Friday, March 30, 2012

Prius pool is crowded, but quality remains

Sacramento, California – If you haven’t gone shopping for a new Toyota Prius in recent months, be advised that you need to take along a calculator and a scorecard.

In an effort to please seemingly everybody, Toyota is offering a blizzard of Prius variations, distinguished by capital letters, lower-case letters, numbers, Roman numerals and maybe even alien spacecraft symbols from what I can tell.

Trade magazines and fellow auto reviewers have struggled to deal with the situation, throwing out widely varying names of the same model and using the words hatch, midsize, compact, subcompact, crossover and wagon like they were M&Ms out of the same bag.

You can get a traditional Prius hatch (think Classic Coke), a Prius c model that’s tiny, a plug-in Prius that drinks in power via that very device and a Prius v that’s sort of a small SUV or crossover.

Confusing? Omigod, yes!

Here’s what I know: I recently had a 2012 Toyota Prius v Three for a week. It ran well. I liked it.

Whew, glad we got that settled. If you must know, the “v” in the model name stands for versatility. I’m not making this up; it’s right there on the Toyota website.

But what’s in a name? You want to know how it drives.

While I could go into exhaustive details about the special virtues of the v Three – easy opening and loading rear cargo door, plentiful cargo-carrying space in the back with seats folded, crossover styling that doesn’t intimidate the consumer looking for a small vehicle with utility – the appeal of this Prius is old-school.

It drives like a finely tuned, gas-fueled car, making you feel instantly comfortable with the flawless, impressive technology that surrounds you. It’s smooth and quiet on freeways and as agile as a world-class skier on busy city streets. The cooperative work of gas engine and electric motor is seamless.

And you really don’t have to think about anything but driving, no matter how much data the car’s information center is throwing at you. The bonus: You really feel good about your gas mileage. For my tester, it was an advertised 44 miles per gallon in the city and 40 mpg on the highway. Those aren’t the nation’s top numbers, but they’re very good.

Even this fairly loaded-up version of the Prius is reasonable, with a starting price of $27,165, which gets you many of the standard interior features you expect to see in a mainline Camry.

Is this a car you can live with in times of $4-a-gallon gas and long intervals between shopping visits to local car lots? It is precisely that … no matter what you call it.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Latest Camry, hybrid included, remains a winner

Sacramento, California – Time to pay attention, I thought. After all, this was a new hybrid version of a seventh-generation Toyota Camry, a model with a lifetime unit sales record akin to The Beatles.

Walking up to my ride, a 2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid XLE sedan, I strained to find exterior changes from the previous generation. The changes I spotted were small and subtle, at best.

And that’s not a bad thing.

Remember back in 1995, when Ford opted to introduce a restyled, seriously swoopy, second-generation version of its monster-selling Taurus, and people ran away from it like it was disco?

So, Toyota got one thing right straight away: Don’t mess with a good thing that’s been filling the automaker’s coffers for many years.

Inside Camry, changes have produced a roomier interior, but the layout remains simple and to-the-point. Everything is within reach, is easily understood and works well. More positives, to be sure.

Power for the tester came from a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine and an electric motor. At speeds below about 25 miles per hour, the electric system can move the Camry on its own. Working in tandem, the powertrain systems do an advertised 40 miles per gallon in the city and 38 mpg on the highway.

On the move, the Camry Hybrid was extraordinarily smooth and quiet, and responsive too. The electronic continuously variable transmission functioned flawlessly. Steering was pleasantly firm, enabling the Camry to turn and cut with easy agility.

And this latest-generation Camry is loaded up with the kind of standard perks that have long made it so popular among motorists seeking affordable, practical transportation.

The short list includes dual-zone climate control, an eight-way adjustable power driver’s seat, 10 air bags and folding/heated/power exterior mirrors. Even on a standard feature-loaded XLE hybrid, the starting price is an easy-to-take $27,400.

For the record, my tester was dressed up with an obscene number of extras that brought the bottom line to nearly $35,000. So for those of you who want a Camry with a Toyota Avalon level of luxury, it can indeed be had.

Surprise of the test: Trunk space that looked way bigger than the advertised 15.4 cubic feet. If you’re thinking of renting a 2012 Camry on the road, it’s worth remembering that it will easily tote the baggage of a family of four … not always a given in the midsize sedan segment.

All in all, the Toyota Camry -- even in hybrid form -- retains everything that has established its universal popularity, and added things that, in my view, will only enhance that popularity.

A very good car gets even better for 2012. No need to hold your applause.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Big-boy Quest has perks to soften price

Sacramento, California – I remember when the Nissan Quest was the smallish alternative in the minivan segment.

Boy, did that train leave the station!

The current Quest is huge. It wasn’t just me. Volunteer passengers said the same thing.

And the price of my tester, the top-level 2012 Quest 3.5 LE, rang in at $41,350 (insert low whistle here).

Wow, my senses were overwhelmed before I even hit the ignition. Looking back to the van’s rear window, it appeared to be two blocks down the street from my position in the cockpit.

Once I fired the mega-mini up, however, my opinions began to soften.

Thankfully, for your $41k-plus starting fare, you get a super-lengthy list of standard comfort/convenience features. Eight-way power in the driver’s seat, second-row/sliding captain’s chairs, leather surfaces, a top-flight DVD entertainment system and two headsets with wireless remote were just a few of the goodies. Safety/security features also filled up numerous pages in the owner’s manual.

Consider this current-generation Quest the mommy/daddy van of your dreams. You’re basically taking a miniature version of your house with you on the road, with all the entertainment necessary to keep the kids occupied in the back seats. Plan carefully with your seat folding, and you can stuff enough cargo in the back end to live off the land for a month.

On the roll, the Quest was luxury limo smooth, and the 3.5-liter, 260-horsepower V-6 handled most of the driving chores with ease, although there was some engine stress on steep uphill runs. The minivan handled twisty roads more like a sedan than what you’d expect from such a boxy-looking vehicle. Four-wheel vented disc brakes did excellent work.

Personally, I’d have preferred a few more angular touches on the bodywork, but again, the target audience here is the family/junior athletic team on the move, so stylish sculpting probably ranked low on the designers’ list of goals.

As big as the Quest looks at first glance, it still has that low step-in height, a welcome touch when youngsters and other short folks are piling into the back.

An annoyance: the Blind Spot Warning system, another standard perk on the LE, flashes a warning in the exterior mirror and sends out an audible alert if you hit the turn signal to turn into a blind spot where a car is hiding. Trouble is, the warning still goes off when you’re zooming well past the prospective blind-spot offender. I could do without that jolting false alarm.

Cool surprise: The Easy Fill Tire Alert system honks the horn when the desired tire-inflation pressure is reached.

So, there you have it: Here’s the perfect vehicle for a large, active family involved in a lot of activities and extended road trips, a family that will likely wring plentiful happy moments out of this minivan over eight years or more. That timeline tends to justify the pricey sticker.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Nissan Juke reviewed in latest Cruisin' News

Sacramento, California – My review of the 2012 Nissan Juke SV FWD CVT crossover sport-ute appears in the latest, March 2012, 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.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Titanium is the top-level Focus experience

This review originally appeared in the February 2012 edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin’ News published out of Folsom, California – mg

Sacramento, California -- The Ford Focus started out as the economical American “everycar” to compete with the overseas big boys stealing that good ol’ USA market share.

The Focus has been overhauled for 2012 into a sleeker and dare I say downright sporty piece of American hardware for the small-car segment. But if you want something more than the Focus basics, you go straight to the seventh and most costly trim level – the Focus Titanium Hatchback.

That was my ride, a five-door model that felt significantly sexier than hatchbacks of old. Think of it as a Super Focus.

Even as the top-floor version, the tested Titanium’s starting price was a reasonable $22,765. My tester was somewhat obscenely dressed up with extras, bringing the bottom line on the sticker to $27,470. Not that I was complaining, mind you.

The sleek, cut-through-the-wind wedge look of my ride was accentuated with a dazzling Kona Blue Metallic paint job. It soaked up sunshine and threw it at you with sparkle. Bodywork rested on 18-inch alloy wheels. Rear spoiler, check. Seriously, the car looked race-ready just sitting in the lot.

A charcoal black leather interior was comfortable, the better to view a surprisingly sophisticated dashboard. Ford did not go cheap on the interior controls. They’re high-tech, and you feel satisfaction once you master them.

Safety and security perks were plentiful, including a rear parking-aid sensor. I’m starting to become a believer in these, given the sometimes terrible mistakes drivers make in their own driveways.

Rain-sensitive windshield wipers tell you that Ford was not thinking entry-level bare bones here. As for the optional automated parking system (adding hundreds of dollars to the bottom line), I can do without it. I’m old-school. I actually like to drive the car. If you need help parking along the curb, go back to driving school and save yourself some money.

On the fly, the 2-liter, in-line 4 engine with 160 horsepower performed admirably in most situations. No, it won’t blow off a rabid sports car, but you feel pretty good about a peppy power plant that delivers an estimated 27 miles per gallon in the city and 37 mpg on the highway.

Plenty of folks ran forward to hit me up for information on the car once I exited it, a sure sign that it was turning some heads. And believe me, this Focus does.

Keeping in mind that the 2012 Focus is an extensively reworked model and has all that high-tech SYNC system circuitry stuffed into it, know this: The right rear door on my tester refused to open from the inside, and the audio/nav/SYNC verbal-command system on my ride simply shut down early in my week with the car.

Blown fuse? Glitch? High-tech incompetence on my part? Not a clue, but you’ve been told.

Otherwise, I’d say this was a sharp Focus.