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By on July 19, 2005

The desperate housewife of the mid-priced sedan set. Accord and Camry owners: "You're Welcome." At the risk of sounding sniffy, Toyota and Honda owners owe a large debt of gratitude to Nissan. Without the Altima, rival pink-slippers might still be trundling around in severely underpowered appliances. Rewind to 2002, when Nissan lit a fire under the collective backsides of every carmaker in the family sedan segment. At the time, Altima's haute-couture shape and Tabasco-infused engine gave competing engineers gray hair– and their marching papers. How else do you explain today's 240hp Accord?

That was then. And this is… later. Fortunately, while Nissan's busied itself immolating the wick at both ends of their considerable lineup, they haven't lost sight of the car that put them back in the game. I submit Exhibit 'SE-R'. Okay, so the new uber-Altima only boasts a modest bump in horsepower (10) and an extra ratio (6) in the manual gearbox. But don't be misled: the revised Altima is no trim-and-tape proposition designed to hold the fort until reinforcements arrive. It's yet another leap forward for Nissan's standard bearer.

By on July 7, 2005

The Volvo S40.  The runt with grunt.Life for this wee Swede hasn't been easy. Low man on the totem pole, bastard half-Asian stepchild to the rest of the family, Volvo's S40 sat idly by in darkened showroom corners while siblings bulked up courtesy the brand's design NordicTrack. Unable to do little but watch its brethren emerge with quickened reflexes, broadened shoulders and finely tailored threads, the colorless S40 must've felt like Billy to the rest of the Baldwins.

But no more. That's because Volvo's finally replaced the (ironically-named) Mitsubishi Carisma doppelganger with something more befitting the brand. As here in T5 guise, that means 'out' with the 1.9-liter light-pressure turbo (a tepid lump that'd barely get out of its own way, let alone stand up at stoplights), and 'in' with a properly force-fed 2.5-liter five-cylinder and six-speed manual. 'Out' with the uninspired oriental NedCar chassis, 'in' with a more robust platform spun from the same cloth as the Mazda3 and Euro-market Ford Focus.

By on June 27, 2005

It is what it is.  But is it for you?Today's showrooms teem with vehicles with false pretensions. Four door 'coupes.' Hardtop convertibles. 'Sport' wagons. SUV-schnozzed minivans. Hybrid-powered trucks. At best, most crossbreeds and half-casts are insincere. At worst, they're incestuous counterfeits. In Nissan's case, the Maxima no longer lives up to its 'four door sports car' billing. The Quest is a minivan masquerading as modern art. The Murano is an SUV that doesn't want to get its feet wet. So consider the Xterra Nissan's mea culpa. It does exactly what it says on the tin: it's a truck's truck.

Nissan's new Xterra is based on yet another variant of the company's stout F-Alpha platform, first seen underpinning the massive Titan. As with the previous iteration, the new model is a fantastically buff, well-resolved form– butch without being vulgar. Clipped overhangs and purposefully-vesicated sheetmetal give it the muscular good looks of a gym rat. If the compact SUV segment were an elementary school playground, Xterra would liberate its classmates of lunch money, yet they'd all feel cooler by association.

By on June 9, 2005

 Toasteriffic schnoz says you ain't in Marlboro Country no more.Strolling through one of Honda's vanilla dealerships and coming across the new Ridgeline is a bit like happening upon Mike Tyson supping Earl Grey tea at the Dorchester Hotel in London. Not that you'd say it out loud, but the word that springs to mind is 'fugly'. Which doesn't really do Honda's first-ever pickup truck justice. For better or worse, the Ridgeline is right hook to your aesthetic expectations, instantly redefining the pickup genre in both form and function.

By on June 6, 2005

 The Nissan Maxima is the Madonna of mid-priced motors. It can perform wild and sensational stunts, come home, pop on the kettle and write heart-warming children's books. Not bad for a car whose roots stretch back to 1981, when it was a 120hp wagon called a Datsun 810. Those days, salesmen probably threw in a couple of lawn chairs and two tickets to Grease at the drive-in to move the metal. Now all they have to do is toss a potential customer the keys.

Or just let them study the car for a while. The Maxima's body looks the way the Cadillac CTS wishes it did, before its designer decided to run for Mayor of Polygon Town. It's a clean, fresh design that's deceptively attractive. At first glance, it's easy to mistake the Maxima for another Japanese blandmobile. But then, as you experience the car's perfect proportions and restrained detailing in various lights and settings, the design begins to work its magic. Before you know it, words like 'handsome' and 'Nissan' seem less like oxymorons, and more like an invitation to a VIP room.

By on May 19, 2005

The Acura MDX: an arch conservativeThe second I saw the Acura MDX, it was déjà vu all over again. Like the recently sampled Honda Pilot, the MDX that landed on my drive was an eight-passenger SUV riding on bisected five-spoke alloys, slathered in Red Rock Pearl paint. Of course, there ARE important differences. Most prominently, the MDX is about 25% more expensive than the Pilot. Which makes the MDX Acura's $10,000 Question: Is the higher-priced SUV that much better than its well-sorted sibling?

Although the Acura MDX is a platform partner with both the Honda Pilot and Honda Odyssey, casual onlookers will scarcely place the MDX on the same family tree, let alone branch. Unlike Ford's chrome-reliant Mercury division, Honda didn't opt for the easy route to affluence. Up front, Acura's designers sanded away the Pilot's bluff prow and pulled the MDX' sheet metal into a beak, complete with projector headlamps book-ending a narrow, wing-shaped grille. They also opted for a more severely raked windshield and sloped backlight. By sacrificing utility for style and aerodynamics in pursuit of a more car-like aesthetic, Acura has done an admirable job avoiding the vehicular "parent trap."

By on May 2, 2005

Inoffensive design hits the MOR sweet spot.Yup, the Griswolds are back. Or as near as I can figure, anyway… because this Honda Pilot is surely the Clark clan carrier incarnate. Granted, someone's gone and prized off the Wagon Queen Family Truckster badging, coating its formerly pea-green flanks with something called 'Redrock Pearl'. But make no mistake: despite whatever lip service the Pilot pays to off-road cred, Honda has chamfered what few edges remain on the SUV franchise and produced a whale of a big foul-weather wagon.

By on March 22, 2005

 Props to The Dodge Boys for their steadfast refusal to give up on the Neon. Its original incarnation was a googly-eyed flexible flyer, with sharp handling and a willing (if coarse) drivetrain. The sports sedan earned plenty of praise for its sensibly-priced enthusiasts' appeal and cheeky looks– at least until its predilection for rattling to bits revealed itself. Predictably, over the last couple of years, the Neon's glow has been eventually eclipsed by newer, sharper, faster, better-built competitors.

And yet, here it is, in full SRT-4 regalia, slathered in Orange Pearl Blast paint.

By on February 15, 2005

The Forester XS LL Bean edition: still the leader of the pack?Subaru has remained 'willfully odd' for eons. The Japanese brand's long-held construction tenets– horizontally-opposed powerplants, all-wheel-drive and eccentric styling– have only recently been embraced by the masses. Okay, so America's roads aren't exactly awash in boxer-engines, but controversial styling is certainly making a resurgence, and we all know how that AWD car/truck thing worked out. Most manufacturers now have at least one car-based 'cute ute' in their showrooms, from Honda's CR-V to the Saturn Vue and Hyundai's roly-poly new Tucson.

With the massive success of its Outback lineup, it comes as no surprise that Subaru decided to fit some lifts and extra-tall glazing on its Impreza platform in search of a few more sales. The resulting Forester is an enigmatic little toolbox with many charms, but an unclear role in the family constellation.

By on January 20, 2005

The word "cobalt" comes from 'kobolt', variant of the old German word 'kobold', meaning 'goblin.' As the story goes, German silver miners of yore believed that goblins would come and steal their booty, leaving worthless cobalt in its place. Not exactly an auspicious choice of names for a car, then. Still, one can hardly fault […]

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