Friday, January 29, 2010

This entry-level Mercedes boasts luxury, pop

Sacramento, California – The crestfallen car-delivery man looked at me and said: “This is the first Mercedes I’ve seen without a navigation system.”

A 2010 Mercedes-Benz vehicle without a nav system? How gauche! What is this world coming to?!!!

I kid. I kid. Actually, the nav-less 2010 Mercedes C350 Sport Sedan fit my tastes just fine, thank you very much. First of all, I know where I’m going, at least most of the time. And second, this is an entry-level Mercedes, if a starting price of $39,750 can be considered entry level in this day and age.

Rest assured that plunking down your money on this C350 still gets you into the Mercedes-Benz club and all that goes with that: prestige, envious neighbors, excellent engineering and near-royal treatment when you show up at the local Mercedes-Benz service center.

All in all, not a bad deal for $40,000.

For most of us, “entry level” translates to stripped. Not so with the tested C350.

The comfort/convenience features were plentiful, and dare I say luxurious. The standard fare included a power sunroof, dual zone climate control with dust filter, heated 10-way power driver’s seat with lumbar support, leather surfaces, maple wood trim, six-month Sirius Satellite radio subscription, Bluetooth connectivity, power tilt/telescoping steering column, rain-sensing windshield wipers and headlights with automatic sensor/locator features.

The list of safety/security features – primo perks of top Mercedes-Benz quality – was nearly as long. I’d list those, too, but I don’t want to be writing all night.

So, I’m sitting in the lap of C350 luxury and security, and what am I excited about? Well, the car looks hot, a decidedly pronounced wedge shape that looks ready to scoop up and discard poking cars. And most surprising of all: Serious robust performance.

This C350 has immediate and intimidating scoot, courtesy of a 268-horsepower, dual-over-head-cam, 24-valve V-6. I particularly liked the instant part. Pulling away from intersections and challenged by motorists who for some reason wanted to contest my signaled lane changes, the C350 blew them away.

Nimble, I say. I’ve driven plenty of 300-horsepower sports cars that didn’t deliver power so suddenly. Seven speeds on the gearbox, all sweetly in unison.

As for handling, the tester was clenched-fist firm. A three-link independent, strut-type suspension on the front and multi-link on the rear functioned to near perfection. For some reason, the car was just slightly mushy on a right-turn lane change executed at high speed -- just enough for a slight steering wheel correction. Otherwise, most impressive.

Gas mileage comes in at a so-so 17 miles per gallon in the city and 25 mpg on the highway. If you’re taking your first steps in a Mercedes, you can probably live with those numbers.

Happily, the interior controls are uncomplicated and work well. Nav system or no nav system, Mercedes was frustrating me a few years back with too many electrical gimmicks, some of which tended to fail miserably during a mere week of test driving. That was not the case here. Simple and easy to use. Bravo!

Please note, the C350’s back seat is not designed for large adults traveling for several hours, but I don’t think complaints will come forth on shorter runs. Interior comfort is actually pretty sweet. Trunk space – the trunk snaps open, like magic, with a hit on the key fob – also is pretty good.

Bottom line: Moneyed luxury lovers will want more than the C350 has to offer, and I say good for them. And while the thought dropping $40,000 on a smallish sedan might make the rest of us swallow hard, the C350 remains alluring with Mercedes-level luxury and engineering, plus the promise that the thing likely will run forever.

Worth the money? I’d say yes.

Friday, January 22, 2010

After all these years: Make mine Infiniti

Sacramento, California – I like Infiniti’s cars.

Seriously, I always have. It’s not the stylish thing to say when friends, family and fellow auto reviewers ask what auto brands I like. Infiniti doesn’t roll off the tongue like Lexus or Rolls or Bentley.

I have no problem with this. I’ve always liked Infiniti styling, the historically over-the-top technology that came with cars like the Infiniti Q, the bird’s-eye view from the nav system and the general fit and finish of things.

The 2010 Infiniti M35x AWD luxury sport sedan gave me no reason to change my mind.

The tester was blessed with horsepower, elegance, classy standard features and just enough gee-whiz technology for a starting price of $47,950. That’s almost $10,000 less than what you’d spend for a 2010 Infiniti M45x, but I’m not sure I’d spend that much more for a car that gives you just a little bit more horsepower and a few more luxury goodies.

The 3.5-liter V-6 on the tester had more than enough oomph at 303 horses. Getting a 4.5-liter V-8 on the M45x raises the bar a mere 22 ponies. Gas mileage on the M35x is a fairly ugly 16 miles per gallon in the city and 22 mpg on the highway, but folks who buy this car usually aren’t counting pennies at the gas pump.

Styling is decidedly sporty on the front end, because you want a little flash to let the neighbors know that you desire something more than a pricey, boxy sedan. The M35x surprises fellow interstate travelers with its sudden muscle when you ask for it. Luxurious surroundings and a torque turn-on … such a deal.

On the inside, the Infiniti is loaded with so many likable comfort/convenience features that you feel like you should go back and pay the dealer a few more bucks (but resist that temptation please).

A short list of perks includes 10-way power front seats with lumbar supports, leather seating/steering wheel surfaces, hands-free phone system and full memory positioning for the driver’s seat, setting wheel and exterior mirrors. Can you say spoiled?

Safety systems also run the gamut. The car could be certified as a bodyguard. Given the driving I’m seeing these days, that’s a big plus.

Rest assured that Infiniti has kept up with the times. Options will accommodate your iPod, satellite radio and other high-tech audiovisual needs.

I suppose it pains some to hear that I would be tempted by an Infiniti over a Lexus or a Cadillac, but alas, it’s true. It depends on the model, of course, but an Infiniti feels like a favorite pair of shoes in my book. Kudos to Nissan’s luxury division for not messing up a good thing, even in the face of relentless competition.

For those who must have the latest thing, be advised that Infiniti took the wraps off the all-new 2011 M sedan during a December event in Beverly Hills. For some reason, I was not invited to this gathering … something about not owning a $1,000 suit.

But from what I’ve seen, 2011 will be a very good year.

Friday, January 15, 2010

LaCrosse reviewed in latest Cruisin' News

Sacramento, California – My review of the 2010 Buick LaCrosse CXS 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, call (916) 933-0949 or send an e-mail request to Mailed requests for information should be sent to Cruisin’ News, P.O. Box 1096, Folsom, CA 95763-1096.

Terrain runs over bigger-is-better argument

This review originally published in the December 2009 edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin' News published out of Folsom, California--mg

It wasn’t all that long ago that the sport-utility vehicle world revolved around this standard: Bigger is better.

C’mon, you probably bought or at least looked at an SUV the approximate size of a duplex sometime in the past 10 years, or certainly at the close of the 1990s. So what if it averaged only 8 miles to the gallon? It could carry most of your living room on a long road trip, right?

Times have changed, and one of the latest poster boys in the practical-size crossover SUV market is the all-new-for-2010 GMC Terrain.

Here’s General Motors’ own take on the Terrain, straight from the lips of Susan Docherty, vice president of Buick-GMC: "The new Terrain brings GMC’s history of innovation and engineering excellence into a smaller, fuel-efficient package for today’s buyer.”

So, there you have it. Makes you wonder why it took GM and others so long to figure out that an SUV of moderate size and admirable fuel mileage would appeal to U.S. consumers. Apparently, it took a major recession to get the point across.

Well, now that we’ve gotten smarter, let’s take a look at the Terrain.

My weeklong tester was the front-drive SLT-2 version, the second-most-expensive of eight trim levels, starting at $29,250. When I first saw that sticker, I felt it was too much for a crossover vehicle. Upon closer inspection, it turns out that I was wrong.

The test vehicle was stuffed with standard features, some of which you expect to see on SUVs wearing Mercedes-Benz and Lexus labels. A massive list of safety devices set my mouth agape, and the standard interior goodies kept my jaw locked in the open position. The hot list included a rearview camera system, a tilt/slide sunroof, leather-appointed seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, eight-way power driver’s seat with lumbar support, automatic climate control, premium Pioneer audio system and on and on and on.

The starting fare of $29,250 was looking better and better. My Terrain was juiced up with nearly $5,000 more of extras, including a 40-gig hard drive, a navigation system with audio aids and a rear-seat entertainment system. Frankly, I would have been happy without all the extras, especially the nav system that sometimes told me there was a serious traffic jam up the road. Problem was, I was getting the audio warning about five minutes after I was in said traffic jam. Nice try, but maybe GM engineers need to head back to the drawing board on that one.

On the roll, the Terrain was a smooth, quiet piece of work. Steering was responsive, and the six-speed automatic transmission offered few complaints as I put it through its paces on city streets, interstates, twisty country roads and lower Sierra Nevada climbs.

Climbing was a struggle with the 2.4-liter four-banger registering complaints on steep inclines. Likewise, don’t expect to get lost merging into freeway traffic with the 182-horsepower engine. The good news on the power plant: federal fuel mileage ratings of 22 miles per gallon in the city and 32 mpg on the highway.

A comfortable interior seats five full-size adults comfortably. Cargo-carrying configurations can be carried out in a snap. Controls are easy to use from the cockpit.

Biggest surprise: I couldn’t believe the number of people who ran up to the vehicle when I parked it. It was the same everywhere I went: “What is that? … It’s so cool … Can I see the inside? … Where can I get one?”

Holy cow! You’d think people had never seen a crossover before. I suppose the fact that my tester was wearing Batmobile-like Onyx Black paint helped enhance the exterior look. Likewise, the front end of the Terrain is a chrome-fest, seemingly prepared to chew up the occasional Honda Civic that gets in the way. Customizers might want to jack up the back end of the Terrain to add even more intimidation. Otherwise, it’s pretty cool right from the factory.

GM has taken its lumps this year, but the new Terrain should help the automaker’s public standing. A feature-loaded, sane-sized SUV that gets good gas mileage buys a lot of goodwill these days.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Need sports car fun? Z is your letter

Sacramento, California – There are not many cars out there that folks can identify when someone utters a single letter from the alphabet.

The Z is the exception.

Saying you drive a Z to even a casual motorist tells the tale: Nissan sports car, hot-looking, hot-performing.

The 2010 Nissan 370Z Roadster Touring that joins the Z coupe updated for 2009 lives up to the billing. This Nissan droptop looks great and delivers performance decidedly on the high side.

I remember having fun in the 2004 350Z with its comparatively humble 3.5-liter V-6 with 287 horsepower. The power curve is has been upped with 3.7-liters of brute force dishing up 332 horses, with variable-valve technology enhancing the power plant’s precision.

You’d be hard-pressed to find more sporty fun for a starting price of $41,820. Yes, you certainly could find cheaper transportation, but the level of fine engineering will lag. Yes, you can pay a lot more, but why would you with the 2010 Z droptop on the Nissan lots?

Given the current weather in Northern California – and that would be foggy, dreary and bone-creaking cold – I spent little time with the tested Roadster’s top down. Forgive me that, but I get the idea. This Z is fun in the sun, and happily, the Golden State has plenty of sunshine most of the time.

I’m not sure you’d want this Z if you lived in, say, Alaska. Or Northern Minnesota. Just saying.

Likewise, the Z won’t be your cup of tea if you want more than two seats or carry luggage bigger than a standard briefcase. But you knew that already.

What I like about the Z is driving it solo, sans worry about passengers or packages. This level of performance is meant to be enjoyed, and the tester scored high on that report card.

A super-stiff suspension enabled me to put my right foot deep into the accelerator on tight corners. The Z didn’t wiggle an inch in any of these maneuvers. It’s a world-class slalom runner, and its uphill climbing ability is exceptional. The Z Roadster took on Sierra Nevada foothills and flatland twisty roads with an effortless grace.

For all its oomph, the 3.7-liter engine does not dump its power in your lap. It’s sort of ladled out, providing a stronger feeling of control. With precise steering and a stellar gearbox – you can do seven speeds via the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters – you always feel in control with the Z.

Your sense of security is bolstered by an over-the-top list of standard safety and security features. Nice touch.

Be forewarned that the stiff suspension pays you back on rough pavement. On bumpy freeway surfaces, I felt road imperfections right up to my eyeballs – the price one pays for monorail stability at high speed.

One other gripe is the convertible top, which, for some reason, functions like a world-class eardrum. An amazing level of exterior noise penetrates the closed surface, which can be jarring during lane changes or dicing in heavy traffic.

Kudos to Nissan for keeping the interior controls simple. The easily managed center stack of controls is uncomplicated, and key gauges centered above the dash can be taken in with a quick glance. A nice perk on the tester included seats that could be heated or cooled – an important feature on a convertible.

Fuel mileage is OK at 18 miles per gallon in the city and 25 mpg on the highway. That’s better than you might expect for a muscular two-seater.

I guess the best thing you can say about the 370Z Roadster is that Nissan took a good thing and made it better, resisting the various temptations to mess it up.

A letter-perfect sports car? Well, pretty darn close.