Thursday, February 25, 2010

Genesis Coupe: Lots of horses, few dollars

Sacramento, California – Hyundai has made major strides in the United States with a fairly basic approach: Quality, luxury and performance for less money.

Or in simpler terms: You might want an Infiniti or Lexus or an Acura, but you can get pretty much the same things for a lot less dough in an equivalent Hyundai product.

This wasn’t always true. Years ago, Hyundai produced cheap cars that looked and felt cheap. It was a bad plan.

The current lots-for-less plan is much better and way more successful.

Which brings us to the new-for-2010 Hyundai Genesis Coupe. Here’s a sleek, performance-laden, sporty ride offered in a mind-blowing 16 trim levels. My tester, which wore the lengthy formal title of 2010 Hyundai Genesis Coupe 3.8 Track A/T with Navigation, is the most expensive of all the rear-drive coupe offerings.

And yet that top-of-the-charts number was only $32,000. Opt for a Genesis Coupe with a peppy 210-horsepower, turbocharged, 2-liter, four-cylinder engine matched up with a six-speed manual gearbox, and the starting price is a mere $22,000.

Overseas automakers producing higher-priced sporty fare have reason to fear these numbers. Ditto the makers of Mustang and Camaro.

My tester had the 3.8-liter V-6 with 306 horses, and you could dish up that power courtesy of a ZF six-speed automatic linked to steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. Performance was neck-snapping. If anything, I thought my ride put out too much torque in the low gears. It took me some time to master the paddles so as to not leave rubber on the roadways coming off a standing start.

Naturally, some folks would not consider this a problem.

And it’s agile. The Genesis Coupe took on a slalom course like a champ. High-speed, uphill curves were carved up like a super-tender meatloaf. I was amazed at the car’s muscular agility. The engine could be noisy, but who cares when you’re having this much fun?

Hyundai goes to great pains to say that this coupe was built to be a coupe, not a knockoff of a sports sedan. The South Korean automaker succeeded on that score. No one is going to mistake this two-door Genesis for a midlife crisis family sedan.

On my tester, the cars already striking profile was enhanced by 19-inch wheels, awesome Brembo brakes and a nifty rear spoiler.

Exterior and interior perks read like something out of a Lexus manual. Standard features above and beyond my expectations included leather heated front seats, power tilt/slide sunroof, xenon headlights, heated mirrors with illuminated signals, a touch-screen nav system and all the contemporary iPod/Bluetooth bells and whistles.

Tons of top-tier safety features? Check. Over-the-top Hyundai warranties? Double-check.

Shouldn’t this car cost something like $50,000? Probably.

The only thing you’re likely to lose money on is gasoline. Fuel mileage is a not-so-hot 17 miles per gallon in city driving, but a not-too-bad 27 mpg on the open road.

So, it’s really a matter of choice: Do you want to impress the neighbors with a pricey luxo-sporty nameplate, or would you rather have all that in the Genesis Coupe and pocket an extra 20-grand?

Given this economy, I’d call that a no-brainer of a question.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Transit Connect a unique business opportunity

Sacramento, California – Every now and then, I’m overcome with a desire to test drive something besides a 500-horsepower sports car or a six-figure luxury sedan.

The new-for-2010 Ford Transit Connect certainly filled the bill. Different to say the least.

How to describe it? Most call it a wagon, but I’m not sure I’m buying that. Nor would I call it a sport-utility vehicle. Some auto reviewers have weighed in by calling it a van. Uh, not really. A minivan? Not a chance in my book.

It’s more like a hybrid of those vehicle segments – a squat front end rising into a sharply raked windshield with a tall, long cargo area in the back. Sliding rear doors are part of the minivan DNA.

It looks a little like a U.S. Postal Service wagon, although no one in my neighborhood came running up to ask me if their swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated had arrived at the post office.

Ford says it targeted the Transit Connect for small businesses, and I believe that. I felt like I could deliver pizzas or dish up ice cream to local kids in my tester – the XLT, the more expensive of two trim levels, starting at $22,755.

Just to add to the vehicle’s unique qualities, the Transit Connect is built in Turkey. Yes, I’m serious.

For what it is, the Transit Connect works well. The vehicle has been offered since 2003 in Europe and other locales, where it has received favorable reviews from a diverse group of users.

Simply put, it’s built for hard work.

First off, the cargo area can be configured to carry objects of all sizes. For max toting purposes, it holds a whopping 135 cubic feet of whatever you have. The double doors in the back yawn wide open to receive cargo up to 52 inches in height and 47.8 inches in width. The Transit Connect has an impressive cargo payload capacity of 1,600 pounds, not bad for a vehicle that looks like a smallish crossover at first glance.

Inside the vehicle, the cargo area is nearly 60 inches high, and the load length tops out at 72.6 inches. Those dual sliding rear side doors enhance the ease of loading up.

Big cargo capacity seems like the best reason for seeking out this vehicle, although the 2-liter, four-cylinder power plant has its charms. The 136-horsepower engine won’t blow you away, but it has adequate oomph for most chores, including freeway merges. It’s a front-driver linked to a four-speed automatic.

Gas mileage is 22 miles per gallon in the city and 25 mpg on the highway, which won’t put you in the poorhouse.

Ford chats up the strong structural integrity of the Transit Connect, but you might not feel that when you open and shut the doors. The vehicle has a tinny feel. Shutting the doors gets you a “ca-whank” sound instead of the more solid-sounding “ca-whump.”

By the way, those sliding side doors can be had with windows, or without. Get the picture? … The Transit Connect can be had as a no-nonsense cargo/business van, or you can be more family/freewheeling in its use.

Interior comforts are fine. The dash is easy to understand … And here’s where the bonus comes in: An in-dash computer allows small business owners to run things from inside the vehicle. Applications include downloading customer information, product specs, accessing an office-based computer, texting and street mapping. You can program and interact with the in-dash computer via a separate keypad.

Finally, an assortment of bulkheads, racks and bins provides handy storage space for just about anything you need in the operation of a business.

So, if you have been contemplating a career change and want to go it on your own with an affordable, versatile motor vehicle that will likely handle most of what you have to dish out, give the 2010 Ford Transit Connect a look.

It’s a niche vehicle to be sure, but it fills that niche nicely. Pay your money and consider yourself in business.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Party wagon lives on in the 2010 Element

Sacramento, California – When I test drove the 2003 Honda Element, I remember thinking: Where have you been all my life?

There I was well into middle age and thinking that NOW Honda comes up with a vehicle tailor-made for a beach party. Think of the fun I could have had in this boxy-looking, saloon door-equipped party wagon back in my teens and young 20s.

Of course, this assumes that I was a golden-haired Adonis regularly prowling the beaches of Southern California, looking for the latest party between surfboard sessions on giant waves … which I was not. I was back in Ohio trying to get up the courage to ask a girl out on a date.

I’ll spare you the details. They’re not pretty.

The Element, however, still is a looker. In fact, my 2010 two-wheel-drive Honda Element SC tester with a navigation system looked as sharp as any Element I’ve ever seen. (Keep in mind there are 10 trim levels of the 2010 model, with my tester the most expensive at a still-reasonable starting price of $26,020.)

The SC has a newly chiseled exterior appearance, with some sharper edges all around. The look is not as boxy as it used to be. But yeah, it’s still boxy.

Who cares? Take the Element and at least three passengers out onto the sand for a good time. The vehicle can take it, and the interior is simply styled. Your grubby buddies can’t do too much damage. Let them spill beer on the floor. It’s not like the thing is a Mercedes.

Oh, you can also take your dog to the beach in style.

For 2010, those clever Honda folks have introduced a “dog friendly” system for the back of the Element. It includes a soft-sided “kennel” area in the cargo section, a cushioned bed, a 12-volt ventilation fan, second-row seat covers with a doggie pattern design matching that of the dog bed, an extendable ramp, all-season rubber floor mats with a toy bone pattern, a spill-resistant water bowl (emphasis on the word “resistant”) and dog-themed exterior emblems.

Amazing! I mean who thinks up this stuff? Can you imagine Honda designers huddled around a table in the dark of the night, pondering the latest boffo idea, and then someone jumps up and shouts: “I’ve got it. A dog-friendly Element option.”

Great, Poindexter! Now we can head downtown for some drinks!

Seriously, I’m not sure I know of another auto company that would put this much dog-thought into a vehicle.

On the roll, the Element handles as well as any not-so-aerodynamic sport-utility vehicle with a 166-horseower, four-cylinder engine, which is to say that it does just fine until it has to climb a steep hill. Likewise, you won’t want to test most vehicles for a tiny bit of road at the end of a freeway merge lane.

I have a few gripes. The Element’s bodywork remains the definition of tinny. You feel like you could puncture its skin with your fist. Or maybe a dog paw.

The set-up of the saloon-style doors takes some getting used to. And be forewarned: The first time you try to open the Element’s rear doors, do not try it in the dark. You’ll break the doors or your hand. Trust me.

Otherwise, grab your dog and party on.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Jaguar droptop reviewed in Cruisin' News

Sacramento, California – My review of the 2010 Jaguar XKR convertible 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.

LaCrosse sticks up for American engineering

This review originally published in the January 2010 edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin' News published out of Folsom, California.--mg

Sacramento, California -- I liked the Buick LaCrosse when it made its debut in 2005, but not everyone shared my opinion.

Other auto-reviewing colleagues longed for the days of the old Buick Riviera, or the Century or the Regal.

Now that LaCrosse has been extensively redesigned for 2010, the Buick luxury sedan is winning some more converts, including Motor Trend magazine, a publication that often takes a tough line on American-made hardware.

I’m sure folks are pleased that the LaCrosse has a lot that’s new in 2010. But its original appeal sticks with me: It’s a true luxury model that’s not overpriced, with a fairly robust power plant under the hood. For those not looking to buy a Bentley, these considerations have serious appeal.

My tester was the CXS version, the most expensive of four trim levels, starting at $33,015 (a LaCrosse CX can be had for 27-grand and change). That price is within range of not only luxury car buyers but midsize car owners looking to trade up. For that price, you get a generously equipped LaCrosse that will likely earn you congrats from your neighbors.

First off, the LaCrosse looks good in the driveway. I have to wonder if Buick stole some DNA from the Lincoln brand as the LaCrosse has that same chrome-laden grille and aerodynamic wedge shape, with the side bodywork rising high to seemingly compressed windows.

And yet, from the cockpit, the 360-degree view around the car is good. Standard features on the CXS are what you’d expect from a sedan with the luxury label. The tester had soft leather seats (heated and ventilated, plus eight-way power adjustments in the front seats), a 384-watt Harman/Kardon audio system with 11 speakers, a power rear sunshade, dual-zone climate control and an easy-to-read driver information center.

Tastefully arranged chrome and woodgrain accents gave the CXS the feel of a top-tier Lexus. Nice touch.

The standard engine on the CXS is a 3.6-liter V-6 with 280 horsepower (17 mpg city/27 mpg on the highway). This is a robust motor that makes the CXS a worthy road-trip warrior, particularly when matched up with a real-time, active-dampening suspension. This marriage makes for a smooth-riding machine that makes the 250-mile driving session a snap. You want to gas up, get back in and get going all over again.

I remember that one of my gripes about the 2005 LaCrosse CXS was the presence of a four-speed automatic transmission. I wanted a five-speed to get the best out of what was then a 240-horsepower V-6. How much have times changed in five years? The standard gearbox on the 2010 CXS is a six-speed.

Also part of the 2010 CXS is contemporary connectivity. The interior package includes in-dash navigation, Bluetooth, an auxiliary radio input and a USB port. Good stuff to be sure, but I guess I’m getting old. I just like to DRIVE the car.

I’m still not sure how I feel about the ice-blue ambient lighting inside the LaCrosse. It had a soothing quality on night drives, but sometimes I felt like I had been transported to a lounge in Vegas. Just for your own personal tastes, you might want to include a night run if you go test driving a LaCrosse.

For customizers, the LaCrosse offers an inviting canvas. The sedan’s shape is contemporary aerodynamic, which means you have carte blanche to lower it or stick a monster air scoop on the hood. My tester was jet black, and I can absolutely envision it morphing into a blown monster.

Overall, I’d say the LaCrosse offers a pretty good counter-argument that the quality American-made sedan is a thing of the past. Luxury for less, and something good under the hood. A nice piece of work, I’d say.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Toyota's woes could be yours tomorrow

Sacramento, California – The auto industry has never lacked for amnesia, but here’s something that automakers chuckling at Toyota’s gas pedal problems would do well to remember …

What goes around comes around.

Consider just a few years ago when General Motors was considered America’s lifelong heavy hitter, yet could not withstand the advances of Toyota to become the world’s No. 1 automaker. And Ford Motor Co. was considered the American car company that couldn’t do anything right, unless losing money was something to be proud of.

Chrysler? Well, at least it was hooked up with the German Daimler giant, who was longing to get rid of all things Mopar.

Now, Toyota is in the soup. General Motors is seen as a Capitol Hill beggar in the public’s eyes. Chrysler is part of Detroit’s Big Three only in the minds of those who can remember back a decade. And Ford appears to have acquired the Midas touch.

But here’s the rub: GM and others are kicking Toyota when it’s down, jumping in with incentives for Toyota customers sufficiently disgruntled with the Japanese automaker’s sticking accelerators on some models. I get it: This is a cutthroat business, and it’s not unusual for one automaker to benefit from the misfortune of another. That’s as old as the first steering wheel.

That diamond-hard business approach might be smooth enough to swallow were it not for Toyota’s reaction when General Motors was on the verge of a fiscal meltdown. Then, Toyota graciously stepped up and said it was absolutely opposed to the very idea of its big American rival going belly-up. Toyota rightly said that it would be bad for the auto industry and motorists worldwide if GM went under. Toyota even hinted at helping its stumbling rival return to solid footing.

Classy? Yes. Genuine or just smoke? I don’t know. What I do know is that it was good PR on Toyota’s end, and it soothed the troubled souls of thousands of GM employees.

And here’s the thing: What is happening to Toyota today could be happening to GM tomorrow. Or Ford. Or Chrysler. Or Subaru for crying out loud.

Anyone involved in the manufacture of complex transportation machines knows that you’re one small mistake away from plunging a giant automaker into the pit of hideous negative news. Does anyone need to remind Ford of past misadventures with its Pinto or Explorer? As for GM, does the name Ralph Nader ring a bell?

Allegations of motor vehicle dangers don’t even have to be accurate to create havoc for an automaker. Just a whiff of trouble can cost you market share.

Those slapping their knees about Toyota’s current plight might want to keep that in mind. It could be your head on the chopping block tomorrow. That’s the nature of the auto biz.