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Will the new Chevy Spark interest?

              

 

You come to expect what you’ll get from a car just by looking at it. When we’re talking small, budget friendly, compact cars we expect small tires, small engines with low output and a rather bare bones interior. The sacrifices mentioned are acceptable to many as a trade off for higher MPG and a lower sticker price. Thing is, not all budget friendly cars meet our expectations. So what are the highs and lows of the Spark?

 

Let’s start with appearance. Chevy has incorporated a range of atypical colors for this compact car. I see this as a smart move. After all, paint is an inexpensive way to add flair to a scaled down vehicle. The vehicle we were loaned was that flamboyant green you see in all the commercials (it’s called Jalapeno). The stubby appearance of the Spark mixed with a loud bright color really does demand attention. So as I cruise around town, heads turn and people smile.  Now are they laughing with me or …. Never mind that. Climb into the Spark and you’ll find that the cockpit is adequate and pretty much on par with what you would expect from a budget friendly car. I was actually surprised that I fit into it so well considering my 48” shoulder span. Head room was also acceptable. That said, I wasn’t actually comfortable. I blame this on the seat and pedal positioning.  The seat feels too tall and the pedals feel too close. So it starts to feel more like you’re driving a John Deere then a Chevy. Obviously a consequence of the short wheelbase.  Even though I don’t find this position relaxing it didn’t cause me any pain or leg cramping. So perhaps it’s a matter a preference or body type.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Looking through the steering wheel at the dash, you’ll find a simple speedometer nestled dead center with a smaller digital multiscreen to the right displaying RPMs, fuel gauge, gear selection etc. It’s functional enough for those gauges I just mentioned, but when it came to reaching around the wheel to scroll through the other settings, I found its positioned annoying and the buttons too small and awkward. Unlike the controls on the steering wheel. These are well placed and convenient. But, you better memorize them because there is no back lit LED on these controls to help you identify what’s what at night. The entertainment unit is truly the highlight of this car. The new Chevy mylink touch screen radio is both stylish and innovative. The 7” color screen looks so nice it’s almost out of place on this budget car. Bluetooth for your phone calls and music works well and with the proper app installed, you can access your cell phones navigation through the 7” color radio screen. So the source of the navigation is your cell phone, no more expensive CD updates! Now why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As I rode around town and through the city the appeal of the little car started to come to light. As I slipped into tight spots and quickly spun the little car around in quick u turns , giving no regard to reverse, it suddenly became a bit more practical. This little crush however was short lived once I entered the highway. As I merged into traffic I gave the throttle the usual 50%…. But nothing’s happening. I go 80% still nothing. 100% I hear something happening up under the hood, but my butt-o-meter isn’t picking up any readings. The 1.2 liter produces a max 84 HP and does 0-60 by… ummm evening? However this doesn’t really put me off. As I mentioned, you understand the trade off of power for fuel efficiency. However, I was not impressed with the MPG either. I averaged about 29 MPG with mixed driving for the week. The engine size and feel led me to believe those numbers would be higher. They do climb to a more respectable 34 combined should you choose a manual gearbox.  Aside from fuel economy, the rest of the ride was surprisingly good. The handling was better then what I expected as was the suspension. The Spark does a good job specifically in the area of absorbing the type of bumps and pot holes you come across on old, well traveled city streets. Giving it another “check mark” as a city commuter car.

 

 

 

 

 

 

   The Spark certainly has an appeal. Along with the pocket friendly price, you also get Swanky colors a great radio, a comfortable cabin and a decent ride. However I would highly recommend that you take the Spark for a long test drive to see if both seating position and acceleration suits you. I would also recommend the manual transmission option. With better MPG and performance it’s a double win.

2012 Nissan Murano

 

When you think Nissan Murano, you think… ?

 

 From generation to generation, the lines of the Murano haven’t changed much. This is, in part, due to the success its had from its inception. But it’s interesting how, like with many vehicles, the sexes seem to disagree. The styling has done well over the years appealing to mostly woman while most men choose to go with a full size SUV.  But as I began to use this vehicle throughout the week, I would encourage men and those with young families to take another look at the Murano before passing it by. For starters, I feel this vehicle is purpose built. The conveniences of power split fold down seats, power hatch and the entertainment pkg (complete with DVD) complements its purpose and caters to the young family in many ways. The styling also fits this purpose. Take for example the vehicle height. At a glance, the angles of the Marano give it a deceivingly tall appearance. Fact is, it actually rides relatively low. This height illusion is created by sharp hood angles and a thin narrow grill. This allows the headlamps to sit up nice and tall, which in-turn makes the crossover appear taller than it is, giving the driver a little more clearance but not awkwardly tall making stability an issue. This also makes for a car that’s easy to climb in and out of or to comfortably strap in your little one without the annoying bending over and inside the car. The height in the cargo area is also ideal for loading and unloading –Again, purpose built. Once inside the Murano, I found the cockpit comfortable. The view however was a bit of a mix bag. The Murano sits you at a height that allows you to see further down the road, which is a plus. But with the disappearing hood and fenders of the Murano, I also found myself being extra careful when swinging this vehicle into a parking space.

The LE model I was given is loaded with options to make travel life easier on the driver. Smart key entry allowing you to keep your hands free. Back up camera, Headrest monitors with headphones, Voice activated NAV, XM radio and the list goes on. One thing I came to appreciate about the Murano  is that along with all that tech, there were a variety of ways to control them. Via voice, touch screen, physical buttons on the wheel, as well as physical buttons on the center console or a combination of the 4. What I didn’t like about this cabin was the layout. This is where Nissan seems to have lost their focus. There’s not a simple set of streamlined controls. For the most part, it’ll take some getting used to. For example, the Climate controls at the bottom of the center console sits too low. When making adjustments while driving you, I found myself staring down into a dark area looking at buttons that I couldn’t readily read the labels on. The fact that they match the radio knobs right above it doesn’t help either as I often make adjustments by feel. The touch screen was responsive and user friendly. I actually preferred using it over voice and the real buttons. But while using it, I would often bump one of the real buttons below the screen sending me into a menu I didn’t want. What’s worse, it often canceled out the city and street name I just typed in making for a frustrating experience. Moving those controls away from the screen would make life easier on the driver.

The Nissan Murano’s 3.5 VQ  engine delivers 265HP and it transmits well to the wheels. This is accomplished through a continuous variable transmission (CVT) that delivers exceptionally smooth acceleration and passing power. The push this vehicle delivers was a bit surprising considering the size. I was not impressed however with the road noise or feel. I’ve read other reviews and albeit quick this cross over doesn’t drive and feel like a car. Hard breaking and quick lane changing reveals what it is. Which is 4000 lbs of vehicle. I never feared tipping the truck, but at speed it didn’t feel planted either. I actually found the car tramlining quite a bit as I drove up I95.

When I add up all that the Murano has to offer it really is a good buy for a young on the go family. It has the elbow room, the cargo room and is able to get you from point A to B on an average of 21mpg. Not bad. However the main factors that stand against the Murano are price, size and reliability. There are full size SUVs that offer competitive fuel economy with the benefit of added space as well as some light towing and more off road maneuverability. And with a starting cost of 30,000 some may not want to forgo those extra features. As I also spoke with some of my friends that owned earlier models of the Murano, Their biggest concern was reliability. It seems that many of the earlier models developed problems arpund year 3 and from there forward it became a money pit fixing AC, broken hoses, window regulators etc. But when these previous owners got behind the wheel of the 2012, they found the newer Murano smoother, more responsive and more comfortable then the former. What started as I would not recommend quickly turned to this is nice. But the fact of the matter is, those horror stories are out there.  This generation of Murano was released in 2009 and Edmunds lists the so called “common problems” with the current model. Hopefully these will go away with the 2012.

Hyundai’s 2012 3.8 R Spec Genesis coupe

 

Early Tuesday morning I get a call on my cell phone. It’s from a man in the lobby of my building. They never come up to the 4th fl) I go to meet a tall thin man who, after a bit of small talk, passes me the keys and scurries off in a hybrid Elantra. I make my way out to the lot with mixed emotions, on the up side, for the next 7 days I’m taking hold of a 350HP, RWD sports car with a good ol’ fashion 6 speed gearbox. What’s troubling is that it’s made by Hyundai. Now don’t get me wrong, I know Hyundai does well in economy class and also with their new Genesis sedan. But I have yet seen a true performance car from them. What am I to suspect when it comes to chassis and suspension?  After all, if they don’t match up with all that power, it will make for a very disappointing week.

 

Exterior – The 2012 Genesis coupe is surprisingly mature. Long gone are the oddly shaped panels of the Tiburon.  When viewing its profile, the new Genesis somewhat resembles the G37 The smooth slopping lines flow nicely across the hood and roof. The lines across the side moldings, curving over the wheel wells are well proportioned and placed as well, giving the car a more mature sporty look. Sporty but not with sharp creases or jagged lines. Part of the Hyundai family but clearly standing on its own. And the new Genesis carries that theme through every angle Until you follow the lines down the hood and arrive at the front grill. And when you do you will notice the lines do become jagged and the wide mouth front end looks much like the Nisan GTR, it really obstructs the harmony of those beautiful lines.  That aside, it’s a spectacular looking car

 

Interior – Flowing nicely from the outside appeal, the new Genesis has a mature looking interior but its not quite on par with the outer appearance. The seats are nice and firm but comfortable, they do a good job of holding you in place in when you get into some more aggressive driving. Its what you would expect from a part time track car. The instrument cluster is simplistic. With a prominent tach and speedometer, with digital temperature and fuel gauges on smaller dial inside the speedometer and tachometer. This is a mistake to me, Id much rather have a real needle for these indications. Especially the temperature. I also found myself wanting a bit more color and style in this cabin. My seats were a nice contrasting red and there were small red door cards to help break up all the black. But that was it! When seated behind the wheel the appearance isn’t as striking as it is from outside the car and you begin to notice a mismatch of quality vs corner cutting. Eg, the steering wheel wrap feels nice and firm but the gear shifter (although it looks pretty) feels plasticy. And the placement for the radio and climate controls feels and looks all wrong. While the window switches and door locks are well thought out and perfectly positioned high up on the door and out of the way.

Tech This being the R-Spec, sacrifices in creature comforts were to be expected. Eg. No heated seats, no climate control, no home link. This makes sense, Shave weight and produce a slightly faster and better handling car. However, the connection between performance and some of the items absent from the car don’t compute. e.g. The standard 170watt, 6 speaker monochrome display head unit. There is no option to upgrade this head unit to the 360 watt infinity head unit. And the opening for the radio is custom. So to finagle an aftermarket head unit into that space will require a decent amount of modding. Now, this is what I don’t get- I’m guessing the premium head unit with better controls and a 7” color touch screen adds about 5lbs. That’s not going to make or break anyone’s lap time. Why not make this an option? I don’t feel a car company should limit a buyers entertainment options as music and Nav are very important to buyers. Below the radio controls are another unique item. 3 analog dials monitoring Fuel, Torque and Oil (Which I feel should be exclusive to the R-spec).  As a track car, oil pressure can be useful and watching the amount of torque created can be fun. But the placement is not ideal. You would have to look too far away from the road to get the readings. I would also like to see a chronograph in the R-spec with stop and start switches on the wheel. I would use that far more frequently than any of the existing gauges.

Bluetooth is standard as well as an IPod and usb jack. The Bluetooth worked rather well with my iphone, but the cable for the ipod appeared to be an afterthought. The cord is about 3”s long and plugs in behind a little door in front of the shifter. The cord is too short to move your ipod to the glove box or another safe location and the slot behind the door is too shallow to hold a standard Ipod or iphone. So while driving you risk launching your device. The bottom line on the R-Spec is this.  You’re given what you need and nothing more. It offers very little in terms of premium tech gear.

 

Performance

When a car carries the badge “R Spec”, you expect the characteristics of a track orientated car (even though there’s  a “track version” which is suited for comfort not track) So I was more then willing to put the coupe through its paces. At the turn of the key, I cracked a grin. I’m guessing you will to. As the cars 306Hp 3.8 V6 produces a nice low rumble, pretty close to what you would get in a V8. Not at all what I was expecting from Hyundai. But sound is only one aspect, and a small part of the experience in comparison. How does the R-Spec drive, corner and brake? Now eager to drive and find out, I exit the lot and begin my first drive. I quickly noticed that the throttle was very sensitive.  A smooth/modest roll- off in 1st is actually a bit tricky to get use to. The power of this big V6 is there when needed and comes trough very linear, making it a comfortable car to drive fast. Turn onto a twisted road however and it’s a mixed bag. I didn’t feel as comfortable cornering at speed in this car. I know the road well and I know how fast I have entered this particular corner in other cars, but in this car, I find myself backing off the throttle. The back just didn’t feel planted. When I forced myself to enter hot, the car took it with no fuss, skidding or skating. So it’s not that it can’t, it just feels like it can’t. And feel is a large part of what makes a track car. I found that the brakes were a good fit for the R-Spec. Pedal feel and stopping distance were a good match for the V6 engine. And the car is easily controlled as well thanks to the Traction and stability control, which can easily be switched off.  And off is the position I preferred. While off, the car is actually well behaved, even when driven at a spirited pace.  However the lack of TC and SS gives the car personality. Stomp the gas coming out of a corner and the back end breaks free then catches traction as expected, making the car so much more enjoyable.

However, when run hard and straight, this car really shines. Much like an American muscle car, the sound and power of the Genisis coupe encourages you to lay flat that throttle and rip down every open straight away you come across. I found myself doing downshift passes all the way home, overtaking everything that didn’t have a siren attached.  This car can run from 60-110 with such ease. And if you keep your foot planted, you’ll soon be in the 140 range. And it’s a pleasure to experience as the delivery is smoother then expected. The pedals are orientated well for heel-toe and the shifts are crisp on your way up to 6, while backing down a gear is even more enjoyable, as the engine note changes to a sudden  high rev pitch, ready to launch you back into action. Yes, this car is simply fantastic on the highway.

 

Summary The Genesis Coupe R spec is a blast to drive. Boasting an awesome sound track, great looks and has the “oomph” that will allow you to run with some of the big boys. All of this is placed in a price range that’s under $30,000. But if it’s my money, I wouldn’t buy, nor would I recommend the R-Spec version. The limited options offer no real benefits for your sacrifices.  But as I drove the R spec and enjoyed it more and more, I came to find my real complaint wasn’t with the car as a whole. It was with the trim levels. They’re confusing. Hyundai should think about re-working this coupe line up to better represent this fine automobile. I would suggest the 3 options below which would be priced from lowest to highest.

Base-  keep this one as is.

Track- No moon roof, no back seats, LSD, special sport tuned suspension with bigger sway bars, upgraded brakes, alcantara interior option, special exhaust, sport wing and chronograph clock.

GT – equip this version with a LSD, larger wheels and tires, better seats, NAV, leather, moon roof, upgraded head lamps and a body kit.

Not only do I feel customers would appreciate the clarity, but Hyundai will now be catering to the different pools of drivers that this car attracts.

The NEW HONDA CIVIC

HONDA CIVIC: DESIGN & QUALITY

Honda has launched the new Civic at the IAA Frankfurt Motor Show. Developed specifically for the European market, the Civic will be offered exclusively as a five-door hatchback and will compete in the C-segment, the heart of European Car market. It will reach European showrooms in early 2012.

In the build-up to the reveal of the new Civic, Honda has released a series of short form films detailing its development. The fourth of these films focuses on the design and quality.

NEW HONDA CIVIC: Distinctive sporty design with class leading utility

The designers of the new Civic wanted to keep the sporty and advanced elements of the car’s character but tailor them to express the new model’s even more elegant yet dynamic feel. “We have lowered the height by 20mm and increased the width by 10mm compared with the current car,” comments Mitsuru Kariya, Civic Development Leader.

 

“Defining the correct proportions was the most important challenge for the design of the new Civic,” says Kariya. We enhanced the sporty aspect of the design while creating a clean, dynamic shape.” Sources of inspiration included a ‘blended wing body’ aeroplane * in which the fuselage and wings blend into a single body for superior aerodynamic performance, quietness and habitability.

 

The new interior is focussed around the driver and creates a sporty ambience. “We wanted to create the feeling of a cockpit, like a racing car or an aeroplane,” explains Yukio Emi, the Design Chief of the Civic Interior.

The quality of the interior for the new Civic has been improved without compromising the class leading utility space. “The key target was to increase the feeling of quality,” says Kariya. “We have changed our approach to match customer expectations and European standards. The new Civic has a high quality cabin, both in the way that it feels and the way that it looks.Offering class leading boot space and with the versatile seat combinations means that it is the most practical yet.“

 

2012 Prius V

As I approached this all new Prius the first thing I notice is the size. Not that it’s “minivan big” or anything like that, but it’s noticeably larger than the compact line up Prius is known for. So right out the gate, I’m labeling this weeks test vehicle somewhat of a grocery getter / growing family vehicle. Which by and large is well situated in today’s economy.

 

Exterior – As was mentioned at the outset, the new Prius V is big. It looks like more of a crossover vehicle then a compact car. The funny thing is it appears this way to your eyes but when parked side by side with a standard Prius, it’s really not that much larger. I do find that the angles, especially in the front of the car, are much more attractive, considering the overall boxy shape they had to contend with to get the size they were looking for. This is largely due to the updated fascia which is more angular and aggressive then past generations.  The inset fog lamps and LED DRLs in the front grill, look rather nice as well. The design department seems to have borrowed a few queues from the Lexus CT.  Which I think is a step in the right direction.

 

Interior The cabin is obviously very roomy. The seats are plain but comfortable. The console is as well. The entire interior fit and finish has a utilitarian feel to it. The materials are simply hard plastics and so while it doesn’t give that soft comfortable feel, it will provide a space that is easy to keep clean and that can take a little abuse. This is great for a family with young ones or those with pets. The blue collar worker will also find the interior functional with ample room in the hatch, even before utilizing the split fold down seats. As with the previous Prius, I dislike the centered gauges and not just the positioning, which I do hate, but I found the elongated readout to be too cluttered. It’s like this, when you hear a warning ding, you expect to glance downward behind the steering wheel and take note of a red or orange light which would indicate whatever the issue maybe. However in this car, when a warning ding is heard, and you glance over to the right to see the cluster, your eyes are met with a bevy of lights and gauges. And they all seem to compete for your attention. So instead of quickly identify the problem, you find your eyes roving to and fro looking for the warning (a dangerous thing to do while traveling at speed). I suppose one would get use to where everything is over time. Yet I had this car for a little over a week and I never really became comfortable with it.

Rear seat leg room is comfortable and satisfactory for 2 adults and the head room is even more impressive, adding 3” over the standard Prius. But the biggest advantage to the V is cargo space.  The storage area behind the rear hatch leaves ample room even before you fold down the seats. With the seats down, there’s little the average impulse shopper could grab that won’t fit back there eg. 4 burner gas Grill, 60” TV, Off-road bike. They’d all fit.

Tech The Prius v is one of the first Toyotas to offer the Entune™ multimedia system. This innovative new system interacts with your mobile smartphone providing access to navigation, entertainment and information services. It accomplishes this via mobile apps, such as Bing, OpenTable, and movietickets.com, along with accessing useful travel-related services, such as live weather, traffic, fuel information (location and price), stocks, and sports. If you’re a serious about your music, Entune brings over 750 stations along with Pandora’s personalized music service. But all and all I find it to be too much. Navigating through it is fairly simple.

 

Performance I sure hope no one is expecting a high revving, corner hugging thrill ride. This new larger Prius is pulled along by a 1.8 liter Aluminum DOHC 16 valve engine with VVTI (variable valve timing) which produces 98 HP. That engine is paired up with an Electric motor, which adds another 80 hp and 153 lb-ft torque. The Prius V offers 4 driving modes to manipulate the engine performance. Standard, Eco, EV and Power.  EV mode is battery only and can only be maintained for a short distance. But it’s nice when you’re quietly pulling into your garage or toward an area with lots of people as the car can enter the space emissions free. In Eco mode, you find that the car is mapped for maximum fuel efficiency. All power is dialed back a notch or two from the standard driving mode. This is very noticeable as you accelerate from a red light or stop sign. Even the AC runs more efficiently in this mode.  Power mode brings both the Electric and gas motor life. This is obviously the least efficient mode to travel in but very necessary for those times when you’re jumping into an established line of traffic and real acceleration is crucial.

A new feature to the Prius is the Pitch and Bounce Control. This uses the torque of the hybrid motor to enhance ride comfort and control. The system, working with wheel-speed sensors and in tune with the suspension, helps suppress bounce and toss motions to improve comfort for occupants. Because it helps control the balance and posture of the vehicle as a whole, it also functions to improve handling response.

Suspension enhancements to improve ride comfort and control have been given much attention in the Prius V as well. Being a larger, more family oriented vehicle, calls for a suspension equipped to handle heavier loads. Therefore the front coil-over spring and damper capacities have been significantly increased and a new upper support has been designed. The stabilizer bar is also repositioned for more responsive steering feel and enhanced ride comfort.

Summary Toyota builds the Prius around the idea of simplicity and function over form. This philosophy has worked well for Toyota. The added size and rugged construction makes for a welcome addition to the, on the go and forever growing, Prius crowd. The new technology, both within the suspension and in car technology are nice upgrades to the old line of Prius’. But as I drove the car around and talked with people about it, I began to notice a trend. Younger single woman, moms and older woman alike, all like this car. They appreciate the size, the style and friendly carbon foot print left behind.  While the guys feel it’s too bland and too bulky. The guys all see the purpose it serves, but wouldn’t consider buying it for themselves. Now, this will in no way hurt Prius sales. But it goes to show how important that Lexus CT that we reviewed earlier is. They would do well to consider those that want this kind of mileage without sacrificing so much style and power. There is a large pool of automotive enthusiast with active families looking for a vehicle to fill such a niche. Perhaps a Hybrid corolla?

Mazda Extends Production of Special Edition RX-8 SPIRIT R

Special Edition RX-8 SPIRIT R

– An extra 1,000 RX-8s are on their way due to popular demand –

HIROSHIMA, Japan—Mazda Motor Corporation has decided to extend production of the Mazda RX-8 SPIRIT R by 1,000 units. Mazda initially intended to make 1,000 units of the special edition four-door, four-seat rotary engine sports car, but will extend production due to a large number of orders. Sales of the RX-8 SPIRIT R, the final special edition model, were launched in November of 2011.

 

Mazda has received orders for the special edition RX-8 SPIRIT R from a variety of customers of all ages including sports car fans and rotary engine enthusiasts. The 6-speed manual transmission version is proving most popular, constituting 66% of orders. It features aero parts and Bilstein dampers as well as RECARO bucket seats and 19-inch bronze-painted forged aluminum wheels. Orders are almost equally divided between the three available body colors, Aluminum Metallic, Sparkling Black Mica, and Crystal White Pearl Mica.

 

Mazda commenced sales of the RX-8 in April 2003, and as of the end of March 2012, has produced 192,094 units (figure includes those intended for overseas sale). Mazda plans to end production of the RX-8 in June 2012.

Main features of the limited Mazda RX-8 SPIRIT R series (disclosed on October 7, 2011)

Special equipment for RX-8 SPIRIT R
For both manual and automatic transmission models
  • Exclusive ornament
  • Front headlights, front fog lights and rear combination lights (with black bezels)
  • Front and rear brake calipers (red)
  • Larger brake rotors
  • Transmission tunnel trim (piano-black)
  • Curtain and front side SRS airbag system
  • Driving Stability Control and Traction Control System
  • Leather-wrapped steering wheel (black with red stitching)
  • Leather-wrapped parking brake lever (with red stitching)
  • Center console box with front seat armrest (synthetic leather with red stitching)
  • Rear console box with a lid (with synthetic leather)
Exclusive to the 6-speed manual transmission model
  • Bucket seats from RECARO (red and black leather* and fabric)
  • Hard suspension (with Bilstein dampers)
  • 225/40R19 89W tires and 19-inch forged aluminum wheels (bronze)
  • Aero parts
  • Aluminum pedal set
  • Leather-wrapped shift knob (black with red stitching)
Exclusive to the 6-speed electronically-controlled automatic transmission model
  • Black leather seats (with red stitching)* and 8-way power seat with memory function
  • Sports suspension
  • 225/45R18 91W tires and 18-inch alloy wheels (gun metallic)
  • Heated front seats
  • Leather-wrapped shift knob (black)
Lexus CT200h

Lexus CT Hybrid

 

I like the idea of a hybrid for 2 reasons, as both daily commuter and for long trips to visits friends and relatives. The conservative gas consumption is appealing on both fronts. For the first 2 days the Lexus CT 200 was used simply to transport me to and from the office, which would include quite a bit of errand running in-between. This would tally up to about 36 miles a day. I was pleasantly surprised as I watched the gas needle throughout my travels.

The real test however would come on Friday as we loaded up the CT for a 900 mile round trip southward, from MD to NC.  This is where we got a true feeling of what this car was like to own. The trip took us through heavy stop and go traffic, Back country roads and open highway with speeds upwards of 80mph.  So with that back drop, let’s get into the review.

Exterior – Breaking away from the bland and odd styling of the Prius was a good move for this Lexus. Actually, quite a few people we introduced this car to didn’t know it was a hybrid. And that’s a good thing. That said, the styling of the CT is a departure from the other cars in the Toyota/ Lexus line up. It’s a  bit edgier but its not quite bold enough. So it doesn’t particularly appeal to me.  Its foot print is just a little over 170” long. Making it about 9” shorter then the Corolla. The Creases down the sides of the car give it a slightly more mature look, which I like. The roofline is pretty low standing at 56.7” and it tapers to the hatch which was designed to minimize drag. This is where I feel the design fails. The lines stop too abruptly at the rear giving it that minivan look. This design works on crossovers like the venza as it’s a large car. But it simply fails on such a small frame cars as the CT. I do like the front end of this car as the face of the CT doesn’t scream “economy” as most hybrids do. Rather it has an aggressive stare and low dropping air dam giving it a sporty look. Changing the 17” wheels to 18s would be a step in the right direction. Even though you would lose a step or two in efficiency you would gain points in style as the car would look more balanced.

Interior – The interior of the CT is both Clean and simple. Which is fitting for a sport hybrid. I particularly like the thick wrapped steering wheel and the seats. The car is very welcoming to the driver. The seats are countered as more of a sport seat so they held us snugly in place as I swept through corners. Typically seats that hold this well come with a price, which is a sacrifice of comfort. Not so with the CT. They provided a form fitting seat that proved soft and comfortable, even on long rides. Kudos to Lexus. On another note, we found a few pieces not fitting as snug as they should. For instance, the door trim was pooping loose on our loaner car as did the plastic trim at the bottom of the hatch. Minor problems that may have stemmed from abuse from the previous reviewer.

The cock pit layout is straight forward as well. All of your common controls are in reach and easily identifiable. All accept the gear lever, you can identify it but the feel and placement of it is all wrong. Like the prius, your gear shifter puts your car in drive or reverse with tap in the respected direction. The shifter then returns to center position and your input is shown in the tachometer area. I would much rather have real shifter with a leather shift boot. The current lever feels plastic and out of place.

The steering wheel controls can change media function modes as well as control the volume and presets. It also allows you to answer your phone and activate the cars voice recognition, which also controls many of the cars features. Lexus has incorporated a joystick like control called “Remote touch” which selects and toggle features that appear on the pop up multi function display. This screen shows everything from AC to the navigation controls. Unlike BMWs I-drive the lexus control works and feels more like a PCs mouse. Complete with a sort of right and left click feel. The one button is “enter” and the other is “display” which can back you out of your current screen. I get the premise of keeping your head up and eyes forward instead of downward but I found my eyes constantly focusing on that screen to guide the pointer where I needed it.  So even though the positioning of the joy stick is ideal and comfortable, I’m just not a fan of it as it doesn’t save time. I found myself using the standard controls to operate temperature and radio as it was faster.

The back seats were not as tight as I thought they would be. We loaded up the CT with 4 adults and took a trip to the local store. Our back seat passengers reported that shoulder, head and leg room was OK. So despite the compact car looks, it has more of a mid size interior.  Your Storage space however is going to suffer. This car was not built to haul a lot of luggage or anything else. So if you have the urge to buy a  TV or a Desk chair getting it into the hatch may be a struggle. We were able to pack 3 small travel bags and a notebook bag. We did still have some room up top as well. But fitting in larger luggage sets simply wouldn’t work

Performance – The CT achieves 43/42 MPG, to achieve this, the CT is equipped with a 1.8 liter 4 cylinder engine coupled with a magnet, electric drive motor. Yet, the combo only produces 134HP. Which is a bit disappointing when you consider that models like the Mazda 3 Delivers 155Hp and is still able to achieve 28/39 MPG without the use of a extra battery and magnetic motor. When cruising along in city traffic the car is fine. It’s when you take it on the open freeway or in back twisty roads that the car begins to feel sluggish and under powered. The slow climb to 60-70 may leave you craving a bit more power. On the other hand, the MPG on this car will put a smile on your face. We averaged 41MPG on a trip from MD to NC while maintaining speeds of 80MPH, quite impressive. You can dial the CT into 3 different driving modes, Eco – the most economical mode but also the slowest. Normal –An efficient blend of battery and engine. Sport – Which demands the most from the engine and is the least fuel efficient. The later is the only mode that gives this little car life from 0 – 50.

So the car looks sporty but doesn’t perform like a sports car. It does OK in the corners but I can’t call this a driver’s car. It falls into the category of a “point A –B appliance”. Which is not my cup of tea. If you don’t need the pep in your daily driver then this car should suite you well. Its interior room and comfort is more than we expected. It also carries plenty of creature comforts like heated seats, voice recognition (which works rather well) and the MPG on this hybrid well drastically shorten your visits to the gas station.  All and all, I enjoyed my time with the CT. Now if only they would couple that high output electric motor with a 2.2 liter engine and a sport exhaust. Ahhh now were talkin.

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2011 Toyota Sienna Review

thinking outside the "box" in exterior styling

A minivan can be practical in a variety of settings. Comfortably transporting your business colleagues to the airport or an important event, loading up the kids for a soccer game, family vacations with easy access to your infant or infants as it were even hauling sheets of drywall to finish your basement. Today’s minivans do all of the above and quite well. So what are the strong points of the Toyota Sienna and where does it fall short?

Exterior – This is one of the better looking minivans out there. True, it’s basically a box, as the rest are. But by incorporating the new identifiable front bumper onto it, it has become a more stylish box. Joking aside, it does make a big difference giving it a style that sets it apart from the rest. The Sienna is a huge vehicle, measuring just over 200” long and 69” tall. It’s hard to make something so big look sleek and pretty so I found the added rear spoiler simply gets lost in all the mass. The standard 17” tires look out of place on such a large vehicle, but the ride was comfortable and smooth. Larger tires will hurt with MPG but will work wonders for this vehicle visually.

Interior- To say that there is ample room in this van is an understatement. I.e. I wear a size 48 jacket and when I close the driver’s side door, I still have about 6” of room between my shoulder and the door. I typically only have about an inch or two so that extra room is nice. The passenger also has plenty of elbow and head room in this vehicle. Toyota uses a good quality leather on this van as well. I personally wouldn’t buy this van without it as it’s very convenient for quickly cleaning spills. My family and I found the seats comfortable as well. The 2nd row seats not only recline but also have a hideaway foot rest like a lazy boy chair. However, this only works if the front seats are moved very close to the dash and the 2nd row seat is slid far back. Otherwise, you have no room to stretch your legs anyway. This van also has great rear storage space. There’s luggage room for a family of 4 or 5 that shouldn’t impede the passenger area. All and all it’s a solid vehicle with a smart ergonomic layout and a tidy fit and finished package.

Electronics- The first gizmo to strike my eye was the multi function head unit at center dash. This blue tooth compatible device serves as your Navigation, AM/FM radio, Satellite radio, rear-view camera and multi disc CD player. It also has full ipod integration so you can plug in your ipod, tuck it away and control it from the head unit. Although happy with all of the features this unit entails, I found it cumbersome to navigate at times. The most annoying was the ipod integration. I found that my eyes were off the road for too long due to the delay in the touch screens response. Scrolling through playlist is even more annoying. The unit will list about six songs per screen, when you advance to the next six it automatically selects and starts playing song one of the next six. All of this causes more delays. And music is a part of our driving experience nowadays.

Performance – The 3.5 V6 engine powers this massive vehicle with ease. I found it rather easy, not only to keep up with smaller cars but to pass them. We drove the vehicle to PA for the weekend and found that we averaged around 19.5 MPG that’s pretty good for a fully loaded van of this size. I was most pleased with the suspension. Even thought it doesn’t ride like a car (it’s far too big for that), it doesn’t ride like a Truck either. The suspension made even the bumpy roads of PA feel rather smooth. And that’s what I want in a people hauler. There is just too much drinking and snacking going on to deal with a sport suspension of any type. Toyota’s 3.5 as well as the 2.7 i4 are both well tested engines that for the most part will go for a long time requiring minimal maintenance.

I would highly recommend the Toyota Sienna for those in the market for a minivan. It was designed with family in mind and that reflected in the comfort and convenience found from every seat in the van. It’s also well built, comfortable, roomy, and great on gas and, if I may, has a little “swag”. The Toyota Sienna is worth a serious look.