Friday, January 28, 2011

MKZ Hybrid a logical choice for green luxury

Sacramento, California – For 2011, Lincoln has added a hybrid to its MKZ lineup, touting it as “the most fuel-efficient luxury sedan in America.”

Well, OK. That’s a pretty thin slice. It’s sort of like those TV commercials that trumpet a newly released movie as the No. 1 comedy in America, but then you realize that it’s the only comedy released in America during the past month.

But there’s also this: 41 miles per gallon in the city and 36 mpg on the highway.

Wow! That’s the real deal, just the thing to soothe the soul of this Californian watching gasoline prices climbing to the $3.50-a-gallon level.

The guts of the 2011 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid are a 2.5-liter in-line 4 engine and a battery-driven electric motor helping the gas-fueled power plant. It’s a lot of help, given those sizable fuel mileage numbers. The combined labors of the gas engine and electric motor produce an estimated 191 horsepower.

That’s plenty of pop for most driving chores, although my tester’s continuously variable transmission kicked in with a bit of a jolt on really steep climbs.

By the way, the max rating in all-electric mode is 47 miles per hour. That is most impressive.

I thought the MKZ Hybrid would feel heavy, but that was hardly the case. It felt light and handled with admirable agility. The interior cabin was quiet, giving five cozy riders ample opportunity to discuss the events of our times.

The standard comfort/convenience features fell a little short of what I’d expect in a luxury Lincoln. Adding an option package that included a power moonroof, adaptive headlamps, rain-sensing wipers, a navigation system and a rearview camera added $5,695 to the starting price of $34,330.

The tester also had sensors to alert the driver of cars lingering in the blind spots on either side of the MKZ. This is one of my favorite automotive features, but I found the light-up warnings on either side of the tester to be a fraction less-precise than systems I’ve experienced in other cars. The MKZ sensors tended to keep showing a warning even when I was well clear of a trailing vehicle. Not a big deal, but it’s something you’ll need to get used to if you choose this model.

The dashboard readout gives you all sorts of information on your eco-progress. Images of green leaves and flowers bloom behind the steering wheel when you’re coasting and keeping a light foot on the gas pedal. Sure, this is a food pellet-like reward – the kind you might devise if you were training a gerbil to ride a miniature motorcycle – but it’s darn effective. I found myself constantly seeking more blooming flowers for my green driving endeavors.

Oh, one other thing: This MKZ looks good, sporty even. The toothy grille that Lincoln has gone with really does add a gleaming touch of luxury.

Please note that you can get 2011 MKZs with a gas-fueled 3.5-liter V-6 with 263 horsepower. But you’re not getting a big break on the price: The entry level FWD version starts at $34,300, and the top-end AWD starts at $36,220.

In other words, the FWD is only 30 bucks cheaper than the MKZ Hybrid, and the AWD is priced $1,890 more than the hybrid model. The fuel mileage ratings for the FWD are 18/27 mpg, and the AWD checks in at 17/24 mpg. You do the math.

Simply put, you pay a fair price for the MKZ Hybrid (no whopper of a hybrid premium) and you get a substantial savings on fuel costs compared with the six-cylinder MKZ offerings. If that fuel-cost savings outweighs your desire for V-6 power, it’s pretty much a no-brainer when you head to the Lincoln lot.

Friday, January 21, 2011

IS 350 has what some desire -- everything

Sacramento, California – While many of us are struggling to pay the mortgage and telling little Jimmy that there’s no way we can afford to buy him that $100 Ferrari Lego set for his birthday, a few happy souls are looking to have it all.

And for those lucky few, you’ll be happy to know that you can make the automotive part of that happen with the 2011 Lexus IS 350 AWD sedan. High levels of performance, luxury and engineering come standard.

And, oh yes, the price for this top-of-the-line IS 350 is a relatively affordable $41,030. Relatively is the key word here as the recent Great Recession put the $40,000 car into the Dreamland category for many motorists.

But those of you with sufficient coin will like this one.

Even as a five-passenger sedan, the IS 350 looks sporty, with a sloped snout and an abruptly chopped back end. It looks like it will scoot at your command.

And it does.

The 3.5-liter V-6 is sport-tuned and delivers 306 horses with a rib-rattling punch. A high-tech six-speed automatic transmission is backed up by an electronic throttle control system to squeeze out just the right amount of oomph when needed.

Powerful yes, brute no. I found the tester – dressed up with more than $5,000 in extras – to be sweetly agile at high speed. The all-wheel drive system is a charmer.

The suspension was stiff enough, yet it had enough give to give me and my passengers only a mild buffeting in slalom maneuvers. Quiet interior as well. Impressive.

Also nice: Fuel mileage is 18 miles per gallon in the city and 25 mpg on the highway. Those are pretty good numbers for a muscular V-6.

This being a Lexus, the list of luxury, convenience and safety features is as lengthy as a federal tax bill. Suffice it to say that virtually every guilty pleasure is attended to, even puddle lamps for people who want to know where to place their feet when getting into or out of the car at night.

Gripes are minor. The backseat is designed for three people, but I’d amend that to say three moderate-size pre-teens. And vision from the cockpit is not great, requiring strategic fiddling with the mirrors and quick head turns in traffic.

Overall, this Lexus is a nice package for those looking to move up from less-affordable midsize sedan fare but stopping short of a Lexus LS sedan that would put a serious dent in your wallet.

The IS 350 is worth the price. I wonder if they have a Lego version of it for me.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Accord's charms outweigh all other arguments

Sacramento, California – The following is a true story …

I’ve had several friends who spent years telling me the virtues of buying an American car. These aren’t everyday wave-the-flag types, but truly knowledgeable car people who just happen to believe that buying a U.S.-made car is not only patriotic, but something to boost the American economy and workers.

Besides, they reasoned, American quality is underrated, and the quality of foreign cars has been overrated for years.

Then later, I learned that these same “buy-American” folks had purchased a Honda Accord for themselves, their spouses or children.

That can’t be a coincidence. Let me assure you that it isn’t.

Because when real car people start doing their research – especially if they’re helping a loved one buy a practical-size vehicle – they stress safety, reliability, cost and fuel mileage. That usually brings the Accord to the top of the list, and the story is no different for the 2011 model year.

The 2011 Accord SE sedan I recently tested combined smoothness, performance and comfort in an attractive package. And by the way, it was built in Marysville, Ohio.

The tester’s 2.4-liter in-line 4 performed with spirit and didn’t make a lot of noise doing it – not always true of a four-banger. If you want to move up among the 11 trim levels of the latest Accord, you can get the 190 horsepower version of the 2.4-liter, four-cylinder power plant.

The EX Accords can be had with 3.5-liter V-6 with 271 horsepower, but that slops over into the ridiculous territory for an Accord. Might as well go for a sporty Lexus, Acura or Infiniti if you need that much juice in your otherwise practical sedan.

Standard safety, comfort/convenience features on the Accord are plentiful, and you don’t need to cozy up with the owner’s manual for weeks to learn how to use them. Vision from the cockpit is very good. My tester was loaded and had a starter price of just under $24,500, but you can get an entry-level Accord for around $21,000 and change.

Gas mileage on the SE sedan comes in at 23 miles per gallon in the city and 34 mpg on the open road. Those are good numbers, but my Accord was coming in at an average of 2 mpg better than the numbers on the sticker.

Throw in a max five-star government safety rating on rollover protection, and you’ve got a pretty good deal.

The one knock on the Accord from fellow auto reviewers seems to be that it isn’t sexy enough, or hasn’t changed much. Funny, 2011 Accords have new grilles, bumpers, taillights, wheels, trunklids and interior touches. Seems like a pretty liberal “freshening” to me.

As for sexy, there’s plenty of that to be found at other lots.

You want dependable, safe and affordable transportation, the Honda Accord continues to ride at the top of the look list.

Friday, January 7, 2011

2011 Chevy Malibu reviewed in Cruisin' News

Sacramento, California – My review of the 2011Chevrolet Malibu LTZ 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, 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.

Ford Raptor pickup a decidedly mean machine

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

Sacramento, California – We’ve closed the books on 2010, but while the memory remains fresh, I must tell you about my time in the 2010 Ford F-150 4X4 SVT Raptor.

This is a pickup truck like no other. Calling it a pickup is like calling a Ferrari Enzo a commuter car.

A pickup on steroids? Nope, that doesn’t even come close to describing this Raptor. It’s a hulking, roaring, off-road ripping piece of serious meanness. I actually would do a background check on anyone purchasing this vehicle, because yeah, this Raptor has all the earmarks of a road-bound weapon.

How to describe it? Well, for starters, it’s huge. The grille is the approximate size of North Dakota, and the “Ford” type spanning the grille looks to be as big as the Ford logo adorning the automaker’s headquarters in Dearborn, Mich.

Funky sculpting on the hood and a paint scheme on the back that appears to have been slapped on by the hands of Paul Bunyan only add to the look of menace. My truck was “Molten Orange” with black highlights at the tail.

And oh, how it lives up to the look!

My tester had the primo 6.2 V-8 with the roar of Thor and 400-plus horses that come out like a buffalo stampede. On the freeway, I saw neighboring drivers literally sit bolt-upright when I put foot to gas pedal. Nobody cuts you off in this monster.

The Raptor made child’s play of freeway traffic, yet the steering and turning radius were light and compact enough for easy roving on the downtown streets. Ford brags that the Raptor is engineered to do 100 miles per hour in most off-road conditions. I will confess here and now that I did NOT test that claim, as I did not want to end up in jail or get launched into a neighboring county before I found the brake. But just from what I experienced, I’d say Ford’s brag was all fact.

I showed this Raptor to folks whom I consider to be serious truck people, and they were just flat dumbstruck. That you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me look in their eyes was enough to tell me that they had just glimpsed pickup heaven … or a truck that would charge full-blast into hell.

Yet for all its Muscle Beach manner, the tester was most civilized inside. Engine noise was annoying only when the truck was asked to give its all. Seats were wide and comfortable. Controls were easy to use. The ride was actually pretty sweet, no small thing given the fact that the body was riding about a foot above the tires and the easily seen, monster-load shocks. The only vibration at moderate speed came from the heavily grooved off-road tires.

If you’re pondering a Raptor to dress up your driveway or for that off-road safari you’ve been planning, be advised that there are no fuel economy ratings for this behemoth of a truck. Yes, the size/weight ratings exceed the government’s requirement for those listings, but rest assured that this particular Ford truck is sucking gas pretty hard when it’s doing hard duty.

The starting price on the tester was $38,020, but a long list of extras (including heated front seats, adjustable pedals and electronic automatic temperature control) pushed the bottom line to an eyebrow-raising $48,175.

I’m not sure what a customizer would want to do with this Raptor, because every mad auto scientist thing already has been done to it coming off the assembly line. Sure, you could lower the body down close to the tires and put a blinding row of halogen lights on top of the cabin, but then it’s just another monster truck ready for car-crushing shows at a local arena.

As for me, I’ll confess to being pretty well intimidated by this Raptor. Better move on into 2011 before I get hurt.