give the little car some pep once it gets under way. It is not, however, as fuel efficient as one might expect from a sub-compact import. The 500 carries an EPA rating of 27 miles per gallon in city driving, and 34 miles per gallon on the highway – and the little engine prefers being pampered with premium gasoline.

            The engine is mated to a six-speed, automatic transmission and it is a performer. On dry or wet winding roads the Fiat operates more like a sport sedan. And on unpaved, pot-holed roads the MacPherson suspension and twin-tube, sport shocks smooth out or minimize even the roughest bumps without disrupting ‘Trane’s “Love Supreme” in the CD player.

The interior of the Fiat 500 provides the biggest positive impression on neighbors and strangers who see the car – and is likely to do the same with the thousands of visitors to the New York International Auto show, opening at theJacobJavitsCenterinManhattanFriday. The seats are double-stitched, Italian leather with equally thick padding on the doors and arm rests. The front seats are manually operated, but they can be heated. And while there is ample leg room for six-footers in the front, the rear seats are more for show than use, unless the passengers are children.

  The dash provokes mixed reactions. The plastic molding is color coordinated with the exterior of the car. And the controls and dials are raised, light colored, plastic buttons. Men who sat in the car invariably exclaimed positively that the buttons were convenient and easy to get used to. Women who sat in the car disdainfully said it was like “driving a blender.”

The 500’s blender does control a wealth of gadgets. There is Bluetooth cell phone and audio connections; and the glove box contains MP3, iPod, and USB connections.  And the Bose sound system can satisfy any type of music lover. But the price of the 500, at about $23,000 is puzzling since it puts this sub-compact in a category with several, large, compact cars under $25,000, such as the Hyundai Elantra, Mazda 3, Honda Civic, and Chevrolet’s Sonic and Cruze (  http://bit.ly/Io8dSv  ).

But the Fiat 500 is unique and difficult to categorize. It is, physically, a small sub-compact car. Yet its quality, styling and precision handling would tend to pit it against a more upscale competition. For variety, at the New York International Auto Show, which opened Friday, the automaker put its Fiat 500 Abarth model in the spotlight. This variation, with a scorpion logo, has a four-cylinder power plant producing 160 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque. That amount of power on such a light car puts it in the performance category of the Mini Cooper – which costs nearly twice as much – and would run the Fiat head to head with the $27,000 Nissan Juke, which has a four-cylinder, turbocharged engine and cannot resist a drag race.

The 500 does not have a navigation system, which is a drawback for a car costing just above $23,000. But there is a factory installed Tom-Tom navigation setup with a three-inch screen installed on top of the dash. The Tom-Tom is more cumbersome and less user friendly than its competitor, Garmin. It seems to have been designed by members of the Flat Earth Society who didn’t get Christopher Columbus’ message and still think the heavens revolve around the earth. As a result, there is no true north orientation, and the Tom-Tom landscape spins merrily around the always upward-moving avatar. The result is a system best used with Dramamine.

In addition, while the Bluetooth function is set through Tom-Tom, the system does not turn off or pause the entertainment system when you have an incoming phone call. Unlike Garmin, it simply plays both through the same set of Bose speakers and subwoofers, though there is a button on the blender to mute the music.

It remains to be seen what kind of splash the reintroduction of the Fiat will have on American car buyers. But considering the excitement in engenders on the street, this second coming of the Italians should be a lot more productive than the first venture.

2012 Fiat 500

 

MSRP:                                                                        $23,250

EPA Estimate:           27 MPG City                          34 MPG Highway

 

Performance / Safety:

 

1.4-liter, aluminum alloy engine producing 101 horsepower and 98 pound-feet of torque; 6-speed automatic transmission;  power rack and pinion steering; MacPherson front suspension with twin-tube shocks; rear twist-beam suspension with twin-tube shocks; 4-wheel, anti-lock brakes; stability and traction control; 15-inch aluminum wheels; halogen projector headlamps; fog lamps; front, side mounted, and side curtain airbags.

Interior /  Comfort:

 

AM/FM/Sirius satellite radio; Bose premium sound system with 6 speakers and a subwoofer; USB, iPod, and MP3 connections; Cd player; Tom-Tom navigation with Bluetooth; power sunroof; tilt and telescope, leather wrapped steering wheel with fingertip audio, phone, and cruise controls;  fold flat, split rear seats; leather seats; heated front seats.

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A Hybrid Faceoff: Kia Optima and Ford Fusion

April 11, 2012


By Roger Witherspoon

Nobody knew what to make of the Toyota Prius when it first hit the American roadways.

It was an odd looking little car. It wasn’t ugly or a plain sub-compact box with wheels. But it wasn’t a styling gem, but wasn’t unattractive, either. The Prius carved its own styling niche at a time when Toyota was selling hybrid efficiency, not looks.

But times have changed. The Prius has become more stylish to look at and more comfortable ride in. And its success has spawned competition – and not just at the sub-compact level. The Cadillac Escalade hybrid anchors the opposite end of the fuel efficient spectrum and, if you want high end, sports car efficiency, there is the Porsche Panamera hybrid offering relative fuel efficiency at more than150 miles per hour.

But for the average household looking for hybrid efficiency in a family sedan, there are now significant options stretching from Korea, with the Kia Optima; to Detroit, where Ford has rolled out the Fusion Hybrid.

            With the Optima, Kia continues its tradition of offering a lot in a car for less. At $32,000, the stylish, midsized, Optima sedan meets a lot of family needs. On the outside, the Optima looks like a sport sedan, with a wide racing grill and black side air scoops which makes it the type ofcarStatePolice just love to follow. And there is good reason for cops to keep an eye on the Optima: It is such a quiet, well shielded car that there is virtually no wind sound in the cabin even when the car is rolling on 17-inch wheels past 100 miles per hour. The Optima makes it real easy to lose your license, even though it has a modest power plant and is sluggish when taking off.

Under the hood, the Optima has a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine producing just 166 horsepower and 154 pound-feet of torque. It is paired with an electric motor producing an additional 40.2 horsepower and 151 pound-feet torque which. The combined power plant produces a lot of horsepower for a relatively light-weight vehicle. But the combined 300+ pound-feet of torque, going directly to the wheels, allows the Optima to be extremely responsive once it gets going

In the fuel department, the Optima Hybrid carries an EPA rating of 35 miles per gallon in stop-and-go driving, and 40 miles per gallon on the highway. While the EPA estimates are usually exaggerated, the test car got 38 miles per gallon in mixed driving. .  While most full hybrids allow the car to be driven in electric-only mode for just the first 25 or so miles per hour, the Optima can drive on just its electric power plant at speeds up to 62 miles per hour.  That is why the stats for this hybrid are reversed, with higher gas savings on the highway than in the city where frequent accelerations lower the performance.

            Kia did not cut costs in the interior features, either, beginning with the wood accents and the double, powered sunroof. One would expect quality, ventilated leather seats in a $32,000 car, as well as the ability to heat the pair in front. But the Optima goes one better by offering heated and air conditioned front seats as well as heated rear seats – an option usually found only in high end luxury cars – and a heated steering wheel.

For entertainment there is a 7-inch touch screen for the easy to use navigation systems and the clear backup camera.  The Optima has Sirius satellite radio, which also provides the navigation system with traffic and weather updates. The package is rounded off with USB, iPod and MP3 connections and Bluetooth for cell phone or audio use. The entertainment, Bluetooth, and cruise controls can all be accessed via fingertip controls on the steering wheel.

But you can’t get to Korea without passing Detroit, where the folks at Ford have something to say. You need a large parking lot to handle all the competitors in the midsized sedan category, since all the car makers have at least one entry in the segment. The question they all faced was how to carve a niche and manage to stand out in the crowd chasing the Toyota Camry?

For the folks with the crayons at Ford, the answer was the Fusion, a car with its own distinct styling characteristics, including a wide, three-layered grill. And if you put together a checklist of the most popular items or enduring features in the Toyota Camry, Chevy Malibu, Nissan Altima, Hyundai Sonata, or Honda Accord, for example, you could check off virtually all of them in the Fusion.

For those interested in fuel economy, there is the Fusion Hybrid. The Fusion Hybrid’s gasoline engine itself is rather anemic, a 2.5-liter, four cylinder engine producing 152 horsepower and 136 pound-feet of torque. Its electric motor cranks out 35 horsepower, and 106 pound-feet of torque. Together, it’s a small power plant, and you are not going to do any drag racing in a fusion. But then, you don’t get a hybrid if you have a lead foot.

This is a full, dual motor system, meaning you can drive up to about 47 miles per hour on just the 40 horse power electric motor. That’s faster than any other hybrid on the road except the Optima. But Ford’s electric motor can accelerate at higher speeds than the Optima without engaging the gasoline engine for support. They accomplish this with a form of battery overdrive system.  As a rule, hybrids never completely run down their batteries – there is about a 15% to 20% reserve. With the fusion, there is an “Eco boost” which taps the reserve for additional power on acceleration, power provided on most hybrids by engaging the gasoline engine.

That helps explain why the Fusion Hybrid has an EPA rating of 41 miles per gallon in stop-and-go driving – 10 MPG higher than the Toyota Camry Hybrid – and  36 miles per gallon on the highway. The Fusion also encourages you to drive in the most economic fashion with an animated set of gauges in the form of green leaves which wave in an electronic breeze when happiest.

Inside, the Fusion has a powered sunroof over the front, and both the seats and doors are padded with leather, thick, attractive, double stitched leather. The front seats can be heated and are power adjusted.  The rear seats, while not heated, have enough leg room for passengers who stretch well over six feet. 

For entertainment, the Fusion uses the SYNC communications system, with its voice or touch activated screen, audio, and cell phone link. The navigation system is an easy one to use, with traffic and weather warnings and rerouting provided by the satellite radio service. The backup screen has one of the clearest cameras on the market, with guidelines to help motorists judge how far they are from an obstruction.

The Fusion offers Sirius satellite radio with a 12-speaker Sony sound system, as well as USB, iPhone and MP3 connections. There is also Bluetooth for phone or audio connections. The large battery also powers a 110 volt regular power outlet to plug in a computer or game console, in addition to the regular power outlets for cell phones.

Whether or not the Ford Fusion Hybrid and Kia Optima Hybrid can overtake the hybrid version of the leading Toyota Camry remains to be seen. But as they energize their batteries, they are likely to give the leader a run for the money.

2012 Kia Optima Hybrid

 

MSRP:                                                                        $32,250

EPA Mileage:                        35 MPG City                          40 MPG Highway

 

Performance / Safety:

 

2.4-Liter aluminum DOHC 4-cylinder engine producing 166 horsepower and 154 pound/feet of torque; electric motor with 270-vlt Lithium-polymer battery producing 40 horsepower and 151 pound/feet of torque; 6-speed automatic transmission; stability and traction controls; anti-lock brakes; 17-inch alloy wheels; independent front and rear suspension; fog lights and high density headlights; backup camera; dual front airbags; front seat side airbags; full-length side curtain airbags.

 

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/Sirius satellite radio; Infinity Audio system with 8 speakers; MP3, iPod, and USB connections; CD player; Bluetooth phone and audio; voice-activated entertainment system; navigation system with satellite traffic and weather; leather wrapped, tilt and telescoping, steering wheel with fingertip audio, phone and cruise controls; heated steering wheel; heated rear seats; heated or air cooled front seats; powered leather seats; powered sunroof.

2012 Ford Fusion Hybrid

 

MSRP:                                                                        $32,820

EPA Mileage:                        41 MPG City                          36 MPG Highway

 

Performance / Safety:

 

2.5-Liter, aluminum DOHC 4-cylinder engine producing 156 horsepower and 136 pound-feet of torque; electric motor with 275-volt Nickel-metal hydride battery producing 35 horsepower and 106 pound-feet of torque; front wheel drive; independent front and rear suspension; rack and pinion steering; 4-wheel power disc brakes; anti-locking brake system; stability and traction control; 17-inch, 15-spoke aluminum wheels; side and curtain front and rear air bags.

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/Sirius satellite radio; Sony audio system with 12 speakers; MP3, iPod, and USB connections; CD player; Bluetooth phone and audio; voice-activated entertainment system; navigation system with satellite traffic and weather; leather wrapped, tilt and telescoping steering with fingertip audio, phone and cruise controls; heated front seats; powered sunroof.

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