h1

Taming Texas in a Chevy Camaro

October 16, 2012

By Roger Witherspoon

 

I had stopped for gas in the middle of nowhere – which is just about any place in the arid, dusty, 150-mile stretch of the west Texas Panhandle between Lubbock and the New Mexico border where the monotonous view of scrub brush is only interrupted by slowly cranking oil wells. I did not plan on staying long.

This is a region noted for being inhospitable to strangers in general and Blacks in particular, and where the top elected officials publicly warn residents to be prepared to fight off United Nations troops sent in by President Obama to usher in a socialist takeover of America. Nature doesn’t help, either. While there are plenty of shaded, roadside “picnic areas” where a tired motorist can catch a nap, many of these have skull and crossbones signs warning of fatally toxic sulfur fumes from leaking gas lines. Which means your nap may be your last, so it’s best to keep moving.

So it was disconcerting to come out of the station’s mini mart and see the parking spot next to my car occupied by a heavy duty pickup truck with a rifle and a shotgun on the gun rack across the rear window. Three men in weathered, Stetson hats who were standing, arms folded, next to the driver’s door stopped talking as I approached. Then, one stepped towards me and said, “Man, that’s a really sweet car! Can we see it?”

How could I resist?

            They ran their hands along the smooth lines of the  fire engine red, 2013 Chevy Camaro SS convertible, and positively gushed as they looked under the hood at the 6.2-liter, aluminum V-8 engine capable of cranking out 427 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque. What they really liked was the fact that the Camaro, on its  20-inch, painted aluminum wheels, could dash from 0 – 60 miles per hour in just 4.7 seconds, pass the quarter mile mark in 12.9 seconds with the speedometer at 113, and top out at 155 MPH. And that is just your average, $45,000 Camaro.

Chevy has a heftier model, the 580 horsepower Camaro ZL-1 which goes from 0 – 60 in 3.9 seconds (an area normally reserved for Corvette and Porsche), hits the quarter mile in 12.3 seconds and tops out at 188 miles per hour. And in Texas, one could actually get a chance to try that and worry more about hitting an armadillo than drawing the attention of the State Police.

With the push of a button I put down the canvas top and the trio, hats included, sat in the car and passed me their cell phones to take pictures. Then they wished me God speed. That is not an idle wish in west Texas, where the 75 mile an hour speed limit is considered a recommended floor rather than a legal ceiling.

The audience nodded appreciatively as the Camaro started with a loud rumble and a steady vibration as the V-8 engine rhythmically rocked the car. When parked, the sports coup most resembles an angry cat and, once started, it seems anxious to leap.

A hologram of the speedometer appeared as if by magic, seemingly hovering over the hood between the bulging air scoop and the left wheel. The floating, Heads Up display would make it unnecessary to take my eyes off the wide Texas roadway to monitor my speed or change the music.

With a wave, I floored the accelerator and the cowboys quickly disappeared in the rear view mirror. A nice feature of west Texas highways is that they are wide, flat, and the curves are steeply banked. I leveled off when the hologram showed the speed at 140, and the sound of the wind was drowned out by Usher belting “Yeah!” from the nine, large, 245-watt speakers. The 20-inch wheels ate up the hardtop, and the automatic stability controls kept the Camaro level on the wide, banked highway curves.

The newest version of the Camaro, with an updated interior and electronics, is a clear descendant of the 1960s version of the Pony Car General Motors created to compete with the Ford Mustang. It has the same wide stance and curved silhouette that captured attention in that tumultuous era. That is not surprising since Ed Welburn, GM’s vice president and design chief, still drives his ’69 yellow Camaro with the twin black racing stripes on the hood. If the new Camaro is a bit wider than the original, well, so are today’s drivers.

Inside, there is an emphasis on comfort. The seats are double-stitched, two-toned leather, and are wide, thickly padded, and soft. The front seats can be heated, a feature appreciated by younger drivers in cold climates and older drivers most of the time. The rear seats are more for show than use, though there is leg room if everyone in the car is well under six feet. Passengers taller than that will have serious leg cramps.  The rear seats do fold flat, however, which enlarges the ample trunk space.

The décor in the Camaro is sport plastic – the molding on the dash and doors matches the exterior of the car and the seats. In this case, the trim was red and the black seats matched the black stripe on the hood.

For entertainment, the Camaro is aimed at a younger generation. The designers apparently feel CDs and DVDs are yesterday’s technology, as there is no place to use them. If, however you have a movie on your iPod, smartphone, or USB flash drive, then plug it in and watch it on the seven-inch color screen. Or, you can switch between HD, satellite radio, and the other technologies.

The new Camaro is a mix of the old and new. In the ‘60s I was interested in speed, and any amenities besides an AM radio were a bonus I could take or leave. A half century later I still want speed – but want to be comfortable, prefer a navigation system so I don’t get lost, and like the thought of traction control and air bags when the speedometer is in triple digits.

What is consistent about the Camaro is it’s a head turner to look at, and a pleasant way to fly on the open road.

 

2013 Chevrolet Camaro SS

 

MSRP:                                                                        $44,960

EPA Mileage:                        15 MPG City                          24 MPG Highway

As Tested Mileage:                                                   16.8 MPG Highway

 

Performance / Safety:

 

            0 – 60 MPH                                                    4.7 Seconds

            ¼ Mile:                                                           12.9 Seconds at 113 MPH

            Top Speed:                                                     155 MPH

 

6.2-Liter, cast aluminum engine producing 426 horsepower and 420 pound/feet of torque; 6-speed automatic transmission; double ball-joint, multi-link strut front suspension; 4.5-link independent rear suspension; 4-wheel disc, Bembro performance brakes with ventilated rotors and anti-lock brake system; 20-inch painted aluminum wheels; Halogen head lamps; fog lights; traction and stability controls; front, side, and head curtain airbags.

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/XM satellite radio; 245-watt, Boston Acoustics premium sound system with 9 speakers; iPod, USB and MP3 connections; Bluetooth phone and audio; 7-inch color information screen; backup camera; tilt & telescoping, leather wrapped steering wheel with fingertip cruise, audio and Bluetooth controls; leather, powered and heated front seats; Heads Up display; folding rear seats.

h1

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.

h1

The Corvette: Speed, Grace, and Rolling Nostalgia

September 3, 2012

By Roger Witherspoon

I pushed the starter button and the car shook as a roar emerged from underneath the chassis and burst in a series of rapid fire explosions out the rear, as if a string of heavy duty firecrackers were celebrating behind me.

And that was when the Corvette was sitting still.

Clearly this was a sports car better suited to the driving bass-line of Eminem’s Lose Yourself  than any dulcet jazz solos from Keiko Matsui or ‘Trane. I unlatched the roof and put it on the designated tracks in the long, shallow trunk. Then slid a USB drive into the designated slot under the armrest and lined up a few hundred favorites to blare from the nine Bose speakers. I drove slowly to the entrance of an isolated stretch of  Connecticut interstate highway, where it stretches for about two miles through the marsh grass flanking the Long Island Sound, and waited till the roadway was empty.

And then, I popped the clutch and floored it.

The rumble under the car turned into a roar as the Corvette shot down the highway, going through the six gears in a matter of seconds till I held the speedometer level at 140. I did not have to take my eyes off the road: the Vette has a hologram of the speedometer and key gauges – including the entertainment system – floating over the left side of the hood between the 18-inch left wheel and the center air scoop.  It was hard to hear what Eminem was rapping over the throbbing of the engine and the roar of the wind – but the driving bass line was audible enough and seemed to mesh with the pounding of the 436-horsepower V-8.

The Corvette rides low to the ground, and the adjacent scenery was little more than a blur as I approached a long curve. I dropped down to 105 and sailed through the middle of the curve and then accelerated back up to 140 as I hit the straightaway. At that point, the highway was leaving the coast and it was time to slow back to the speed limit. There isn’t a lot of room on the crowded roads of the nation’s northeast to really appreciate what a sports car like this can do. You need a lot of space and a relatively straight road to enjoy a sports car roaring at nearly 190 miles per hour on the highway instead of splattered all over it.

But for a few minutes, and two miles of sunbaked, Connecticut highway, there was a glimpse of the joy of the wide open, western highways and the feel of a legendary machine.

This is the 60th anniversary of the introduction of the Chevrolet Corvette (  http://bcove.me/4ybhxikj  ),  the star of multiple series of hot rod adventure books of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Corvette, the first of a storied group of American muscle cars, first hit the roads in 1953. And while the 2013 Corvette has little in common with the original – except for a long, low silhouette and a reputation for speed – at 60 years of age it is the oldest Chevrolet nameplate on a passenger car. The title of the oldest Chevy nameplate still in use is the 77-year-old, truck-based, Chevy Suburban, which was introduced in 1936 and is still rumbling along.

The deliberate effort to bring back the feel – and sound – of the Corvette of the ‘50s partially explains the rapid-fire explosion of sound accompanying acceleration and deceleration in the current edition.

According to Chevrolet spokesman Monte Duran, the 2013 Corvette has a “dual mode exhaust” – two sets of twin chrome tailpipes. “The interior pipes,” explained Duran “have butterfly valves.  Those are closed at most speeds, and when you are cruising it sends the exhaust through the mufflers.

“But when you stand on the accelerator, at full throttle, the Corvette has an algorithm that you are driving in a more spirited fashion, and it opens the valves. The exhaust them bypasses the mufflers and it is a straight pipe going out the back. When those valves are open you could run a golf ball straight down into the catalytic converter. We did that for people who want the noise and crackle and pop of the after-market exhaust. So it is to give you the best of both worlds.”

In addition, while the Corvette has the same basic engine as the Camaro SS, Duran added that “the Corvette is a drop-top with less sound-proof shielding. So you get more engine noise coming through the roof.  That’s where the extra sound is.”

The noise actually takes some getting used to. You can listen to a soft flute solo at 100 miles per hour in a little Ford Fiesta or a sporty Camaro and appreciate the quality of sound-proofing in modern American-made cars.  With the Corvette, however, you can take soft jazz and all classical music pretty much off your playlist unless, of course, you use headphones.

But one doesn’t buy a Corvette for the pretty music.

This is a speed machine, the sixth edition of a classic breed designed to get you to your destination comfortably and fast. In that regard, it is successful. The test car, the Grand Sport Coupe, has a fiberglass hard top which you can manually unlock and then store on clips set into the flat trunk area.  That pretty much limits cargo to items which are small and relatively flat, such as a computer carrier or luggage bag. With the hard top on the trunk area – a wide, flat expanse about a foot deep – is large enough to carry a couple of suitcases, though you’d have to have Federal Express deliver any athletic gear to your vacation destination.

The 6.2-liter power plant in the Grand Sport zips from 0 – 60 miles per hour in 3.9 seconds, passes a quarter mile in 12.9 seconds at 13 miles per hour, and tops out at 188 MPH. If that isn’t enough, there is the Corvette ZR-1 with a 6.2-liter supercharged engine producing 638 horsepower and topping out at 205 MPH – a speed at which the State Police simply photograph the passing license plate and mail a license suspension notice to your home. Or the 505-horsepower Corvette Z-06, which chugs along at just 198 miles per hour.

Inside, the Corvette is intended to provide the comforts one would expect from a car with a price tag north of $70,000. There is an easy to use navigation system controlled by voice, fingertip controls on the leather steering wheel, or the eight-inch, color touch screen. The deep, leather seats have power adjustments and lumbar controls, and can be heated. The entertainment system has satellite radio as well as iPod and USB connections, a CD player and Bluetooth phone and audio. Sound pours through nine Bose speakers strong enough to carry a heavy beat even with the roof off. And, as with all GM cars, the Corvette has OnStar, which has its own satellite phone and turn-by-turn navigation system.

The 2013 family of Corvettes are the last of this edition, which first rolled out of the Bowling Green, Ky plant a decade ago. GM’s design chief, Ed Welburn, is not talking about the parameters for the next generation. The only hint that something very different is coming in 2014 is the announcement that the plant, which receives more than 50,000 visitors annually, is ending all tours September 14 until further notice.  That is to prevent anyone from getting clues from the retooling which will commence shortly thereafter.

But that’s for the future. For now, the 2013 ‘Vette shows a lot of life for a senior citizen.


2013 Chevrolet Corvette

            Grand Sport Coupe

 

MSRP:                                                                        $70,785

EPA Mileage:                        16 MPG City                          26 MPG Highway

 

Performance / Safety:

Top speed                               188 MPH

0-60                                         3.9 Seconds

1/4 mile                                   12.3 Seconds at 117 MPH

 

6.2-Liter, cast aluminum, V-8 engine producing 436 horsepower and 428 pound-feet of torque; 6-speed manual transmission; power Rack & Pinion steering; double wishbone front and rear suspension; 18-inch diameter, 9.5-inch wide, painted aluminum front wheels; 19-inch diameter, 1-foot wide, painted aluminum rear wheels; traction control, 4-wheel antilock brake system; run-flat tires; fog lamps, Xenon, high density headlights; heads-up holographic display; front and side impact airbags.

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/XM satellite radio; CD player; iPod and USB ports; Bluetooth phone and audio; OnStar; tilt and telescope, leather wrapped steering wheel with fingertip audio and adaptive cruise controls; power adjusted, heated, leather bucket seats; Bose sound system with 9 speakers; navigation system with 8-inch touch screen; removable roof;

 

h1

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.

 

h1

2012 Explorer: Another Big SUV from Ford

August 4, 2012

By Roger Witherspoon

            The storm had been building up all day, the dark, angry clouds piling up on each other, crowding out the sky as if waiting to see which member of the celestial gang would attack first. In the end, the signal was given by the rising north wind, which launched one fierce gust after another, making the traffic on the west-bound interstate a white-knuckle game of trying to drive in a straight line while being shoved from the side.

Into this game came the rain, slashing, pouring, and quickly filling the roadway and the small, meandering streams nearby. Depressions in the road were quickly filled, forcing the drivers of small cars and low sports cars to pause as water reached their doors and they wondered if they could roll through the fast-moving puddles.

            But none of that really mattered since we were in a Ford Explorer which seems to have borrowed some tips from Land Rover and treats water, mud, gravel and dry pavement as pretty much the same surface. We rolled through nearly a foot of water in a low area and, at one point, drove around a stuck car by rolling over the curb and through a mud puddle that had been a grassy glade. The large SUV was too heavy to really care about the sideways pushes from the wind, and since the Explorer no longer had its traditionally ugly box shape the car was aerodynamic enough to deflect much of the force of the wind over and around the vehicle.

So we passed the potato chips, had Outlaw Country on the Sirius radio booming from the dozen Sony speakers, and sang along with Robbie Fulks and his scatological Nashville tribute “F… This Town!” All things considered, it was a great road trip.

The guys at Ford Motor Company are allergic to minivans and their designers just won’t draw them. So the company has three versions of stretch SUVs with three rows of seats and a smorgasbord of capabilities and amenities. For those seeking to maintain a bit of status while hauling a carload of kids, there is the MKT from Ford’s Lincoln line (  http://bit.ly/MEbjWC  ). If you don’t care about status but like being a bit different, Ford offers the Flex, (  http://bit.ly/NrKYtr  ) a sort of grown up version of the wooden trucks little boys play with. And now, for those who want a large SUV but would prefer if it had a bit of style and could do more than just be really big, Ford has redesigned its old workhorse, the Explorer.

Like all of the stretch SUVs, the Explorer can haul seven passengers because it puts a third row of seats in what is normally the trunk.  In the Explorer, the rear seats have a certain amount of versatility. The third row has a 60/40 split, and can be operated independently. They can either fold flat or, at the push of a button, disappear into a bin in the floor.  That arrangement leaves you with an SUV which comfortably seats five and has enough storage space for a week’s worth of luggage for everyone.

But if you need all of the seats, it is easy to get into the Explorer’s third row. At a flick of a lever, each of the second row seats will fold up and away, allowing access without having to go through a lot of awkward climbing. The problem, however, is that once you are in the last row you are pretty much stuck there. There is not enough leg room for an adult and kids can’t get out unless they wait till the second row is empty and folded out of the way, or they climb over the rear. In an emergency, either would be difficult. And if the passengers in the second row decide to take a nap and recline their seats, the passengers in the back will really become claustrophobic. The folks in the second row, on the other hand, heave it easy. There is enough head, hip and leg room for a pair of 400-pound pro linebackers or three, relatively normal, 6-footers to relax on a cross country road trip.

But the lack of space in the third row, and its impact on the cargo area are common complaints with the stretch SUVs and the price paid for not being a minivan.

On the positive side, Ford packed a lot into the Explorer for $46,000.

Beginning with its design, the new Explorer seems to have borrowed ideas from Ford’s former relationship with Jaguar/Land Rover. The Explorer no longer looks like a big box. The hood is longer and flatter, a trick from Land Rover which doesn’t make the SUV svelte, but tricks the eye into focusing on the long lean look, rather than its bulging middle. It looks thinner than it is.

As a practical matter, that long wheelbase increases the stability of the Explorer, which handles more like its smaller cousin, the Ford Escape, than like the truck that it really is. Powering the Explorer is a 290 horsepower V-6 engine mated to a six-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive. That makes it both fast and nimble on the road.

            Off-road, Ford has borrowed additional ideas from Land Rover. In the center of the console is a circular control with pictures of different road conditions: normal, hill climb, downhill assist, sand, and snow. As the pictures imply, the Explorer’s gear settings change to meet the road needs. The downhill assist is interesting in that it is meant to prevent the car from slipping backwards on a steep slope, or when towing a heavy load on a hill.

Unlike the Land Rover or Ford’s heavy duty F-150 truck, however, the Explorer is not really designed for really rugged terrain. It does not have a skid pan protecting its undercarriage and, therefor, it cannot, for example, really handle a rock crawl though the transmission is able to split the torque from the front to the rear or from one side to another so the SUV can continue driving even if one wheel is off the ground. And while it can ford running streams, the design is about eight inches — though the doors are sealed tightly enough for  deeper streams.

The Explorer also has a few of Ford’s latest safety options which can come in handy on long trips or in really bad weather.  Their land changing system monitors the dotted road lines from a camera embedded in the windshield and alerts the driver if you are veering into another lane.  This is useful in a heavy rain storm – particularly at night – when the lanes can be difficult to see. Further, if there is a continued pattern of wandering into adjacent lines, the leather steering wheel vibrates and a little coffee mug on the dash lights up with a note saying it’s time to get some rest.

There are also lights embedded into the rear view mirrors which alert the driver to cars in either side blind spot. While the sight lines on the Explorer are good, a vehicle of this size is going to have spots that are difficult to monitor and the blind spot notice should be considered a necessity rather than an optional add on.

Ford gave some thought to the Explorer’s interior – a reasonable thing to do since that’s where the people are.  To begin with, it’s quiet. The sound proofing is such that not only will it shut out the winds at high speed so you can enjoy a quiet, flute solo from Harold Johnson Sextet’s Moses, it will also block the sound of a riding mower when you’re parked near a garden and just enjoying the view. Ford hasn’t always had that level of quality, but the same sound proofing can now be found in the compact Ford Fiesta at the other end of its product line.

The seats in the Explorer are soft, padded leather, and those in front are powered and can be heated. The door arm rests and dash are padded faux leather with wood accents which give the area a living room feel.  There are bottle or large cup holders in the door which can actually hold an 18-ounce water bottle, and the second row has both a regular power outlet for phones and a 110-volt outlet with a standard plug. If your phone is a mobile hotspot, passengers can plug in a computer and turn the Explorer into a fast moving office.

On the dash, the eight-inch, touch activated, information screen is really easy to use and is divided essentially into four quadrants: Bluetooth, navigation, climate, and audio. Each sector can be activated with a light touch or voice command from Ford’s SYNC system.

If you need to haul both a lot of people and a lot of their stuff, there’s nothing like a minivan. But if a stretch SUV fits your needs, the Explorer may give its Detroit siblings, and the Audi Q-7 and Infiniti JX and run for the money.


2012 Ford Explorer

 

MSRP:                                                                        $46,740

EPA Mileage:                        17 MPG City                          23 MPG Highway

Towing Capacity                                                        5,000 Pounds

 

Performance / Safety:

 

3.5-Liter aluminum DOHC engine producing 290 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque; 6-speed automatic transmission; 4-wheel disc brakes; all wheel drive; MacPherson strut independent front suspension;  SR1 independent multilink rear suspension;  rack and pinion steering; traction and stability control; fog lights and high density headlamps; 20-inch, polished aluminum wheels; heated side mirrors; blind spot and lane change monitoring; reverse sensing and rear view camera;  dual front stage and side impact airbags.

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/Sirius satellite radio; 390-watt Sony audio with 12 speakers; Bluetooth; CD and MP3 player; USB and iPod ports; tilt & telescoping, leather wrapped steering wheel with fingertip audio and cruise controls; leather seats; powered, heated front seats; fold flat rear seats with push-button stowing for 3rd row; 8-inch color information screen.

h1

2013 Ford Flex: The Big Boys’ Toy Bus

August 4, 2012

By Roger Witherspoon

            Let’s say you need a vehicle with room for seven passengers and space for a lot of stuff – but you really don’t want to spend several years with a minivan.  In the style category, you’re comfortable with an SUV, though you really don’t want to drive what looks and feels like a small truck.

            In that case, the guys with the crayons at Ford think they have the wheels for you.  It’s called the Flex, and it’s hard to categorize.

It’s 16 feet long and just five feet, eight-inches tall with a coffin-flat roof  – giving it a longer, lower silhouette than the seven-passenger, stretch-SUVs it competes with: the Lincoln MKT, Infiniti JX or Audi Q-7.

            Nor does it look like an SUV. The guys in Ford’s design playpen never got past the wooden Tinker-toy stage and, as a result, put together a similar set of  rectangles on 20-inch wheels with the rounded front and flat sides and roof. The look is distinct and, depending on what toys you had as a kid, can either feel vaguely familiar and comfortable, or just look like a rolling box.

            Underneath that broad, flat, front hood Ford offers a choice in power plants. The standard engine and the one provided in the test car, is a 3.5-liter V-6 with twin independent, variable camshaft timing cranking out 287 horsepower and 254 pound-feet of torque. That is adequate once the Flex gets on the road. But it is sluggish and the car struggles to climb steep hills or pass another vehicle in a hurry. If you need power in a hurry, it helps to slip from automatic into manual mode and downshift for extra torque. But the car always feels underpowered, and is in trouble if the Flex is carrying a full passenger load and attempting to tow its designed limit of 4,500 pounds.

The alternative is Ford’s V-6 EcoBoost engine, which provides 365 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque – which is enough juice to allow the Flex to meet its automotive potential. The smaller engine drinks 87 octane fuel and carries an EPA rating of 17 miles per gallon in city driving and 23 miles per gallon on the highway. The EcoBoost on the other hand, will only drink the costlier premium brew.

Perhaps because of its low stance and all wheel drive, the Flex drives like a long sedan instead of a small bus. At speeds pushing triple digits – which you shouldn’t try except with a Jeep SRT8, Cadillac SRX, or Porsche Cayenne – one never feels as if you are trapped in a runaway train on really old tracks.

Riding in the flex is like traveling in a small living room, and the extended length of these stretch SUVs adds to the initial feeling of spaciousness.  For those in the first two rows, travel is a continuous comfort, with enough leg and headroom for four pro football players and a normal-sized friend. The seats are wide enough for 300 pounders and thickly padded. The front seats can also be heated and are power operated. The second row seats are not adjustable, though the backs of these seats can recline enough for a comfortable nap. To reach the rear seats requires one to manually fold the second row out of the way – and once someone is in the third row they are stuck there. The seats are comfortable, but there is little leg room and best used for kids or small adults who are not claustrophobic.

   Ford packed in more amenities than you might expect from a $41,000 SUV. On the safety side, the Flex uses side-mounted radar to alert the driver to vehicles in either blind spot by blinking a lite in the relevant side view mirror. In manual mode, the gear shift in the center console does not move. Instead, one pushes an up or down button on the side of the gear shift. It works quickly and effortlessly, though it takes some time to get used to shifting gears in that manner.

It has the SYNC voice activated central command system to run its extensive entertainment network. SYNC takes some getting used to: the commands are not necessarily intuitive and it takes time to either memorize the appropriate commands and derivations or luck into them. For those who can’t seem to work with the computerized SYNC robot, there is also an eight-inch color touch-screen and fingertip controls on the leather steering wheel which work quite nicely.

For sound, there is an in-dash CD player, as well as connections for MP3, iPods, and USB drives, and satellite radio.

The 2013 Flex will stand out from the stretch SUV pack because, well, it doesn’t look like an SUV. Whether it’s perceived as a hearse and ignored, or viewed as a neat, grown-up, toy for boys will be a matter of taste. It will, however, make its mark in the competition for seven-passenger, non-minivan vehicles.

 

 

2013 Ford Flex

 

MSRP:                                                                        $41,280

EPA Mileage:                        17 MPG City                          23 MPG Highway

As Tested Mileage:                                                   22 MPG Mixed

Towing Capacity:                                                      4,471 Pounds

 

Performance / Safety:

 

3.5-Liter, aluminum, V-6 engine producing 287 horsepower and 254 pound-feet of torque; front wheel drive; 6-speed automatic transmission; MacPherson strut front suspension; Multilink, independent rear suspension; power rack & pinion steering;  traction and stability control; 20-inch machined aluminum wheels; adaptive cruise control; fog lights; Halogen headlamps; dual stage front airbags;  seat-mounted, side impact bags.

 

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/Sirius satellite radio; Bluetooth; SYNC voice activation system; CD player; USB, iPod, and MP3 ports; tilt and telescoping leather steering wheel with fingertip audio and cruise controls; Sony sound system with 10 speakers; leather seats; powered, heated front seats; fold flat 2nd and 3rd row seats.

 

 

h1

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.

%d bloggers like this: