Posts Tagged ‘2012 Car Reviews’

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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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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.

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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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Three Stretch Crossovers: Seating Seven Without a Minivan

July 8, 2012

 

By Roger Witherspoon

 

            There is nothing like a minivan.

If you’ve got a large family and have to haul kids, strollers, soccer and football gear, and assorted levels of first aid kits these miniature buses tend to fit the bill. And if you’re an empty nester who likes to take road trips with friends, the minivan will get older bones around the country in plodding, genteel comfort.

They’re great – unless you can’t stand the sedate image, the slow speed, the boxy looks, and would prefer to walk in too-tight shoes than be caught dead in one of the stodgy, kid-carrying, miniature buses.

For folks like that – and there are many – the auto companies have stretched their crossovers, borrowed bottoms from trucks and come out with seven-passenger SUVs. These are marketed as minivans without the middle-age, sedate suburban look, and they sell as logical extensions to standard SUVs designed to meet the needs of expanding families.

But there are tradeoffs when you move from a small bus to a long car. The primary function of the minivan is to hold a lot and then look as good as possible, while the primary function of the stretch SUV is to look good while carrying what will still fit.  In addition, those whose priority is a good-looking SUV generally want a vehicle that drives more like a sport machine and less like a bus. Balancing the needs of cargo and ego can be difficult.

Here are three distinct approaches to designing these long sets of wheels and, therefore, they will appeal to different households. Audi, with its Q-7, pushes technology and style; Infiniti promotes the safety systems in its JX 35; and Lincoln says nothing about what’s in the MKT but suggests it’s a step up in status to own one.

The Audi Q-7

No matter how often it airs, the Audi commercial grabs one’s attention.

There is an old codger, reminiscent of Hemmingway’s “Old Man and the Sea” reminiscing about the one that escaped his hook and got away. It doesn’t take long to realize his hook is on a tow truck, his busy season is during the fierceNew Englandwinter, and the Audi is so sure-footed on snow and ice that the cars deliberately mock him.

You have to smile as he plaintively yells “Quattro!” as an Audi sports car with their four-wheel drive zips by in a cloud of swirling snowflakes. You smile, that is, if you’re in the market for a sports car. What if you have a big family, need a vehicle that seats seven and don’t particularly want a minivan? In that case, what can Quattro do for you?

Audi’s answer to that is the Q-7, a stretched, crossover SUV intended to haul a young family of seven, or a smaller group with a lot of room for carry-on gear. While it is not designed to race along and mock the tow truck operators – or other motorists – it is likely to keep a family moving in style regardless of weather and road conditions. Audi does pay attention to exterior looks. But then, with a sticker price of $65,000, it should.

Outside, the Q-7 has the soft curves and low roof line associated with sleek crossovers such as the Infiniti FX, indicating Audi puts as much stock in design and appearance as in function and performance. Under its long, sloping hood is a supercharged V-6 cranking out 333 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque. That power plant doesn’t turn a big vehicle into a racing car, but it actually gives a sporty feel to the Q and, on the open road, makes it easy to forget that this is still a truck. And while it isn’t prudent to take the speedometer of a small truck into triple digits – even one with a four-star rollover rating – the Q-7 is actually capable of easily getting your license revoked.

Inside, where the masses will reside, the Q-7 offers a lot.

The dashboard was thoughtfully designed with a small screen between the tachometer and speedometer which shows what functions are being utilized at any given time – heated seats, the radio, navigation system, climate, etc. Using fingertip controls the driver can change radio stations, alter the temperature in the rear seats, or zoom in or out of the navigation screen. The design allows the driver to keep his or her eyes on the road and not turn away looking for the appropriate buttons and dials.

For entertainment, the Q-7 has Sirius satellite radio and a CD player. There is an iPod connection inside the glove box, but no USB or MP3 port. The car does have Bluetooth, however, and can easily access the 1,000 or so songs stored in your Android Smartphone. The entertainment system can also be accessed from the rear, so the passengers don’t have to necessarily bother the driver.

Its leather seats are wide and thickly padded, and the front pair are power adjustable and can be either heated or air cooled.  The second row of seats actually has room for three passengers – two tall adults and a child in the middle whose legs will straddle the hump. The front and second row arm rests are wide and padded, and all doors have wide storage bins and bottle holders.

As with most stretched, seven-passenger vehicles, there is a trade-off to be made between the number of seats and the amount of available cargo room. That is the case here, where the third row, when not in use, provides more than half the cargo space. Using the third row for infants leaves little room for multiple baby carriages and other infant paraphernalia – as well as the stuff the rest of the family lugs around.

In the Q-7, the heavy, manually operated, third row of seats can be pulled up by either climbing into the trunk or folding down the second row seats and pushing them forward. There is not a lot of space between the rear of the second row seat, and the car’s door frame, so access can be awkward.  Once the third row is set up, however, they are large, deep, and comfortable. But there is absolutely no leg room. That means the third row works well for my daughter’s year old twins in their rear-facing child seats, but not for the older kids or unpopular in-laws.

The key controls are set far back in the center console, making it necessary for the driver to look away from the road to find entertainment and climate settings. At some point, one can pretty much memorize the settings and operate by feel. But there is a learning curve for that trick and it is not the safest way to operate.

The Infiniti JX35

Then, along came the guys from Infiniti with the new JX35.

There is a lot riding on this new, stretch SUV considering the role Nissan/Infiniti has played in revolutionizing the SUV market.  Their stylish Nissan Murano set a style trend in SUVs that’s been obvious in every major brand for the last decade. The upscale model, the muscular-looking, five-passenger, Infiniti FX -50 can go head to head in terms of ride, looks, and interior appointments with any brand.

In addition, the FX models always had heavy duty power plants enabling them to run with or ahead of the competition just as Infiniti’s sport coups, the G and IPL, readily ran with their contemporary BMWs and Audis. While one doesn’t expect a truck to be quite as versatile and maneuverable as an SUV, the JX —  the company’s first venture into the seven-passenger market – was still expected to dazzle.

But it doesn’t, though not for lack of trying.

The New York Times’ Lawrence Ulrich absolutely hated this car ( http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/10/automobiles/autoreviews/even-with-all-those-seats-the-driver-is-left-out.html?_r=1 ). But having high hopes dashed and the automotive equivalent of a broken heart needn’t generate such hostility.

In its national advertising, Infiniti touts the JX’ electronic safety systems in this $52,000 SUV, including one which detects objects behind the car while it is moving in reverse, and automatically applies the brakes.  In the ads, the smart-car stops the JX before it hits a child pushing his toy car. As with any new technology, it needs a little work. When I tried this in my driveway, the JX smart system stopped the car before it backed into my wife’s Honda.  But the system went dumb when it came to the two-foot high, child-sized birdbath – much to the annoyance of an assortment of sparrows, chickadees, and cardinals out for an afternoon splash.

There are a host of electronic gadgets, however. Their lane warning system, detects when you are veering outside the dotted lines, even if they are covered by several inches of fast-moving rainwater. The sight lines aren’t the best, but the car’s blind-spot warning system alerts drivers to cars they can’t see. There is also “intelligent” cruise control, which senses slower cars ahead and adjusts the speed to maintain a safe distance behind the vehicle until it speeds up or moves out of the way.

Infiniti has also borrowed a page from GM’s OnStar system, and is offering its own, live, “Personal Assistant”. In addition to automatically notifying nearby emergency personnel in the event of a crash, or immobilizing a stolen car, the Assistant can make hotel or restaurant reservations or provide step-by-step directions, among other services.

Under the Infiniti’s hood is a 3.5-liter V-6 engine providing 265 horsepower and 248 pound feet of torque.  That is significantly less power than the Audi Q-7, and not enough to stand out from the motorized crowd. It is, however, more than enough for an efficient, dependable SUV. That power was appreciated on a trip with the grand children to the New Jersey shore (Snookie was not invited).

The Atlantic Ocean beach at Seaside Heights was off limits to the little ones – and everyone else. There was a fierce storm far out to sea sending high waves crashing onshore – which meant the little ones could not play in the sand. In minutes, the streets of Seaside Heights were overwhelmed, with water covering the curbs and lawns and lapping against the summer rentals and year-round residences alike. None of it affected the JX, which rolled through fast moving, eight inches of water with aplomb – providing the kind of safe, secure ride one seeks in a large SUV.

Outside, the JX looks like what it is – a stretched SUV. In that stretching, however, it lost some of the distinctive flair which has characterized Infiniti vehicles. It’s pleasant to look at, but nothing special to make heads swivel.  The JX has the Infiniti trademark look, with a trim silhouette tapering towards the rear.  There is a single, sunroof over the front seats, and long, wide windows for the first and second rows, which actually opens. There is a smaller, viewing window next to the third row, but it does not move.

There was a thought among Infiniti’s designers that if you had a third row of seats, everyone should be able to actually use them. As a result, the JX provides about a yard of space between the first and second row of seats, but a bit less than a foot between the third and second row. The middle row, however, can slide 18 inches, which allows adjustments to fit most adults in all rows. That tapered roof does cut down on the headroom, though, and would prove annoying to folks pushing six feet in height.

In terms of amenities, the JX has heated leather seats as well as heated steering wheel, which can be appreciated in cold weather or when there are sore joints.  There is faux wood grain paneling on the doors, dash, and center console, which looks almost real.

The Bose sound system with 13 speakers is superb and, more importantly, easy to use.

The navigation system has an eight-inch screen with a split view backup camera: one is looking behind the car, and the other provides a 360 view all around the car.  It allows you to change the view so when you are backing up, you can actually look along the passenger side of the car to see how close to the curb you are. If you use it, it is more reliable than the robot-powered safety brakes.

There are thoughtful storage spaces in the JX. The arm rest in the center console is nine inches wide, and deep enough too hold a small pocketbook. There is also a nine-inch-deep storage bin under the trunk, which is pretty small if the third row is in use.

One would be hard pressed to get a couple of baby strollers and luggage in there, though the storage bin is handy for smaller items.

Lincoln MKT

            Lincoln’s advertising is interesting.

They have replaced the campaign to convince upscale, male motorists that owning a Lincoln is the “smart” thing to do, and replaced it with a campaign aimed at upwardly mobile women and positioning the brand as the next, logical step up the social ladder.  What the ads have in common is they deal with the image and less than five seconds on the car itself.

Which is interesting, since Lincoln’s latest alphabet offering, the MKT, is a competitive entry in the stretch SUV class. And with a sticker price of $57,000, it’s priced right in the middle of this trio of seven-seaters. Lincoln has long viewed itself as the understated alternative to the flashier Cadillac line. With the MKT, Lincoln’s designers are attempting to break from that reserved, and sometimes boring, mold. Its standard, recessed, oval insignia has been pushed outward at the end of a long, sloping, pointed hood and splits two long, slim grills. The effect recalls the look of a predatory bird’s beak. And while the MKT is a big car, the long, trimmer look – with bigger windows and less metal on the sides – is a break from the tank look of earlier models.

Under that long hood is the most powerful of the stretch SUV power plants. The MKT has a 3.5-liter engine producing 365 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque mated to a six-speed, automatic transmission with paddle shifts for a manual mode. Even though the stretch SUV is a heavy, truck based vehicle, the MKT engine provides the type of fast starts and instant surge associated with the best of Lincoln’s, Infiniti’s, and Audi’s sedans.

None of these vehicles is especially frugal when it comes to gasoline usage, however.  According to EPA estimates, the Lincoln and Audi Q-7 are each rated at 16 miles per gallon in city driving, and 23 and 22 MPG respectively on the highway; while the Infiniti was nominally better at 18 MPG in the city and 23 MPG on the open road.  Given the margin of error with the EPA estimates, the gas rates are indistinguishable and any differences will be the direct result of individual driving styles.

Inside, Lincoln’s designers had both comfort and accessibility in mind. There is a deep storage bin under the floor behind the third row of seats which increases the usually meager storage area. At the touch of a button, however, that rear row will fold into the bin, leaving a large, level cargo area.  In an unusual design departure, the center console between the front two seats can, as an option, extend through the second row This provides arm rests and convenient storage – as an option, it can contain a cooler.  But choosing this extension means eliminating the center seat, though you can squeeze three kids into the rear.

There is no lack of convenient gadgets, either. For entertainment, there is a 700-watt THX II audio system with 14 speakers which comes closest to a home theatre system. It has Sirius satellite radio and navigation system, as well as iPod, MP3 and USB ports, and the Bluetooth system handles both phones and smartphone audio.

All of the leather seats are power activated. A row of buttons on the side wall in the trunk allows you to fold the third row flat or stow them under the floor. The button on the side panel also allows you to close the cargo door. This is an improvement over the Audi and Infiniti, where the closing button is on the rear door itself – the Audi’s button is 7.5 feet above the ground – and the seats all have to be manually moved to get in or out.

While that is convenient, there is still a limit as to how much you can store in the longer Lincoln.  A pair of strollers, for example, doesn’t leave much room for luggage.

In the end, there is no definitive rule governing what will meet a family’s esthetic and practical needs. The stretch SUV with its three rows of seats and more attractive profile will definitely fit the household needs in many garages.

But in time, some of these larger families may well wish they had opted for practicality instead of appearances and bought the mini bus.

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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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