Thursday, April 29, 2010

Good combo: It's a Lexus, green and all-new

Sacramento, California – Say this for the 2010 Lexus HS 250h sedan: It’s not lacking for fanfare.

It’s an all-new offering for 2010, what Lexus mother company Toyota bills as “the world’s first hybrid-only luxury vehicle.” The movie Avatar wasn’t getting this kind of hype before its debut.

What’s the verdict?: I’d give it a solid B-plus, and my guess is that most Lexus lovers looking to save on gas will put it in the A-minus category.

It looks nice: Expected Lexus elegance with very little to make you feel it’s over the top. Nice aerodynamic roofline and just enough flash on the front end to make you feel a bit sporty out there. The standard, 17-inch aluminum alloys wheels also help along that line.

The five-passenger HS 250h is positioned between Lexus’ ES and IS offerings, and Motor Trend magazine described it as a “gussied-up (Toyota) Prius.” The magazine meant that as a bad thing, but frankly, I don’t have much of a problem wanting more than a Prius when I’m looking for green machinery.

Inside, the HS 250h satisfies those desires, and then some.

Standard features such as leather trim, a one-touch power moonroof and a whopping 10 air bags are certainly what you expect in a Lexus luxury ride. And yet the starting price on my tester was a reasonable $34,200. That’s the less-expensive of two trim levels; the Premium version of the HS 250h starts at around $37,500.

Fuel mileage is an alluring 35 miles per gallon in the city and 34 mpg on the highway. Oh, and it can take the economical 87-octane gasoline.

On the roll, the HS 250h is quiet and smooth, with virtually no road noise penetrating the cockpit. Steering is responsive, and the car took quick turns and corners with remarkably little body sway.

For me, takeoffs from a standing start were a little anemic, but then again, the selling point here is fuel savings, not drag strip racing. The 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine combines with an electric drive motor to put out a maximum 187 horsepower. And yes, you get silence when you press the vehicle’s “start” button. A lighted message centered behind the steering wheel lets you know the car is ready to roll.

For some reason, Lexus mounted the gear shifter just to the right of the steering wheel, and made that key piece of equipment tiny. The shifter knob is about the size of a Ping-Pong ball and positioned a little more than an inch above the dash.

I guess if you have an automatic continuously variable transmission surrounded by all that hybrid technology, you don’t need to go overboard on a shifter. However, I never quite got the rhythm of it, sometimes realizing I was still in “neutral” when I wanted to be in “drive.” I’m old-school enough to like a big shifter filling my right hand.

The shifter is not a deal-breaker, however, not by a longshot.

My guess is most buyers will love this new offering – a loaded up Prius (a popular car in its own right) with Lexus luxury at something resembling a Toyota Avalon price.

Pretty good combo, in my estimation.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Going Rogue has its charms in Nissan SUV

Sacramento, California – In an automotive world filled with smallish, five-passenger sport-utility vehicles, the Nissan Rogue registers high on the cute scale.

Cute is not a high seed in my vocabulary of car descriptions, but I heard “cute” a lot during a recent week testing a 2010 Rogue SL with front-wheel drive. “Isn’t it cute?” became an all-too-familiar refrain from passersby after I parked the five-passenger model.

Well, I’ll bite. It does have a certain cuteness to it. Not too large, snazzy-looking grille on the front, bobbed-tail with just a hint of rooftop overhanging in the back. It’s certainly easier on the eye than a massive, boxy, seven-passenger SUV.

The Rogue is easier on the wallet too.

My SL FWD falls in the middle range, and yet it has an alluring starting price of $21,930. An entry-level, two-wheel-drive S version starts at $20,460, and the top-level S AWD Krom, all-new this year, is a still-attractive $25,310.

The Rogue SL has the standard 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine matched up with a continuously variable transmission. This mechanical pairing does quite well in most all conditions, and that is appropriate given the less-than-heavyweight size of the Rogue. However, I was a little disappointed that this power plant could do no better than 22 miles per gallon in city driving and 27 mpg on the open road.

The list of standard features on the tester was impressive, including part-of-the-deal perks such as electronic brake force distribution, 17-inch alloy wheels and halogen headlights. Super-generous option packages with leather seating surfaces, a moonroof and a Bose audio system pushed the bottom line on the tester to $27,870, still not all that bad.

The interior cabin was surprisingly quiet for a vehicle equipped with a small engine that has to exert itself strongly in some situations. Comfort of driver and passengers also was top-notch. Everything was in easy reach from the driver’s seat. Controls were easy to see, understand and use.

Cargo-carrying configurations were numerous, with the front seat and the 60/40-split back seat folding to make room for plentiful packages. The wide-yawning rear loading area was most accommodating.

The Rogue’s cargo area has a nifty feature called the cargo organizer, which is available on the SL only at this point. When needed, the organizer pops up -- with one touch of a button -- from its hidden space below the flat cargo floor. A portion of the cargo floor snaps into a vertical position, revealing a flat recessed space with removable, vertical cargo nets.

The system helps stabilize grocery bags or other items that you’d rather not have rolling around in the rear area while you’re on the move … bowling balls for instance.

Very clever, I must say.
The Rogue also can be had with a washable, removable tray that fits below the cargo area floor to hold wet or dirty gear, stored out of sight. Likewise clever.

For my money, Nissan never seems to get enough credit for these clever things and other thoughtful features its builds into its cars to make life easier for drivers/consumers. Taken as a package, the Rogue stacks up as a near-perfect car for a young family, or that second non-commuter car that transports kids and groceries with ease, for something less than a budget-crushing price.

Clever idea? I’ll say.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Cadillac knows how to roll with new wagon

Sacramento, California – Hard to believe, but the 2010 Cadillac CTS Sport Wagon is Cadillac’s first-ever wagon offering in North America.

OK, the timing is strange. Just as General Motors was being scolded by the automotive press, auto industry analysts and some federal government officials for building cars outside its bread-and-butter niches, GM rolls out a $40,000-$50,000 Caddy wagon dishing out 270 or 300-plus horses on the power curve.

Makes you feel like you’re back in the 1990s, doesn’t it?

Well, in GM’s defense, if it’s going to produce a wagon, it might as well produce a quality wagon. And the CTS Sport Wagon is precisely that.

Best off, you get the full Cadillac CTS experience on the front end – the rakish cowcatcher of the future grille seems capable of devouring compact cars in a single gulp. Looking at the Sport Wagon straight-on, you’d swear it’s a hot CTS sedan model.

Walking 10 feet left or right of the grille tells you: Oops, it’s a wagon. A hot wagon riding on 19-inch wheels, but a wagon nevertheless.

Wagon is not a word all automakers like to apply to their cars. It implies old, stodgy family car. However, you don’t need to feel that way in this ride. It looks cool enough to preserve your hip adult reputation and delivers enough oomph to trump any sports car-envy feelings you might have.

Central to the oomph factor on the tester was the 3.6-liter V-6 pumping out 304 horses, mated to a six-speed automatic gearbox. Acceleration is brisk. Ditto climbing capabilities. Steering was firm, yet just easy enough to do with one hand. Response instant. The tester took on a slalom course like a champ.

The 304-horsepower engine was standard on my tester – the V-6 Premium versions with rear drive, starting at $48,655. There are a whopping 10 trim levels of the CTS Sport Wagon, and six of those have a 270-horsepower V-6 as standard. The base rear-drive model starts at $38,265.

Please note that the power plant with 304 ponies gets a tepid 18 miles per gallon in the city and 26 mpg on the highway.

All CTS models feature an independent short/long arm front suspension system, with multi-link on the rear. Cadillac engineers did their homework here as the tester glided butter-smooth even on winter-beaten surface streets. Not much noise makes its way into the passenger cabin. Four-wheel disc brakes, with hydraulic brake assist, had serious stopping power.

Interior amenities included most of what you’d expect in a contemporary Cadillac, which is to say a lot. Standard on the tested CTS wagon included a sunroof, tire pressure monitor, power/heated exterior mirrors, retractable cargo shade, leather seating surfaces, wood trim, rearview camera, adaptive headlights and so much more.

For those who must have their mobile tech fix, available features include a 40-gigabyte internal hard drive and a pop-up navigation screen.

The wagon’s rear cargo area is wide and spacious, also getting the additional plus of a power liftgate. Press a button on the fob to trigger it open; press the button mounted on the liftgate to close shop. I’m appreciating this feature more and more in my old age as it seems my hands are full whenever I need to open/close the rear hatch. There must be some scientific study to back this up. Maybe another time. Otherwise, this CTS Sport Wagon came off as a top-tier offering for a mostly top-tier income bracket.

Lap of luxury? Absolutely.

Capable of hot laps? No worries.

Nice effort for a first-time wagon? I’d say so.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Mercedes S400 Hybrid reviewed in Cruisin' News

Sacramento, California – My review of the 2010 Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid 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, 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.

Sebring convertible's bad rep is a bad rap

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

Sacramento, California -- Is anybody else out there feeling bad for Chrysler?

Honestly, it’s like the tail-end member of America’s Big Three automaking club has been demoted to 3.5, a byproduct of taking federal bailout money last year and its shrinking market share in the United States. That’s a bummer, because Chrysler still builds some pretty good cars.

Like the 2010 Chrysler Sebring Convertible Limited.

Not everybody agrees with that. In its evaluation of 2010 models, Motor Trend magazine gave Sebring one star and unleashed this zinger: “Why Chrysler went bankrupt.”

That’s cold, but I beg to differ. My week in the most expensive of three trim levels of the Sebring droptop was entirely pleasant.

The Red Crystal Pearl exterior paint looked sporty on a sleek body. The 18-inch aluminum/chrome wheels added some more flash. The 3.5-liter V-6 was decidedly peppy with 235 righteously delivered horses. Gas mileage is so-so at 16 miles per gallon in the city and 27 mpg on the highway.

The two-door, four-passenger Sebring has a best-in-class 13.1 cubic feet of trunk space. Interior amenities are nice, including wood trim on the steering wheel in the tester.

And of course, there’s the show: At the press of a button, the windows drop, the back end yawns open, the hardtop disengages from the windshield and then disappears into the boot. The back lid snaps shut. All in a matter of seconds. As usual, the neighbors love watching this. Push the button again to reverse the process … Oh, and be sure you have cleared bulky baggage out of the trunk before you do the top-down trick.

Gripes: A starting price of $34,705 is about five-grand too high, too much road noise penetrates the cabin and, per usual for Chrysler, the radio controls are needlessly cumbersome.

Customizers? Yeah, I want to do something with that power hardtop too. Maybe add some musical accompaniment to the show.