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.