Posts Tagged ‘7-Passenger SUVs’

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Electric Flash: Green Cars are Getting Stylish

April 3, 2015
BMW i8

BMW i8 – Style and Eco-friendly

 By Roger Witherspoon

            A car doesn’t have to be dull and plodding to be green.

One wouldn’t know that from the proficient, but uninspiring plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles that crawled off the drawing boards of the major auto companies. But that seems about to change.

“We call ourselves the ultimate driving machine,” said Matt Russell of BMW North America. “Preserving that driving experience is everything to us. We sell to those who really love driving, and we needed a way to build a sports car that was also energy efficient.

“We needed a sports car that can go from 0-60 miles per hour in 3.6 seconds, top out at 155 miles an hour and has a fuel efficiency rating of 72 miles per gallon. And that’s the BMW i8.”

The i8, unveiled at the New York International Auto Show, is a stealth fighter of a car built to flow through the air rather than punch through it. There are grooves in the body designed to channel onrushing air through a narrow opening in the rear, not unlike the combustion chamber of the average jet. The result, at high speed, is you ride on a cushion of air and hear nothing from the world outside.

Porsche Cayenne Plug-in: Fast and family friendly

Porsche Cayenne Plug-in: Fast and family friendly

Not to be outdone Porsche has taken its Cayenne, the 150-miles per hour SUV, and retooled a plug-in hybrid version as a family-friendly companion to its hybrid Panamera sports car.

“It’s our feeling that electric motors are the wave of the future,” said Porsche spokesman Thomas Hagg. “But the technology isn’t quite there yet and the infrastructure and market aren’t ready for completely electric vehicles. But we feel it is certainly coming, so we have begun moving in that direction with the plug-in hybrid.  The Panamera proved that we can have an electric hybrid that meets the quality demands of Porsche in terms of performance and handling.

“But to really move our brand into the electric future we needed to develop a plug-in hybrid for the Cayenne, which is our best-selling model.”

The combined Porsche power plant was on display at the New York exhibit, which lasts till April 12, but is definitely not just for show. The Cayenne has a 95 horsepower electric motor combined with a 333 horsepower, three-liter V6 engine. One can drive the Cayenne about 20 miles on purely electric power – which is ample for many commutes – and the combined power plant gets about 50 miles per gallon.

While BMW and Porsche may have had the plug-in hybrid showstoppers, they were certainly not alone among auto makers who see an increasingly electric future. Ford’s popular Fusion has a plug-in electric model and Mitsubishi, which introduced a newly designed Outlander SUV, is also bringing out a part-electric hybrid version.

Mitsubishi iMiEV:

Mitsubishi iMiEV

The company tentatively entered the all-electric market with its iMiEV, an awkwardly named vehicle that most resembled an ostrich egg on wheels. It was comfortable and efficient. But cars are a form of sculpture defined by how they make a person stop, look, and feel when standing close and then sitting inside. For many families, it is the largest form of kinetic art they will buy. As art works, the iMiEV or BMW’s i3 would never draw a crowd.

Hence the change. “The Outlander plug-in hybrid,” said Mitsubishi Executive Vice President Don Swearingen, “is a bigger vehicle and clearly one that will appeal to more consumers than the fully electric ones with their more limited range.

“We actually developed it a few years ago and started selling it in Japan and then in Europe. The demand was so high that the plant that makes our batteries is at full capacity. We still are offering all electric cars, but our growth opportunity is in the plug-in space. I drive a fully electric car, but I live 40 miles from work. As long as I can charge each night and again at the office it works fine.  But if I want to make a longer trip, a decision has to be made as to what car to use.

Outlander Plug-in Hybrid

Outlander Plug-in Hybrid

“With the plug-in hybrid, all those considerations go away. We felt it important to offer a plug-in, five-passenger vehicle, which has 4-wheel drive capabilities and is a great opportunity for families. Since we were redesigning the Outlander, it made sense to design a version for the electric motor and batteries.”

While the regular Outlander is a seven passenger SUV, the hybrid version will seat five people, and the added space will be taken up by the battery pack. The Outlander will have two 60-horsepower electric motors – one assigned to each axle – as well as a 121-horsepower, 4-cylinder gasoline engine. The combination delivers about 44 miles per gallon.

Electric cars dominated American roadways for the first 20 years of the 20th Century, but quickly lost out to gasoline-powered vehicles which could go a lot further without worrying about a dead battery.

“Electric cars were initially the best sellers,” said Bob Casey, curator of transportation at the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan. “The assumption was that if there is going to be any widespread use of horseless carriages, electricity has a lot of advantages. You could start it easily and you didn’t need to shift any gears because of the torque characteristics of electric motors.

“In the 1890s people were making electric cars and steam-powered cars and then there was a newcomer in the lot – a smoky, noisy, dirty, internal combustion engine.  In those early days, it wasn’t clear what these things were good for.  If you lived in a city, public transportation was very good and the cities were very walkable.

“If you had a car, you used it to drive into the country at what was then considered the astonishing speeds of 15 miles per hour. But you couldn’t go far into the country because the roads were bad and there was no electricity and no place to recharge. The gas cars were much better suited to that use. By 1909 the electric car and steam car were both sold at the margins, and the market was dominated by cars powered by the internal combustion engine.”

The second coming of electric cars hasn’t changed that equation much.

“Right now,” said Orth Hedrick, Kia’s vice president for product planning, “electric vehicles are just three to five percent of the market, and the driving range is the biggest factor holding them back.

“Most people are used to a gas tank with 250 to 300 miles of driving range. But you can’t use an EV to go take a trip to see Grandma.  A lot of people view driving EVs like leaving the driveway with the gas empty light on and wondering how far they can go before the car stops.”

The technical fix to that anxiety was the plug-in hybrid.

Chevy Volt

Chevy Volt

When Chevrolet came out with its 2011 Volt plug-in hybrid it stressed the fact that the compact could get more than 300 miles to a tank of gas. Having the electric motors directly on the axle provided instant torque, enabling the small car to take off like a turbocharged roadster.  The Volt definitively proved the concept of the plug-in hybrid, even if its looks didn’t wow the consumers.

Which is why Kia is banking on an all-electric version of its youth-oriented Soul, a car marketed with hip-hop hamsters to lure a younger generation to its environmentally friendly wheels.  Basketball star Lebron James may lure buyers into Kia showrooms to see their high-performing sports car, the K-900. But once they are in the showroom, Kia is banking on the Now Generation driving off in an urban-oriented Soul.

“We designed the electric and the gas versions at the same time, rather than take an existing car and modify it so you lose space to the batteries,” explained Hedrick. “The Soul will get 93 miles before you need to recharge, which is the best range in the electric car market except for the $80,000 Tesla, which costs three times as much.

“The Soul is our best-selling vehicle. It has a cool, funky design that is perfect for the urban buyer and it will be the cornerstone of our clean mobility program.”

And Kia’s hamsters will bounce merrily to the quieter beat.

Kia Soul : Electric Hip-Hop

Kia Soul : Electric Hip-Hop

 

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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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2013 Ford Flex: The Big Boys’ Toy Bus

August 4, 2012

By Roger Witherspoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

2013 Ford Flex

 

MSRP:                                                                        $41,280

EPA Mileage:                        17 MPG City                          23 MPG Highway

As Tested Mileage:                                                   22 MPG Mixed

Towing Capacity:                                                      4,471 Pounds

 

Performance / Safety:

 

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

 

Interior / Comfort:

 

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

 

 

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