Category: Car Reviews

By on October 20, 2017

2018 Honda Fit LX - Image: © Timothy CainSubcompacts, if they ever were in favor, have quickly fallen out of favor in the United States. In 2017, sales in the first three-quarters of the year plunged by more than a fifth, year-over-year. The Honda Fit, modestly updated for the 2018 model year, is on track in 2017 to fall to a five-year low of around 50,000 sales, a far cry from the nearly 80,000 American Honda sold a decade ago.

The Honda Fit, not now in third-gen form nor in any prior iteration, has never sold on the strength of style. There have always been less expensive subcompacts, faster subcompacts, and better-equipped subcompacts, as well.

There have not, however, at least not during the Fit’s tenure, been any subcompacts that offer the flexibility of the Honda Fit. But does the fact that the 2018 Honda Fit is likely the only current subcompact that could operate as my family’s lone vehicle make up for the fact that the Fit lags behind rivals in key areas? Read More >

By on October 19, 2017

2017 Hyundai Ioniq Electric, Image: Steph Willems

Governments big and small can issue far-off bans on gasoline and diesel all they want, but in the here and now, no one’s stopping you from taking home a Ford F-350 crew cab for family hauling duties. There’s no shadowy apparatchik barring the front door at the local Dodge dealership, preventing you from signing on the dotted line for that 392 Scat Pack or Hellcat.

Choice, glorious choice, awaits us all. Enjoy it while you can. For now, only the number of coins in our pockets (and maybe our parking situation) can keep those automotive love affairs at bay.

So, is it any wonder few people buy an electric car? The future’s electric, CEOs tell us, but high prices, low ranges, and a fledgling recharging network means EV ownership was mainly — at least until the Chevrolet Bolt came along — the domain of those dropping big bucks on Mr. Musk’s long-range wondercars. Destitute, but still achingly green? A used Nissan Leaf can haul your butt across town for a price rapidly approaching $0.

Is there room in this lopsided landscape for a new Hyundai with no exhaust pipe, a price lower than the competition, and a body that doesn’t scream “status”? If there is, can you live with it? Read More >

By on October 18, 2017

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Outside of perhaps its front styling – especially the slightly bug-eyed headlamps and the pinched grille – the Kia Niro doesn’t really stand out in a crowd.

It’s quiet, thanks to a hybrid powertrain. It’s compact in length and height. It has a driving experience that isn’t memorable in ways good or bad.

And none of that preceding paragraph is meant as an insult.

Read More >

By on October 17, 2017

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If you’re new around here, you might not be aware that I’ve been accused of being a Blue Oval homer, or even being “bias.” (Bark’s tip of the day: “bias” is a noun, “biased” is an adjective.) I make no secret of the fact that the last four vehicles I’ve purchased have been straight from the Mind of Dearborn, but I don’t think that necessarily makes me FordPro Bark. In fact, some of my harshest rental reviews of days yonder have been directed toward Ford products.

But there can be no denying that I’m drawn toward Fords on rental row, simply because I have a large degree of familiarity with them. I don’t have to learn new infotainment systems or dash layouts, and everything from the steering wheel to the seats just feels right to me. As such, I found myself throwing my bags into the cargo area of a Ford Edge Titanium last week in Miami. The Edge is a resident of that strangest of vehicle segments, the large two-row CUV, living on the same street as the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Nissan Murano. The Edge can’t have a third row of seating, because then it would be an Explorer, and it can’t be any smaller, because then it would be an Escape. So it just kinda…exists.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Read More >

By on October 16, 2017

2018 Mazda CX-3 GX Red - Image: © Timothy CainDoes it matter that I think it’s a hatchback? In the minds of the consumers Mazda is targeting, the modestly updated 2018 Mazda CX-3 is a crossover, an ess-you-vee, a utility vehicle.

We ought to make some allowance for the designation differences. The Mazda CX-3 offers all-wheel drive. The wheelarches are cladded in black plastic. The loftier ride height creates 6.1 inches of ground clearance, up from 5.5 inches in the Toyota Yaris iA, which is essentially a Toyota-branded sedan version of the latest Mazda 2 (that’s never been sold in the United States) on which the CX-3 is also based.

Let’s give in to Mazda’s marketing for a moment, then. If the CX-3 “may lead to spontaneous excursions,” how will it respond to a harvest season visit into Prince Edward Island’s endless reserve of potato fields?

To make matters more interesting, our CX-3 steed lacks Mazda’s optional all-wheel drive as well as Mazda USA’s standard automatic transmission. Count’em: there are three pedals. Read More >

By on October 16, 2017

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I’m normally among the first to roll my eyes when automakers speak about “brand identity” and other such marketing claptrap, but when Land Rover employees speak of how the new Range Rover Velar fits in with the brand, it is hard to deny that they’re being accurate. Whatever it is – or isn’t – the Velar has a certain feel about it that only its stablemates share.

More on that later. First, an introduction. For those that don’t know, the Velar is meant to slot between the Evoque and the Range Rover/Range Rover Sport in the Range Rover lineup. It’s also meant to be a more-stylish alternative to the slightly gawky Land Rover Discovery.

The Velar sits in a weird space in the luxury SUV landscape. Its closest competitor may be the Porsche Macan, but the two don’t line up exactly in terms of performance. Jaguar’s F-Pace, which shares its platform with the Velar, plays the part of both sibling and rival, while the Audi Q5 is also in the conversation. But price, specs, and mission vary among these four – as well as others, such as the BMW X4 and the Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class.

Land Rovers and Range Rovers are supposed to offer luxury, off-road capability, some on-road fun, and charming (and not-so-charming) British quirks. They’re also sometimes tarred with a reputation for spending more time in the shop than on the road.

Read More >

By on October 12, 2017

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I suffered a nearly fatal narcissistic injury to the journosaur gland when I arrived at the Oakland airport last Friday night, only to find out that my press-loaner 2018 Mazda CX-9 was the Grand Touring model instead of the Signature.

Why does this matter? Well, as any self-respecting Mazda fanboy knows, the Signature has a center console made from rosewood provided by Fujigen, the famous Japanese guitar maker behind Pat Metheny’s infamous Roland GR-808, the bulk of Fender Japan production across the Eighties, and several different models of Electra six-strings. I happen to be an avid collector of Japanese guitars, with over one hundred and five Electras, Westones, and Grecos in my basement. I’m also semi-obsessed with Metheny’s Roland GR-808 sound, to the point that I’ve assembled some remarkably expensive hardware in order to precisely duplicate the tone found on tracks like “Are You Going With Me?”.

In other words, if ever there was a crossover capable of capturing my heart, it would be the CX-9 Signature. Oh well. I’m sure I’ll get over it eventually. In the meantime, let’s take a look at how Mazda’s newly-refreshed version of its still-youthful three-row CUV handles a brief trip to California’s central coast.

Read More >

By on October 10, 2017

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After introducing the Super Duty in 1998, Ford kept making upgrades to the same basic cab and frame all the way up to 2016. Multiple refreshes across three generations could not hide the fact that this truck rode on old bones, making the 2017 model year redesign a welcome change.

We had a chance test out the new design by borrowing a 2017 F-350 Platinum for a recent trip to West Virginia, which appropriately featured a Miata on trailer behind us. While our race car and trailer combo only made up a fraction of the maximum towing capacity of the diesel-powered behemoth, it gave us an appreciation of having a little extra room while towing.

Our schedule said we had to be on track at Summit Point for a drivers meeting at 8 a.m. on Saturday morning, so we tried to pack as much as possible before the Super Duty arrived in order to hit the road quickly. When the truck arrived on Friday afternoon we ran over to the U-Haul store to pick up a trailer. Hooking up was a breeze — even in the tight confines of the back lot — as the backup camera, along with the birds eye view, quickly got us lined up with the trailer and on our way to load the race car. Read More >

By on October 9, 2017

2018 Kia Rio EX 5-Door - Image: © Timothy CainDuring a year in which Kia is about to drop a BMW 3 Series-rivalling sports sedan with a price tag that rises above $50,000, it’s not hard to see why the arrival of a new Kia subcompact hatchback goes relatively unnoticed.

It’s not hard to see why the arrival of any subcompact goes unnoticed. In the United States, subcompact car sales are a pittance, forming just 2 percent of the market after losing one-fifth of their collective volume so far this year. Kia’s entry, meanwhile, fills only a narrow gap in America’s subcompact niche, suffering from a 51-percent year-over-year sales drop to only 11,952 sales in 2017’s first nine months, equal to just 4 percent of the subcompact market.

This is nothing new. U.S. interest in the Kia Rio, valued at over 50,000 annual sales way back in 2002, perked up with the dawn of the outgoing third-generation model half a decade ago but quickly diminished. Kia USA averaged fewer than 30,000 annual Rio sales over the last three years.

But you can forget the Stinger for a moment, you can set aside the K900, ignore the Cadenza, and temporarily dismiss the Sorento SX Limited. This is the 2018 Kia Rio. Kia won’t even let you spend more than $20,000 on this subcompact hatch. Read More >

By on October 6, 2017

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If I were opening a performance driving school tomorrow and needed to strike a deal with an OEM for a supply of cars, the Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ would be on that list.

To be sure, plenty of other production cars are well-suited to the purpose of instructing students. Last time I went through a track school, the company used BMWs (3 Series, if memory serves, but the 2 Series is also good). The Mazda Miata and its related cousin, the Fiat 124 Spider, would also serve as good choices. I could probably, without much effort, pick a whole bunch of cars from the current market, utilizing all types of drivetrains and transmissions, that would be great for novice track drivers to get their feet wet with.

Read More >

By on October 3, 2017

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There’s only one reason for the Dodge Demon to exist, and that’s to go fast in a straight line, preferably at a dragstrip.

Which is why I haven’t fully understood the point of the car, at least up until now. And maybe I still don’t. I mean, how many dedicated drag racers are out there that want to spend a pretty penny ($85K, give or take) on something that’s factory-ready for the strip and easily streetable? Back in the muscle car days, sure, that was a thing, but today’s drag racers are probably either finding a cheap Fox-body Mustang and decking it out, or, if they have the means, going whole hog and buying something from an OEM that isn’t street legal.

That’s just a guess on my part – I’m not as in tune with those who drag race on weekends as I’d like to be. Maybe there’s been a clamor for a car just like the Demon for a long time. Either way, Dodge isn’t going to build many – just 3,000 for the U.S. and 300 for Canada.

I can understand why the Challenger, including the Hellcat version, exists – it looks cool on Woodward, the V8 models sound badass, and it’s the closest thing FCA has to a “pony car” (in my ideal world, Dodge would sell a true pony car alongside the Challenger, but I’m no Sergio). But unlike most sports cars, which can give you at least a taste of their track prowess on the right public road, the Demon’s skillset can’t be safely applied to the street.

That doesn’t mean I think the car should be banned – Automotive News got that wrong – just that, on paper, I didn’t quite get the hype.

Then someone tossed me the red key.

Read More >

By on October 2, 2017

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Let’s get this out of the way up front – I’ve always had a soft spot for the Honda Accord. I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a fanboy, but I am a former owner of an ‘90s-era Accord coupe (I bought it used in 2005 or so and sold it in 2012) and I always felt that the Accord was sportier, generally speaking, than most other mid-size sedans.

Sure, the Mazda 6 has been the best driver’s car in the class for a while, and the Ford Fusion is fun to drive, but I’ve long thought the Accord had a sporting character the Camry and others lacked, at least until recently. Honda seemed to get more vanilla with the Accord in the past generation or two, even though the car still presented a strong package overall. Would the newest Accord, which comes with a choice of turbocharged engines and is available with a three-pedal setup, bring back the flavor of yore? Read More >

By on September 29, 2017

2018 Mercedes-Benz E400 Coupe - Image: © Timothy CainThe 2018 Mercedes-Benz E400 Coupe’s high beams unfurl like a curtain, quickly and progressively spreading light across the forests on either side of the road. And that’s only the Benz lighting system’s third act.

It’s a late summer evening and you open the E400 Coupe’s vast door, welcomed by ambient lighting that swirls around the cabin, hued to your liking, with a glow bright enough to be useful but soft enough to be easily ignored. The turbocharged V6 ignites and a light show is instantly projected onto the house in front of you with radiant beams and excitable flashes.

With the auto industry well into its second century, it’s increasingly difficult for a luxury automaker to set itself apart. Equipment alone doesn’t do the trick, particularly when a car as costly as this heavily optioned 2018 Mercedes-Benz E400 4Matic Coupe lacks, for example, the ventilated seats of a $29,190 Kia Optima.

No, it’s the special stuff that makes the difference; it’s the memorable moments that distinguish the extraordinary from the ordinary. Heated seats must also warm the accompanying door panel and center console. A variety of dramatic light exhibitions must always attract your attention. The central infotainment display must seamlessly merge with the gauge cluster to create a vast screen stretching 28 inches across.

And the windows must roll down to reveal a pillarless structure, a redolent whiff of classic coupes long since expired.  Read More >

By on September 25, 2017

 

2017 Dodge Challenger R/T

“Rumble, young man, Rumble!”

— Muhammad Ali

It’s strange to think that the modern iteration of the Dodge Challenger has now been in production for twice as long as its inspiration. One has to either admire or despair at the way that Dodge has managed to keep this one-trick pony on the lips of the automotive universe, simply by throwing more and more horsepower at it. FCA knows their audience — who cares that the platform is more than a decade old? Just make it faster! Would any of us be surprised to see a 1,000 horsepower Challenger revealed next year? Hell, why not just make it so powerful that it rips itself in half? 

But, as with most performance-oriented cars, the real cheddar comes from the volume models. The Deep South is rotten with V6-powered Challys, and the original 3.5-liter, 250-horsepower models are the star of many a Buy Here Pay Here Lot. And while the 2015 and newer Pentastars, which are masterfully mated with the ZF 8HP automatic, can be enjoyable to drive, let’s be the realest here, k? Nobody lusts after a Challenger with too few cylinders. It’s the HEMI rumble that you want. And the Dodge Challenger R/T delivers it, albeit in 5.7-liter form, and it does it at a price that’s right in line with the average new car price in these United States of America. Read More >

By on September 22, 2017

2018 Chevrolet Equinox green front

I tried in vain, but I couldn’t track down a proper early ‘60s surf rock station on the SiriusXM radio during my time driving the 2018 Chevrolet Equinox. I was imagining the Beach Boys’ classic “409” every time I planted my right pedal in this improbably powerful compact crossover. Sadly, the basic facts and figures don’t lend themselves to poetic lines like “She’s real fine/my four oh nine:”

She can go/my two point oh.

My nine-speed, front-drive, direct-injected two point oh.

Giddy Up, two point oh.

My apologies for the not-quite-Brian Wilson earworm. Few crossovers inspire anything, let alone any hint of song. This Chevrolet Equinox has plenty of power (and torque steer), but can it measure up beyond the engine room?

Read More >

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