Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Outlander gets good grades in most endeavors

Sacramento, California – Let’s start with the essentials: Happy new year to all you motorheads out there! … So let’s now move on to the 2011 Mitsubishi Outlander 3.0 GT S-AWC.

Yup, that’s a mouthful and a half, but rest assured that this is essentially an up-to-seven-passengers Outlander sport-ute with a good V-6 and an active all-wheel-drive system.

The “S-AWC” stands for Super All-Wheel Control.

Well, that probably sounds good in the marketing meetings, but I felt that the Outlander simply performed as expected with all-wheel drive. Though the vehicle is somewhat big through the shoulders, it was a nimble dancer in most conditions, including city traffic. The vehicle’s AWD works fine, no matter what you call it.

Ditto the 3-liter power plant with 230 horsepower. Accelerations are strong, and climbing power is sufficient. No need to panic merging onto the freeway.

Mileage is just OK at 19 miles per gallon in the city and 25 mpg on the highway.

The 3.0 is absolutely the right choice for the Outlander. Frankly, I can’t imagine feeling secure with the 168-horsepower in-line 4 offered on the Outlander’s cheaper versions. My GT S-AWD tester is the priciest of five Outlander trim levels, starting at $27,795.

The Outlander’s look is pretty straightforward SUV, except on the front end, where you get a gaping shark’s mouth grille similar to what you see on Audi’s road-burners. The Outlander’s front-end sculpture seems successful in convincing poking motorists to get out of the way, at least in my experience.

Standard interior amenities are numerous and easy to use. The interior cabin is comfortable and doesn’t transmit much road noise, and the ride was fairly smooth even on recently potholed streets.

And then there’s the folding rear seat in the back. Fellow auto reviewers have characterized it as too cramped, and they’re right. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

I honestly don’t know what Mitsubishi’s engineers were thinking on the rear seat. And shame on the suits who signed off on it. It’s a unwieldy nightmare to fold up and down, and the folding mechanism contains so much hard metal-to-metal contact that the thing rattles in both the up and down positions.

Note to Mitsubishi: Please fix this. It taints an otherwise pleasant ride.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Latest Mazda3 has zoom and cargo room

This blog will take Christmas week off as the author scrambles from way behind in an attempt to finish up his holiday obligations. Best wishes to everyone this holiday season. Here’s hoping family and friends brighten your days. Before I hit the mall, here’s one more review submitted for your enjoyment. – MG:

Sacramento, California – I have to be careful reviewing the Mazda3.

It’s a long-standing favorite of family and auto-loving friends of mine, and they don’t take kindly to me beating up on their baby.

Like they had to worry. The latest Mazda3 is as attractive and functional as ever..

My tester was the 2011 Mazda3 s Five-Door Sport, a mouthful to be sure and priced at the high end among seven trim levels, starting at $20,485. Mine was dressed up with a few extras – Sirius Satellite Radio, moonroof, in-dash six-compact disc player and Bose audio – to push the bottom line to $23,110. That’s still a pretty fair deal.

The Mazda3 never fails to get praise from most of the young crowd because it has sporty looks and SUV-like convenience to go along with that affordable price.

A giant smile of a grille is accented by a swept-back front end, and the lean, cut-through-the-air look floats back to an elevated decklid overhang at the back end. Dual exhausts at the back enhance the sporty feel.

At first glance, it looks like the car won’t carry all that much, even with the rear seats folded. Turns out that’s an illusion. I loaded all sorts of funky shaped, large cargo in the back of the thing and still had plenty of room for more.

The s versions of the Mazda3 are powered by a 2.5-liter in-line 4 with variable-valve timing and 167 horsepower. This package powers the front-drive vehicle around with more than a little authority. In fact, the car is so nicely balanced and so righteously powered that you feel like you’re in perpetual hustle mode.

I thought this was just me, but a passenger ventured this during my recent test drive: “Is it my imagination, or are we really zipping along in this car?”

Well, yes, we are. But you’re getting that sensation at speeds as low as 40 miles per hour. People driving high-powered luxury cars might sniff at this, saying their car feels like it’s going 40 mph when it’s really sailing along at 70 mph.

Yeah, maybe. But does that do anything to quicken your pulse? I thought not.

And remember, this is a car company that promotes “zoom-zoom.” The Mazda3 has a nice dose of that.

Standard interior goodies and safety features are numerous and darn near luxury level in some cases. Mileage is pretty good at 22 miles per gallon in the city and 29 mpg on the highway.

A minor gripe: I never got a good adjustment on 360-degree vision. I had to routinely move my head around to catch the blind spots, turning it more than 90 degrees to spot a sedan on my left side. That could have something to do with my 6-4 frame, but I was extra-careful with lane changes.

The Mazda3 was reworked for the 2010 model year, so changes for 2011 are relatively few.

Overall, the Mazda3 is a great car for a young couple or young family. It also stacks up as a sound second car to run all those weekend errands.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Check out rip-roaring Raptor in Cruisin' News

Sacramento, California – My review of the incredible Ford F-150 4X4 SVT Raptor pickup appears in the latest edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin’ News, published out of Folsom, California, by John Sweeney and Evonne Sotelo.

The “Hot Laps” reviews, along with my "Oil Drips" observations on anything with wheels, appear monthly in the publication.

To subscribe to the Cruisin’ News, visit http://www.cruisinnews.com/, call (916) 933-0949 or send an e-mail request to cruisinnews@mac.com. Mailed requests for information should be sent to Cruisin’ News, P.O. Box 1096, Folsom, CA 95763-1096.

Mustang has a lot of dash for not much cash

This review originally appeared in the November edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin’ News published out of Folsom, California – mg

Sacramento, California -- Horsepower doesn’t come cheap, unless you are a Mustang fan.

And if you are, rest assured that you can top 300 ponies and likely keep the bill under $25,000 for 2011, which is not a bad deal in these times.

Case in point is the tested 2011 Ford Mustang V6 Premium Coupe, a nice blend of original Mustang and modern-age engineering. The power plant is a 3.7-liter, 24-valve V-6 with twin independent variable camshaft timing. Ford did some sweet work here, with 305 hard-working horses and 280 foot-pounds or torque, yet you can still get up to 31 miles per gallon on the open road.

The engine is actually pretty tame until you ask it to do some heavy lifting. Then, it responds with a robust growl and push-me-into-the-seat effort. Six speeds flow smoothly through the transmission.

As usual, it looks good. Mine was what I’d call Battleship Gray, but black striping and chrome badging jazzed up the look – unmistakably Mustang at a glance. Inside, retro reigns with a black-and-silver trimmed, three-spoke steering wheel and analog gauges lifted right out of the 1960s. That takes me back.

Steering was exceedingly light, almost too much so, as I nearly rode up a couple of curbs early in the testing. It took me about a day to get used to it, but go easy when you first get this car, lest you leave some body paint on the walls of a tight dealership parking lot.

The list of comfort/convenience features is kind of short, and I have to believe that’s by design. After all, you’re getting a 305-horsepower Mustang for $23,965. That’s probably plenty for true Mustang devotees.

The Mustang carries four passengers, but those two in the back better be small in stature. I’ve always considered the Mustang a two-seater with some afterthoughts in the back. Even so, the cargo area in the back boot is pretty good – 13 cubic feet.

This latest-generation Mustang also provides a lesson in smart retailing. Yes, you can get much-pricier – and more powerful -- versions of the Mustang if you have the loot, but Ford has been wise to keep affordable, horsepower-laden versions of the car readily available for the under-$30,000 crowd. Guess that’s one of the reasons Ford is making money by the truckload of late.

Customizers, do I even have to go there? This Mustang is another blank canvas for creating road-going dreams. Craft away and boost the horsepower output as far as your imagination will take you.

Do icons still exist? Yes, they do. And well within reach of most budgets.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Optimal experience?: Check out this Kia

Sacramento, California – Somehow, when I wasn’t looking, Kia matched up the DNA of a contemporary Acura TSX and an old-school Pontiac Trans Am, put an affordable price on it and named it the 2011 Optima.

And that’s what you really need to know, for starters, about the redesigned-for-2011 Optima, a racy looking piece of high-performing, luxurious machinery that you or yours would likely love to have this holiday season … or in the early days of 2011.

I was fortunate enough to get the top-end EX version, which had a still-affordable starting price of $22,495. For that price, the sedan was loaded with comfort, convenience and safety features – all piled on top of Kia’s world-class warranties.

For a full five minutes, I just stared at the thing. Talk about an upgrade. The front end looked like it could slice through the air with stealth fighter jet ease. Sleek lines drift all the way to the back end.

Let me get into the driver’s seat and hit the gas … Oh yes, it feels as good as it looks.

The Optima EX snapped my shoulders into the seat on hard acceleration, and it cornered with cheetah-like agility. Uphill runs were a pavement-eating blast. The little 2.4-liter in-line 4 certainly felt stronger than the advertised 200 horses. And the bonus: Very nice fuel mileage ratings of 24 miles per gallon in the city and 34 mpg on the highway.

Riding comfort was, well, optimal. Interior cabin noise was minimal. The whole motoring experience: special.

Is this Optima going to appeal to a younger crowd? Absolutely. In truth, it should take in the 18-to-65 age demographic.

I’ve been saying for years that you can get a loaded Hyundai/Kia product for far less than you would pay for the equivalent hardware produced by another automaker. This new Optima all but screams out my arguments.

Looking to get a quality product for a lot less money this Christmas? Put this Optima on your test-drive list.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Jimmie's NASCAR run never to be repeated

Sacramento, California – In case you haven’t heard, NASCAR uber champ Jimmie Johnson officially has been transported into the Dynasty category.

About time.

Winning four consecutive Sprint Cup championships was incredible, and yet Johnson was seemingly second-page news even as he was fighting at the top of the standings for a mind-blowing fifth title in a row. Johnson didn’t even have the lead coming into the last race of the seemingly endless 2010 Sprint Cup campaign; he must be slipping, right?

Then, after the checkered flag flew in the late-afternoon Florida sun on Sunday, and it sank in that Johnson had done what many would have called impossible at the dawn of this decade, the dynasty word started creeping into the media language.

And well it should, because let me tell you: This will never happen again. Ever.

As someone who witnessed UCLA win seven consecutive NCAA national championships in men’s basketball from and 10 of 12 from 1964 to 1975, let me assure you from that vantage point alone that what Johnson and his finely tuned team polished off Sunday will not be seen again in our lifetimes … or the lifetimes of our great-grandchildren.

UCLA did its magic during a time when the NCAA tournament was a comparative shadow of what it is now. I don’t think even those fabulous UCLA teams of years past could match their record in today’s coast-to-coast, 64-or-more-teams party. Just too much competition stretching across the land.

And yet Johnson has walked off with five trophies during what is being billed as the most competitive period in top-tier NASCAR racing history.

Can you imagine the coverage for a college football team winning five consecutive national championships in this era? Or a college basketball team? The Los Angeles Lakers will have to win three more NBA titles to stand on the podium with Johnson.

Alas, there seems to be a general belief that, in the end, Johnson is expected to win. I was stunned to tune in for ESPN’s SportsCenter on Sunday night only to see the sports network spending AN HOUR on the aftermath of the Philadelphia Eagles-New York Giants NFL game, to the exclusion of everything else going on in the sports world.

Are you kidding me? Do you think ESPN would have done that if, say, the New York Yankees wrapped up a fifth consecutive Major League Baseball championship?

Of course not. And that sort of bespeaks the Jimmie Johnson Phenomenon in these times: Understated greatness. Maybe the magnitude of Johnson’s accomplishment will sink in even more with the passage of time.

I’m betting that will be the case. Why?

Because we’re never going to see it happen again.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Key to happiness found in Audi's turbo blast

Sacramento, California – Can a turbo buy happiness?
As far as I’m concerned, yes, I can be bought that cheaply.

Evidence is supplied by my recent week in the 2011 Audi Q5 2.0T quattro Tiptronic – a lot of words to describe a five-passenger luxury sport-utility vehicle.

But with a standard turbo-4 added to the mix for this model year, few words are needed. The tested model sprinted like a scalded cat, much to my delight. Kudos to the Audi engineers, because there is no turbo lag in this power plant, and performance seems to far outdistance the advertised 211 horsepower.

The Q5 has been beating up on some serious competition in acceleration tests, and I didn’t even have the rip-roaring 3.2-liter V-6 version with 270 horses. But keep in mind: that particular Q5 trim level with the big V-6 engine starts at $42,500 (compared with $35,200 for the tester), and gas mileage dips to 18/23 compared with my tester’s 20 miles per gallon in the city and 27 mpg on the open road.

Life is, as they say, a series of tradeoffs.

My Q5 was good company, even beyond the rush of mashing the accelerator. Interior cabin noise was negated admirably, and despite the car’s somewhat broad-shouldered construction, steering it in tight traffic and crowded parking lots was easily done.

Maybe traffic was getting out of my way purposely upon seeing the large, shark-devouring grille on the Q5’s front end. Who am I to argue with a little visual intimidation?

Standard comfort, convenience and safety features were just what you’d expect from the Audi brand. I particularly liked the understated, elegant layout of leather and wood trim amongst the goodies. It might take you some time to master the controls, so figure on diving deeply into the large owner’s manual if you get this Audi.

While I was impressed with the three-zone climate control listing, I’m not sure it really was controlling the climate in three specific segments of the vehicle. Then again, that seems to be asking a lot in a small environment.

This is one time I’d actually recommend the lesser of the two trim levels. In simple terms, if you want the 2011 Q5, get the 2.0T instead of the 3.2. I truly believe the less-expensive model will stack up as the best deal for most buyers … except perhaps for those buyers who want everything. And I can’t argue with the latter.

But for my money – and perhaps yours – the Audi Q5 2.0T delivers inside and out, and especially on the roll.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Nissan four-door delivers maximum enjoyment

Sacramento, California – The Nissan Maxima has always been one of my favorite passenger cars. Whenever one is available for testing, I snatch it up in a New York minute.

So, naturally, the 2011 Maxima 3.5 SV was a welcome sight in my driveway. Nissan calls it “the four-door sports car,” and its willing 3.5-liter V-6 power plant with 290 horsepower helps the Maxima live up to that billing.

But it’s more than that. The Maxima is pretty much a torquey Infiniti luxury car wearing Nissan badging.

Performance, smoothness, luxury and comfort. What’s not to like?

The latest Maxima has been jazzed up with some sporty touches, but rest assured that the basics that have long made the car so appealing remain locked in place. The book-length list of standard features is still a jaw-dropper.

It will take you five minutes just to read through the safety/security and comfort/convenience features. Superior safety standards include an energy-absorbing steering column, seat-and-roof side-curtain air bags and specially engineered crumple zones.

The top-drawer comfort and convenience features that come at no extra cost include leather seating surfaces (plus a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob), automatic on-off halogen headlights, a power sliding moonroof, a blasting Bose audio system and power everything.

You might think $40,000 would be an appropriate price for all you get, but the starting fare on the tested SV model is only $33,530. Numerous extras pushed the bottom line on the tester to $38,060, still below what you pay for an equivalent car produced by other automakers.

On the roll, the Maxima is a quiet comfort zone, even when the V-6 is asked to deliver the max. And when you do ask for the max, you get it right now. On dicey freeways, the Maxima darts out of harm’s way with just a blip from the right foot. It’s an agile, quick-reacting performer in city traffic. Climbing hills is a snap; brakes grab hard and hold on. A spacious trunk allows you to pack generously.

I had the opportunity to test the standard fog lights, which penetrated the mist admirably, and at just the right angle to make me feel secure.

Some colleagues gripe that the styling is a bit conservative, but that falls short in my book. I like the feel of a sports car, but the Maxima does not need a spoiler/wing glued to the back to make it look like one. I like its elegant, but sleek look just fine, thank you.

And I guess that’s the point. Given everything that I like about Maximas past, the 2011 version stands out to me as the kind of car you feel comfortable taking to the ballpark or the country club.

It plays all roles, and plays them well.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

2011 Mustang reviewed in latest Cruisin' News

Sacramento, California – My review of the 2011 Ford Mustang V6 Premium Coupe appears in the latest edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin’ News, published out of Folsom, California, by John Sweeney and Evonne Sotelo.

The “Hot Laps” reviews, along with my "Oil Drips" observations on anything with wheels, appear monthly in the publication.

To subscribe to the Cruisin’ News, visit http://www.cruisinnews.com/, call (916) 933-0949 or send an e-mail request to cruisinnews@mac.com. Mailed requests for information should be sent to Cruisin’ News, P.O. Box 1096, Folsom, CA 95763-1096.

ES 350 an 'affordable' ride in the Lexus lineup

This review originally appeared in the October edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin' News published out of Folsom, California – mg

Sacramento, California -- Sure, you want the Lexus. Lots of people do.

You want that wood-trimmed steering wheel, the silky smooth ride, high horsepower laid out like hot butter on a steaming roll, all the fancy comfort/convenience features, the treated-like-a-king routine when you take the car in for routine maintenance and those envious stares from your neighbors.

Who wouldn’t want that? But $50,000 is a high price to pay these days.

Unless you get the Lexus ES 350 sedan. You can get a 2010 ES 350 for less than $35,000 – remember, it’s that time of year to haggle big-time on the 2010 models – or get a 2011 model for just a few hundred bucks more if you’re a serious haggler. The 2011 is essentially unchanged from the 2010, except Lexus trimmed out the powertrain on the 2011 sedan to dish up just a few less horses and accept regular-grade gas.

Don’t ask me how. Just know this: Both model year ES 350s put out about 270 horses from a 3.5-liter V-6 that frankly feels more robust than that number would indicate. Handling? Puh-leeze, this is a bank-vault solid Lexus sedan that can be steered with one finger in almost all conditions.

OK, the exterior looks is pretty vanilla, but that understated ES 350 bodywork still oozes class, and once you’re belted into the cockpit seat, you start feeling pretty good about all the standard goodies within your reach. Even better, the center dash is not cluttered with small buttons to control your climate and on-the-roll entertainment. It’s all very easy to use, and again, laid out in a Lexus-level classy manner.

Be advised that you can opt for the Mark Levinson Premium Audio Package with 14 speakers, or the ventilated front seats, or the intuitive parking system that lets you know you’re about to ding that rusting, decades-old Datsun the boyfriend of your neighbor’s daughter parks behind your drive way every night. But those options will quickly send you into the $40,000-and-up range.

And if you’re heading that way, you might as well look at the opulent Lexus LS models.

However, if you want the tried-and-true Lexus luxury/engineering at an affordable price, the ES 350 is the way to go. It gives you pretty much the full Lexus experience, and by the way, it’s a super family travel car with a spacious trunk.

Customizers, if you dig in on this car, you want to make some major changes. Like I said, the ES 350 will not bowl you over with risk-taking styling. Let your creative juices flow when you chop into this baby.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Ford's Fiesta a reason to party at entry level

Sacramento, California – The Ford Fiesta is more than a party car.

Sure, it’s fun, but this all-new entry for the U.S. auto market in 2011 has serious features for those looking for basic, compact transportation at an affordable price.

The four-door, five-passenger car – it can be had as a sedan or a hatch – has been available overseas for several years, but the U.S. version is tweaked for a red, white and blue audience. For example, you can get the Fiesta with Ford’s voice-activated SYNC communications system.

Just like that, you have a leg up on overseas customers.

But wait, there’s so much more.

My tester was the top-level SES Hatchback – five trim levels are offered, with the entry-level S Sedan coming in at a mere $13,320 – but even my top-of-the-line Fiesta had a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of only $17,120. Some extras, including a PowerShift six-speed automatic transmission for $1,070, brought the bottom line on the tester up to $20,555.

Many interior features were not what I’m used to seeing on a discount compact. They included power/heated exterior mirrors, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and push-button start system.

Comfortable front seats pushed back for adults leave little room for rear passengers, but a few adjustments from the folks up front produce a surprising amount of space for those backseat riders.

Oh, it looks good, too. Sleek, eye-catching styling was enhanced on the tester by a rear spoiler and five-petal, flower-style wheel covers.

The 1.6-liter in-line 4 engine with 120 horsepower screams a high note when you ask it to deliver from a standing or slow start, and it takes a while for it to get up to speed. No surprise there. On the roll, however, the engine performs well beyond the four-cylinder/120 ponies numbers. The Fiesta cruises rather quietly and quite smoothly at 70 miles per hour on the freeway. Climbing the steepest hills will bring more loud cries from the engine, but the power plant does get the job done when asked.

Fuel mileage numbers are outstanding, at 29 miles per gallon in the city and 38 mpg on the highway. Given the car’s utility, looks and standard features, the superior gas-saving figures only add to Fiesta’s appeal.

I tried this car out on several car people I trust, and the verdict was the same: A very nice compact, and a strong all-new-car effort by Ford.

Alas, I have a couple of complaints.

I found the distance between gas pedal and accelerator to be a touch short, meaning I would sometimes hook the left-front edge of my right shoe on the brake as I was moving it to the accelerator. I had to make a conscious effort to slip my right foot all the way to the right footwell wall to make sure I was only getting gas. The fact that I wear a size 11 shoe might have something to do with that, but I haven’t experienced the problem in other cars.

Also, the PowerShift six-speed automatic gearbox sometimes struggled adjusting from hard acceleration to braking speed. These moments were very brief, but jarring nevertheless.

Overall, however, I’m most pleased with this new Fiesta, and I think it would make a good choice for young drivers and just-getting-started families. Out of five stars, I’d give it 3.5.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Newest Toyota Avalon has Lexus-level appeal

Sacramento, California – What’s the next-best thing to driving a quality Lexus sedan?

Try the Toyota Avalon Limited, a Lexus in virtually every way but its name. Remove the Toyota badging from the four-door Avalon, and you’d likely guess it was a Lexus, no matter if you were outside the car or sitting in the cockpit.

And here’s the bonus: the Avalon has been redesigned for 2011 and looks sharper and sleeker than ever. My week in the top-tier Avalon Limited was enjoyable on all levels – stylish, smooth transportation, prompting me to smile as I sat in the lap of luxury.

Be advised that getting an Avalon Limited means paying a price in Lexus territory – a base of $35,485. And with the options on my tester, including a navigation system and a rip-roaring audio system, the bottom line read a Lexus-like $38,188.

Even so, this package is worth the price.

A 3.5-liter V-6 engine puts out 268 horsepower, which is not enough to blow away sporty challengers on the roadways but plenty good enough to handle what every safe and sane driver regularly encounters. Even at full song, engine noise barely penetrates the interior cabin. Ditto exterior noise surrounding the car. Avalon driver and passengers can converse easily or enjoy the tunes of their choice without distractions.

The list of standard comfort/convenience features on the tester was impressively lengthy, including luxury touches like wood trim, leather surfaces, a rearview camera, a power moonroof with sliding sunshade and an eight-way power driver’s seat.

For some reason, I continue to struggle with Toyota’s audio/nav screen. I can’t seem to get the hang of locking in map and audio readouts. I’m probably just dashboard-challenged or owner’s manual ignorant, as I’m sure a typical 2011 Avalon buyer is going to figure these things out on the first day of ownership.

Everything else around the cockpit was ideal. Controls were in easy reach and easy to read. Passengers were impressed with the backseat quarters as well -- comfortable and climate-controlled to perfection, according to their testimony.

Heading farther back, the trunk is spacious and pops up on command.

Verdict: Avalon is better for 2011. Elegant, comfortable and easy on the eyes … just like its Lexus sedan siblings.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Lexus ES 350 Sedan reviewed in Cruisin' News

Sacramento, California – My review of the 2010 Lexus ES 350 Sedan appears in the latest edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin’ News, published out of Folsom, California, by John Sweeney and Evonne Sotelo.

The “Hot Laps” reviews, along with my "Oil Drips" observations on anything with wheels, appear monthly in the publication.

To subscribe to the Cruisin’ News, visit http://www.cruisinnews.com/, call (916) 933-0949 or send an e-mail request to cruisinnews@mac.com. Mailed requests for information should be sent to Cruisin’ News, P.O. Box 1096, Folsom, CA 95763-1096.

ZDX is a streamlined zinger from Acura

This review originally appeared in the September edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin' News published out of Folsom, California – mg

Sacramento, California -- Automakers love to keep us guessing. The new-for-2010 Acura ZDX is one such case study.

Acura bills it as a four-door sports coupe, which of course if problematic right from the get-go. A coupe with four doors? Really?

Others call it a sport-utility vehicle, although decidedly in the smallish-crossover class. I had friends refer to my tester – priced at about $50,000 on the nose with a “technology package” – as “the bullet.” And that’s actually a pretty good description.

With a sharply raked grille and aerodynamic styling that includes inward-tapered bodywork along the sides, the ZDX is a sporty something, more five-door hatch than DNA in my view. It’s not real big, but it looks good.

Styling specials on this Acura include rear doors hinged near the back ends of the two front doors. This might fool the kids for a few minutes, before they figure out that the back door handles are perched high on the back end of the rear doors.

The tester wore attractive, sparkle-in-the-sun paint that I would have called root beer. Inside, the leather surfaces had a brown-and-orange look that was definitely not my cup of tea. Please note that you have to be careful getting out of the thing, as the ZDX step-down height is a few inches higher than what you might be used to.

A panoramic glass roof lets the sun shine in -- a nice touch, accentuated by dual automatic sunshades -- and the interior controls are laid out wisely. They’re easy to see and use. The ZDX is billed as a luxury liner, and I think that works. Acura fans who expect a touch of class get just that, plus nearly 56 cubic feet of cargo-carrying capacity once all the seats are folded.

On the move, the ZDX is appropriately stout, as it should be with a 3.7-liter V-6, all-aluminum engine with 300 horsepower and a max torque rating of 270 foot-pounds. Power is firm but not delivered with an instant blast. The all-wheel drive system is exceptionally agile, and the vehicle is small enough to feel comfortable even during gridlocked rush hours.

Don’t count on saving much at the fuel pump with fuel mileage ratings of 16 miles per gallon in the city and 23 mpg on the highway.

You can feel good about a massive list of safety, comfort, convenience and technical perks that come standard with the ZDX. The diverse list appears to be an effort to please all consumer segments – from safety-first buyers to technology freaks.

Customizers could definitely have a party with the ZDX, especially digging in on the wide-shouldered body work on the top third of the vehicle. The ZDX could be made to look like the hot-rod crossover of your dreams.

Acura has been looking for a halo car or one that is destined to become the face of the brand. I’m not sure the ZDX is that vehicle, but it is a nice luxo-sporty package that Acura followers should find pleasing.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Penske faces cold winter after IndyCar setbacks

Sacramento, California – Now that Dario Franchitti has wrapped up yet another IndyCar Series championship, the question arises: What has happened to the cold-blooded efficiency of Roger Penske’s operation?

No question that Franchitti put up a strong 2010, including a dominating performance to win the Indy 500 in May.

But consider this: Penske driver Ryan Briscoe virtually threw away the IndyCar title in 2009 by crashing out of the pits in Motegi, Japan; this year, Will Power’s pit crew cost the Penske driver the championship with an are-you-kidding-me underfill of the fuel tank late in the Chicagoland Speedway event. That came after rival team owner Chip Ganassi totally snookered the Penske forces with a quick-pit for Franchitti, handing him the win at Chicagoland.

Two almost-certain Penske championships blown. Franchitti, who had his own hard-luck tales early in his Indy racing career, picks up two titles.

It has to be hard for Penske -- an off-the-charts organizer and competitor -- to swallow. This year’s failure to keep Power at the top also added to a once-in-a-lifetime year for Ganassi. If you’re keeping count: Ganassi’s racing operations have claimed the Daytona 500, the Indianapolis 500, the Brickyard 400 and the IndyCar Series title … in ONE year.

Amazing. That might never be duplicated.

And what does the winter bring?

Just knowing Penske and the competitive fires that burn inside him, you can just bet that the cold nights will be filled with planning, scheming and doing just about everything possible to return his racing team to IndyCar glory. Penske has been down before, but he typically comes back strong after a very hard hit.

What to expect next year?: For starters, Penske driver Helio Castroneves could become the first driver in Indy 500 history to take the pole position for three consecutive years. And he could join A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears in the exclusive Four Indianapolis 500 Wins Club. Beyond that, look for Penske to do a full-court press to get one of his drivers to the top of the IndyCar Series standings at the end of 2011.

But it won’t be easy. Ganassi is on a roll of Penske-like dominance. His IndyCar teams are well-oiled and stocked with top driving talent. The 2011 season can’t get here soon enough.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Think GM is dead? Not on your life

Sacramento, California – The auto business is more cyclical than American politics, which is to say the pendulum tends to swing wildly every few years, and people have short memories when it comes to past history.

Right now, the prevailing logic says Ford can do no wrong, and General Motors is a mess.

Those assessments have the accuracy of a political TV ad, which is to say the truth has been stretched and mangled.

To be sure, Ford has done an incredible job lifting itself up over the past couple of years. Ford chief Alan Mulally and his team deserve high praise for the current Ford lineup of motor vehicles and the billions of dollars that have been pouring into the automaker’s coffers.

GM? Well, there’s that whole government bailout public relations disaster, criticism from seemingly all corners about its once-bloated lineup of oversized vehicles and the general smug satisfaction of folks who like to kick the nation’s top automaker when it’s down.

Yet on a global scale, GM might be the most well-positioned automaker doing business on American soil.

Case in point: China. In the first half of this year, GM reported U.S. unit sales of some 1.07 million vehicles. However, a relative few know that GM sold about 1.2 million units in China over the same period. In truth, the Chinese – resting atop an economy only recently asserting itself as a mega-power – seem to love GM products.

GM sales growth in the populous nation is projected to continue on an upward path well into this decade.

So, if you consider automobile sales amid a world market – and most of the folks who produce vehicles these days think precisely that way – General Motors has a serious foothold compared with Ford, Chrysler and others.

How did this happen? In the years before the recession, GM did the heavy lifting in China, meeting with government officials and business leaders, and generally absorbing the culture from top to bottom. It was forming relationships with key Chinese manufacturing operations, all the while living within the rules the Chinese established for doing business in their country.

Ironically, one of the chief architects of GM’s plan was former chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner, essentially forced out of those posts by the White House in March 2009. Wouldn’t it be ironic if GM’s re-emergence as a global superpower is ultimately credited to Wagoner, who couldn’t muster respect from high places in Washington?

Yes, it could happen. And probably will.

On top of that, GM is making strides with its increasingly attractive vehicle lineup, and it stands to overcome those government bailout blues if its plug-in Chevrolet Volt becomes a hit in the United States.

Think GM is dead? Not on your life.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Lexus GX 460 SUV has high price, quality

Sacramento, California – If you’ve been longing for the top-tier sport-utility vehicle experience, rest assured that it’s still out there, even amid this wobbly economy.

I give you the 2010 Lexus GX 460 Premium, a seven-passenger sport-ute loaded with luxury and divine excess. I considered myself lucky to have a week in this redesigned-for-2010 SUV, because, alas, my budget does not allow for purchase of this vehicle for full-time enjoyment.

I’m guessing that most budgets are in similar shape, but for those fortunate enough to afford the fare, this is a luxo liner extraordinaire.

The starting price on the tester was a hefty $56,765, but a special navigation/Mark Levinson audio package helped push the bottom line to $62,714. This more than filled the requirements for the luxury SUV niche, and the list of to-lust-for features was so long that I needed to take a cold shower halfway through reading it.

All-star perks included full-time 4WD (as if someone would take this beauty into the rough off-road and put a scratch on it), four-wheel ventilated disc brakes, 10-way power/heated/ventilated front seats, Auburn Bubinga wood trim, rearview camera, downhill-assist control, headlamp cleaners, running boards with courtesy lights, leather trim all around, heated middle-row seats, adaptive variable suspension and enough cupholders and air bags for two vehicles.

And believe me when I tell you that’s the short list.

How does it look? Not super sporty but righteously elegant. Riding on 18-inch, six-spoke alloy wheels certainly adds some zip. Mine was wearing “Claret Mica” paint that I might have called “Root Beer,” remembering the candy barrels of my youth.

Performance from the 4.6-liter, 32-valuve V-8 with 301 horsepower was top-notch. The tester out-accelerated just about anything at an intersection and toyed with most freeway demands. Power is not pin-me-down robust but smooth and steady. Yet the interior cabin is so bank-vault solid that very little engine noise reaches the ears, even during hard accelerations.

I didn’t have much problem with the GX 460’s center stack of controls, although some folks might be intimidated by the “War and Peace”-length owner’s manual.

Great feature: The right side-hinged, swing-open back door, braced at the bottom. It offers a huge hole for loading cargo of all sizes.

I had just a couple gripes. The on/off knob on the sound system is large and mounted on the extreme left of the center stack, protruding just slightly into the driver’s footwell area. A couple times, my right knee bumped the knob and triggered the radio, giving me a momentary jolt. Part of the problem might be size, and by that I mean my size. I’m 6-4, so my knees tend to rest high in the cockpit, within reach of the on/off knob.

Another minor gripe: The foot brake, when pressed to the floor, is so far under the dash that I had to go searching for it with my left foot, sometimes taking three tries to disengage it.

All in all, however, this Lexus wears the luxury label well. For those aiming for the SUV heights, the GX 460 is situated at a pleasingly high elevation.

And please note, the 2011 GX 460 is showing up looking like its 2010 predecessor, but with some braking/technology enhancements added for the new model year.

Friday, September 17, 2010

2011 Sienna stays at top of minivan market

Sacramento, California – Let me start by saying that, 20 years ago, I would have crawled on my hands and knees on broken glass to possess a minivan like anything out there on the market today.

I would have loved the vehicle’s easy road manners on family driving vacations. I would have been overjoyed at the cargo-carrying capacity as we made our way with 15 suitcases, 3,000 toys and 16 coolers to our next destination. Trips to the grocery store would have been a breeze, too.

And in-vehicle entertainment? Oh my goodness, what a blessing that would have been. Just think how many fewer times I would have had to answer the question: Are we there yet?

Alas, this baby boomer is nearing the empty-nester era, and my prime minivan years have past. And let’s face it, minivans don’t get much respect on the roadways these days.

Fellow drivers will cut off a minivan in traffic in a New York-minute. Tailgaters seem to prefer that you drive in the ditch. Sports cars blast around vans for sport.

And yet, the minivan still has a place in the hearts of urban and suburban families. So if you’re in that crowd and seriously looking for new wheels, check out the 2011 Toyota Sienna. It has been redesigned – think third generation – and you’d be hard-pressed to find anything better in the current minivan market.

Yes, that includes the still-worthy minivans produced by Chrysler and Honda.

How good is the 2011 Sienna? Let’s count the ways.

There are TWELVE ways to have it. Mine was the slightly higher-end XLE 3.5L with a starting price of $34,515. Seven passengers, all-wheel drive and a 3.5-liter, 266-horsepower V-6. About that last part: The Sienna really scoots along with that power plant.

Naturally, you don’t get the feeling of the wind in your face and a Corvette-like growl, but my Sienna more than held its own in fast-moving freeway traffic. It climbed hills and took corners with sedan-like agility as well.

Inside, you have a veritable home living room. The large, comfortable chairs can be moved and switched around to the point that you could have a new arrangement every day for a month. Double-digit cupholders and rear-seat climate control only add to the rolling home feeling. If the kids can’t enjoy these quarters, send ’em back to camp.

Gas mileage is ugh-ly … a mere 16 miles per gallon in the city and 22 mpg on the open road. Well, you have to pay some kind of price for the Sienna’s scoot, right?

For some reason – and my own incompetence is high on the possibilities list – I struggled mightily with the center dash-mounted navigation system and audio-readout screen. I couldn’t seem to get a single requested command to stay on screen, and sometimes I became stuck altogether. It makes little sense, because I recently had no problem with a very similar arrangement in a Lexus.

For folks who have the 2011 Sienna for more than a week and master the controls, I’m guessing this will not be a problem.

As for me, I felt a twinge of emotional pain knowing that my time with the Sienna was short. Hmm, wonder if the grandkids are up for a road trip?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Acura ZDX reviewed in latest Cruisin' News

Sacramento, California – My review of the new-for-2010 Acura ZDX appears in the latest edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin’ News, published out of Folsom, California, by John Sweeney and Evonne Sotelo.

The “Hot Laps” reviews appear monthly in the publication.

To subscribe to the Cruisin’ News, visit http://www.cruisinnews.com/, call (916) 933-0949 or send an e-mail request to cruisinnews@mac.com. Mailed requests for information should be sent to Cruisin’ News, P.O. Box 1096, Folsom, CA 95763-1096.

Altima stacks up as a sound, sporty ride

This review originally appeared in the August edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin' News published out of Folsom, California – mg

Sacramento, California -- I was supposed to get a four-door Porsche Panamera, but I ended up with a Nissan Altima coupe.

That’s the car-testing biz. Something happened to the Panamera at the 11th hour. Who knows what? Maybe a lead-footed test driver crashed it into San Francisco Bay. Maybe it was abducted by aliens. Doesn’t matter. I’ll review it another day.

Given the possibilities, the 2010 Nissan Altima Coupe 2.5 S as a stand-in wasn’t a bad deal. It’s sporty to be sure.

The raked back end on the tester gave it some of that Nissan Z-car pop, and in profile, the two-door Altima looked ready for high-speed duty.

Alas, the tester had the 2.5-liter in-line 4 rated at 175 horsepower. I would have much preferred the 3.5 V-6 with 270 ponies. The latter power plant is capable of cashing the check written by the Altima’s sleek bodywork.

Still, the Altima was a most-agile performer in most conditions. It was very capable in city traffic, zipping in and out of tight spots with ease. Steering was light, but firm enough for confident control. Hitting the gas going into the corners created the appropriate gusto for shaking a tailgating motorist.

The continuously variable transmission lagged somewhat on hard acceleration into tight freeway spots. It was just a touch of lag, but enough to make you want to give plenty of room to traffic approaching swiftly from the rear.

There was a surprising level of comfort to be had in the front bucket seats. The rear seats, however, are best occupied by folks with flexible bodies. Just getting in behind those front seats is a challenge if you have anything resembling adult size.

The list of standard features was pleasantly lengthy, especially for a model with an affordable $22,940 MSRP. Nice no-extra-cost features included projector-beam headlights, UV-blocking solar glass, lots of interior storage containers for a coupe and 17-inch alloy wheels. Gas mileage is fairly impressive at 23 miles per gallon in the city and 32 mpg on the highway.

Minor gripe: The information display on the radio readout – particularly in satellite radio mode, where you actually want to know the name of the song and the artist – was way too small to see. In traffic, it’s never a good idea to lean over to center dash to see if Shocking Blue did that catchy tune in the 1960s. You’ll rear-end another car for sure doing that.

Customizers have a blank canvas with this car. Lots of possibilities on the front and back end. Me, I’d carve more room into the rear seats, but that’s a selfish fantasy.
Overall, this Altima stands for good looks and good fun. Certainly no Porsche. But then, you can say that about most cars.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Nissan's Cube makes it hip to be square


Sacramento, California – When Huey Lewis and the News recorded “Hip to Be Square” back in 1986, they must have been foreshadowing the Nissan cube.

Or at least Nissan would like to have you believe that, using Huey’s very own language in their promotional materials.

It makes sense, of course. Every now and then, an automaker comes out with a vehicle so over-the-top in design -- and promotes its utility -- that its funky looks are touted as a positive fashion statement.

This worked for the Honda Element. This worked for the Scion xB. It did not work out so well for the 2001 Pontiac Aztek, a midsize crossover that was laughed out of existence a mere four years after its introduction.

Let me confess right now that I test drove one of the first Azteks and liked it. I thought it was functional and funky, just as it was marketed to be.

But here’s where the line gets real thin. It seems like auto-reviewing colleagues and even a fair segment of motorists wait for awhile and hold their fingers up in the air to see which way the wind is blowing whenever one of these different-looking vehicles is introduced. If the wind is blowing favorably, everybody jumps on board. If not, everyone throws rocks at it.

Happily for Nissan, the cube has gained acceptance. And yes, cube is not capitalized by Nissan, apparently adding to its fashion-setting, mysterious qualities.

My tester was the 2010 1.8 S Krom, the most expensive of four trim levels starting at $20,120. You can get a base model for around 14-grand.

Right away, I thought the Krom was a little pricey, until I started adding up the standard features. Safety and comfort/convenient perks are plentiful, and the interior cabin seems positively cavernous. Five passengers going into the four doors have ample room to spread out.

Likewise, the single-hinged door in the back is a hoot, and it yawns open wide enough to take in bulky packages. Nice.

The 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine will not blow your socks off with 122 horses, but it actually performed a little better than I expected in dicey freeway traffic. The advertised fuel mileage ratings of 27 miles per gallon in town and 31 mpg on the highway fell slightly short of what I was getting.

The Krom is stylish for what the cube is, but I struggled to compare it with something. Turns out that a fellow auto reviewer hit on it for me. My cube wore an all-white paint job, making it look very much like a washing machine. Now, don’t groan. Owners of the popular Scion xB have long called it a rolling toaster, their chests swelling with pride.

Still, the cube’s boxy design has some drawbacks – not cutting through the air smoothly being one of them. Exterior wind blasting into the windshield is easily heard in the cockpit when traveling at high speed. That’s the trade-off when you tout funky, functional and fun in your product.

There are some things about the cube I never figured out. Tops on the list is the “shag dash topper” – essentially a circular, dinner plate-size piece of black-and-gray shag carpeting centered atop the dashboard. Don’t ask me; I haven’t a clue.

The cube package does draw attention. Parking the cube in a grocery store lot makes you as popular as Sarah Palin at a Tea Party rally. Everybody wants a look. Folks want to know about the shag carpet, which is my cue to run inside and check the vegetable aisle.

Hats off to Nissan for having some fun. Maybe this cube is your cup of tea. It certainly grew on me over time, and I’m not exactly what you’d call the hip type.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Master blaster: Jag coupe lights up the road

Sacramento, California – Sliding down into the cockpit of the low-slung 2011 Jaguar XKR Coupe was no picnic for my 6-foot-4 frame.

But once I was in, I knew I had arrived in the seat of power.

That would be 510 blissful, growling horses put out by 5-liter supercharged V-8. Starting the Jag woke up the neighbors four doors down, but I cooled it on the way out of our zoned-for-residential area. Good thing.

Jaguar advertises a time of 4.6 seconds to make the zero-to-60 miles per hour trip.

And that might be a conservative boast based on what I was experiencing behind the wheel. Mashing the accelerator brought instant G-force body load and the kind of oomph one associates with a purpose-built racer.

Auto reviewers like to say a sporty car has pop, zip or gusto. Those words don’t really cut with this Jag.

The XKR Coupe has rip, and lots of it.

Not only is performance extreme, the XKR is tuned to take steep hill climbs like a bighorn sheep, and it sticks on hard corners like a monorail from hell.

A turn-on? Oh my, yes!

And it looks the part: a classic low-riding bullet with hood sculpting that looks sporty and touts the supercharger under the skin. Interior comfort was surprisingly nice. The suspension was sporty stiff but not to the point where every road imperfection was sent up my spine. That’s not easy to engineer, so kudos to the Jag boys for that one.

Interior luxury was entirely appropriate for a car in the $100,000 ballpark, and the controls were easy to reach and use. The spin knob gear shifter is a little strange, but you get used to it.

Front seats were comfortable, and the back seats were, well, there. Frankly, I did not care even a little bit about the prospective comfort of back seat passengers, because I was having too good a time driving the car.

Want comfort? Get your own ride.

Some XKR critics are knocking Jaguar for not changing the vehicle’s look, and this is a mystery to me. These are the same folks who whine when Chevy tweaks the Corvette even a little bit every few years. Go figure.

This XKR is all Jag. Leave it alone.

My recent streak of odd experiences with Sirius Satellite Radio continued in the XKR Coupe and amounted to the only negative experience in the car. Something happened that I’ve never experienced behind the wheel: The radio subscription ran out WHILE A TUNE WAS PLAYING ON THE RADIO!

That’s it pal. You want more? Pay up.

Damndest thing I’ve ever seen.

Luckily, the XKR’s race-worthy performance was providing me with all the entertainment I needed.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Will Power lives up to name on, off track


Sonoma, California – They don’t call him Will Power for nothing.


The affable Aussie who has dominated the road courses of the IZOD IndyCar Racing Series this year put on another dominating performance here Sunday, holding off Scott Dixon to win the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma.


While the final margin was close, Power was seemingly in control all day, with only random caution periods allowing Dixon to close up and make it interesting. Rarely, however, did Power look seriously threatened. He emerged from his car looking as fresh as a daisy.


Last year, he was watching this race from a remote location, his broken back braced following a horrific, huge-impact crash at Infineon Raceway. Power said that in the moments after that crash, he felt so much pain that he thought his career was over … and maybe that was a good thing given the amount of suffering he was experiencing from fractures in his backbone.


Here’s where the willpower part kicks in. When good race drivers are seriously hurt and return to the cockpit months later, there’s this general assumption that they just healed up in the time they were gone … while we went on living our normal work-a-day lives.


Of course, what Power did in those late summer, fall and winter months to prepare himself to get back into a race car last spring was incredibly painful, requiring enormous endurance and, yes, will. Months of painful therapy were required to not only get him back on his feet, but steel his body to the level of physical fitness required to pilot an Indy car – particularly on a road course, where bumps are felt up the spinal cord and arms are working furiously to keep the bronc-bucking car between the lines.


Among us mere mortals, just the idea of getting back into a car that inflicted the kind of pain Power had to endure would be a major accomplishment.


So what does Power do?


He not only gets back into his Penske team ride, he blows away the competition on the road and street courses. He was at the top of his game here today. Now, he’s four decent oval track finishes away from perhaps winning the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series championship.


What’s in a name? Will Power says it all.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Speed remains soul of IndyCar Series racing

Sonoma, California – Lots of talk here this weekend about the future of the IndyCar Series.

Sunday’s Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma at Infineon Raceway seems almost secondary to discussions about boosting the fortunes of the high-speed IZOD IndyCar series, which is still suffering from a split into two open-wheel series prior to the 1996 Indy 500.

The two series reunited back into one a couple years back, but TV viewership is somewhat embarrassing, and there are too many empty seats at the IndyCar venues – more empty seats than one can simply explain away by pointing to the economy.

So, where did things wrong?

Sure, the IRL-CART split of the 1990s was horribly timed, dishing out sustained damage. But I think it goes beyond that.

Somewhere along the line, I think IndyCar lost its edgy advantage, and a big part of that was wrapped up in speed. The Indianapolis 500 was a focal point of the speed frontier, an annual gathering of drivers and cars pushing the envelope and hurdling over speed barriers previously unreached.

That went away in the split, with the Indy Racing League opting to walk away from turbocharged engines after 1996. So, right at the very moment the two major open-wheel series were parting ways, the series that hosted the Indianapolis 500 also went away from the blazing speeds that saw 236 mph laps at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1996.

Safety, right? Of course, that’s a no-brainer. Keeping speeds down allows safety technology to further develop, and what engineers have done to make IndyCar car-bullets safer is nothing short of extraordinary. But again, at what cost?

When casual friends used to ask me about the difference between Indy car races and NASCAR stock cars events, I would tell them that going to a NASCAR race was like going to the annual air races in Reno – close and exciting – and watching an Indy car race was like watching the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels flight team – simultaneously breathtaking and terrifying.

I’m not endorsing danger, but I am pointing out that this mix of blinding speed and close racing with open wheels provided an adrenaline rush to millions of Indy car fans for decades. The rush is still felt at oval tracks, but let’s face it, the edge is not quite as ragged as it used to be.

The soul of the sport has always been speed and its untouched frontiers; I’m not sure fans are feeling that now.

New IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard, who worked wonders promoting Profession Bull Riders Inc. into something resembling mainstream sports status, seems to get it. The 2012-approved Indy engines will have turbocharged power, and the promised chassis designs should add some flair to the racing package. Bernard also wants to have the IndyCar Series champion rewarded with huge money, and he wants to better-market drivers. All good.

While I like the job the Versus network does with IndyCar events, I don’t see that niche channel pushing IndyCar’s profile higher. I kind of long for the old days of an ABC/ESPN partnership of IndyCar telecasts.

So, as IndyCar moves forward into the future, I wish the series a speedy return to its glorious past. Speeding things up might be a way to do that.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Say it along with me: Kizashi is a good thing



Sacramento, California – Your biggest problem with the new-for-2010 Suzuki Kizashi sedan might be pronouncing it.

For the record, it’s pronounced Kee-Zah-Shee.

Saying Suzuki Kizashi three times fast was too much for my tongue. Driving it, however, was a surprising pleasure.

My tester was the fairly basic SE, starting at a mere $21,499. The Kizashi can be had in any one of eight trim levels, priced as high as $26,749 for an SLS with all-wheel drive.

All models come with a 2.4-liter, 16-valve in-line 4 rated at 180 horsepower. Frankly, the Kizashi felt much more powerful than that, zipping forward aggressively from standing starts downtown and breezing down freeway on-ramps with impressive, robust energy.

And yet, gas mileage was excellent, about 2 miles per gallon better for both advertised numbers – 23 mpg in the city and 30 mpg on the highway.

So, right away, I’m impressed. But wait, there’s more.

This car is definitely not your grandfather’s – or your father’s – Suzuki. This is a full-out midsize sedan with real room for five adults. It looks like a mainstream midsize cruiser and feels like it in every way. Styling is not over the top, but it’s what I’d call stately-attractive.

Suzuki calls the Kizashi its new flagship vehicle, and that’s entirely appropriate. This is an attention-grabbing vehicle that stands up well against domestic and foreign competition. Additional bonus: a sweet 100,000-mile, seven-year powertrain limited warranty.

Obviously, Suzuki believes in its own engineering. That’s good to know.

Me, I like creature comforts, and they were plentiful in the affordable test ride. Standard fare included dual-zone climate control, rear-passenger air vents, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, a 10-way power driver’s seat and leather touches sprinkled about, including on the steering wheel.

A long list of safety features, including air bags galore, added to the package.

I swear I kept looking for something to not like about this car, but I came up snake eyes every time. It’s not a Corvette … OK, there’s one. Otherwise, go test drive this car that you may not even have heard about among the blizzard of midsize offerings.

I’m told that the Japanese word Kizashi means that something great is coming. Well, great is a serious word. My experience was certainly very good, no matter how you say it.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Mazda6 earns its spot at head of the class



Sacramento, California – Driving 101 is easily understood behind the wheel of a 2010 Mazda6 sedan.

Driving 101 enrollment is dominated by newly licensed drivers, first-time new car buyers, young couples and young families. In all cases, you’d be hard-pressed to do better than the Mazda6 -- affordable, practical, right-sized, easy to drive and capable of carrying reasonable supplies of passengers and cargo.

Perfect midsize sedan? Malibu, Camry and Accord devotees will argue the point, but the Mazda6 is certainly in the discussion, with seven trim levels and starting as low as $18,600.

My tester was the 2010 Mazda6 i Grand Touring model with a willing 2.5-liter, 16-valve, variable-valve timing in-line 4. Horsepower is 170; max torque is 167 foot-pounds. The Mazda6 performed well with these middle-of-the-road numbers, enhanced by a quiet cabin that didn’t let much of the exterior noise reach the ears. Steering was effortless and quickly responsive.

Gas mileage is a so-so 21 miles per gallon in the city and 30 mpg on the open road, but those ratings won’t crush your pocketbook.

For a car starting at $26,000, the tester was loaded up with numerous luxury-level features, including a blasting Bose 10-speaker sound system. Mazda seems to have figured out that the Mazda6 is desired up and down the demographic range, from budget-watching retirees to youngsters settling into family life. Consequently, there’s an eclectic mix of comfort/convenience features on board.

My tester came with some $4,000 in extras, including a technology package (auto on/off xenon headlights, driver’s seat memory, Sirius Satellite Radio and more), but I would have been content with the basic standard package.

Regrets? I have a few, but one in particular.

The Mazda6 can be had with a blind-spot monitoring system, and I generally love this helpful feature. If you’re paranoid about blind spots on either side of your vehicle when you’re driving in heavy traffic – and I am among that group – you’re thankful for those little warning lights in the exterior mirrors. They illuminate when cars are in the blind spots, saving you a crash and all that goes with that.

The Mazda6 has this, plus three little beeps that sound off when the system senses you’re about to make an idiot move. Problem is, the system is flawed due to its super-sensitivity.

For example, it would beep when I hit the turn signal while blowing past a car traveling 30 miles per hour slower than myself on the freeway. The beep would be sounding when I was a good seven car lengths clear of trouble.

Likewise, it would beep when I was in the extreme left lane of the freeway, but adjacent to a five-foot wall on the driver’s side. It was beeping to warn me about a wall that was going nowhere. It did the same when I hit the left-turn signal to turn into an above-ground parking garage at my workplace. Why? It was warning me about the parked cars on the left side of the street before I reached the parking garage entrance.

Thankfully, the thing can be disabled. You folks who like to hear all warnings – for trouble real or imagined – might want to keep it on. I must confess that I grew weary of hearing false beeps.

Other than that, the Mazda6 gets a solid A-minus in my test-driving school.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Nissan Altima Coupe reviewed in Cruisin' News

Sacramento, California – My review of the 2010 Nissan Altima Coupe 2.5 S appears in the latest edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin’ News, published out of Folsom, California, by John Sweeney and Evonne Sotelo.

The “Hot Laps” reviews appear monthly in the publication.

To subscribe to the Cruisin’ News, visit http://www.cruisinnews.com/, call (916) 933-0949 or send an e-mail request to cruisinnews@mac.com. Mailed requests for information should be sent to Cruisin’ News, P.O. Box 1096, Folsom, CA 95763-1096.

Chrysler's big-brute 300C remains a player


This review originally appeared in the July edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin' News published out of Folsom, California -- mg

Sacramento, California -- Back when everybody had money – and I’m talking about five years ago – Chrysler did something so unusual, so incredible, that I was left open-mouthed.

Chrysler rolled out a big-shouldered, aggressively styled sedan with serious horsepower and the kind of luxury features most people dream of … and charged a comparatively affordable price to boot. In other words, it did what Lexus, Infiniti and Acura had been doing for years.

Chrysler added to the appeal with a nostalgia-laced name, the 300, and presto! – people bought the big brute in numbers.

My ardor for the Chrysler 300 has not waned, even amid recession and pricey gasoline. If anything, I’m even more attracted to it – sort of a reminder of pre-recession muscle and mindless discretionary spending.

My 2010 tester was the 300C AWD, which translated to a 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 putting out 360 horsepower and steering so light that I felt like a muscle-bound tyrant. In fact, steering is so light that drivers need to be forewarned. I had the mind-set that the big, slab-sided sedan needed a firm hand, but I had such a firm hand at first that I darn near steered the tester into the curbs. Good idea to keep this in mind, lest you look like an idiot. Nothing worse than knocking over the neighbor’s mailbox the first week you have the car.

Engine power flows smoothly and evenly. You almost feel like you’re not giving it enough, but a look in the rearview mirror confirms that you’re leaving traffic behind with little effort.

The interior features a long list of luxury items for a base price of $40,500. Heated seats, a power tilt/telescoping steering wheel and rain-sensing windshield wipers are nice extras beyond the standard luxo fare. The middle of the 300C’s dashboard has that Chrysler plain-Jane look, but at least the automaker spiced up the analog gauges behind the steering wheel to make up for it. Cool night lighting on the gauges looks nice.

The car still draws “oohs” and “ahhs” from the neighbors. It looks hot-rod-limo cool, and the oversize grille is the most intimidating front end this side of a Great White Shark.

Customizers should consider the 300 a dream car, the kind of hardware you could spend years bending, tweaking and juicing up in your garage. Lots of room for creativity here, like turning over a five-star kitchen to the fry cook. If you can’t do something good with the 300, you probably ought to change hobbies.

For me, I liked my 300C on the roll, eating up open highway on a sunny day. Sure, the gas mileage is a wallet-sapping 16 miles per gallon in the city and 23 mpg on the highway. But sailing along the roadways with that big Hemi growling away, well, it’s a nice way to get away from thoughts of sagging investments and endless bills.

Call it car therapy, and the 300C is the drug of choice.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

VW Touareg highlights perks of diesel driving


Sacramento, California – Volkswagen has been on a roll of sorts, and that dates back to that delightful, prosperous, giddy time before the recession.

Back in those days of grossly overvalued stocks and real estate, VW was touting the virtues of clean diesel engines, and much of the competition was laughing at the German automaker while raising the horsepower curve to sometimes ridiculous heights.

Besides, Americans were turned off by memories of noisy, stinky diesels of decades past. VW kept insisting that it could deliver quality vehicles with robust, clean diesel engines.

And here in post-bailout America, that’s exactly what you get in the 2010 Volkswagen Touareg V6 TDI -- a stellar, sizable sport-utility vehicle for folks who need that sort of thing.

Over time, the Touareg’s looks have been tweaked to make it look like a more-contemporary, aerodynamic SUV, as opposed to a bulky Euro-camper vehicle. The look is just fine – not terribly different from a lot that’s already out there, but attractive nevertheless.

Best compliment I can pay to this vehicle: In no way does it feel like a turbodiesel V-6. With some 225 horses more than 400 foot-pounds of pavement-gripping torque, the Touareg V6 TDI performs like a V-8 champ. Engine noise and tailpipe emissions offer no clue that this is a diesel.

The four-wheel drive system chimed in to make the hefty Touareg light on its wheels. The sensation coming through the steering wheel was more lightweight crossover than weighty SUV.

This is what happens when German engineering excels and gets it right.

The Touareg comes off as the prototypical vacationers’ dream. Lots of room for passengers and luggage. The thing will cruise effortlessly to beach and mountain range with nary a complaint. Fuel mileage for a vehicle this size weighs in relatively well at 18 miles per gallon in the city and 25 mpg on the highway.

Standard features are numerous, a good thing for a vehicle that starts at nearly $44,000. Extra-special standard fare includes a 12-way power driver’s seat, heated front seats, interior wood trim, front/rear park distance control, power glass sunroof and heated exterior mirrors. Yeah, this SUV spoils you quite a bit.

Frankly, however, I could have done without some $15,000 in premium extras that brought the sticker’s bottom line ominously close to $60,000, but some folks undoubtedly like their Touareg puffed up to something resembling Mercedes-Benz status. If you have the cash, go for it.

I know that many Americans still are not sold on diesel technology – Europe, amid pricey fuel, has thrived on it for years – but a simple test drive of this Touareg will tell you how much things have changed. Maybe the flood of electric and hybrid autos on the market ultimately will shove diesel to the rear of the pack. Who knows?

But if you want to sample clean-diesel technology at its finest in a pleasing SUV package, this 2010 Touareg deserves a look. It’ll give you something to tell your grandkids.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Honda crosses over with a nice new offering


Sacramento, California – Sometimes you want something different. And you get that in the new-for-2010 Honda Accord Crosstour.

Say “Accord” and you expect economical, just-the-right-size passenger car hardware. The Crosstour is not quite that.

Honda calls it a crossover utility vehicle, or CUV, combining the best aspects of a premium sedan and a sport-utility vehicle. There are repeated references to it as an SUV in various auto magazines.

Me, I’d call it more of a hatchback wagon, although I realize that those words tend to be the kiss of death in the auto biz.

No matter, the Crosstour still has that versatility thing going for it.

The tester was the four-wheel drive EX-L model, with navigation. That’s the most expensive of five trim levels, stickering at $36,220. The tester had zero extras on it, but that was just fine with me, because the standard features were sweet and plentiful.

The tested Crosstour was downright primo/luxo over the top, with goodies that included a 10-way driver’s seat, mega-leather surfaces (including the steering wheel) and a rearview camera. Air bags and safety features were so numerous as to make you feel super-secure. Thankfully, I never had to test them.

What did test out nicely was the Crosstour’s performance, surprisingly zippy even with a healthy 3.5-liter V-6 pumping out a max 271 horsepower. Ordinarily, that’s sort of right on the border for challenging speeding traffic on the interstate or making that tight lane change.

These were not issues with the Crosstour. It responded instantly and enthusiastically to foot taps/stomps on the accelerator. It climbed steep hills with remarkable ease. Handling was quick and agile. Indeed, the vehicle responded like a sport sedan in most driving situations.

Styling is sleek and aerodynamic, so much so that I defy most people not to call it a hot-looking wagon upon first seeing it.

The cargo-carrying configurations are nice, and Honda does a good job of covering the small things, like adequate covering of the cargo area when you close the back boot. It’s impossible to see from the outside what’s stored in the vehicle. That will save you a big headache in some towns.

The comparatively muscular engine registers un-Honda-like fuel mileage numbers of 17 miles per gallon in the city and 25 mpg on the highway. That’s the price you pay for a little oomph. And for my money, the starting price of $36,220 also seems a bit heavy. Had I been the king of Honda, I would have stood on my head to have the sticker price come in below $35,000.

All things considered, this is a nice new horse in the Honda stable. Call it what you want. Test drive it for sure.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

VW's lastest GTI still gets the heart racing

This review originally appeared in the June edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin' News published out of Folsom, California -- mg

Sacramento, California -- It’s the classic pocket rocket, one of my favorite cars of all-time.

And it has been jazzed up for 2010.

It’s the 2010 Volkswagen GTI sedan – yes, it can also be had as a coupe – and VW is to be praised for making this latest model just as spicy-looking and scoot-serious as olden, golden versions of the GTI.

In truth, it’s pretty hard to screw this thing up. History buffs will recognize that the current model has some of the styling cues from the legendary Mk I.

The exterior look is short-stocky bully that you don’t want to mess with, but there’s some stylish flair in the design as well. The black honeycomb grille is a sexy garment. Even the rear hatch area is aerodynamic. Particularly cool are the 17-inch, five-petal-style wheels that turn heads standing still and blur into roadrunner gray on the roll.

Those wheels are wrapped in high-performance tires, by the way.

Man, I love this VW’s all-black interior – a combination of menace and comfort. Everything is within easy reach, and you feel a little bit like Mario Andretti gripping the flat-bottomed, three-spoke steering wheel.

But the best part of the latest GTI remains unchanged from GTIs past. Look no further than under the hood, where you will find a 2-liter four-banger juiced up to 200 horsepower via an instantly responsive turbocharger.

Yes, the GTI leaves rubber and embarrassed sports car pilots when it blazes away from the crowd from a standing start. It’s nimble enough to pull off quick lane changes you might not try in other sporty rides. Steering is equally responsive on city streets and highways. A sweetly firm suspension makes the ride rock solid, yet road imperfections are swallowed up nicely.

Figure on making the zero-to-60 mph run in less than 7 seconds. You can take it from there: Uphill climbs are no problem. Power to get out of harm’s way is delivered in an eye-blink and efficiently.

The GTI’s drive-by-wire throttle control and VW’s patented fuel-injection system make 21 miles per gallon in the city and 31 mpg on the highway – not bad numbers for a turbo screamer.

Interior comfort for five was actually pretty nice in the tester. Ditto cargo-carrying capacity.

All this for a reasonable starting price of about $24,000 on the nose. The GTI coupe starts around $23,500.

Customizers can count on having a field day with this GTI. I’ve seen older GTIs stretched and cut so low to the road that they could double as a street sweeper. That’s fine with me on this latest GTI, but I kind of like the engine as is. Tweak the look, save the turbo. That’s my motto.

And thanks to Volkswagen for not screwing with a legitimate legend.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Chrysler 300C reviewed in latest Cruisin' News

Sacramento, California – My review of the 2010 Chrysler 300C AWD sedan appears in the latest edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin’ News, published out of Folsom, California, by John Sweeney and Evonne Sotelo.

The “Hot Laps” reviews appear monthly in the publication.

To subscribe to the Cruisin’ News, visit http://www.cruisinnews.com/, call (916) 933-0949 or send an e-mail request to cruisinnews@mac.com. Mailed requests for information should be sent to Cruisin’ News, P.O. Box 1096, Folsom, CA 95763-1096.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Volvo C30: Not a lot of loot, but lots of scoot



Sacramento, California – I can’t say I wasn’t fairly warned.

The guy delivering the 2011 Volvo C30 T5 R-Design – think two-door hatchback/sports coupe – noted that the vehicle had “surprising pick-up.”

When someone who drives cars for a living tells you that a vehicle has “surprising pick-up,” it’s the equivalent of the doctor telling you “this might hurt a little bit.”

Both are gross understatements, and the test C30 lived up to the not-so-subtle advance billing.

First off, this is a splashy-looking sports coupe, with aggressive, VW GTI-like styling and a back end that resembles a contemporary sculpture of glass, bodywork and metal.

Stepping into the C30, you think: Nicely laid out, sporty, little comfort to be had by two backseat passengers and, well, it probably has a fair amount of scoot for a little car.

All that works, except for the last part. The car has a lot of scoot.

The C30 is a rally warrior that flings itself around with jarring abruptness. The turbocharged in-line 5 is rated at 227 horsepower, but the ride feels much more robust than that. From a standstill, the tester sprinted away from virtually everything with four wheels.

So nimble was it in surface street traffic that I had to take one hand off the wheel, lest I oversteer the car up and over the curbs.

On the interstates, a tiny blip on the throttle produced remarkable – and seemingly effortless – acceleration. And yet, interior cabin noise was minimal.

It messed with my mind. The only confirmation I had that the C30 was performing at such a high level on the highway was the speed with which cars in my rearview mirror became smaller and disappeared out of sight.

Pocket rocket? Yes, absolutely. This C30 will win you some acceleration bets … not that I’m advocating that sort of thing, mind you. It’s a blast. Like seeing a 5-5, 140-pound shortstop crush a 500-foot home run.

Yet fuel mileage is pretty good at 21 miles per gallon in the city and 30 mpg on the open road.

The starting fare for this fun front-driver is a reasonable $26,950, although you can get the lower-level T5 for $24,600, happily with the same engine.

The list of standard features on the tester was incredibly long, with enough safety, comfort and convenience features to keep a classroom full of Swedish automotive engineers busy for a year.

Two people can travel in extreme comfort. Four people not so much, and the cargo-carrying capability of the car is limited.

For some reason, the Sirius Satellite Radio in the tester would not pick up ANYTHING outside the Sacramento city limits, and it was shaky much of the time within the city’s borders. I thought Sirius had changed its name to Acquiring Signal Radio during my time in the car.

Sun spots? Aliens? I have no idea.

One other note: The underside at the top of the steering wheel (maybe eight inches across) is made of metal. Believe me when I tell you that you do not want to be touching that portion of the steering wheel after the C30 has been sitting in the hot sun for an hour or more. Hit the AC and let it bring the thing down to a less-than-sizzling temperature.

Otherwise, I like this C30. Great car for a young family, or a super second car for a family with grown-up kids.

As for the “surprising pick-up” part, that’s a nice Swedish surprise.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Sports car meets SUV in 2010 BMW X6 M



Sacramento, California – Ever seen a crossover sport-utility vehicle on steroids?

Say hello to the new-for-2010 BMW X6 M. Here you’ll find SUV luxury and performance lifted to the mountaintop.

A little history helps explain this incredible machine.

I reviewed the new BMW M6 Coupe in 2006, complete with a 500-horsepower, 40 valve, high-compression V-10 engine with variable valve timing … and a sticker price of nearly $107,000. A seven-speed sequential manual gearbox operated sans clutch, with a computer chip and an electrohydraulic mechanism handling those chores. You could shift via a center console-mounted shifter or rip up and down the gearbox via steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

Now imagine all that in a crossover SUV, with the bodywork styled in such a way as to relay a message of force and menace. That’s the X6 M.

Just walking up to it, you get chills – a big-shouldered, aerodynamic blazer with a grille straight out of Star Wars. The bright-red paint job certainly added to the macho ambience.

The X6 M drew comments of admiration from passersby on the street, in parking lots and at gas stations.

Be advised that you’re going to be spending a lot of time at that last destination as the X6 M gets only 12 miles per gallon in the city and 17 mpg on the highway. That’s the price you pay for having a twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter V-8 and four overhead camshafts under the skin.

Is it worth the price? Well, when you’re unwinding those 555 horses, the last thing you’re thinking about is money. That’s probably a good thing, because the starting price on the vehicle is $88,900.

For your money, you get the satisfaction of just walking away from the great majority of motor vehicles on the road. The X6 M blazed into tight holes on freeway merges. It charged up steep hills like Teddy Roosevelt leading the Rough Riders in Cuba. It cruised at 80 miles hour with quiet serenity. A self-leveling rear air suspension and the all-wheel-drive system add to the enjoyable excellent ride.

It’s truly a fabulous vehicle, the kind that justifies its price with its high level of performance.

From the cockpit, luxury abounds as the outside world breezes by. Comfortable leather seating surfaces are surrounded by convenience and safety features. Notable super-goodies that are standard include a heated steering wheel, heated rear seats, park-distance control and auto-leveling headlights.

BMW still has that quick-hit turn signal that I’ve never been able to figure out – sometimes it stays on, other times it shuts off unprompted – but I think that’s more a me problem than a car problem.

BMW calls it a Sports Activity Vehicle, but folks, this is a crossover luxury SUV in every sense of that term. To me, it came off as a distinct vehicle for someone who is fortunate enough to have a lot of money to spend on a car, but wants some of the old-fashioned utility you get from an SUV. And as a bonus, the vehicle is rich-looking enough to make people think you spent more than $100,000 for it.

In these wobbly economic times, some auto reviewers have characterized the X6 M as a gaudy throwback to pre-recession days, when automakers were trying to outdo each other with luxury, horsepower and sticker prices. I understand those sentiments.

But if your checkbook balance is in your favor, this X6 M stacks up as a must-test-drive right now. Beyond a Porsche Cayenne, I’m not sure you’re going to find anything else out there to match up with this BMW.