Posts Tagged ‘2011 car reviews’

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Running on E: The Chevy Volt Hits the Road

September 20, 2011


By Roger Witherspoon

What was left of Hurricane Lee was rapidly losing steam.

The rainfall had eased from a blinding deluge dropping two inches per hour, to a gentle, late summer rain. And the long distance haulers were taking advantage of the relative lull to make up for lost time by racing their big rigs up the New England interstate.

The speedometer approached 70 as I eased from the long entrance lane onto the right lane of US I-84 near the New York-Connecticut border – an unremarkable speed in normal circumstances, but close to excessive on this rain-slicked roadway. My visibility was suddenly poor: the rain was no match for the windshield wipers on the electric Chevy Volt, but the water pouring from the huge tires of the 18-wheeler in the middle lane next to me created the highway equivalent of a surfer going through a fast-curling Pacific wave off the Hawaiian coast.

Suddenly, I realized the wave was closing and the wheels of the big rig were getting closer. The truck was moving into my land and, with the Chevy lost in the water wall thrown up from the tires, the driver couldn’t see me.  There was no shoulder, and the shortest route to safety lay straight ahead. So I floored the accelerator.

There was no satisfying, accompanying engine rumble since the Volt’s 111 kilowatt, electric engine runs silent. But it does deliver 273 pound-feet of torque directly to the axels, and there was a satisfying feel of gravity pushing me deeper into the leather seats as the volt shot forward. In seconds, the speedometer hit 95 and the traction control fought to keep the car running straight on the soaked roadway as the car just cleared the rumbling truck’s front bumper.

            It took less than a minute for the latest innovation from General Motors to show that it could compete with front running family sedans in terms of performance and handling. And in developing the Chevrolet Volt, GM has staked out a unique technological course in a newly evolving field of hybrid electric transportation. Whether the Volt and its successors will catch on with the car buying public, however, is still an open question?

The Volt is the third and, perhaps, the most versatile of the mass produced electric vehicles aimed at the general public, charting a different course than the Nissan Leaf and the Toyota Prius Hybrid Plug-in Electric (http://bit.ly/jj7N0Z ).

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

The hybrid power systems are standard. What is different is that the new battery pack powers the electric motor for about a half hour, or 13 miles, at speeds up to 60 miles per hour. After that, the charge is depleted and the car reverts to the standard hybrid combination with the interplay between the gas engine and electric motor.  The electric motor can drive the car unaided at speeds up to about 25 miles per hour. After that, the Prius either uses both the gasoline engine and the motor or, at high speeds, just the gasoline engine. The difference the additional of the plug-in component makes in terms of gas mileage is incremental: the 13 miles running solely on electric power just extends the miles per gallon average of the car.

Nissan, on the other hand, completely bit the electric bullet with its Leaf. It has only an electric motor. The drawback, however, is that the car can get only about 75 miles before it needs a new charge – which can take eight hours.  That makes it a perfect car for getting around in small towns or daily commutes within traffic-snarled metropolises like New York. But it is fairly useless for vacation trips and could be problematic in sprawling cities like Los Angeles. Nissan is banking on the Leaf being the preferred car of the future, when the electric charging infrastructure is as ubiquitous around the nation as the gas pump. But selling that notion now is a challenge.

With the Chevrolet Volt, GM is hedging its bets with what amounts to a reverse hybrid. With this sedan, only the electric motor can power the car, and a full charge – which takes 10 hours on a normal 110-volt outlet – will provide the equivalent of just 31 gas-free miles. The mileage is not absolute because sitting in New York City traffic, for example, can eat up with charge without the car physically going very far.

But after the charge is used up the small, 1.4-liter gasoline engine kicks in. It will not drive the Volt, but it serves as a generator to keep the battery charged to power the electric motor. That combination – an electric motor with a gasoline battery charger – gives the Volt its driving range of about 330 miles between visits to a traditional gas station.  It is also what gives the Volt an EPA estimated mileage of 37 MPG on the highway, and a whopping 93 MPG in city driving.

The interplay between the gas engine and the battery required some tradeoffs. It provides enough juice to keep the car going, but not enough to fully charge the battery while the car is being driven and bypass the need for the 10-hour battery charge.

Pam Fletcher, the chief engineer of the Volt, said “there is always some minimum buffer in the battery to drive the car. The Volt’s engine uses about 65 percent of the battery’s capacity, and the internal combustion engine charges enough to maintain that minimum state of power. It does not power it back up to full.

“Our philosophy was if you want to go from the minimum state of the battery up to a full charge, you have to get that energy off the grid, where it is less expensive and more efficient to generate. And it is likely that the electricity you get from the grid will be generated in an environment with more easily treated emissions than those from a bigger internal combustion engine.”

Getting power off the grid is not free. Charging the Volt nightly can boost the electric bill of a three-bedroom home as much as 50%, according to some industry estimates.  In high utility rate areas like New Jersey and New York, that means the savings you get by having less frequent trips to the gas station is nearly offset by the monthly electric bill.

The Volt does have some of the battery-charging features of the standard hybrid, such as regenerative braking, which converts the heat in the brake shoes to electricity. But it would take a bigger engine and batteries with greater storage capacity to have the4 Volt fully charged while on the go –and that would drive up its already hefty price of nearly $45,000.

Aside from the power plant technology the Volt is, above all, a family car, and it will be on the road competing with mid-sized sedans such as the Nissan Altima, Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla – which all have much lower sticker prices, and higher gasoline bills. In that regard, what has GM done?

Outside, the Volt is as sleek as its name implies. Its wide front and split grill could be viewed as aggressive were it not for the curved headlights which turn the metal grimace into more of a smile. The long, sloping hatch back ends in a raised spoiler instead of fading into the bumper, which gives the Volt more the appearance of a sporty, four-door coupe.

Inside, the Volt is a spacious sedan with the trimmings you would expect in a car with this price tag, and a few designs that may take some adjustment. The leather seats are wide, comfortable, and can be heated, which is particularly useful.

The dials on the dashboard are novel. There is a blue column showing the amount of electricity in the battery, which runs down as the battery is used up. And there is a green floating ball resembling a suspended Earth which monitors the Volt’s power flow. The center console is a white plastic with raised letters for Climate, Radio, and other controls, all activated by lightly touching them. Women who got into the Volt uniformly disparaged it as the controls of a blender. 

But it is efficient. The rear backup camera is crystal clear. The navigation system is easy to use with a seven-inch LCD screen and, for communication, there is either the Bluetooth linking your cell phone to the car’s audio system, or GM’s satellite-based OnStar system.  Live help at OnStar can provide turn-by-turn directions if you prefer that to the lady robot in the navigation system.

For entertainment, the Volt offers everything. There is a CD player, AM/FM and XM satellite radio, and connections for the iPod, MP3 player, or USB port. In addition, there is a 30 gigabyte hard drive to download a few thousand of your favorite songs and create your own travelling juke box.

For a hatchback, the Volt is surprisingly spacious. It is about the length of a Honda Civic, but has more interior leg room, so a pair of six-footers can actually ride in comfort in the rear seats. 

The Volt is a smart entry into the plug-in world, since an infrastructure for all around use does not yet exist for fully electric cars. Whether it catches on, or becomes a transitional vehicle as the electric infrastructure matures will be determined by events unfolding over the decade.

The Volt is a stylish, versatile, comfortable, sporty sedan which is dependable in a variety of road conditions. It will give the other electric road runners – and quite a few gas guzzlers – a quiet run for the money.

2011 Chevrolet Volt

 

MSRP:                                                            $44,680

EPA Mileage:                        93 MPG City              37 MPG Highway

Top Speed:                                                     100 MPH

 

Performance / Safety:

 

111 Kilowatt electric motor and 1.4-liter gasoline engine delivering 84 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque; 5-speed automatic transmission; front wheel drive; independent MacPherson strut front suspension; torsion beam rear suspension; lithium-ion battery; antilock and 4-wheel disc brakes; stability and traction control; 17-inch forged painted aluminum wheels; rear vision camera; dual stage, frontal, knee and side-impact airbags.

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/XM satellite radio; Bluetooth and OnStar communications; Bose audio system with 6 speakers; CD player; 30 GB hard drive; USB port; iPod and MP3 connection; navigation system with 7-inch LCD screen; tilt and telescoping, leather wrapped steering wheel with fingertip audio and cruise controls.

 

 

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Irene and the Hybrid Lexus CT

September 10, 2011

By Roger Witherspoon

 

            It was the gray calm after the storm.

The torrential rains from Hurricane Irene’s slamming northern side passed through theLower Hudson Rivervalley in the early morning light, leaving an uneasy calm, a roiling river, and an unpredictable string of roads blocked by downed trees and rampaging streams. The Hudson River swallowed the wide expanse ofPeekskill’sRiversideParkand splashed against the empty Metro North station as if waiting for a train that was never going to come.

Which made it an interesting day for a drive. Normally, in an unpredictable landscape like this, one would like to be behind the wheel of a Jeep orToyota’s go-anywhere FJ Cruiser. But the car of the day was a hybrid hatchback, the Lexus CT200h, which is billed as a luxury compact for all purpose family driving.

     The beginning of the trip was auspicious enough. The Bear Mountain Extension’s narrow causeway across Annsville Creek – one  of the Hudson River’s many, small, nondescript inlets – was half flooded, with the road west towards the Bear Mountain Bridge completely under water. Eastbound, however, on Route 9 looked like a promising trip, since there were only a few meandering streams winding under the road towards theHudson.  But not today.  A mile past Annsville the eastbound lane hosted a large, horizontal, elm, and the westbound roadway had become an uninterrupted set of fast-moving rapids undermining the eastbound roadway. If there had been a shoulder, it was long gone.

I was glad the Lexus hybrid was a compact, and not a big SUV, since there was not a lot of room to turn around on what was left of the two-lane roadway. And it helped that in reverse the sharp, color cameras in the bumper take over and the map in the seven-inch, pop-up, navigation screen on the dash is replaced by a crystal clear view of the road behind the car. In a shopping center, the camera serves the safety function of helping the driver avoid backing over small children. In this case, it let me see where the road ended and the rushing water began.

The compact was not designed to bound over downed tree trunks or large branches, or ford deep, fast moving streams. But its traction and stability controls were sufficient to keep the Lexus moving straight down Route 9, even though the swollen streams were now flowing across the road, covering it with an inch or so of rushing water.

            As a go-anywhere family car, theLexus CT200h is an interesting blend, and the company seems intent on developing a new genre of vehicle – the luxury compact. As a compact car, the CT 200h has a lot to offer in terms of comfort, convenience, and performance and clearly stands out in the tiny car field. But with a price just south of $40,000, it’s going to have to compete with much larger, sportier, more comfortable, cars like the Chrysler 200 or Lexus’ corporate cousin, the Toyota Camry, as well as small, sporty, SUVs like the turbo-charged Nissan Juke.

In terms of styling, the CT 200h is low and sleek, with subtle ridges and lines giving it more character than the typical, low budget compact.  It is about the size of a Honda Civic, but has a stubby hatchback instead of a long sloping one. And though the rear window on both cars contain windshield wipers, the window on the Lexus can’t open. That can be a drawback if you try to haul long cargo which, on the Civic and some other compact vehicles, would stick out the rear window.  But with the rear seats folded down, the Lexus CT is long enough to hold a half dozen, eight-foot stakes that lay across on the arm rest and nestled against the passenger side of the center console.

There isn’t much under the hood, either. The primary power plant is a 1.8-liter, four-cylinder gasoline engine and an electric motor which, combined, provide 134 horsepower.  While compact cars are not generally known for power plants, one might expect more of a compact costing nearly $40,000 – which is about what you’d pay for a Lincoln MKZ. That hybrid power plant will take about 10 seconds to propel the CT200 from 0 to 60 miles per hour, which means you need to have a lot of space before trying to cut into traffic. It does offer a shift between a more responsive sport mode, or a more ecologically friendly normal driving mode. The most notable change in sport mode is that the instrument panel lighting changes from blue to red, and  the hybrid power indicator changes into a tachometer.

On the other hand, the Lexus can drive on just the battery power at up to 28 miles an hour, and the hybrid combination gets an EPA estimated 40 miles per gallon of gasoline on the highway, and 43 miles per gallon in city driving. And one doesn’t usually buy a compact if you are looking for a performance car.

    Inside, the Lexus luxury compact has a lot going for it. To begin with, despite being a compact, it is extremely comfortable and roomy, with enough leg room in the rear for the average six-footer. The seats are soft leather, and the front set can be heated. Only the driver’s seat is power operated, however – the front passenger has the limited manual seats.

Its navigation system is especially easy to use, featuring the company’s new “Lexus Enform.”  This is an interactive program which lets you sit at home at your computer, input up to 200 addresses or destinations you want to use, and upload them all to the car’s navigation system. The addresses can be placed into a maximum of 20 individualized folders with titles such as “Favorite Restaurants” or “relatives” or camp sites. The navigation system also ties with the satellite radio to offer XM updated traffic and weather.

The sound system utilizes 10 speakers – more than enough to envelop the small cabin in a blanket of sound. There is a six-disc CD changer, AM/FM and XM satellite radio, as well as connections for flash drives, iPods, and MP3 devices.  The car has a traditional slot in the console to hold a cell phone, or you can use a plug-in, adjustable holder to contain your cell phone or iPod.  The gadget sticks up on the console and takes some getting used to. But it does make the device convenient to see and use, and holds it firmly in place.

Whether Lexus can succeed in creating the luxury compact market, particularly in this economy, will be an interesting experiment. But Lexus put a lot of thought into the CT 200h and, if there is a market for such a category, it will set the standard for competitors.

 

2011 Lexus CT 200h

 

MSRP:                                                                                                 $38,725

EPA Mileage:                        43 MPG City                          40 MPG Highway

 

Performance / Safety:

            0 – 60 MPH                                                    9.8 Seconds

            Top Speed                                                      113 MPH

 

1.8-Liter, in-line, 4-cylinder, DOHC gasoline engine and electric motor, producing 134 horsepower and 105 pound/feet of torque; 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels; 4-wheel independent suspension; 4-wheel, power assisted, front & rear disc brakes; anti-lock brakes; stability and traction controls; front driver and passenger knee airbags; front side impact airbags, side curtain airbags; fog lamps, backup camera; rear windshield wiper.

Interior / Comfort:

AM/FM/XM satellite radio; tilt & telescope leather steering wheel with audio and cruise controls; heated front seats; 7-inch navigation screen; Lexus Enform navigation destination system; Bluetooth; 6-disc CD player; MP3, iPod, and USB connections; Lexus audio with 10 speakers.

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Mazda 6: The Zoom-Zoom Car

May 22, 2011


By Roger Witherspoon

 

            The literature of automotive promotions has certain distinct characteristics.  It comes in a glossy brochure, has a host of high quality photos, and wears out the standard thesaurus with multi-syllabic adjectives describing the quality of the vehicle’s interior and the exhilaration that comes from driving a well made car.

Only the folks from Mazda have the notion that adults have enough on their minds without being reminded that, well, they’re adults. And when they describe their cars in their glossy brochure, state up front that “children put it much better and simply call it Zoom-Zoom. It’s why we build the kind of cars we do.”

The kinds of cars I built as a kid were powered by rubber bands. There was one experiment with jet engines loaded with gunpowder and sugar. In the end, it literally flamed out. But for about 10 glorious seconds, it zoomed across the empty armory parking lot, at times seemingly airborne and, for my money, was the most wonderful thing on wheels.

The Mazda 6 has a 272-horsepower V-6 using regular gasoline instead of a rocket engine using solid fuel. Standing outside, the sound emanating from the twin exhausts is a low rumble, not a flaming roar. And from inside, there is no sound at all except for the melodic 88s of Keiko Matsui emanating through the Bose sound system, even when the world is flying by at 100 miles per hour. And at times, it was easy to imagine that my jet car was back, bigger and better than ever, taking me on a long overdue ride with wheels barely touching the pavement.

In reality, of course, Mazda’s don’t fly and if the wheels aren’t on the ground you are probably in trouble and need to slow down. But the 6 has a finely tuned independent front and rear suspension which seemingly puts a layer of cotton between you and road and gives the feeling of gliding instead of rolling along. It is, however, definitely a power glide – the 6 is intended to be a sports sedan and, for the most part, Mazda succeeds.

            That power plant is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission with an electronic manual mode that responds about as quickly and effortlessly as an actual stick shift. The stability and traction controls help ensure a road-hugging trip regardless of travel and weather conditions.

            On the outside, the designers took pains to give the 6 a sportier look than the average mid-sized sedan.  So they borrowed cues from their RX-8 sports car, with the outsized hump over the 17-inch, aluminum alloy, front wheels to accompany a long, sloping hood. The curved grill is more of a grin than a sports car’s grimace but this is, after all, a family car.

   A lot of thought was given to the design of the interior to make the various controls extremely easy to see and use – day or night – in addition to being convenient and attractive. The controls for the entertainment and climate systems on the center console in the middle of dash were not only easy to see, but large enough so you could not miss them in the dark. The entertainment system, for example, with its backlit red light, featured FM/AM and Sirius satellite radio, as well as a 6-disc CD player, and auxiliary control for the iPod, USB and MP3 connections. If you touched one of the buttons, it was surrounded by a soft blue light. The 6’s entertainment and Bluetooth systems can also be controlled or voice activated from the leather, retractable, steering wheel.

The test car, which had a price tag of about $28,500, did not have a navigation system or backup camera. Adding those refinements – which tend to be expected in sedans these days – would push the cost up to the $30,000 range, where it begins to have more direct competition with the Nissan Altima, Honda Accord, and Toyota Camry. The seats in this model were manually operated and cloth. But they were wide, comfortable, and easily adjustable. Having leather, power operated, heated seats would push the sticker price up further.

The interior also features a powered sun roof, which gives both light and a feeling of spaciousness to the car. The rear seats can fold flat in a 60/40 split, thus increasing an already large trunk. In addition, there is enough leg and headroom in the back for pair of passengers who are well north of six feet tall to travel in comfort.

Mazda is still an also-ran in the mid-sized sedan market providing the all-purpose family car. But with the 6, Mazda does have a respectable contender.

 

2011 Mazda 6

MSRP:                                                                                              $28,405

EPA Mileage:                        18 MPG City                          27 MPG Highway

 

Performance / Safety:

 

3.7-Liter, DOHC V-6 engine producing 272 horsepower and  269 pound/feet of torque; 6-speed automatic transmission with electronic manual mode; 17-inch alloy wheels; blind spot monitoring system; 4-wheel disc brakes; traction and stability control;  dual chrome exhaust;  independent front & rear suspension;  fog lights;  dual front airbags; side and side curtain airbags.

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/ Sirius satellite radio; 6-disc CD and MP3 player; iPod and USB ports; 6-speaker sound system; auxiliary audio input jack; power sunroof; tilt and telescope, leather steering wheel with fingertip audio, and cruise controls; Bluetooth.

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Style, Snow and the Honda Accord

January 23, 2011


By Roger Witherspoon

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

2011 Honda Accord Coupe EX-L

MSRP:                                                                       $32,480

EPA Mileage:                        17 MPG City                          26 MPG Highway

As Tested Mileage:                                                   19 MPG Mixed

Performance / Safety:

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

 

Interior / Comfort:

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

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