Auto Reviews

Veteran motorhead/automotive journalist Paul Duchene drives the
newest cars so you don't have to... his wisdom in about 300 words.
Click on the photos to enlarge. Scroll for more reviews.

2014 Hyundai Equus Ultimate

Price as tested: $68,920

Gas mileage 15 city, 23 highway

posted 14 hours ago

Likes: Handsome and fast, this is Hyundai’s luxury-level Lexus LS, BMW 7 Series, Mercedes-Benz S-Class and Audi A8 fighter. Powered by a 5-liter, 429 bhp, DOHC V8, with 8-speed automatic transmission and Normal, Sport and Snow settings, electronic air suspension, with continuous damping, and more gadgets than you can shake a stick at. Lexicon 17-speaker surround-sound stereo with HD, CD/DVD, iPod USB interface. Leather interior with heated and cooled front seats, nine airbags including roof-mounted side curtains. Blind spot detection system, with rear cross-traffic alert, lane-departure warning, active front head restraints, electronic stability, traction control and brake assist. Adaptive bi-Xenon headlights, power folding and auto-dimming mirrors, smart cruise control. Ultimate package includes forward view cornering camera, heated and cooled rear seats with lumbar supports, rear and side power sun screens, power door and trunk closure. Navigation includes traffic conditions. There are rear seat entertainment screens in front seatbacks, separate climate controls and a cooler in the center console. Handsome 19-inch spoked alloy wheels fitted with tires which actually protect them from curbs. 10-year, 100,000 powertrain warranty, and the 3-year, 36,000 mile no-cost maintenance includes valet service.

Dislikes: It’s not really a sport sedan, even on sport settings, but it’s very quiet and fast. Equus name is cool, but badge looks rather like the old Chrysler Imperial eagle, with wings that aren’t so well-defined. The leather interior is attractive, but it’s pretty soft, so who knows how it will wear. I’d like to see AWD and a hybrid, and at this price there’s room for both options.

Fun to drive ***

Fun to look at ****

Overall ownership experience ***

Verdict: With about 250 of these being sold each month, the Equus is 10 times rarer than the smaller and more anonymous Genesis. The $72,000 Lexus LS 460 is the obvious competitor, but that delivers only 386 bhp and the front-end design is a disaster. The Equus looks good from any angle. To get the same performance from a Lexus, you’d have to spend $120,000 for the LS 600lh, and about $100,000 for the others. The Equus is no VW Phaeton flop; ex-Audi designer Pete Schreyer also designed the Kia K900, which has been very well-received. The Equus seems like a gift horse at $68,920, and unlike the Lexus, you can look this one in the mouth.




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2014 Honda Civic 4DR EX

Price as tested: $21,880

Gas mileage: 30 city, 39 highway

posted 1 month ago

Likes: Another minor revision of much criticized Civic. 143 hp, 1.8 liter SOHC 4 is acceptable. 5-speed auto transmission just OK, 4-wheel disc brakes have good feel, predictable handling, seats adjust and fit well. Anti-lock brakes, traction control, stability assist, air conditioning. Multiple air bags, decent stereo with AM/FM/CD/MP3 iPod etc. Superior window wiper sweep, power windows, door locks, brakes and steering. Pass through to trunk, 60-40 fold down rear seat. Rear view camera, lane watch on right.

Gripes: Offensively noisy at highway speeds. Fragile grey cloth interior is one coffee spill from permanent disaster. No navigation, leather or XM at this price. Quirky dash now has irritating touch screen – even for radio volume. Transmission pauses before shifting into reverse, like an old VW Rabbit. Doors lock passengers in, which annoys them. Only 29 mpg in mixed driving.

Fun to drive *

Fun to look at *

Overall experience*

Verdict: Some cars are IQ tests; this is one of them. It’s a $16,500 car for $22,000. Bland, noisy, flimsy – the overall finish feels like a Fit. It’s an airport rental if ever I drove one. Honda and Toyota are struggling, and they’re falling into the old Big Three trap: they’re cutting corners on their cheap cars. Apparently they have forgotten that the value of their cheap cars in the past enabled them sell happy customers more expensive  ones. Last year I wrote I’d  buy a one or two year-old Honda Accord or a Toyota Camry and never look back. This time I’ll go further. Buy a new Kia or Hyundai, and combine value with style.

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2014 Honda Odyssey Touring Elite

Price as tested: $45,280

Gas mileage: 19 city, 28 highway

posted 1 month ago

Likes: On balance this is still the class leader, though the Toyota Sienna is close. It has a 248-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-Tec, SOHC V6 which provides 0-60 mph in 7.9 seconds. Six-speed automatic, 4-wheel disc brakes. Finally dash buttons are reduced from 80 to 20. Heated front seats, can take seven adults easily, rear access is reasonable. Second row center seat can be moved forward to accommodate child seat, tumble-home third row disappears into floor. Tilt-telescope wheel, multiple-zone climate control, navigation with voice recognition, 16” DVD in rear can be split for two functions. 12-speaker AM/FM/DVD/XM stereo with MP3, Bluetooth, USB port and headsets. Noise-canceling technology quiet at highway speed, Superior brakes and handling for a minivan, multiple airbags, power everything, brake assist, electronic brake distribution, power moonroof, rear view camera, blind spot warning, collision warning, lane departure warning. Two power sliding doors, power tailgate. Enormous: 38 cubic feet with all seats in place, 93 when third row folded, 148 when second row removed.

Dislikes: Expensive when fully loaded, though LX model does start at $28,675.  Power side doors are fiddly to work. Second row seats must be removed for maximum storage; they do not fold forward or down, which is  quite a nuisance. No 4WD availability, and standard tires useless in snow.

Fun to drive ***

Fun to look at **

Overall ownership experience ***

Verdict: Still the best mini-van you can buy – though you won’t spend this much unless you have a job for it to do. That said, it has near Accord performance in something that feels twice as big. With seats removed, it was able to transport three 72-inch by 31-inch by 12-inch bookcases. Tumble-home third row seats still  a brilliant idea. However the Toyota Sienna offers AWD – and at this price you’d probably want it – while the Nissan Quest and Dodge Grand caravan have a second row of seats that fold away. Still, if you have multiple kids who play sports, you can figure on a useful 250K miles from the Odyssey. This might be the only car your children know, until they start driving themselves.

 

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2014 Mazda6 I Grand Touring Sedan

Price as tested: $32,845

Gas mileage: 28 city, 40 highway

posted 1 month ago

Likes: The latest version of the Mazda6 is the company’s BMW 3-Series and remains well regarded in Europe, where people drive their cars much harder than here. It’s now built for American measurements and is an excellent performer, with a distinctive driving signature. The DOHC, 2.5-liter, 185 bhp Sky-Active four scoots it from 0-60 in 7.6 seconds, through a six-speed automatic, with well-sorted suspension and brakes. Traffic proximity warnings are useful, along with a rear camera to account for the high trunk. It has multiple airbags and side curtains, ABS, dynamic stability, traction control and hill-start assist. The interior is simple but well-finished with intelligent dash layout and dual-zone climate controls. Leather seats are comfortable; the rear seat is adult-sized and splits 40/60 to fold flat. Stereo includes MP3/Bluetooth capability and CD. Navigation system is adequate.

Dislikes: Touch screen is fussy, small and annoying. Just give me switches. Automatic transmission is smooth, but fussy in sport mode. XM station signed itself off halfway through a 200-mile trip, and out of cell-phone coverage.

Fun to drive****

Fun to look at ****

Overall ownership experience ***

Verdict: I drive few new cars I’d buy, but this is still one of them. It’s not aggressively FWD,  fast enough, handles and stops well, and has personality, unlike the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima. The front end has been transformed from the “Cheshire Cat” to something elegant. I averaged 30 mpg in mixed driving, which is my benchmark but it did not improve much on the highway, which was surprising. Perhaps the 6-speed stick would do better; it’s certainly much more fun to drive.

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2014 Lexus RX450h SUV

Price as tested: $62,015

Gas mileage: 30 city, 28 highway

posted 2 months ago

Likes: Probably the  most efficient big SUV, with full Prius power train system. Comfortable and predictable, with 3.5-liter DOHC 24-valve Atkinson-cycle V-6, producing 295 hp. The front-wheel drive models use two motors; one acts as a starter-generator and the other provides propulsion, while the all-wheel-drive test vehicle added a third electric motor to drive the rear wheels. 0-60 comes up in 7.5 seconds, the CVT transmission has manual shifting mode, but adapts to dual-power system quite well. The interior has a beautiful finish, heated and cooled comfortable seats, the car is very quiet at speed and gets 30 mpg on the highway. Three-zone climate control, 10 airbags; all current safety devices, including collision avoidance, lane-change warning and speed sensitive power steering. Excellent Mark Levinson stereo, heated and cooled seats, reclining and slide split rear seat, power rear lift gate, rear camera proximity warning. The 2014 model adds Siri Eyes Free for newer iPhones. 

Gripes:  Not that fast off the mark unless you really tromp on it. Navigation system not intuitive, console infotainment “mouse” control annoying. No third seat.

Fun to drive ****

Fun to look at ***

Overall experience****

Verdict:  If you can manage without the third seat, this is probably the best SUV you can buy, as it gets 8 or 9 mpg more than the other big ones. Quiet and surprisingly economical, and will undoubtedly last for 300,000 miles. The basic model is $47,810, but if you’re going to spend that much, add the comfort package for $825 and get the rain-sensing wipers, and heated and ventilated front seats. For another $4,920 you get dual rear entertainment screens with audio video inputs for the kids, navigation and voice command, and Sirius XM nav-traffic (very useful). The $6,055 Luxury Package includes leather, moon roof, heated and folding mirrors, blind spot monitor, bamboo wood trim and 19-inch wheels. You can also add the Mark Levinson stereo for $995, which is state of the art, and parking assist for $500 (though if you can’t park it ... should you buy it?).

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2014 Mazda 3 Grand Touring 5 Door

Price as tested: $24,635

Gas mileage: 29 city, 40 highway

posted 2 months ago

Likes: Finally, I get a Mazda 3 with the smooth 6-speed manual gearbox it deserves. Mazda’s Skyactive high-compression, 2-liter engine generates 155 bhp and returns 40 mpg on the highway. It’s good for about 8-seconds from 0-60 mph and fast enough to get you a very expensive ticket. The economy/performance package revolves around high compression (13:1) and long intakes that go 4-2-1, so that the extra heat can be dissipated. 

The Mazda 3 has excellent handling, thanks to front/rear sway bars, and has effective disc brakes all round. The dash is well-organized, with my favorite “3-wheels” for temp/mode/fan, and numerous steering wheel controls. The stereo delivers the usual AM/FM/CD/XM/MP3 with Bluetooth hands-free phone capability. Extras include air-conditioning with pollen filter, power windows (one-touch up-down on driver’s side), power door locks, and intermittent front and rear wipers. The rear lift gate opens to a good-sized trunk, and rear seats split 60-40. Safety items include multiple air bags, active front headrests, side impact bags, ABS traction control and dynamic stability control.

Dislikes: Rear visibility demands a camera, as the high tail for increased trunk space and almost wagon-sized C-pillars create a noticeable blind spot, thankfully now with a warning light and beep. Road noise is the usual problem.

Fun to drive ****

Fun to look at ****

Overall ownership experience **** 

Verdict: The Skyactive engine package gave Mazda a big jump on its competitors when it was introduced, and 40 mpg highway is the price of entry in this class. Road noise is about the same as the Toyota Corolla; it’s annoying but not impossible, like the Honda Civic. The Mazda 3’s gas mileage is up almost 30% from 2011 and it’s competitively priced at a base of $23,500, with just about everything included. This is a driver’s car, that’s quite elegantly designed, beautifully finished, and has a very distinct signature, rather like BMW. Considering that Ford was in partnership with Mazda for so long, it’s amazing how little it learned.  


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2014 Toyota Corolla S Premium

Price as tested: $23,570

Gas mileage: 29 city, 37 highway

posted 2 months ago

Likes:  Bulletproof 1.8-liter DOHC 4-cylinder dates back to the 1990s but now has 132 bhp, with variable valve timing and quicker acceleration. Decent road feel through electric power steering, capable handling and excellent 4-wheel disc brakes. Quieter at speed than comparable Honda Civic. Anti-lock brakes, traction control, stability assist, multiple air bags, anti-whiplash front seats, seat belt pre-tensioners. Climate control, simple dash with obvious functions. 

Excellent stereo with AM/FM/CD/XM/MP3 ipod connectivity, hands-free Bluetooth phone and music streaming, etc. Heated seats with taller side bolsters in S package. Rear seat legroom increased by a whopping five inches, and rear seat also splits and folds. LED low-beam lights. Premium package includes keyless entry and push-button start, navigation with traffic and weather display.

Gripes: Continuously variable transmission drones, and still feels like an ordinary box that’s giving up. Paddle shifters pointless, I’d rather have the six-speed manual gearbox. Belt line and trunk seem high, and rear camera is necessary.  This is described as an aggressive redesign, but it’s pretty tame.

Fun to drive ***

Fun to look at ***

Overall experience***

Verdict: Still a durable contender in its market segment (my 1996 has 200,000 miles on it), but it feels like it’s being left behind. When the new  Honda Accord is getting 50 mpg and European diesels are headed this way with even better figures, 30 mpg around town from a Corolla is not that impressive. To put it in perspective, the city/highway mileage on this car is exactly the same as on my old car, and that’s not good enough any more. Still, Toyota has thrown every option at the Corolla and still brings it in at $23,000 (and you can save $850 if you nix the sunroof).  If this car lasts like my old one, somebody will be driving it in 2030, though I’m guessing the gas mileage will be worse than a new Cadillac by then.



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2014 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring AWD

Price as tested: $31,890

Gas mileage: 24 City, 30 Highway

posted 4 months ago

Likes: After a couple of flubs (Tribute, good but slow selling CX-7) Mazda has hit the ball solidly with the CX-5. It’s both sporty and useful, with positive steering, good handling and firm ride. The Skyactive DOHC 2-liter four-cylinder engine is boosted to 184 bhp from 155 last year, with direct injection, variable valve-timing and 13:1 compression to make all that happen. 0-60 comes up in about 8 seconds, not bad for a 3,300 lb AWD SUV. The six-speed automatic transmission can be manually shifted, there are disc brakes all round and the steering is electronic, but has good feel. The dash is well-organized and well-finished, including a 5.8-inch screen, with a rear-view camera, and the Grand Touring test car had dual climate controls, heated leather seats (driver’s has 3-position memory), 40-20-40 rear seat split, multiple air bags and rain-sensing wipers. Mulitple airbags were accompanied by ABS, stability control and hill-launch assist. The stereo was a Bose AM/FM/CD/XM/MP3 with Bluetooth hands-free phone capability, and the Nav system was by Tom Tom. 


Dislikes: Not many. My main gripe from last year – not enough power – has been addressed. Doors must still be closed firmly or they don’t latch, and that includes the rear hatch.  Brake pedal requires firm pressure. Technology package seems a bit steep at $1,825.


Fun to drive ****

Fun to look at ***

Overall ownership experience ****


Verdict: The boost in power and generally sharper exterior design makes this a very competitive rig. It reminds me a lot of what the first Subaru Forester first set out to do, 15  years ago, being smaller than the CX-9 and CX7, but better looking and and more efficient. Call it sensible shoes in a bright Soul Red color. Now, click your heels. 




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2013 Mazda 3 Grand Touring

Price as tested: $26,420

EPA mileage: 28 City; 40 Highway

posted 4 months ago

Likes: Mazda is concentrating on its Skyactive high-compression, 155hp, 2-liter engine, which returns 40 mpg on the highway. It’s a little slow on takeoff, but it’s still fun to drive, and the 6-speed auto transmission shifts quickly and has a manual override, if you’re fidgety. The secret to the economy/performance package is high compression (13:1) and very long intakes that go 4-2-1, so that the extra heat can be dissipated. The Mazda 3 has decent handling, thanks to front/rear sway bars, effective discs all round, and does 0-60 in about 8 seconds. The dash is well-organized, with my favorite “3-wheels” for temp/mode/fan, and numerous steering wheel controls. The stereo delivered the usual AM/FM/CD/XM/MP3 with Bluetooth hands-free phone capability. Extras include air-conditioning with pollen filter, power windows (one-touch up-down on driver’s side), power door locks, and intermittent front and rear wipers. The rear liftgate opens to a good-sized trunk and rear seats split 60-40. Safety items include multiple air bags, active front headrests, side impact bags. ABS traction control and dynamic stability control.

Dislikes: Rear visibility demands a camera, as the high tail for increased trunk space and almost wagon-sized C-pillars create a noticeable blind spot. Road noise is the usual problem.

Fun to drive ****

Fun to look at ***

Overall ownership experience *** 

Verdict: The Skyactive engine package gave Mazda a big jump on its competitors when it was introduced, and 40 mpg is now the target for this class, which includes the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic and Subaru Impreza. The Mazda 3’s gas mileage is up almost 30% from the 2011 model and it’s competitively priced at a base of $23,500, though I’d pass on the $1500 technology package on this car. It smacks of the old “undercoating and Scotch guard interior treatment”. Thank God the Cheshire Cat grille is almost gone. 


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2013 Kia Sportage SX AWD

Price: $32,400

EPA mileage: 20 city, 25 highway

posted 4 months ago

Likes: Top-of-the-line Sportage is handsome effort to get away from crossover box . Excellent finish, very fast, with 0-60 mph in 6.5 seconds, from 260 bhp, DOHC, 2-liter Turbo, 4-cylinder. All-wheel drive includes locking cetral diff, 6-speed auto, all power, a/c, cruise control, electronic power steering. Extensive safety equipment includes stability/traction control, downhill brake control, hillstart assist, multiple airbags, rollover sensors, seatbelt pre-tensioners and active head restraints. Good brakes, handles well. AM/FM/MP3/XM/CD with iPod and USB jacks and Bluetooth hands-free phone. Dual climate controls, push button start with smart key. SatNav with Sirius traffic; premium package includes leather interior, heated front seats (driver’s seat cooled), panoramic sunroof,  ato-dim mirror, cargo cover, heated, folding mirrors.100,000-mile warranty with roadside assist.   

Gripes: 16 mpg is unacceptable around town. 54 cubic feet of storage is 25 per cent less than RAV 4 or CRV. Firm ride may annoy some passengers, fairly tight rear seat. Miserable rear visibility makes. Backup camera essential and mirrors must be checked carefully. 

Fun to drive ***

Fun to look at ***

Overall experience**

Verdict: Give Kia credit for pushing the limit of style in this segment, with consequent compromises in space and visibility. Kia got away with this approach with the Soul, so it may work. Comparison shoppers who need more room should check out the new Mazda CX-5, Toyota RAV-4, Honda CRV, Subaru Outback and Ford Escape. Buy a little Tom Tom instead of the $1,200 Nav package and eschew the $2,000 luxury package  and you’re down to $29,200, which is competitive. But the gas mileage is a deal-breaker for me.

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2013 Kia Soul!

posted 4 months ago

Price: $23,575 
EPA Mileage: 23 city, 28 highway
Likes: Popular, nippy SUV extracts more style from a little box than you expect. 0-60 in 8.8 seconds, thanks to 164-horsepower VVT DOHC 4-cylinder and six-speed automatic transmission, which returns 34 mpg highway. Simple interior, instruments clear, controls intuitive. Reasonably quiet at speed, capable handling, handsome 18-inch mags. Excellent steering and AWD disc brakes, multiple air bags and curtains, four-star crash ratimg. Decent stereo/CD/XM/MP3 etc. and genuinely usable back seat. Remote entry, power windows, power folding mirrors, moonroof, backup camera, 53 cubic feet with rear seats down, 19 when they’re up. Will seat four adults. 10 year 100,000 warranty. Quirky interior lighting, will enchant your children. You, less so…

Gripes: Not as much storage as some competitors (the Scion xB has 70 cubic feet). Could be quieter, AWD would be attractive option. Dashboard design still a bit clunky. Premium package is a whopping $2,500 for Nav, Sirius, heated leather seats and auto climate control. 22.9 mpg is marginal, and I’d have to think hard about that. By the way ! is the top line package. Really. 

Fun to drive ***

Fun to look at ****

Overall experience****

Verdict: This charming small wagon is good value and has been a big hit for Kia with 115,000 sold in 2012 – more than the entire Scion line. The 164 bhp engine scoots it right along, and it handles quite well for a tall box. Too bad Kia seems to have dropped last year’s Track’ster idea. That chopped,  three-door concept, had a 250-horsepower turbo four, 6-speed manual transmission, fender flares, wide wheels, and electronic all-wheel drive. Unsually for Kia, I’d say it’s missing a bet.


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2013 Kia Rio SX

posted 4 months ago

Price: $21,340 
Mileage: 30 city, 40 highway

Likes: Only the name carries over from past, forgettable Rios and the 2012 makeover is little updated. That said, it’s well-proportioned and very competitive with a 138 hp, direct-injection DOHC 4-cylinder, 6-speed automatic with paddle-shfiters and 0-60 in 9.4 seconds. Simple dash, controls easy to understand and use. Mileage approaches 40 mpg on the highway. Rear camera is useful, because the thick C-pillars and high deck obscure vision. However, as a tradoff,  the trunk is 15 cubic feet and when the split rear seat is folded down there’s a lot of room. Top-line SX model as tested included leather, heated front seats navigation and a moon roof.  Safety features include multiple airbags and side curtains, traction control, ABS (discs all round), hill holder and electronic stability. Superior stereo has AM/FM/CD/XM/MP3 Bluetooth etc. 100,000-mile warranty and 5yr/60,000-mile roadside assistance

Gripes: Some highway noise, but nothing like the little Hondas. As I said last year, $2,350 seems like a lot for navigation, push-button start, a sunroof and leather seats. Buy a Garmin and take a vacation. Suspension is on the choppy side of firm, but handling much more capable than older models.

Fun to drive ***

Fun to look at ***

Overall experience***

Verdict: The Kia Rio remains a good-looking contender, with the top level SX having a base price of only $17,700. We’re approaching the end of the model year, so look for deals. City mileage was 30 mpg, which is enough that you quit calculating it.  

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2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport AWD 2.0T

posted 4 months ago


Price as tested: $35,925EPA mileage: 19 city: 24 highway


Likes: Another handsome effort to get away from crossover box. Excellent finish, nippy 264 bhp, DOHC, 2-liter Turbo, 4-cylinder. All-wheel drive includes locking central diff, 6-speed auto with manual override, all power, a/c, cruise control and an adjustable electronic power steering. Safety equipment includes stability/traction control, downhill brake control, hillstart assist, multiple airbags, seatbelt pre-tensioners. Good brakes, handles well. AM/FM/MP3/XM/CD with iPod and USB jacks and Bluetooth hands-free phone. Dual climate controls, push button start with smart key. SatNav with Sirius traffic; premium package includes leather interior, heated front seats (driver’s seat has lumbar support), 40/20/40 rear seats recline, panoramic sunroof,  auto-dim mirror, cargo cover, heated folding mirrors, side-window sunshades. 10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty ,with 5-year roadside assist.
Gripes: 18 mpg is unacceptable around town. Adjustable steering a bit numb on all settings. Restricted rear visibility makes backup camera essential, and mirrors must be checked carefully. Adding $6,000 of extras seems a bit much. Fun to drive ***Fun to look at ***Overall experience**Verdict: The Santa Fe Sport is now the 5-passenger SWB version of the line as the Veracruz will return for 2014 as the 6/7-passenger LWB model. Just like Kia, Hyundai is determined to think out of the box (literally), though I think somebody in design has a picture of  the 1999 Isuzu Vehicross on his desk. Comparison shoppers should check out the new Mazda CX-5, Toyota RAV-4, Honda CRV, Subaru Outback and Ford Escape. Like the Kia’s Sportage’s 16 mpg, the  Santa Fe’s 18 mpg city is a deal-breaker for me.

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All Charged Up

18 NORTHWEST AUTO WRITERS TRY OUT 17 ELECTRIC, HYBRID AND DIESEL CARS, ON THE SAME DAY, AND PICK THEIR FAVORITE SMOKIN' (AND NON-SMOKIN') DEALS

posted 8 months ago

Chevrolet Cruz Hybrid was one winner in the face-off.

By Paul Duchene

The world of electric cars is changing rapidly but it was still quite an achievement for Bengt Halvorson of the Northwest Automotive Press Association to gather 17 electric, diesel and hybrid vehicles for Drive Revolution, a comparison test at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry on July 11. It certainly seemed like a “Portlandia” event in the self-proclaimed greenest city. 

Press fleets rarely have more than one or two oddballs on each coast and the vehicles had to be shipped to Portland, Oregon, especially the six pure electrics, which couldn’t driven in further than Hood River anyway. On hand were 18 journalists who chose their favorite cars in each of the three categories at the end of the day, and 15 manufacturer’s representatives to answer questions.

Electric cars included the Fiat 500E, Ford Focus electric, Mitsubishi – MiEV, Honda Fit, Nissan Leaf, Smart Electric and Scion iQ, which was a late arrival, and not insured for us to drive. That summarizes Toyota’s marketing of that unfortunate vehicle. I drove one 750 miles in the UK, and thought it excellent.

Hybrids were the Chevrolet Volt, Ford C-Max, Kia Optima, Lexus LS 600h L, Toyota Prius V, Volkswagen Jetta.


The Fiat 500E, above, was an electric winner.

Diesels included the Audi A8L TDI, Chevrolet Cruze Turbo, Mercedes Benz GLK 250 Blu-tec Turbo, Volkswagen Beetle TDI convertible, Volkswagen Passat TDI.   

Winners were: Electric: Fiat 500E; Hybrid: Chevrolet Volt;   Diesel: Chevrolet Cruze Turbo.

I agreed with the Fiat 500E electric coupe, which was a blast to drive – for about 60 miles anyway. It will undoubtedly win many stoplight races, chirping tires at will, was finished in Electric Orange Metallic and had a stylish interior in orange white and black that could only be Italian. Available only in California for now, it retails for $33,495 – but when did you see an electric car that was  more than just sensible shoes? This is a 4-inch, high-heeled, single-strap stiletto from Milan. 

To me the hubring Chevrolet Volt is dated, with an interior clunkily reminiscent of its 2007 origins. The car business has come far in six years – electric cars business have actually gained credibility in that time. At $45,540 the Volt is also expensive – almost $10,000 more than the Prius or Leaf. No need to go into the powertrain, suffice to say Southern Pacific nailed diesel electric power in 1934. To me the Lexus 600h was eye-popping cool, even though my colleague San Moses said he wouldn’t vote for anything that cost $128,529. But I was seduced by the 450h in Scottsdale this spring. Covering the classic car auctions, I drove about 700 miles in a week, at an amazing 35 mpg. I also noted that the 600h’s detail finish was superb, and the bamboo wood quite the last word in elegance. The Audi A8 was handsome and fast, but feels somewhat out of place. A really BIG Audi? Next thing you know Volkswagen will bring back the ill-phaeted Phaeton. Oh wait, they are…


The Chevrolet Cruze made it two wins for The General, but I thought it noisy, and neither  stylish or well done. At $25,795, it was undoubtedly good value and a handy performer, but against the $28,690 Volkswagen Beetle convertible TDI, it was just an airport rental car. In bright white, with a black leather interior, the VW convertible is an even better upgrade of the funky New Beetle, than the curved windshield Super Beetle was in 1972 over its iconic forefather. 

Speaking of airport rental cars, the two electric Honda Fits were also blisteringly fast  in “power mode” but you couldn’t get away from the idea that every penny that could be pinched, had been. Equally surprising was how old-fashioned the Smart car now feels. Electric or not, 1998 was 15 YEARS ago, and it sure feels like it. The Mitsubish i-MiEV seems to work well enough, but it’s oddly proportioned for American roads, as tall and narrow as one of those little “toaster” vans you see running around airports.

Overall, it seems that electric and hybrid offerings fall into the “so goofy it must be alt-power” like the Mitsubishi iMiEV, Nissan Leaf, Toyota Prius or original Honda Insight, or so bland you can’t tell what powers it, like the Ford Focus and Fusion, Honda Civic and Accord, Chevrolet Cruze, Toyota Camry, or Highlander. 

Also, please can we get away from little car diagrams with colored arrows zooming back and forwards to tell you if you’re accelerating or decelerating. If you don’t know that, should you even be driving?  How about a screen in the back, for the occupant of the child seat, instead? Oh,  no “green” symbols either, please. I really don’t like my dash  being engulfed by green vines, like Sleeping Beauty’s castle. 

As I asked one  representative: Couldn’t you just build something that’s so totally cool, I’d WANT to drive it, whatever powered it? Which provoked the usual rejoinder to such questions, from one of my colleagues. “I’m sorry we never talk about future products.”

For what it’s worth, my runners-up were the Mercedes Benz GLK 250 Blu-Tec 4-Matic, which was  surprisingly fast with a 200 bhp, 2-liter turbo diesel at $50,485. I also picked the Kia Optima hybrid, which is handsome and has been tweaked to have a much better power delivery, this year. It costs $32,275. 

In the electric class, I was also impressed with the overall finish of the Nissan Leaf, at $36,910, even though it still looks funny. The Leaf’s price was cut this year this year and (probably as a result) it sold 2,225 units in June, four times last June’s total.

The Ford C-Max and Fusion electric seemed acceptable in most regards, but I dislike the distracting and unreliable touch-screen almost as much as the 68 buttons on the Cadillac Allante dash, and that rules them out for me. Ford is also scrambling to increase hybrid mileages to approach the sticker claims, offering technology upgrades. Stay posted on that. Like buyouts at The Oregonian, this may be only the first one.

As a final note, with U.S. sales on track for over 15 million units this year, how ARE the electrics and hybrids performing? After 6 months, the Toyota Prius is the leading hybrid, with a total of 116,000 liftback, C and V models sold. The surprisingly good Toyota Camry hybrid has sold 23,834 units and the Lexus hybrid variations total 20,742.  Ford’s C-Max hybrid wagon has sold 17,858 units, the Fusion hybrid 20,283. The Chevrolet Volt has 9,855 units out the door. In the pure electrics, nothing comes close to the Leaf’s 9,839 6-month total.


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2013 Honda Accord 4-Door Sport

Price as tested: $24,980

26 mpg city, 35 mpg highway

posted 8 months ago

Likes: Overall, still the benchmark family sedan. 2.4-liter, 189 hp V-TEC, 4-cylinder with variable cylinder management is adequate, 10 airbags, vehicle stability assist, brake assist, tire pressure monitoring, pre-tension seat belts, active front head restraints. Handling, brakes and steering capable. Solid finish, plenty of room, smart instrument layout, dual-zone climate control, power driver’s seat, windows, locks, huge trunk with pass-through, rear view camera. 160-Watt AM/FM/6CD/MP3 radio with Pandora and bluetooth. Will probably last 300,000 miles.

Dislikes: Plain Jane Accord is $8K cheaper than loaded  V6 version, but it’s not fast, has lots of highway noise and the CVT transmission is annoying. 23.5 mpg around town, so 35 mpg highway might be a stretch. Cloth interior still cheap for an Accord, rear seat does not fold down. No XM radio. Unlocking doors to let passengers out is a pain. Cheaper wheels and tires can be curbed. 

Fun to Drive: ** 

Fun to Look at: *** 

Overall Experience: *** 

Verdict: Still a good lesson in not cutting corners, the upgraded version of this car is significantly better in all regards and will be much more fun to own. I’d opt for a low-mileage or leftover 2012 V6. 




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2013 Hyundai Elantra GT Auto

Price as tested: $23,015

27 mpg city, 37 mpg highway

posted 8 months ago

Likes: Excellent design blends Sonata cues into a useful five-door hatchback. 148 hp, 1.8-liter DOHC 4-cylinder has variable valve timing, and is faster than you think. 6-speed auto trans is quick-shifting, with tilt-telescope wheel-mounted paddles for the fidgety. Stylish interior is well-finished, with panoramic double sunroof. Gauges well placed, controls simple and obvious and 7-inch Nav screen very sharp. Disc brakes all round, dual-zone climate control, multiple air bags and curtains, active head rests and belt pre-tensioners, ABS, traction control, electronic stability, power windows, mirrors, remote locking. Nice interior materials, heated leather seats. Back seat suprisingly OK for adults. 7-speaker AM/FM/CD/MP3 XM stereo, Bluetooth. 14.8 cu ft trunk, and 100,000-mile, 7-year transferable warranty. Surprisingly quiet on the highway (take note: Honda and Nissan). 
Dislikes: The same old complaint about mag wheels and curbs and these wheels were really nice. Steering rather dead on center, front spoiler rather low for parking blocks.

Fun to drive ★★★☆☆

Fun to look at ★★★★☆

Overall ownership experience ★★★☆☆

Verdict: Very pretty car, with good manners. Combines bargain price with decent performance, good looks and decent inside space. In all, an excellent package for $24K, a hatchback sedan that’s really got away from the four-door Rabbit effect. Despite the recent fuss, estimated mileage was about right. I’d have preferred a 6-speed stick.




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2014 Acura RLX Advance

Price as tested: $61,345

20 mpg city, 31 mpg highway

posted 8 months ago

Likes: Capable mid-size sedan with every bell and whistle you can imagine. 3.7-liter SOHC, 310 horsepower VTEC V6 has plent of zip, 6-speed auto is worth using manually with paddles. Controls simple, all seats are heated leather and front seats are 12-way adjustable, multiple safety systems, include airbags, traction control, adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assist, departure warning, blind spot information, collision mitigation braking, navigation with voice recognition, real time traffic conditions,  AM/FM/DVD-A/CD/DTS/XM radio, with 14 speakers, Bluetooth hands-free phone. Power moonroof, navigation with voice recognition, automatic brake warning, very cool multiple jewel LED headlights.
Dislikes: Expensive and, dare I say it, over-engineered. Still with no cachet. Bland exterior. Thirsty.
Fun to Drive: ** 
Fun to Look at: ** 
Overall Experience: ** 

Verdict: Acura ditched the slow selling AWD RL (379 total sales in 2012) for the front-wheel drive RLX, clearly aimed at the 5 series BMW. Even with the RLX’s four-wheel steering, an Edmunds track day determined that a 2011 BMW 535i came out ahead on every category. Then there’s the issue of branding, which leads to resale demand. BMW sold 56,798 5 Series sedans in 2012. That popularity is likely to be sustained throughout the 5 Series life, while Acura is looking more and more like an expensive historical footnote. 


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2013 Honda Odyssey Touring Elite

Price as tested: $44,755

19 mpg city, 28 mpg highway

posted 8 months ago

Likes: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Still the class leader; 248-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-Tec, SOHC V6 provides 0-60 mph in 7.9 seconds. Six-speed automatic, 4-wheel disc brakes. Heated front seats, can take seven adults easily, rear access is reasonable. Second row center seat can be moved forward to accommodate child seat, tumble-home third row disappears into floor. Tilt-telescope wheel, multiple-zone climate control, navigation with voice recognition, 16” DVD in rear can be split for two functions. 12-speaker AM/FM/DVD/XM stereo with MP3, Bluetooth, USB port and headsets. Noise-canceling technology quiet at highway speed, Superior brakes and handling for a minivan, multiple airbags, power everything, brake assist, electronic brake distribution, power moonroof, rear view camera, blind spot warning, two power sliding doors, power tailgate. Enormous: 38 cubic feet with all seats in place, 93 when third row folded, 148 when second row removed.

Dislikes: Expensive when fully loaded, though LX model does start at $28,675. Dash controls busy (80 buttons), power side doors are fiddly to work. No door lock on passenger side; if you have to use key, you must risk stepping into traffic. Second row seats must be removed for maximum storage; they do not fold forward or down, which is a nuisance. No 4WD availability.

Fun to drive ***

Fun to look at **

Overall ownership experience ***

Verdict: Still the best mini-van you can buy – though you won’t spend this much unless you have a job for it to do. That said, it’s a no-brainer, with near Accord performance in something that feels twice as big. Tumble-home third row seats a brilliant idea. However the Toyota Sienna offers AWD – and at this price you’d probably want it – while the Nissan Quest has a second row of seats that fold away. Still, if you have multiple kids who play sports, you can figure on a useful 250K miles from the Odyssey. This might be the only car your children know, until they get their driving licenses.



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2013 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring AWD

Price as tested: $30,415

25 mpg city, 31 mpg highway

posted 8 months ago

Likes: New Mazda SUV is sporty and useful at the same time, with positive steering, good handling and firm ride. In fact it won NWAPA’s compact category in the 2012 Mudfest contest. The Skyactive DOHC 2-liter four-cylinder engine offers 155 hp, with direct injection, variable valve-timing and 13:1 compression to make all that happen. 0-60 comes up in about 8 seconds, not bad for a 3,300lb AWD SUV. The six-speed automatic transmission can be manually shifted, there are disc brakes all round and the steering is electronic, but has good feel. The dash is well-organized and well-finished, including a 5.8-inch screen, with a rear-view camera, and the test car had dual climate controls, heated leather seats (driver’s has 3-position memory), 40-20-40 rear seat split, multiple air bags and rain-sensing wipers. The stereo was a Bose AM/FM/CD/XM/MP3 and Bluetooth hands-free phone capability.

Dislikes: Not many. It must be driven hard to be quick, which suggests towing anything bigger than a Sunfish might be a challenge. Doors must be closed firmly or they don’t latch, and that includes the rear hatch. I’d rather have the 6-speed stick than the 5-speed automatic, to get the best out of the revvy motor. Brake pedal requires firm pressure.

Fun to drive ****

Fun to look at ***

Overall ownership experience ****

Verdict: This reminds me a lot of what the first Subaru Forester first set out to do, 15  years ago. It’s noticeably smaller than the CX-9 and CX7, but boxier and more practical. It’s lively and fun and does not assume you’re going seriously off road or will be pulling a trailer. Thank God the Cheshire Cat grille is gone. Now, where are my sensible shoes?

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2013 Honda CR-V AWD

Price as tested: $31,025

22 mpg city, 30 mpg highway

posted 8 months ago

Likes: If it ain't broke don't fix it. Best seller in segment since 2007 and sold 281,652 units last year, 100,000 ahead of #2 RAV-4. 185 hp, 2.4-liter DOHC 4-cylinder engine with variable valve timing is surprisingly nippy, 5-speed auto very smooth. Intelligent all-wheel drive, multiple airbags, vehicle stability assist, electronic brake distribution, brake assist, tire pressure monitoring, pre-tension seat belts, active front head restraints. Simple climate controls. Handling, brakes and steering excellent. Enormous console storage, simple controls, 71cubic-foot storage area with covered rear, split rear seat with ingenious, sprung and fold-flat arrangement. Heated leather seats, straightforward Navi system, moonroof, rearview camera. 270-Watt Pandora AM/FM/6CD/MP3/XM radio, with Blue Tooth and traffic. Surprising 26.5 mpg in the city.

Dislikes: Could be quicker but 30 mpg is a good trade-off. No third seat, and limited towing capacity with 4-banger.


Fun to Drive: ***
Fun to Look at:
***
Overall Experience:
*** 

Verdict: Jury’s out this year, with a vastly improved Toyota Rav-4 coming to market. My guess is it will take sales from the others and the CR-V will stay comfortably ahead, until the next redesign. Will last for 250,000 miles, and buyers could reasonably expect their children to go from baby seats, to driving it to the prom.  

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2013 Lexus GS450h Sedan

Price as tested: $69,827

29 mpg city, 34 mpg highway

posted 8 months ago

Likes: Handsomely redesigned, immensely capable grand routier, easy to drive fast, comfortable and predictable. 3.5-liter DOHC 24-valve Atkinson-cycle V-6, produces 286 hp, 254 lb-ft of torque but permanent magnet electric motor gives a combined power rating of 338 hp. The front electric motor handles the charging, rear adds power when you want it. Surprisingly fast in sport mode, when eco-meter turns into tach. 0-60 in 5.7 seconds; top speed limited to 136 mph. CVT transmission has manual shifting mode, but adapts to dual-power system quite well. Beautiful finish, heated and cooled comfortable seats, very quiet at speed and 35 mpg on the highway. Sun shades for rear passengers. Three-zone climate control. Multiple airbags; all current safety devices, including collision avoidance and lane-change warnings. Mark Levinson stereo, heated and cooled seats, speed-sensitive steering.  

Gripes:  Navigation system still not intuitive, console infotainment “mouse” control annoying.

Fun to drive ****

Fun to look at ***

Overall experience****

Verdict:  Unobtrusive as a Savile Row suit. Quiet and surprisingly economical. Will undoubtedly last for 300,000 miles. Amortize the purchase price over that distance and it’s .23 cents per mile. Of course the gas will cost you about $30,000 in that time, at $3.50 a gallon.


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2013 Acura ILX Tech

Price as tested: $32,295

24 mpg city, 35 mpg highway

posted 8 months ago

Likes: Decent performer: 150 hp SOHC 2-liter 4-cylinder much better than feeble 111 hp 1.5-liter hybrid . Five speed automatic transmission, (no CVT thank God) anti-lock four-wheel disc brakes, traction control, stability assist, 10 air bags, dual-zone air conditioning, moon roof, multiple air bags, navigation with voice recognition, straightforward controls. Decent stereo with AM/FM/CD/XM/MP3 ipod etc hard disc. Heated leather seats a huge improvement over the Civic’s flimsy cloth. Superior wiper sweep, power windows, door locks, brakes, electronic steering and rear camera.  

Gripes: Like all Civics, the ILX is offensively noisy at highway speeds. 24 mpg not impressive in this category. No spare tire.

Fun to drive **

Fun to look at *

Overall experience**

Verdict: 40 mpg is the new 30, and when bigger cars like the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord get better mileage than this pipsqueak, it’s clear that somebody at Acura was surfing the web during office hours. I’m not sure where Honda goes from here; the Acura ILX is small for the money, noisy and doesn't get very good mileage. The bar in this category has been raised a lot since this platform was laid down five or six years ago. Maybe this is Honda’s Cadillac Cimarron: no matter how that was fancied up, it was a Chevy Cavalier at heart. Would you pay $32,000 for a Honda Civic? Thought not. Me neither. Buy an Accord or a Camry and have some decent resale too. 





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2013 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring AWD

Price as tested: $39,605

posted 8 months ago

Likes: Mazda’s most sophisticated SUV has benefitted from a facelift but otherwise it’s still well sorted. All-wheel drive; DOHC, 3.7-liter, 273hp V6 has enough grunt to scoot its 4,400 lbs from 0-60 in 7.9 seconds through 6-speed auto trans with sport shift. Precise speed-sensitive power steering and excellent brakes. Well balanced; car can be driven aggressively without scaring yourself. Active torque split AWD, rain-sensing wipers, Traffic proximity warnings, backup camera. Speed sensing door locks, multiple airbags, mostly 5-star safety ratings. Keyless entry, heated leather seats (driver’s with memory), dash well organized, gauges clear, three-zone climate controls, power moon roof. Excellent Bose sound system with MP3/Bluetooth capability CD and XM. 100cubic feet of storage with all seats down. Power tailgate a nice touch.

Dislikes: Not many. Middle passenger in back seat won’t be comfortable. Third seat confined to short, athletic children. Not much rear storage with all seats up (17 cu feet), though underseat locker helps. Thirsty – 16 mpg around town. Traffic proximity warnings a bit cautious.

Fun to drive ***

Fun to look at ***

Overall ownership experience ***

Verdict: Useful mid-size SUV, but the new CX-5 sold 43,319 units this year, all at the expense of the CX-7 and CX-9, so mileage must be a big factor. The CX-9 is good but it’s showing its age. If 40 mpg is the new 30 for mid-sized sedans, 27 mpg is the new 15 for mid-sized SUVs. Unless gas prices continue to go down, the disparity in sales between the CX-9 and CX-5 will widen.



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2013 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring AWD

Price as tested: $30,415

25 mpg city, 31 mpg highway

posted 8 months ago

Likes: New Mazda SUV is sporty and useful at the same time, with positive steering, good handling and firm ride. In fact it won NWAPA’s compact category in the 2012 Mudfest contest. The Skyactive DOHC 2-liter four-cylinder engine offers 155 hp, with direct injection, variable valve-timing and 13:1 compression to make all that happen. 0-60 comes up in about 8 seconds, not bad for a 3,300lb AWD SUV. The six-speed automatic transmission can be manually shifted, there are disc brakes all round and the steering is electronic, but has good feel. The dash is well-organized and well-finished, including a 5.8-inch screen, with a rear-view camera, and the test car had dual climate controls, heated leather seats (driver’s has 3-position memory), 40-20-40 rear seat split, multiple air bags and rain-sensing wipers. The stereo was a Bose AM/FM/CD/XM/MP3 and Bluetooth hands-free phone capability.

Dislikes: Not many. It must be driven hard to be quick, which suggests towing anything bigger than a Sunfish might be a challenge. Doors must be closed firmly or they don’t latch, and that includes the rear hatch. I’d rather have the 6-speed stick than the 5-speed automatic, to get the best out of the revvy motor. Brake pedal requires firm pressure.

Fun to drive ****

Fun to look at ***

Overall ownership experience ****

Verdict: This reminds me a lot of what the first Subaru Forester first set out to do, 15  years ago. It’s noticeably smaller than the CX-9 and CX7, but boxier and more practical. It’s lively and fun and does not assume you’re going seriously off road or will be pulling a trailer. Thank God the Cheshire Cat grille is gone. Now, where are my sensible shoes?



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2012 Kia Soul!

Price as tested: $20,350

26 mpg city, 34 mpg highway

posted 8 months ago

Likes: Updated and nippy SUV, which somehow extracts more style from a little box than you expect. 0-60 in 8.8 seconds, thanks to 164-horsepower VVT DOHC 4-cylinder and six-speed automatic transmission, which returns 34 mpg highway. Simple interior, instruments clear, controls intuitive. Reasonably quiet at speed, capable handling, handsome 18-inch mags. Excellent steering and AWD disc brakes, multiple air bags and curtains, four star crash ratimg. Decent stereo/CD/XM/MP3 etc. Remote entry, power windows, moonroof, backup camera, 53 cubic feet with rear seats down, 19 when they’re up. Will seat four adults. 10 year 100,000 warranty. Quirky interior lighting.

Gripes: Not as much storage as some competitors, especially with seats up. Could be quieter, AWD would be attractive option. Dashboard design still a bit clunky.

Fun to drive ***

Fun to look at ****

Overall experience****

Verdict: Charming and useful small wagon that’s very good value as well. Responsive and handles quite well for tall, boxy configuration. Look for Kia to grow the brand the same way Mini has, and check out Chicago Auto Show Track’ster, a chopped  three-door concept, which has 250-horsepower turbo four, 6-speed manual transmission, big fender flares and wide wheels like Renault R5 Turbo, and electronic all-wheel drive. WRC anyone?



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