Supercars are great, but we live in the real world. Here’s the real deal on everyday cars.


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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 Scion FR-S

I have just sold my Single Turbo, 325HP 93 Mazda RX-7. I have also owned two AE86 Corolla GT-S cars, and even preferred driving the GT-S’s. Call me crazy, but I did.

Tore one down to the bare uni-body, scrubbed and oiled it. Wire wheeled every bolt and nut and oiled them. Cleaned every part and reassembled the entire car. Without any left-over bits either. I’ve drifted them in competition. Completed two engine rebuilds between them. In fact the Corolla GT-S taught me how to drift and handle a Rear Wheel Drive car. With my car history, the FR-S had a HUGE wheelbase to fill with me. This review was personal.

You can’t possibly imagine and how excited I was when I got the email that I would be getting the 2012 Scion FR-S. I was very interested to see how this car handled, how it stacked up with what I knew and had experienced from the vehicle that originally held the torch that this car now had the task of carrying.

Scion FR-S The very first thing that impressed me about the FR-S was its height. Much like Scion Vice President Jack Hollis here, the new FR-S sits below my chest at a mere 48.19 inches tall! This was a good indication of things to come. In fact there are many clues and cues that let you know what you’re about to get yourself into.

It quickly became obvious that a low center of gravity was a necessity for the engineering team. This is also made clear under the hood. To make a long story short, there is basically next to nothing there. While there are engine covers and a few fluid reservoirs it’s easy to see the size of the boxer or flat-4 cylinder engine which is quite small. Smaller still – the transmission. It’s very easily visible as it disappears back and underneath the car. Once inside more there are more indicators of its potential.

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The seats are far more firm than you would expect a reclining unit to be but they excel at doing the job of holding you snuggly in place. Once in place it’s a must to adjust the seating for a good pedal travel and comfortably working the steering wheel. Which took some getting used to. With your feet straight out in front of you the pedals are orientated just to the right of center. A trait found on some very impressive Its then that you notice the seats seem to be made of almost nothing. Now I’ve driven some pretty cheap cars in my time, most my own personal vehicles. But even newer quality econo-boxes like the Mazda2 have a more substantial feel to their seat.

Adjusting mirrors and playing with buttons makes it clear that all of the interior plastics were quite Spartan in substance. In ANY other car, this would be the point at which I would start to dread the idea of spending time with a test vehicle. In the FR-S however my attention to these light-weight details only served to raise my expectations and work the butterflies in my stomach into frenzy. Seeing so many different things done to save weight did a lot to work up my apatite to turn the key.

The Starter is very loud. No clue why either. Several times though I actually wondered if something was wrong with it.

Just pulling away from its parking space revealed yet another clue to the treat I was in store for. Given all that was done to save weight in this car it had been given the convenience of Power steering which managed to transmit a great amount of resistance and feedback thru to the steering wheel. It would be a while, though, before I had the courage to disengage the VSC and Traction Control.

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The throw on this transmission also seems a lot longer than it needs to be, but the shift leaver sits very low. This requires a small amount of wrist action to navigate the gears. And no matter what impression you get from this picture there is absolutely NO leg room in the back buckets while the front passengers are comfortably seated. There are reportedly only one or two booster seats that fit back there and just one infant car carrier manages to do the trick. Truth-be-told though you’re not buying the FR-S to transport the children back and forth to daycare; basically making those points quite moot.

In fact the only complaint that everyone I talked to could put to me was that “it needs more cowbell”!(READ: Power) Well I can smugly report that there are now drivers of one Lotus Evora, two Lotus Elise, one Cayman S and a Lamborghini Gallardo who will tell you the opposite. Anyone who makes that statement are, not only completely wrong but, simply need to have a ride along on-track with someone who is experienced in maintaining momentum. Enough about that though. You’ll have to wait for a later post where I release the details of everything that happened that day. scion_frs_015

That having been said the handling of the FR-S isn’t as magical as all the other reviews would have you believe. Even without traction control it has its under-steering moments if you drive like a hoon. On the other hand when driven well the experience will be a lot better than you expect and very rewarding for any driving enthusiast.

The thing is, you see, the FR-S is very difficult to not drive quickly. Believe me I tried. Desperately! After just a few miles of sensible journalistic driving, somehow my brain would laps into a very familiar and comfortable spot as I realized the grin on my face was actually from ear to ear.

scion_frs_2013_032 Breaks are good…very good! I know a whole family of dear that will attest to that. On the way back home after a night out with the wife we decided to take the long way home. This road has a very short and tight S-Turn with an over 10 foot elevation change. Once on the other end said family decided to relocate to the other side of the road. In a benevolent effort of assistance the breaks made short work of next 60’ or so bringing the FR-S to a complete stop. With just one pump of the ABS no less.

After my time with the FR-S was said and done I had had several conversations with the wife about our next car purchase. The experience is still fresh in my mind. The FR-S does seem to be a return to the pure driving enthusiast’s sports-car. And we can only hope that other automakers are taking a few notes.

2012 KIA Optima SX T-GDI

I have no one to blame but myself.

Truth is I can’t give you an awesomely detailed review of what it’s like to own and drive the 2012 Kia Optima SX T-GDI…which is a very long name. I was able to get two good driving days out of the car though. Read more

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.

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?

2011 Lexus IS-F First Drive

From an enthusiast perspective driving the 2011 Lexus IS-F is like taking in a one nighter in Vegas with your buddies, knowing that everyone has already signed that internal non-disclosure agreement.  In all practicality it’s the “Whose idea was this?” or “Why did I do that?” conversation you have with yourself on the flight back.

From the moment I laid eyes on it I couldn’t help but think of how pleased I was with being a budding automotive journalist.  Like that Vegas trip, as you get closer your level of excitement grows because you know you’re in for something special; that what you’re about to experience could very well make some of the greatest moments in your life but with a very real possibility that it might land you in jail.  My goal was to capture as much of the former while avoiding coming anywhere close to the latter.

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With the styling of the IS-F Lexus has done a fantastic job including noticeable features that separate it from the other IS trims, but just.  I’ve had opportunity to enjoy a few of the other trim levels and the IS-F is such a departure mechanically from the others that I expected that fact to be reflected with more aggressive body styling as well.  On the performance front the fact that this is no normal IS is blatantly obvious.  From the moment you touched the Engine Start button and hear the unmistakable hunger of it’s 5.0L V8 to the second it shows you the first corner.  You’re quickly left with the impression that this is a wolf in poorly tailored sheep’s clothing.

On second thought this slight styling evolution may be the perfect natural defense for this IS.  While being anything but, it is nice to have a vehicle that at least looks relatively non-threatening.  This would help me realize the second part of my goal without having to worry too much about meeting Johnny Law.

Eventually I would get close enough to see the interior of the IS-F which did nothing but continue to siren me closer.

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Its two-tone black on cream leather seats with blue stitching can only be described as one thing – Fresh To Death.  The contrast of the Lexus Ultrasonic Blue Mica, Black and Cream is so stark.  You get a sense of how well it stands out in the photos but trust me, it is a completely different thing to see it in person and it only gets better from here.  Because then you sit on those seats and you experience something truly unique.  Don’t ask me how they do it, but there is a perfect balance of soft leather married to firm bolsters for both legs and torso.  The result is a very comfortable fit that somehow seems to swaddle you in.  Apart from the seats themselves the only things that are specific to the IS-F on the inside are the stitched in F logos on the sides of the seat, another logo between the rear seats and again at the base of the steering wheel.  That’s it.

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(Warning: If you aren’t used to or have never owned a true sports car the realistic impact of owning an IS-F will be a big surprise and I don’t plan on holding back any more than the IS-F does.)

Flash forward and it’s only the second day with the IS-F and I can tell I wouldn’t want to daily drive one.  the witchery of its suspension is downright deceptive.

For instance, any other time I am in an area with a 25 or 30 mile an hour speed limit I get so anxious my knees ach.  In the IS-F I almost didn’t realize I was ever driving that slowly.  The suspension is so smooth it really does encourage you to take it easy and enjoy having a bit of a cruise.  But is this what you buy a 416 HP 371lb-ft 5.0L V8 Sports car for?  Of course not!  Why is driving slow in what can only be described as a rocket sled such a wonderful feeling?  I may be confused by this but if it weren’t such a comfortable experience I would really hate driving this car in the city.  I would be bald from pulling my hair out between traffic lights.

Many journalists have complained about the 8-Speed “Sport Direct-Shift Transmission” with Paddle Shifters.  I will have to admit that working with the paddle shifters has a bit of a learning curve, however it really doesn’t take long to get used to the short amount of lag between pulling on either paddle and receiving the gear change you want. Give a little bit of thought to timing your changes and it will feel like second nature and result in taking very little effort to get the gear you want when you want it.  Really the 8-speed isn’t something to be afraid of.  I can understand why many reviewers say that the car “searches” for the right gear but this breaks down to learning how to drive this car.

If you accelerate by holding a steady throttle position and simply back off to hold your desired speed when you reach it the transmission will shift at the same RPM for ever gear change, predictably, every time.

On the highway or giving the IS-F a bit of a workout is a different story all together.  It’s here that 8-Speed has to do some thinking and makes things a little interesting.  The same lag that you get from the paddle shifters manifests in the throttle play as well.  Even with a healthy dose of gas pedal it takes the IS-F a quick second to realize, “Oh you don’t just want a bit more speed, you must need to pass something quickly”.  So when you step on the gas pedal you’re given a stepped approach to accelerating.  First a bit more gas to pick up the pace, then a downshift or two but you have to leave your foot there just a second longer to get the serious acceleration.  You can however easily get around this.  You see I noticed that what seemed like the floor was really the top of what felt like a button that can be pushed to reveal a surprise. A feature built into the pedal that will cut all that nonsense out and give you what you’re looking for in an instant.  Careful though.  Do that and you open the floodgates.

No literally.  Under full throttle and at full song I swear the injectors of the IS-F are projectile vomiting fuel into the engine.

Just having shot around town for a bit the night before, we hit the road in the AM for a short day trip…I was already down to a half tank.  This is where the IS-F decides to confuse me again. On this trip, we left our home for what ended up being an 89 mile trip into Pennsylvania. For the return trip we drove a total of 108 miles to eat at a place called the Blue Moon Café in Sheaphardstown West Virginia. It would be another 19 miles until we got back in town and when we did the tank only had a 38 mile range left.  When you stop and think about it, that’s half a tank for about 3 hours and 216 miles of driving with potential for a total 254 miles, which is quite frankly phenomenal for that engine.  But what happened to the other half a tank while I was enjoying myself around town?

While enjoying and getting familiar with the Lexus’ party piece it was nothing to watch the Distance To Empty change to 38 miles left in the tank and less than a mile later watch it fall to 36.  The IS-F has a 16.9 gallon tank and by the time I parked it for good the tank average was 16.7, even after babying it it’s last few hours with us.  $50 later we’re not quite full but still ready for another 180 mile trip the following day.  Three quarters of a tank later, we were back home again.  Admittedly, I enjoyed the highways a bit more that morning so I can’t blame the IS-F for drinking as much that day. The rest of my time with the IS-F I cruised leisurely though. I was surprised at this point as I would notice the transmission shift up at 1500 RPM, every gear.  No wonder it’s outfitted with an 8-speed; a rather smart way to save fuel if you ask me.  Having read this far…you kinda have.

Its also worth noting that whether shifting at a low RPM or in the high end of the IS-Fs rev range, every single change up is almost imperceptible.  A bit laggy as weve mentioned, but you really cant feel it. Downshifting on the other hand is a completely different story.

The IS-F is equipped with a downshift rev matching feature that, when done at higher RPMs, sounds unbelievable, seductive even.  Its V8 has an asolutely intoxicating snarl that is delivered in such sharp bursts; no matter how many times I did it, it never got old.

Not at all what you want in the middle of a corner though.

How can I explain it?  The IS-F seems to simply “let go” from the moment you request a downshift to when it applies the next gear.  The resulting weight shift is so strong that there is a split second where deceleration almost seems to turn into acceleration.  If you ever brake heading into a corner and downshift, there is a good possibility that you and the Traction Control are going to be good buddies.  That or, those cream and black with blue stitched seats may end up with an additional color. And trust me when I tell you that earth tones dont mix well with that creamy interior. Want to try and drive the IS-F with the Traction Control off…may the force be with you.

In slow tight corners it suffers as well from the addition of a 5.0L power plant as opposed to the much lighter 3.5L V6 of the IS350.  The 3.5L still leaves the IS chassis with a 52/48 weight distribution biased to the front and a curb weight of 3527, which sits pretty comfortably in the mid range of the IS models.  The IS-F sits at 3780lbs, a 253lb difference that gives it a 55/45 weight distribution.  Doesn’t sound like much, but trust me.  When those front tires decide to lose traction, you’re going to remember me saying it.

Any attempt at a nimble low-speed direction change only leads to a turret of under-steer.  I say that because it manifests with 0 warning.  Honestly I’m trying to find a nicer way of putting this but nothing has surfaced in the last few weeks.  In much cheaper vehicles you can find under-steer that comes on in very slight doses and as you continue to over drive the car it increases.  This is simply not the case with the IS-F.  When it decides it is time to push thru a corner it seems almost eager to do it.

I’ve been on a short rant about the things I didn’t like about the IS-F however the things that I really enjoyed stand out far more than those negatives.  To be honest my personal driving style met with those negative characteristics very few times and the average driver may indeed never notice or have opportunity to experience any of them.

When all is said and done the IS-F is the car that many people have been waiting for the Toyota/Lexus engineers to produce for over a decade.  It may not be the next Toyota Supra but it does deliver tones of fun, two of them in fact. And much like that trip to Las Vegas theres a real good chance it will leave you with a happy ending and huge smile on your face.  If only we could find a way to give IS performance a diet, hmm.

Can anyone say IS250 F-Sport?

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-mazda-mazda3-FL

2011 Mazda 3 – Test Drive

Its rather bitter sweet this one. Sweet because, well lets face it, a little Zoom Zoom in your life is always a good thing. Bitter in that it wasnt quite the zoom I was expecting.

Let me save you some worry right up front. The 2011 3 is a worthy vehicle. It has everything one looks for in a fun and sporty compact. Whats more is, on the visual side of it all, it deliveres the total package quite impresivly.

After the redesign of the 2009 car everyone can finally stop making fun of the smiley face. To tell you the truth though, it grows on you. Especially after spending a little time behind the wheel and learning that the 3 isnt just another pretty face.

It didnt take too long to fall in love with the styling on the 5 door we drove. I often found myself leaving somewhere not all that pleased with wherever I had just come from only to be greated by its atractive body lines. Instantly my mood changed for the better. Then there were two smiles. ::wink::

The interior continued the them as it is quite the comfort zone. What once was a sea of amber washed instrumentation is now a crisp and contrasting aray of guages and available selections. Most notible is the replacement of said amber explosion with the warmest and richest glow of blue you have ever seen. It surrounds the tach and speedometer and is also present in the center console as a text only information display as well as around the volume control and continues to devide the remainder of the audio controls as in previous models.

The look and feel of every button was quite solid. Which is something you grow to expext from Mazda. Its been noted that they are quite possibly the only car companies that make cars with a European style feel of solidness. This is also true in the ride quality.

Once on the streets the Sport model we tested had a very comfortable way of getting us back and forth but with enough feedback thru the steering and seat to keep you “connected” to the road. This however eventually became the 2011 models downside.

As I stated before, it is indeed a very worthy and capable vehicle. Its my opinion though that the addition of a larger, heavier 2.5L 4 cylinder helping to increase this models curb weight has given rise to the need of a stronger and softer suspension.

Cornering in the ’11 was no where near as impressive as in my own ’04 model. Which would lead you again to assume that it doesnt handle as well as the previous generations also. Again, you would find something other than what you expected. While not as nimble as I would like to have experienced the steering and tracking ability of this current generation is rock solid. With the older car you find yourself constantly correcting to hold a constant smooth turn. Not at all the case with the ’11 Sport. You can almost “set it and forget it”.

The relativlely new 2.5 – liter is also a bit of a lier. In a good way. The larger displacement brings power on alot smoother and sooner than the 2.3 – liter you really dont feel as if your accelerating quickly. Something I rather enjoy in a sport compact. Yet when you check to see if your in danger of catching the attention of Johnny Law you quickly realize your lack of attention to this engines abilities.

When you think about the niche that the 2011 Mazda 3 Sport GT fits in though, all of these points make sense. Its a grand tourer. Not a corner carver. Its meant to be a bit softer, a bit more comfortable. To keep your rear from falling asleep after the first 150 miles or so. To be able to get out of its own way and the way of merging highway motorists who have no clue how to do so, yet think that your the best person to practice it in front of…while on the breaks. And it does it all without waking (or scaring) the misses or little ones.

I love the feel of something a bit tighter. The kind of feedback thats enough to give most drivers sensory overload. As time progresses though I am learning to enjoy the more docile and comforting appeal of cars like this one. Knowing that I can relax and enjoy the journey while still having a capable go getteer when the need arises.

One of these days I may even have to conceed and pick up a car like the 2011 Mazda 3 Sport GT that will pamper me back and forth. But that might have to wait until im IN pampers…

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.