The Truth About Cars » SE The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Mon, 28 Jul 2014 13:00:51 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » SE Vellum Venom: 1970 Dodge Charger RT-SE Tue, 17 Sep 2013 13:21:13 +0000

My departure from the cloistered world of automotive design was anything but pleasant: leaving the College for Creative Studies scarred changed me, possibly ensuring the inability to conform to PR-friendly autoblogging. Luckily I am not alone. While Big Boss Man rests in Chrysler’s doghouse, a remotely nice comment about their door handles perked the ears of the local Chrysler PR rep…and she tossed me a bone.

Perhaps you’ve never heard of Hovas’ Hemi Hideout: so here’s a slice of Mopar history worthy of a deep dive into the Vellum. Oh, thanks for the invite, Chrysler.


An unforgettable face: the iconic 1968-1970 design was Chrysler’s most memorable effort to spook insurance and safety special interest groups into forcing “better” vehicles on the public. Sure, we’re better off now, but is a fragile chrome halo of a bumper really that useless?

Isn’t this bumper (and complex hidden headlights) worth the extra insurance premiums? Worth it to have a disturbingly clean and minimalist design?  Probably not…


But still, you can’t argue with how stunning and shocking this is.  While nothing like Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, the Charger’s front clip is a timeless work of art.  The blackout grille extends over the headlights, encased in a deep silver rim, topped with a chrome bumper…wrapped up with a name: Charger R/T.  This nose and this name made a promise to would-be new car racers of the era, and its aged phenomenally well.

That said, my favorite grille of this body style was the cleanest: the 1968 Charger was the one to have. It makes the otherwise clean 1970 Charger look downright fussy!


Things fall apart as you look closer, however.  Maybe the solid grilles over the headlights look cheap, and the panel gaps are too sloppy. The round signal lights look like a leftover assembly from the 1950s. Or perhaps the license plate should be located even lower as to not interfere with the bumper’s strong minimal form.


Even though the front end looks flat from many angles…

Note how the chrome bumper tapers in near the headlights, then pushes back out at the ends of the fenders. The silver rim accentuates this dance, ditto the fenders and hood.  But that black sheet of grille?  It peaks at the middle and nothing more.  The different high/low spots are phenomenally beautiful, it is fantastically executed on this front fascia.  5

The hood’s recesses and that strong center mohawk add a bit of excitement to an otherwise far-too-subtle design for a Mopar Muscle car. If you had a problem with Mopar Minimalism!


Somehow I doubt the meaty rubber trim does anything to protect the Charger’s painted body from the front bumper.  Not to mention the horrible fitment of this (replacement?) trim. I’d hate to be a broke-ass dude in the 1980s when someone slams their 5-mph bumper’d Monte Carlo into my otherwise cherry 1970 Charger.  The damage would be extensive…and would go unrepaired!



Hood pins are cool…but following their cable to this horrendous gap in the rubber trim leaves much to be desired. Damn, son!

7_1But it’s less offensive when you step back a little.


The only thing cooler than Rallye wheels and Goodyear white letter polyglass tires on this Charger would be the new-age 17″ repros with fat steel-belted rubber.  I love the proportioning of a proper 1970s muscle car with 17″ rolling stock: it’s perfection.


The hard bend (with a slight upward angle) at the end of the fenders just “ends” me. It’s another snapshot on vehicle design that emulates the timelessness of the infinity pool in modern architecture. Combine with the Charger’s long front end and deep fenders (i.e. the space between the hood cutline and the end of the fender) and this is simply a fantastic element.


The hood’s negative areas add some necessary excitement, otherwise this would be too boring for an American muscle car.  There’s just too much real estate not to do…something!


The signal repeaters at the beginning of the negative area’s cove are a styling element that I wish could come back.  But no, we need standard bluetooth and keyless ignitions instead…probably.


I’d trade all that standard technology for a hood this menacing, this modern.

Mid Century Muscle?

Mad Men Mopar?

Don Draper’s mid-life crisis machine?

All of the above. 13
The intersection of the cowl, fender, hood and door isn’t terribly elegant.  Newer cars have “hidden” cowls, an advancement that’d make the Charger shine. Because not having the fenders and hood sweep over THIS space does THAT front end a huge disservice.  Plus the panel gaps kinda suck, too.

At least there’s no DLO fail.  But imagine this angle with the 1980s technology of hidden cowl panels!


A little faster A-pillar would also be nice, it’s too static just like the cowl. But asking for such changes 40 years later is beyond idiotic. And while the R/T door scoop isn’t nearly as hideous as the afterthought scoop on the 1999 Ford Mustang, you gotta wonder how “ricey” this looked to old school hot-rodders making sleepers out of Tri-Five Chevys and boring 1960s sedans.


The pivot point for the vent window is an interesting bit of kit.


Chrome elbow sleeves, because a computer couldn’t bend/cut one piece of bling for us back then. Bummer.


Yeah, the R/T’s useless scoop is pretty much Muscle Car Rice.  While it kinda accentuates the genesis of the door’s muscular bulge, it’s completely superfluous. 19

Chrysler’s side view mirrors for the time were pretty cool by themselves…but they didn’t match the max wedge (get it?) demeanor of the front end.  20
I never noticed the three lines inside the R/T’s slash.  Definitely adds some excitement without today’s emblem marketing overkill.


Note how the R/T scoop does match the contrasting muscular wedge of the door.  Problem is, the scoop is obviously a tacked-on afterthought.  Negative area like the hood was a smarter alternative. But the interplay between doors lower wedge and the strong upper wedge coming from the fender is quite fetching.  As if the Charger is ripped from spending years a the gym.


Yup, toned and perfected at the gym.  Too bad the door handles belong on Grandma’s Plymouth.  Perhaps we all shamelessly raid the parts bin…22_1

The SE package was always the Super Classy Excellent model to have.  The vinyl top, these “proto-brougham” emblems and the interior upgrades are totally worth it. What’s up with the pure modern “SE” lettering with that almost malaise-y script below to explain what SE stands for? I’d cut the emblem in the middle and only use the upper half.

I’d save the lower half for the disco era, natch. I mean, obviously!


Vintage Mopar marketing sticker?  Check.


Classic Detroit is present in the Charger’s profile.  Long hood, long dash-to-axle ratio, long fastback roof, long quarter panels and a long deck. That’s a lotta long!

The only thing too short are those doors: the cutline should extend several inches back for maximum flow.  And from the subtle curve in the front fender to the stunning hips above the rear axle, does the Charger ever flow!


Aside from the obvious problem with rearward visibility, how can you hate this buttress’d roof?  The fastback C-pillar is a long, daring and classy affair when trimmed with chrome and textured vinyl.  Keeping the roof from being too boring was the rear window’s use of a different vanishing point than the C-pillar, which translates into a different stop on the blue body.


To make up for the different vanishing points, more chrome and vinyl. I can dig it, but perhaps such design novelties are better off on a less mainstream product.  Or perhaps not…because how many people wanted a Charger back in 1970?  And how many people want one now?  Me thinks the number is exponentially higher today.

Yes, I know these pictures suck. But you can’t imagine how painful it was to coax a cheapie digital camera to do the right thing under the harsh lighting provided by half a million dollars worth of vintage neon lights. And now I hate neon lights.


Chrome and vinyl: so happy together.


The different vanishing points for the C-pillar and rear window make for a little problem: the trunk’s cutline should be much closer to the rear window.  And while that’d make a stupid-long trunk, it would look stupid cool.

Just in case you didn’t know where the new Challenger got that fuel door idea from. Too bad the new Challenger doesn’t have the Charger RT’s sense of chrome trimmings elsewhere to integrate it into the package.  That said, this is a beautiful piece of outstanding metal on a minimalistic body. Which makes it a wart…and by definition, warts must be destroyed.

Killed with fire. Or splashed with acid.  Or whatever it takes for a Dermatologist to knock ‘em off a beautiful body.


A part of me wishes the Charger’s back-end had the same round chrome bumper treatment as the front.  And no chrome around the red tail lights.  Actually just graft the front end entirely back here, and replace the black grille with red tail lights. A bit stupid perhaps, but it’d make a completely cohesive and eye-catching design.


That said, the Charger ain’t no slouch in the posterior.  The vertical bumperettes need to find lodging elsewhere, ditto the round backup lights.  But the space between the lights is the perfect location for a branding emblem, and the impossibly thin decklid looks quite sharp.


There’s a subtle dovetail at the end of the trunk, a nod to modern aerodynamic designs. I love it, don’t you?


Can’t say the same for the undefined space between the rear bumper and the quarter panel.  Yeesh, this was acceptable in 1970?


The trunk’s gap also leaves something to be desired. While I like the interplay between the chrome bumper and the tail light trim above the license plate area, it’s a bit too subtle.  Wait, did I actually mean what I said?

The difference in “heights” at the license plate should either be a bit more aggressive, or completely, exactly the same as the rest of the light/bumper ratio.


Maybe the crude black paint on the tail light’s chrome trim is the byproduct of a terrible restoration…but considering factory correct restorations elsewhere include similarly sloppy craftsmanship to mimic the factory…

Oh boy.


The tail lights are sunken significantly into the body, just like the grille up front.  Me likey enough to adore: such use of aggressive negative areas needs to come back in a BIG way.


There’s something about the chrome trim’s application around the trunk lock…


Even the camera-infurating action of all those neon lights can’t hide the ugliness here. Maybe my idea of having an all-encompassing chrome bumper instead of chrome around the tail light isn’t such a stupid idea after all. It’d certainly address this problem.


The round backup light does this design no favors. Exposed screws on the chrome bezel makes it worse. Weren’t there some square lenses Chrysler coulda parts-bin’d instead?

38 No matter: the 1970 Charger is an unforgettable machines.  I can’t imagine owning one when new, only to move on to tackier metal from the disco era.  And if a 1970 Charger owner was loyal enough to stick around during the Iaococca era and beyond, well, they’d be justified to hate everything made after 1970. Just look at that roof!

Thank you for reading, I hope you have a lovely week.

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Review: 2013 Toyota Camry SE V6 Thu, 02 May 2013 12:00:09 +0000 Do not adjust your screen, Solo is back. (photo courtesy: Mike Solo)

Hello TTAC! For those who wondered where I went, I’m back from my global tour with the USAF. I am back in my native West Texas, attending Texas Tech University in pursuit of a Mechanical Engineering degree. As a break from finals, I test drove the best selling car in the US, with a decidedly continental Captain Solo slant. Thus far, I have consumed two overpriced lattes and wandered around Lubbock for 45 minutes in an attempt to organize my thoughts and come towards an unbiased conclusion about the baffling Toyota Camry.

I’m filled with competing emotions of loathing, rage, and acceptance. I loathed the way it drove, I raged at how the car failed to respond, and came to accept that Toyota did not design the Camry SE for me, but for the demographic lurking in the suburbs of sprawling cities whose main focuses are safety from anything that could harm them, and ignorance in the art of driving.

Toyota designates their sporty models with the badge of “SE”, to separate these offerings from their more pedestrian LE and XLE offerings. The SE’s dual exhaust tips hinted that the crisp lines offered more on tap than the general white goods Camry seen plodding along the commutes of America. The latest redesign of the Camry sports crisp, almost Euro inspired lines. Which results in fewer curves, making the rather large previous generation look bulbous. So, in the great vein of middle-class middle-sized sedans, the Camry looks like a car.

The Camry plies the middle road with no-risk styling, modernizing lines seen on a cabin birthed back in 2001. And the field left Toyota behind: the Fusion, Sonata, Optima and even the Mazda6 advanced the mid-sized segment. They look beautiful, futuristic, elegant, and attractive. Mr. and Mrs. Suburbia can drive something with distinction formerly relegated to the premium classes. Take note Toyota, before it’s too late.


The interior speaks more of the same: functional, useful, and up to date, with nothing distinguishing. Gone are the slick glass panels, now in matte black plastics. Then I detected misaligned buttons, plastic flash seams on the door panels, and mismatched fabric colors. They stand out like a hipster on Wall Street. Never in a Toyota product have I seen build quality issues like these! While minor and common in Chrysler offerings, if quality control Fail crops up in plainly visible areas, where else has Toyota gone astray?

Luckily the stereo’s touchscreen interface uses an adequate speaker system to speak to serene commuting levels. On bumpy roads, touching it without a ‘double-click’ is challenging. The tiller contains numerous buttons to mitigate this problem, all stereo controls (among others) are accessible here. Sadly the buttons protrude heavily into the sporting zone, threatening to change radio stations should you thrash at the wheel in an attempt at sporting prowess.

One major cost-cutting maneuver lies plain once you adjust the climate control. Both fan and temp settings must be adjusted continuously, as Toyota has not installed automatic climate control on the SE, unlike most of its rivals. The fan has a great range (with over 10 settings, wahey!) but once the cabin cools, position 1 wheezes cool air while 2 forces air hard enough to demand splitting the flow between your feet, the dash, and the windshield in order to get a comfortable, cool waft through the cabin. My kingdom for a superior rheostat!

So far, the Camry’s given nothing to inspire rage and loathing on levels not seen since Fox canceled Firefly. But one turn of the wheel brought all these emotions to the surface in a petrolhead rage.

I have not felt steering this bad since the days of British Leyland. The typical numb on-center feel and lack of feedback give immediate and distinct impressions of “toaster on wheels”. Or maybe “outdated and dumb Cylon”. Entering a corner, the steering firms up in a progressive but ultimately futile attempt at sport sedan prowess. I pitched the Camry SE into several hard corners and was rewarded with phenomenal understeer. Any lifting of the throttle in an attempt to tighten up the line resulted in eHarmony levels of rejection. The Toyota plowed ahead like a clueless tourist in Times Square, complete with abundant squealing.

The most recent Camry national advertisement has a typical couple exclaiming the sporty SE is “Grounded to the Ground!” Yes, the tires give ample grip, only noticeable in the minute the car is gripping. Then next comes the aforementioned squealing understeer: this is driving Novocain with track tires.

“But Capt Mike! It’s not a sports car!” you say.

Of course not. Yet in situations where steering feel warns of problems (hydroplaning, ice, collision avoidance) the Camry SE gives lifeless to the point of useless. Beating at the steering column with a wiffle bat and screaming like Yvette Fielding in ‘Most Haunted’ are more entertaining than trying to make the Camry hustle. It doesn’t move, flow, or have chassis alacrity all its rivals exhibit. If Toyota went for safe, they made boringly unsafe instead.

To its credit, in situations needing only straight ahead mindlessness, the Camry does demonstrate remarkable body control and damping. Never upset by rough surface, nor jounced by sudden bumps, the sportiest Camry remains calm, composed and quiet. The V6 pumps out a nice sounding, rev willing 268bhp coupled to a competent shifting 6-speed auto. The shift paddles behind the wheel respond quicker than most systems I’ve driven, yet lag behind the wonderful DSG and PDK systems of Audi and Porsche. (Given the asking price, no surprise there?) Shifts are smooth, and on downshift, the computer actually rev matches! It’s almost sporty: except when shifting, you are still holding onto that wheel and not an actual gear change lever…which kills my inner child.

Brakes? Yes. It has them. Progressive feedback, stops quick, anti-locks engage at the right time. The stability control only intrudes when your attempts at carving corners fails in a squealing mess, yet doesn’t kill all power like some systems that entirely remove the driver from throttle control.

So as I sit here at J&B Coffee across from Texas Tech, surrounded by hipsters, cowboys, students, and apparently a drag queen, have I come to a conclusion about the Camry?

Yes. Toyota built a sequel hoping people will line up like Twilight fans.

Fans completely devoted to something mired in mediocrity, while its competitors, namely the Ford Fusion, and the Kia Optima/Hyundai Sonata twins went for full reboot. Would I recommend the Toyota? 10 years ago, yes, but today, there are far better alternatives, purchased for less and are on-par in reliability. So I plead to Toyota: remember the Supra? The Celica? The 1st and 2nd-gen MR2? You CAN do exciting and beautiful, you just need to rediscover that passion and verve before you become the next GM circa 2005.



]]> 124 Video Review: 2012 Ford Focus SE Sedan Wed, 12 Sep 2012 15:40:38 +0000  

Click here to view the embedded video.

Today, we’re trying something new. Alex is doing his review in video-only format. Let us know how you like it.

Ford provided the vehicle, insurance and a tank of gas for this review.

Specifications as tested

0-30: 2.93 Seconds

0-60: 7.61 Seconds

1/4 Mile: 16 Seconds @ 86 MPH

Average Fuel Economy: 30.5 MPG over 679 miles


2012 Ford Focus SE Sedan, Exterior, side, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Ford Focus SE Sedan, Exterior, front, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Ford Focus SE Sedan, Exterior, side, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Ford Focus SE Sedan, Exterior, side, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Ford Focus SE Sedan, Exterior, front, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Ford Focus SE Sedan, Exterior, front, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Ford Focus SE Sedan, Exterior, front, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Ford Focus SE Sedan, Exterior, wheels, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Ford Focus SE Sedan, Exterior, rear, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Ford Focus SE Sedan, Exterior, rear, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Ford Focus SE Sedan, Exterior, tail lights, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Ford Focus SE Sedan, Interior, shifter, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Ford Focus SE Sedan, Interior, infotainment, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Ford Focus SE Sedan, Interior, infotainment, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Ford Focus SE Sedan, Interior, infotainment, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Ford Focus SE Sedan, Interior, infotainment, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Ford Focus SE Sedan, Interior, gauges, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Ford Focus SE Sedan, Interior, tachometer, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Ford Focus SE Sedan, Interior, speedometer, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Ford Focus SE Sedan, Interior, dashboard, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Ford Focus SE Sedan, Interior, driver's side, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Ford Focus SE Sedan, Interior, dashboard, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Ford Focus SE Sedan, Interior, steering wheel, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Ford Focus SE Sedan, Interior, steering wheel, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Ford Focus SE Sedan, Interior, infotainment, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Ford Focus SE Sedan, Interior, center console, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Ford Focus SE Sedan, Interior, rear seats , Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Ford Focus SE Sedan, Interior, rear seats , Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Ford Focus SE Sedan, Engine, 2.0L DI, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Ford Focus SE Sedan, Engine, 2.0L DI, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Ford Focus SE Sedan, Engine, 2.0L DI, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Ford Focus SE Sedan, Interior, Trunk, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2012 Ford Focus SE Sedan, Interior, Trunk, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes ]]> 73
Hedonist vs Frugalist : 2012 Toyota Yaris SE Tue, 11 Sep 2012 13:00:32 +0000

Tercel. Echo. Yaris.

When the history of great cars is written, these models will likely not be anywhere near the short list.

After all, few cars that are plain-jane, spartan and underpowered make it to the latest and greatest coffee table books or Top 100 lists.

Yet, imagine if you asked actual owners about their best cars instead of the usual short-take reviewer?

I am willing to bet that the real world  Top 100 vehicles would have plenty of small cars that would be easy to own, reliable, and most of all….

Jacques Hedonist: Fun! It’s one of those words that can cover a whole gamut of situations. Fun in the twisties. Fun in the sun. Fun taking the family out to Wallyworld.

This Yaris SE is a fun little runabout. We’re not talking about Miata levels or fun, or even Fit levels of fun. We’re talking more in the lines of taking out your best friend’s brother or sister on a purely platonic lunch, and finding out that they are far more interesting than you imagined.

Stefan Frugalist: We’ll start with that unassuming exterior.

The Yaris SE is in many ways a first generation Matrix with 80% of the size and 90% of the interior space.

It offers that typical Toyota front fascia of our modern time.

A side profile with enough lines, ovals and ellipses to resemble a generic five door hatchback.

And a rear that pretty much finishes the nip and tuck of trying to turn a $16,000 commuter into an $18,000 commuter with a little sporting pretension.


Like that old Matrix, it is still a grocery getter of sorts. But unlike that model, the Yaris SE has one penetrating weakness that makes it almost ignored in today’s marketplace.

Hedonist: Competition.

We’ll put it to you this way. Let’s say you brought the Yaris SE, the Hyundai Accent and the Fiat 500 to an auto show for the first time.

The Fiat would be ogled. It’s arguably the most distinctive subcompact design of this generation. The Accent would be admired. The Yaris SE? Maybe a few glances. But in our weeks worth of driving it and leaving the SE trimmed Yaris in crowded parking lots throughout Atlanta, nobody made so much as a peep about this vehicle.

Frugalist: But then again some people don’t want to be noticed.

Do Camry and Corolla drivers get noticed? Maybe if the Camry has a blinker light that has been accidentally left on. Or if the Corolla scurried around town with a potted plant on top of it. Maybe then they would get noticed.

Often times non-enthusiasts don’t want to get noticed. They want to have a comfortable car with maybe a few appreciable design elements, an interior that makes for a pleasant environment, and enough utility to get the job done. These days they also want two other important things.


Hedonist: Reliability and fuel economy. Once you climb into this vehicle, drive it for a while and look around, you begin to understand where the SE’s sweet spots lies.

It’s in the interior for starters. The seats are eerily reminiscent of the ones in the Toyota Celica of the early-90′s. Very similar design. Exemplary comfort. With thick stitching and good lumbar support for what is in essence a commuter vehicle.


Frugalist: The interior is also bereft of any of the ‘easy to see’ cost cutting of other models. The door panels and dashboard are made of the same quality materials you would expect to see in a modern day $20,000 top of the line compact car.

The radio and speaker system would be right at home in a similarly priced Scion.

Even the instrument cluster has a similar design as the one in the Scion FR-S.

Hedonist: Start the vehicle. Drive around town or in the ‘burbs, and you’re never wanting for more power in any real life situation. The Yaris SE may only have 106 horsepower at 6,000 rpm’s. But the acceleration is there. 0 to 60 is around 9′ish and there was no wait or hunting of gears.

This vehicle is like most Toyotas. The automatic has a tendency to lock in at top gear right around 35 to 37 mph if you’re not going on the interstate. When you do go on the highway, everything is… predictable and non-eventful.

The SE model is a little bit noisy on the highway in that typical small car, small engine way. But the folks considering a car like this are a bit more concerned about other things.


Frugalist: Like fuel economy. This thing is an absolute marvel given the fact that the powertrain has no hybrid, turbo or CVT. A 4-speed automatic coupled with a 1.5 Liter easy to maintain engine and only about 2300 pounds of heft returned us a real-world combined 37 mpg around winding roads and the highway.

No that’s not a typo. Now I should mention that our town driving has a lot of long one lane roads with stop signs every mile or two. Folks drive 30 to 50 in our neck of the woods. Not 25 to 35. As a matter of context the Sonic reviewed here a year ago got 32 mpg and the Versa returned 33.5 mpg.

The Yaris offers class leading fuel economy with an interior that isn’t quite as large as these two competitors. But it offers plenty of usable space for a family of four and an excellent level of safety with 5 star NHTSA and Euro NCAP rating. We should mention that there is some debate on the later safety rating which can be found here.

Hedonist: The other edge the Yaris SE has in the subcompact hatch segment is durability.

A normally aspirated Toyota that averages about 500,000 units a year on a global basis will usually offer outstanding durability and reliability that makes long-term owners truly happy. The reviews here, here and here reflect Toyota’s penchant for building outstanding small cars.

In fact, this type of vehicle represents the optimal car for a dealership (like Steve Lang’s) that specializes in owner financing and cars that can ‘make the note’. Small Toyotas take abuse better than nearly anything out there and the Yaris SE will likely follow that trend.

The NZ-based engine in the Yaris has been built for over a decade with over 20 Toyotas using it in various forms; including a modified version for the Toyota Prius.  The 4-Speed automatic has also been around for forever and a day.

Long story short, this Yaris will endure the ages and then some. If it’s driven reasonably and maintained to the specs.

Frugalist: Owning the Yaris SE for the long, long run would not be an overwhelming or underwhelming experience. It would simply be ‘whelming’. With that said, who should test drive one?

  • Anyone who is in the market for a Honda Fit. Yes, the Fit is a more dynamic vehicle with plenty of versatility. But the Yaris doesn’t have the same annoying level of highway buzziness. Though the MSRP difference is only between $300 to $700 between the two, the real life difference may end up in the $1500 range.
  • Folks who are ‘Toyota-centric’ and want to avoid a hybrid powertrain.
  • Non-enthusiasts who are planning on keeping their vehicles for 12 to 15 years, prefer hatchbacks,  and want the most bulletproof powertrain possible.

Frugalists may be better served by a Prius C. As for enthusiasts and everything in between? The number of vehicles to consider in this market is absolutely staggering. Sonic, Accent, Rio, 500, Fit, the upcoming Versa hatchback, Fiesta, the SX4, Impreza… and that’s just 9 of 20+ potential fits if the buyer is willing to consider a sedan or a coupe.

The Yaris SE isn’t as good as a Fit. In fact, other than the Versa, this model is simply unable to match most competitors when it comes to thrilling driving dynamics.

Hedonist: But cars are kinda like music when it comes to fun. Some of us are true hardcore music aficionados who seek brilliance in that fifth dimension. While others turn the radio to the easy listening station, and enjoy overplayed Billy Joel songs.

The Yaris SE is a ‘light rock’ hatchback. Predictable. Reassuring. It’s probably the perfect car for someone whose only rebellious act in their entire lifetime has been listening to Billy Joel songs about ‘crashing parties’ and ‘riding motorcycles in the rain’.

If you have a friend who is moving out and needs a new car for the longest time, well, you may be right to recommend a Yaris SE.

Tell her about it… preferably at Mr. Cacciatore’s down on Sullivan Street… and bring some earplugs if that radio is tuned to the wrong station.

]]> 34
Review: 2012 Volkswagen Passat V6 SE Fri, 02 Sep 2011 21:05:13 +0000

After a mere six decades of testing the waters, Volkswagen decided to get serious about the American car market. For the second time. To avoid a repeat of the Westmoreland debacle, this time they’ve designed a pair of sedans specifically for American tastes. They’re also building the larger of the two, intended to lure Americans away from their Camcords, in an entirely new, non-unionized American plant. And so, with the new 2012 Volkwagen Passat, tested here in V6 SE form (earlier, briefer drives sampled the other two engines), we learn what Americans really want—as seen through a German company’s eyes.

#1 – We have the aesthetic sense of retired engineers

The new Passat is very cleanly styled, and none of its aesthetic elements can be faulted. But the whole could not be more conservative. Put another way, many American car enthusiasts find the exterior boring. But perhaps their Camcord-driving parents will love it?

The tested silver car was shod with the base SE’s 17-inch wheels. The Passat looks both more expensive and sportier with the available five-spoke 18s (more on these later). Darker colors bump up the elegance.

#2 – Good materials and warm colors are wasted on us

When I learned that Chrysler would be supplying Volkswagen with a version of its iconic minivan, I wondered how they could possibly upgrade its notoriously cheap interior to VW standards. Fast forward three years, and Chrysler has substantially upgraded its interior materials. They also banished light gray—which makes all but the best materials look cheap—from their interior color palette. All of the budget-grade light gray plastic discarded by Chrysler has found a new home in the 2012 Passat, judging from the tested car. VW emphasizes the soft materials used on the tops of the instrument and door panels, but you’re more likely to touch the hard stuff lower down. The Passat’s interior is as plainly styled as its exterior, with right angles and flat surfaces. The problem with flat surfaces: they directly present more area to the eye, so hard plastic looks like what it is. Luckily, beige and black are also available. Hard plastic tends to look best in the latter. Prefer warmer, even bright colors, or at least colorful accents? The Passat isn’t your sort of car.

How cheap is the interior? Not as cheap as that in the new Jetta, but the analog clock would gather dust in a dollar store. Memo to Volkswagen: the entire point of an analog clock is to make an interior seem more upscale. Automotive news recently reported that “VW markets leatherette as a premium feature and the material’s texture might fool some Passat riders.” The author must have taken VW’s word for it, as the texture and feel of the gray vinyl in the tested car won’t fool anyone. It’s the sort of vinyl that turned Americans off of vinyl. Unless they’re the sort of Americans who preserve their furniture beneath clear plastic, for whom the Passat’s fleet-ready easy-clean interior might well be a dream come true. One positive note: the door pulls feel solid.

#3 – We like big cars with scads of room, especially legroom and trunk room

The American Passat is bigger than the European Passat, which is an updated version of the previous global Passat. Compared to the 2010 Passat, the 2012 is 3.4 inches longer (191.6), half an inch wider (72.2), and half an inch taller (58.5). Still not quite as large as the super-sized Honda Accord (194.1×72.7×58.1) and Mazda6 (193.7×72.4×57.9), but at least as large as anything else in the segment. Of course, what really counts are the interior dimensions, and here the new Passat truly shines. Through masterful packaging the interior encompasses limo-like legroom, 42.4 inches up front and 39.1 in back, for a total of 81.5, meaningfully more than in the Honda Accord (79.7) and Hyundai Sonata (80.1). Better, the Passat’s cabin feels even roomier than its dimensions suggest. Credit the straight-edged interior styling that, as in the 2012 Camry, maximizes perceived space. The Hyundai Sonata, with a swoopier interior, feels much tighter (if also sportier) from the driver’s seat.

The trunk extends forward virtually forever even before the rear seats are folded. Unlike many these days, it’s also very regularly shaped. Don’t swap in a full-sized spare and there’s more space beneath the floor. Inside the car, there are plenty of usefully large storage areas. Unlike in many current luxury cars, my superzoom camera fit in both the glove compartment and the center console.

#4 – We’re so delighted by some unexpected electrical bits that we’ll overlook the curious absence of others

VW might have nickle-and-dimed the interior materials, but they spent freely on light bulbs and minor electrical bits. Even the cheapest Passat has turn signal repeaters in the mirrors, puddle lights, a curb light in each of the wide-opening doors, comprehensive red switch backlighting, and dual-zone automatic climate control. All four windows have auto-down and auto-up. A power lock button that operates all four doors is present in each of them—even the two in back. (Great fun for the grandkids.)

Curiously MIA even in the top-of-the-range SEL Premium: separate front and rear height adjustments for the driver seat (raising the seat also tilts it forward) and rear air vents. The former are common among competitors, and it’s a mystery how VW figured the Passat would be fine without them. And the latter—why provide a huge rear seat if the people back there are going to bake?

#5 – We don’t like to gaze across acres of instrument panel, but otherwise have little need to see the outside world

The Passat’s staid exterior makes for good sightlines from the driver’s seat. The A-pillars are relatively thin and upright, and the instrument panel (abetted by a bi-level upper surface) appears compact by contemporary standards.

With this, VW decided they’d done enough to aid visibility. Even with the high beams on, the halogen headlights cast a narrow beam at night, and xenons are not available. With the body tall and high-waisted in the current idiom, rearward objects (still breathing and otherwise) can be obstructed by the high trunk, but neither obstacle detection nor a rearview camera is offered.

#6 – We like flat, hard seat bottoms and well-bolstered seatbacks

Okay, maybe not. No explanation for this one except that you can’t entirely remove German tastes from a German car. Where’s the pillow-top velour option?

#7 – There’s no replacement for displacement

No turbo Benzinmotor here, but the available V6 packs 219 cubes (3.6 liters for Americans who’ve learned some metric) and is good for 280 horsepower when wound to 6,200 rpm, the most you’ll find among direct competitors. Not the smoothest or the quietest six, with substantial engine noise at both idle and once over 3,000 rpm. But traditional American V8s also expressed their pleasure when subjected to a heavy right foot. And VW’s six uses its extra ration of gasoline (EPA ratings of 20/28 vs. the Sonata 2.0T’s 22/34) to produce much more sporting noises. Do a pair of front-mounted 215/55HR17 ContiProContact tires struggle to transfer this much power to the pavement at low speeds? You bet. But…

#8 – We like spinning our tires

The new Passat V6 continues a fine American tradition of cars with far more torque than traction. But wait…you can’t actually buy a Passat like the (pilot production) tested car, with both the V6 and the 17-inch tires. At a dealer you’ll only find V6 Passats with 235/45HR18 Bridgestone Turanza EL400s (and a sunroof also absent from the tested car). Still not a performance tire, and still no match for the V6’s 258 foot-pounds of torque channeled slush-free through the DSG, but nearly an inch wider and so a little grippier.

All-wheel-drive would help, but is no longer available.

#9 – We like lightning-fast shifts

Okay, probably not a priority among the Camcord set. But if you’ve got the next big thing in transmissions, flaunt it. The five-cylinder base engine is paired with an automatic, but the others get VW’s famed “DSG” dual-clutch automated manual. With the V6 shifts are virtually instantaneous and, except for some barely perceptible bumping about at low speeds, generally smooth. Those seeking to extract the full potential from the powerful six can use paddles on the steering wheel or the lever to manually shift the transmission. Or just stick the lever in S, in which case the transmission will keep the engine continually on boil (consequently this isn’t a viable option for typical driving). What the Camcord set won’t like about the DSG: $350+ fluid changes every 40,000 miles (just beyond the 36,000 miles of free maintenance).

#10A – We like to feel (and hear) the road

In the late 1980s, Toyota intensively studied the U.S. market and concluded that we get our kicks from super-smooth, super-quiet cars. Either times have changed, or VW used a different methodology, or they chucked the survey results in this case and did what they wanted to do (see #6). Whatever the reason, on concrete you’ll experience Honda levels of road noise and on the highway you’ll experience a similar abundance of wind noise.

Personally, I love a detailed read of the road through the seat of my pants, and consequently enjoyed my week in the Passat more than I would have a week in a Camcord. Instead of a smoother, more insulated ride, I wished for a nose that didn’t retain a bit of float and bobble (a partial concession to American tastes?) and the conventional steering offered only with the five-cylinder engine. Compared to the electric-assist system in the TDI and V6, which starts talking only under duress, the 2.5’s conventional system provides much more nuanced feedback and makes the car feel smaller, lighter, and more agile. But the Americans the new Passat is styled and sized for? Their taste in cars tends to differ greatly from mine.

Or perhaps VW’s research found…

#10B – We’re going to play the audio system loud anyway, and when we do we enjoy our bass at 11, even when it’s not

Five years ago VW partnered with Fender, legendary American manufacturer of guitars and guitar amps, to include a free GarageMaster with every car. Perhaps realizing that few of the Camcord owners they hope to lure away aspire to become six-string samurai, for the new Passat (and the new Jetta as well) VW had Fender help develop (or at least put their name on) an audio system manufactured by Panasonic. The 400-watt system can certainly kick out the volume, with an extra helping of thrumming guitar-amp-style bass even with the slide centered. Even with songs that you weren’t previously aware had much bass. Prefer a more balanced sound, similar to the default position in other systems? Simply use the touchscreen to move the slide to the left a click or three.

Or, perhaps as a result…

#10C – We’re deaf

#11 – We can be suckered by a low starting price

VW successfully captured Americans’ attention by starting the Jetta just below $15,000, and clearly hopes for repeat by starting the Passat below $20,000. But these prices are before $770 destination, and without the popular third pedal delete option. The least expensive automatic Passat lists for $23,460. The least expensive with a V6: $29,765. (Add nav like in the tested car: $31,365.) In defense of the $20,000 car, a Passat with the 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine, its attendant conventional steering and lighter curb weight, and the manual transmission should be the most engaging of the bunch. Not a bad way to go for enthusiasts with two big kids and a small budget.

Take the wayback machine to 2007, the last year VW last offered a Passat with a V6 but without leather, and you’ll find a $30,820 sticker. Adjust for the 2012′s additional features using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool, and the new car’s price advantage widens to about $2,400 (but only about $1,400 comparing invoices, dealer margins have been squeezed). So the new car is less expensive even when comparably equipped, just not nearly to the degree suggested by the $7,180 base price drop.

A Honda Accord EX V6 lists for $28,050. Even after adjusting for the Passat’s additional standard features it undercuts the Passat by about $400 at MSRP, and nearly $2,000 invoice-to-invoice. Willing to trade two cylinders for a turbo? The Hyundai Sonata SE 2.0T lists for only $25,405. The feature adjustment is only a few hundred in this case, leaving the Korean competitor with an over $4,000 price advantage.

#12 – We’re ready to forgive and forget VW’s past reliability lapses

Unfortunately, it remains to be seen how reliable the new Passat will be, and how soon Americans will be ready to accept that VW has changed (assuming it has). Based on responses to TrueDelta’s Car Reliability Survey, the new Jetta is about average so far, not bad for an all-new car. But the cars are still young.

At the end of the week, I wondered about some of VW’s choices with the new Passat, yet remained intrigued by the car’s combination of qualities: plain styling, lots of room, lots of power, an engaging chassis (if less engaging steering), value-grade interior materials, and limited refinement. If VW was trying to develop a twenty-first century interpretation of the groundbreaking 1977 Chevrolet Caprice (or the Ford Crown Vic that aped it) with the “cop suspensions,” this is about where they’d end up. With the TDI the Passat would make a great cab. With the V6 it would make a great cop car. Ed was in town for a few days while I had the car. His riff on VW’s current tagline: “Das Impala.” Coincidentally (or not), the current Honda Accord is quite similar. Did VW simply riff off the Japanese? Or do both the Germans and the Japanese know us better than we know ourselves?

Volkswagen provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.

Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data. Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail Passat V6 trunk Passat V6 sturdy wide-opening hinges Passat V6 storage Passat V6 side Passat V6 rear seat Passat V6 rear quarter Passat V6 interior Passat V6 front Passat V6 engine Passat V6 clock Meet "Das Impala"... Dwarfing an E38 7-Series


]]> 80
Review: 2012 Toyota Camry SE Fri, 26 Aug 2011 20:53:45 +0000

Most driving enthusiasts have written off the entire Camry line as the poster child for dull driving appliances. But those who overcame their prejudices and took the 2007-2011 Camry SE for a spin discovered surprisingly firm suspension tuning and, with the V6, a smooth, powerful engine. The most courageous even tried to spread the word. Encountering an anti-Camry diatribe, they’d respond, “But what about the SE?” For 2012 there’s a new Camry. An earlier review covered the overall changes and specifically the non-sport, non-hybrid variants. And the SE?

The Camry SE once again receives a bespoke exterior. For 2012 the side skirts are less aggressive, but the front fascia is more so. Especially welcome: the regular Camry’s chrome grille is given the heave ho. The four-cylinder’s five-spoke alloys appear a little undersized. The V6’s racier 18s more completely fill the wheel openings and look better in person than in photos. Overall the tweaks make the SE a more attractive Camry (such things being relative—little lust is likely to be incited), but I continue prefer the more complex (if also more commonly criticized) curves of the 2011.

With most Camry interiors, there’s a choice between beige and gray. In contrast, the SE’s interior continues to be offered only in the coolest or hottest of hues (depending on whether we’re speaking figuratively or literally): black. (Waiting for red, or even brown? Keep waiting.) With the 2007-2011 Camry, the dark shade helped obscure the poverty of the interior plastics. While this is less necessary with the 2012, the effect remains welcome. But the #1 reason to opt for the SE trim: the front seats. For 2012 the regular Camry’s buckets have been stripped of anything resembling lateral support. The SE’s seats have much larger, more closely-spaced side bolsters that comfortably and effectively cup one’s lower torso. A power-lumbar adjustment is standard, avoiding the lack of lower back support in the LE. Missed: rear air vents are available only in the XLE. Happily not missed: unlike last year, the rear seat folds to expand the trunk in the SE. Apparently they felt that the revised body was stiff enough without adding additional bracing.

The 178-horsepower four-cylinder engine does a decent job of motivating the Camry. But the sounds it makes don’t encourage frequent exercise, so it’s a poor fit for the intended character of the SE. I was only able to spend a few minutes with the sweet 268-horsepower V6, and intend to more completely review it once I can get one for a week, but for enthusiasts it’s clearly the way to go. Though unchanged since 2007, the V6 continues to match competitors with its effortless power and surpass them (and especially the Hyundai turbocharged four) in terms of sound and feel. Compared to the 2011, the SE V6’s curb weight is down 63 pounds (to 3,420) but the final drive ratio is a little taller, so acceleration remains about the same.

Fuel economy is up, especially with the four, which now leads the segment with EPA ratings of 25 MPG city, 35 highway. The V6’s 21/30 can’t quite match the Sonata 2.0T’s 22/34.

A funny thing has happened with the suspension tuning. For 2012, the regular Camrys receive slightly firmer suspension tuning and improved suspension geometry, so they handle with considerably more precision and control than before. At the same time, the SE’s suspension has been softened relative to the 2007 SE’s (the last year I drove one). As a result, the sport model’s ride is no longer borderline harsh, but its handling, while marginally more taut than the regular Camry’s and similarly more precise than the previous generation SE’s, is a less dramatic step up. With both ride and handling, most of the difference comes from the tires. Compared to the regular Camry’s Michelin Energy rubber, the SE’s Michelin Primacy tires (17s with the four, 18s with the V6) clomp more loudly and firmly over tar strips while sticking much better and with less fuss in hard turns. Even with the performance treads the Camry and I didn’t quite meld.

Engine choice makes a big difference. The V6 adds 180 pounds, all of them in the nose, and you feel every one of them in the heavier (but at least equally mute) steering. This difference is a mixed blessing. The SE V6 feels more solid and jiggles less, but it also feels heavier and less agile. As with all 2012 Camrys, the silky low-speed feel that has distinguished the line for the last two decades is much less in evidence, apparently a victim of the pursuit of higher EPA numbers, better handling, or lower costs.

Overall, the 2012 Toyota Camry SE is a better car than the 2011. The interior is much improved, body motions are better controlled, and fuel economy (Toyota’s primary focus with the redesign) has improved. But, as with the regular Camry, some chassis refinement has been given up. The biggest problem, though, concerns the cars’ character. The four-cylinder SE goes about its work with admirable precision and control, but feels soulless. Add in the buzzy four, and the car just isn’t involving. The V6 adds a healthy dollop of thrills, but in my brief drive its additional mass seemed to dull the car’s handling. Though handling is generally my top priority, if I had to have a Camry (and no other car) the SE V6 would be an easy choice. I’d recommend the same choice to non-enthusiasts not interested in the hybrid for the SE’s more cosseting seats alone.

But no one has to have a Camry. Even with its more dramatic suspension tuning, the 2007-2011 SE failed to break through most enthusiasts’ prima facie rejection of the Camry. With its less overtly sporting character, the 2012 is unlikely to do better. Toyota should not be surprised by this rejection. We were told about their active participation in NASCAR, which this year includes the Daytona pace car (which was brought to the Camry launch event). But, as Volvo has also discovered, if you build a brand around practical concerns (in its case safety) it’s very difficult to then market performance-oriented variants. Toyota primarily pitches the Camry as a safe, dependable, economical, “worry-free” appliance. To then turn around and sponsor fuel-guzzling, maintenance-intensive, potentially deadly race cars will, at best, have little impact. At worst, car buyers could become confused and wonder what Toyota and its best-selling model are really about.

Toyota provided fueled and insured cars along with a light lunch at a press event.

Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online provide of car reliability and fuel economy information. Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail It's all in the Camry... Camry SE V6 wheel Camry SE V6 interior Camry SE V6 front quarter Camry SE V6 front Camry SE V6 engine Camry SE 4 trunk Camry SE 4 rear seat Camry SE 4 rear quarter Camry SE 4 interior Camry SE 4 instrument panel Camry SE 4 front quarter Camry SE 4 front Camry SE 4 engine



]]> 52 Review: 2012 Volkswagen Passat 2.5 SE Mon, 15 Aug 2011 18:54:25 +0000

Volkswagen intends to become the world’s largest auto maker. Selling far more cars in the United States would accomplish this goal. Euro-spec cars haven’t been doing the trick, as too few Americans have been willing to pay the resulting semi-premium prices. So VW engineered a new Jetta compact sedan and a new Passat midsize sedan specifically for American tastes and budgets. Confident of the latter’s success, they’ve even constructed an all-new factory in Chattanooga, TN, to assemble it. Should the UAW’s latest targets expect to be working overtime? Today’s review evaluates the 2.5-liter five-cylinder gas Passat in SE trim, while Wednesday’s will compare the 2.0-liter turbodiesel in SEL Premium trim.

Apparently VW felt they were biting off enough risk with the new plant and the much higher sales volume needed to justify it, for the new Passat’s exterior styling could not be more safe. From the side the big sedan resembles the first-generation Toyota Avalon, itself tailored to the most conservative slice of the American car market circa 1994. The front end, like that of the new Jetta, does without the sort of overstyled, oversized headlights and grilles that have been fashionable for the past half-decade. But it goes too far in the other direction, giving the otherwise handsome (in dark colors) exterior an overly generic, “value” face not unlike that of the 1997 Camry.

The new Passat’s interior styling is similarly conservative to a fault. The instrument panel upper and parts of the doors are soft to the touch, but because many of the other surfaces and controls are composed of decidedly lower-grade materials the overall ambiance reeks of cost cutting. The climate control knobs, though easy to understand, feel especially chintzy. As in other recent VWs, the beltline (base of the windows) is fashionably high. But the pillars are thin by current standards and the windshield is comfortably raked, so the driving position is good if not commanding. The seats don’t have much in the way of contour, and the typical American posterior will find them short on padding. Compared to recent VW practice, the power seat lacks two adjustments: no tilt and no height adjustment for the lumbar bulge. For some people none of this will matter, for the new Passat’s interior has one literally large competitive advantage: limo-worthy legroom. Headroom is also plentiful. If you’ve been having trouble finding a sufficiently roomy sedan, your search is over—unless you also want your rear passengers to be well-ventilated. Though dual zone automatic climate control is standard in all 2012 Passats, rear air vents aren’t available. There’s plenty of room for your stuff as well, as the truck is large and the rear seat folds to expand it. VW clearly thinks Americans care about quantity more than quality, even as Ford and Chevrolet make a big shift in the opposite direction.

The 200-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged four that powered the previous Passat costs too much for the new car’s lower price point. Instead, the 170-horspower five-cylinder engine initially created for the U.S.-market 2005.5 Jetta lurks beneath the hood of the Passat 2.5. While most definitely not the driving enthusiast’s choice (we want whatever Europe gets), the five excels at midrange torque and sounds more substantial than the typical four. Paired with a six-speed automatic it has no trouble getting the car off the line or accelerating up to highway speeds. It helps that the new 191.6-inch-long, 72.2-inch-wide sedan weighs only 3,220 pounds, over 100 fewer than the smaller, 188.2-by-71.7-inch 2006-2010 Passat. The new Audi A6, though only a little larger on the outside and less roomy on the inside, weighs nearly a quarter-ton more.

The trip computer reported mid-twenties in suburban driving and high 30s along a stretch of 70 MPH highway. Both numbers seem optimistic. The EPA ratings for the Passat 2.5 automatic: 22 city, 31 highway, same as the 2010 2.0T.

Stripping the Passat down to fighting weight also pays dividends for handling. The Passat 2.5 feels much smaller than it actually is. The chassis and especially the steering have a direct, honest feel lacking in today’s cars, with their relentless pursuit of Lexus. Feedback is plentiful and nuanced when it’s most needed, in curves. The steering is a little light on center, but progressively firms up as the wheel is turned (many current systems with too much new tech for their own good do the opposite). As a result, though the Passat 2.5’s limits are fairly low courtesy of unaggressive suspension tuning and 215/55HR17 ContiProContact tires, and front end could be better damped in bumpy curves, it’s easy and enjoyable to exploit every bit of the car’s potential.

Then, the flipside. Without the extensive use of budget-busting lightweight steel and aluminum, those missing pounds had to come out of the body structure and sound insulation. Perhaps for this reason, the new Passat sounds and feels insubstantial and unrefined compared to the emerging norm for the class. Mid-turn bumps elicited a clunk from the driver’s door. Even assuming a defect with the tested car, the body structure feels less than rigid across imperfect pavement. Build quality, noise levels, and refinement are those of a mid-pack car from a decade ago. Thought a modestly insulated driving experience was disappearing forever from the midsize sedan segment, for good and not so good? Think again. Slicker, quieter, more solid competitors sound and feel more expensive, a reversal of the situation when the 1998 Passat shook up the industry.

The 2012 Passat starts at an attention-getting $19,995—but the mandatory $770 destination charge bumps it well over the magic $20,000 mark. Opt for the $1,100 automatic transmission and the SE package (17-inch alloy wheels, heated leatherette power driver’s seat, leather-wrapped steering wheel, trip computer, satellite radio, and a few other niceties), and the sticker jumps to $25,595. No longer so attention-getting, but still $2,350 less than the 2010 Passat (there was no 2011). But the 2010 included more stuff, most notably a standard sunroof, foglights, and those no longer available power seat adjustments. Adjust for these using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool and the MSRP difference shrinks to only $750. Compare invoices and the feature-adjusted difference is less than $200—VW has cut dealer margins. So VW isn’t giving much away here. They’ve increased the size of the car, but downgraded materials and removed content, resulting in a wash (at best). Even with its lower price, the 2012 Passat still lists for $3,390 more than a Hyundai Sonata GLS with Popular Equipment Package. Adjusting for feature differences cuts the difference to a still sizable $2,900. The Koreans are admittedly outliers. Other competitors tend to be within $1,500 of the Passat once feature differences are adjusted for.

Don’t care for upscale materials or insulation from the outside world? Just want a roomy car at a competitive price? Then VW has developed a Passat for you. But as much as I like to feel the road, the Passat sacrifices too much refinement in pursuit of a low price and a low curb weight. The best current cars suggest that, with finesse, it is possible to have both driver involvement and passenger comfort. The new Passat needs more such finesse. But, if strong sales of the new Jetta are any indication, it’ll sell well regardless.

Vehicle provided by Dan Kelley, Suburban VW in Farmington Hills, MI, 248-741-7903

Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of car reliability and pricing information.

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Review: 2012 Ford Focus SE Take Two (With Sport Package) Mon, 01 Aug 2011 19:52:13 +0000

As recounted in an earlier review, the new Focus in Titanium trim is good enough to justify a price tag over $27,000 for a compact Ford. But what if you don’t want to spend that much, or want a manual transmission, which is not available with the SEL or Titanium trim levels? How much do you give up with the SE? I requested a $21,380 Focus SE hatchback with the Sport Package to find out.

With small cars, hatchbacks are often more attractive than their related sedans. To my eye, the Focus is an exception. With the hatch, the rear quarters appear scrunched and drawn out, with a bit too much going on. The oversized tail lamps don’t help. I also found myself wondering about a cutline below the tail lamp, before realizing that was someone’s overly clever way of locating the fuel filler door. The smaller Fiesta hatch is a cleaner, more attractive design. All of this said, current competitors are either less attractive, less stylish, or both. The Focus at least lacks the sort of deal-killing aesthetic flourishes found on the Mazda3. A possible exception: black wheels that attend the $495 17-inch tire upgrade. Easily fixed: don’t tick that box and go aftermarket (more on this later). Wheels make a big difference on either bodystyle: both sedan and hatch look much better with the Titanium’s optional five-spoke 18s than with the other, smaller rims on the menu.

Inside the SE loses the padded upper door panels and trades some of the Titanium’s titanium and “piano black” trim bits for more prosaic silver ones. I thought I’d miss these, and find the SE interior dreadfully cheap in comparison. But during the week I had the car I didn’t. Not one bit. Everything looks and feels solid and precise. The SE’s rugged black cloth with gray accents looks and feels both sporty and upscale. This is the way BMW used to do cloth back in the 1980s, before leather (or something that resembled it closely enough to fool the masses) became de rigeur in ultimate driving machines. Need more color inside the car? For $795 Ford will substitute red and black leather. With the sun out and outside temps in the mid-90s, I was happy the tested car lacked this option.

As noted in the earlier review, the instrument panel is quite large, its height and depth pushing the limits of what I consider a sufficiently open forward view. I once again cranked the seat up a few clicks to get a good view over it. You can’t get MyFord Touch on the SE. Instead, as in the Fiesta there’s a confusing, unconventional array of buttons to contend with for the audio and communications systems. I figured out the basics after a few days, but full use of the system requires either extensive, often frustrating trial and error or (horrors) a trip through the owner’s manual.

The Sport Package includes a leather-wrapped sport steering wheel and aggressively bolstered sport bucket seats. These are both comfortable and supportive. The headrests don’t jut too far forward to be obtrusive. The non-adjustable lumbar support fit my back well, but others will no doubt wish for a larger and/or higher bulge. At 5-9 and 160 pounds, I’m not a big guy, and had plenty of room in the front seat. Larger drivers might find the instrument panel and center console overly constricting. Perhaps the seat’s side bolsters as well–they were about perfect for me.

Ditto the back seat. I could very comfortably sit behind myself with an inch of air ahead of my knees, an inch over my head, and a high well-shaped cushion supporting my thighs. A six-footer would be more of a squeeze.

Cargo volume is typical of a compact hatch. The 60/40 second row seats fold to form a perfectly flat floor, but not easily. Instead:

1. Unless the front seat is already pretty far forward or upright, move it out of the way.

2. Tip the rear seat bottom forward.

3. Remove the rear seat headrest.

4. Fold the rear seatback.

5. Return the front seat at least part of the way to its original position. (The seat can no longer slide all the way back, but enough for drivers up to about six feet.)

I’m guessing that there was a choice between ease of use on one hand and a flat floor and full-sized rear seat on the other, and the latter priorities won out. It would help if the rear headrests folded like those on the Explorer, but this was likely ruled out for cost reasons.

Get the car moving, and the Focus SE instantly impresses as much as the Titanium did. This $20,000 Ford has the thoroughly refined slickness, solidity, quietness, and composure you used to have to buy a hyper-expensive German machine to get. This is evident during the first fifty feet, and remains impressive after a week in the car. Even over Michigan’s pockmarked streets the Focus rides well, with tightly controlled body motions. Some cars absorb bumps a little better, but they have the advantages of a longer wheelbase and wider track. A Chevrolet Cruze isn’t far off in overall refinement. But the Hyundai Elantra trails considerably, and the new-for-2012 Honda Civic is hopelessly far behind.

The usual downside of this level of refinement: curb weight. At 2,920 pounds the new Focus has plenty of it (though still about 200 pounds less than a Cruze). One impact: even a strong, smooth 2.0-liter engine like the direct-injected, 160-horsepower, 146-foot-pounds unit employed here isn’t going to generate gut-wrenching acceleration. Don’t slip the clutch a bit off the line, and the first few seconds turning onto a busy road can seem to take forever. Especially if the AC is on. At other times performance is easily adequate, but well short of thrilling.

A sixth cog would help. The five-speed manual is geared to provide grunt off the line and economy on the highway, so the ratios are spread a little too widely for an engine with a 4,450 rpm torque peak. On the other hand, operating the shifter and clutch couldn’t be easier. Throw length and effort are both moderate, and their feel is as thoroughly refined as the rest of the car. One contributor: a fairly heavy flywheel that blunts some of the potential of the engine.

An upcoming Focus ST with a 247-horsepower turbocharged four and a six-speed manual should cure these performance ills, and then some, at the cost of, well, a higher cost. For those who want more than 160 horsepower, but who don’t need or want to pay for license-threatening looks and speed, Ford should consider offering a naturally-aspirated 2.5-liter four with roughly 200 horsepower. This would hit a sweet spot.

The 2.0-liter engine is economical, especially considering the weight of the car. The EPA estimates 26 city / 36 highway. The trip computer reported low 30s in suburban driving with the AC on high.

The Sport Package does not alter the suspension tuning, which is currently “sport tuned” for all trim levels (per Q&A with Ford). Handling is very good, but again short of thrilling. The steering, while well-weighted and generally better than most buyers will be used to, could feel sharper, more precise, and more nuanced. The Mazda3 retains a clear edge in this area, and even the previous Ford Focus felt more direct. Partly this is the cost of refinement, but also that of an economy-maximizing full electric system instead of the electro-hydraulic hybrid employed by Mazda. The Focus SE’s chassis will do just about everything you ask of it well (except feel light on its feet), with sharp turn-in, minimal understeer (partly due to electronic wizardry involving the brakes), good communication, and excellent composure—until you approach the outside front tire’s limits. Then things get a bit mushy, if very safe.

Step up to the Titanium, and an extra $595 for the Handling Package gets you moderately firmer struts and 235/WR18 Michelin Pilot Sport3s that grip harder and feel sharper in aggressive driving. Or just do as suggested earlier: don’t spend $495 on the factory’s 17-inch Contis, and go aftermarket.

As mentioned in the intro, the tested car lists for $21,380, while the equivalent sedan lists for $20,780. You can save $495 by doing without the 17-inch wheels and tires, but in this case you’ll definitely want to spend considerably more on an aftermarket set. You could also save $800 by doing without the SYNC system’s USB and Bluetooth connectivity and satellite radio, but you won’t unless you’re still living in the twentieth century.

Similarly equip a 2011 Mazda3s hatchback, and it’s a $110 less. Adjusting for remaining feature differences using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool finds the two are nearly even. So the decision between these two isn’t going to be based on price. Rather, on refinement and fuel economy (the Mazda is rated only 21/29) vs. acceleration and steering feel. For most people the Ford will easily win this match-up.

A Kia Forte5 SX is the budget buy in the segment, with a list price of $19,090. With a larger engine, it’s quicker than the Focus, and has a longer warranty, but is less economical (22/32) and far less refined in just about every way (materials, powertrain, ride, handling). Features are about even here as well. Is it worth saving $2,000 to get a car that looks and feels $5,000 less expensive?

To get the premium look and feel of the Focus in a semi-affordable car, it’s necessary to go with a Volkswagen Golf—and even the not-yet-decontented VW hatchback isn’t at the same level as the Ford. You also cannot get the sporty look and feel of the Focus SE Sport without stepping up to the much more expensive (and much quicker) GTI. Compare a base 2011 Golf with Bluetooth to a Focus SE with SYNC but without the Sport Package and 17s, and the VW is about $400 more. So close to both the Focus and the Mazda3, but without their sportiness.

The 2012 Ford Focus isn’t a hooner’s delight right out of the box, but I’m nevertheless amazed by just how good it is. Even in SE trim it has the look, feel, and refinement of a much more expensive car. And it drives better than 90 percent of the population will ever expect it to. So, if you simply want a really good, nicely trimmed compact car, but don’t want to spend $27,000+ for it, $21,000 or so (before dealer discounts and taxes) will do the trick.

Ford provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.

Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.

Focus SE front Hoon's delight? Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail Focus SE side Focus SE view forward Focus SE engine Focus SE rear seat Focus SE cargo Focus SE rear quarter Focus SE instrument panel Focus SE sport buckets Focus SE interior ]]> 160
Review: Dodge Challenger SE Fri, 30 Apr 2010 21:51:45 +0000

One of the strangest phenomena of the revived retro muscle car wars is the renewed emphasis on V6 performance. Once derided as “Secretary Specials,” the V6 versions of the Ford Mustang and Chevy Camaro now make upwards of 300 horsepower, while earning EPA highway ratings that surpass the 30 MPG mark. But if these latter-day pony cars herald a new era of performance and practicality, the V6-powered Dodge Challenger is as retro as its 1970-again styling.

The Challenger has always been the third wheel in the pony car wars: a little too heavy, a little too big, and a little too late to the game. Sure, the maddest of the mad versions were fire-breathing beasts, but the Challenger never wormed its way into the American psyche the way the lither, more sporty Camaro and Mustang did. And with all three nameplates back in showrooms, the old relationship remains the same: the 6.1 liter SRT-8 Challenger may give up nothing to its perennial rivals, but the volume SE version comes up well short of the competition.

Of course, what the modern Challenger might lack in emotional capital, it more than makes up for in sheer retro, street-level appeal. Even without Hemi badges, the Challenger looks big, mean and slick, by far the most retro of the modern pony car designs, and to this reviewer’s eyes, the most clean and pleasing as well. And it doesn’t just look good, it looks right. It’s a long car, but it’s got a vertical heft to it that balances the design. And with its classic lines and proportions executed in thick modern body panels, the Challenger looks as much like an expensive toy model grown to street size as anything else.

From outside the Challenger’s deceptively large cabin, it seems like nothing could break the spell cast by the car’s sheer presence. At least until the driver sticks the Challenger’s plastic key fob into the appropriate receptacle and turns it, kicking the old 3.5 liter SOHC V6 to life with all the drama of a Grand Caravan. At this point, the observer of this unremarkable process is likely to come down with a bad case of cognitive dissonance: the eyes tell you to expect the lumpy loping of big V8, but all the ears hear are, well, almost nothing.  With a stab of the throttle, the muted tickover rises to a tremulous drone. With enough motivation, the engine eventually manages to sound blustery, but it’s never in danger of making a sound that’s in the least bit purposeful.

Nor, given the performance numbers, should it. With a mere 250 horsepower and 250 lb-ft of torque on tap, it’s a good 50 ponies and about 25 lb-ft short of its V6 adversaries. And with 3,720 lbs of retro coupe to carry around, the old V6 has its work cut out for it. Luckily, the five-speed automatic is well-calibrated for the task, flattering the Challenger’s weak on-paper numbers with easy-to-use real-world performance. First gear is short enough to give the Challenger just enough pop from the traffic lights to keep it from being a complete embarrassment, but it’s also long enough to keep things from becoming a thrash-fest. Just don’t expect those rear tires to emit even the softest chirrup, unless you’re turning from a stop on a horrendously-paved road. While treating the gas pedal like it’s a particularly resilient cockroach.

In fact, if you’re even remotely interested in performance or fun, look elsewhere. Though the steering is only slightly overboosted, the Challenger’s weight makes it a clumsy dancer, and without the brute force needed to manhandle its softly-sprung chassis, you quickly settle into cruising mode. On suburban side streets, it glides sedately and uses its power well. On the freeway, it accelerates acceptably before running out of useable puff at relatively low (although still illegal) speeds. A sideways bump on the transmission’s autostick drops the Mopar back into its powerband more rapidly than pedalwork alone, but there’s still a palpable pause as your order makes its way to the engine room. Long, sweeping turns at higher speeds are as close as the Challenger gets to a driving thrill, but with so much weight, and so little steering feel, it’s got one of the fastest boredom-to-fear times in the business.

What we have then, in the Challenger SE, is a big, retro cruiser. It’s quiet and refined at freeway speeds, and it’s got enough power to keep up with the rest of the commuters. And shockingly for a Chrysler product, the interior is even a fairly inoffensive place to spend time. Though it lacks the retro flair promised by its exterior and competitors alike, its a clean design with simple functionality and relatively high-quality components… for a Chrysler. We could nitpick a few plastics choices, the lack of mirrors on the sun visors and more, but as stripped, sub-$25k Chrysler Group products go, it’s a revelation. Only the large, cheap and nasty steering wheel is truly offensive.

Unlike the more musclebound V6 pony car competition, the Challenger offers real-world rear seating. Wedge five people (including three six-footers) into a Camaro or Mustang, and after 45 minutes at least three of them will need either a chiropractor, a relationship counselor, or both. Thanks to the Challenger’s lengthy LX underpinnings, the same five people will make the same trip in relative luxury. In fact, the only professional assistance a passenger might need is seasonal affective disorder therapy: spacious though it may be, the rear seat is still a lightless bunker, with little visibility anywhere.

And though poor visibility as a result of bold styling is a nearly universal problem affecting nearly every car on the market, in this case it creates a special disadvantage. After all, this particular Challenger was a rental, and the SE’s lack of performance credentials vis-a-vis its rivals seems to doom this model to heavy rental-fleet service. The problem is that, having arrived at one’s destination and made the questionable decision to splash out for a “fancy” rental, the last thing one wants to find out is that famous landmarks are only barely visible out of the Challenger’s gun-slit windows. Want to see more than the bottom third of the Washington monument as you drive by? Be prepared to hang half your body out the window. Want the kids to enjoy a memorable back-seat tour of their nation’s capitol? Rent the Mustang convertible instead.

So, if this Challenger fails as a performance car, a musclebound cruiser and a rental, what is it good for? How about a better-looking Solara or Accord Coupe? From the cabin it’s not that hard to forget that it’s rear-drive, or related to anything with a Hemi, but from the outside it’s pure retro confection. You just won’t be getting the efficiency or reliability of the Japanese snooze-coupes. But when Chrysler’s new “Pentastar” V6 comes out, it should offer close enough to 300 horsepower to make it feel a little less like an afterthought to the Camaro and Mustang… at least on paper. In the meantime, unless you can’t live without its looks but can’t afford a Hemi, look elsewhere.

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Review: 2010 Ford Taurus Wed, 24 Jun 2009 11:48:33 +0000

Don’t believe the hype. The 1986 Taurus was not “the car that saved Ford.” Trucks saved Ford in the late Eighties and early Nineties, as consumer tastes moved away from the one-sedan-fits-nearly-all market in favor of the newly popular SUV. Nor can the 2010 Taurus save a Ford beset by problems on all sides. There are no longer enough potential mid-sized car buyers to make a huge impact on the company’s bottom line, and most of those buyers are really better candidates for the smaller, more affordable Fusion.]]>

Don’t believe the hype. The 1986 Taurus was not “the car that saved Ford.” Trucks saved Ford in the late Eighties and early Nineties, as consumer tastes moved away from the one-sedan-fits-nearly-all market in favor of the newly popular SUV. Nor can the 2010 Taurus save a Ford beset by problems on all sides. There are no longer enough potential mid-sized car buyers to make a huge impact on the company’s  bottom line, and most of those buyers are really better candidates for the smaller, more affordable Fusion.

No, the Taurus is neither Ford’s savior nor the vanguard of an American sedan renaissance. Instead, it’s a return to that quaintest of quaint American ideals: that of the premium Ford, primus inter pares in the millions of tract homes and leafy streets in that oft-derided “flyover country.” The original Taurus was notable for its unabashed futurism; the 1996 model, for a tragically ovoid miscalculation of the importance of price versus product in the market. This Taurus is something new and old at the same time. It’s intended to be a car that people want to own.

Our exposure to the 2010 Taurus took the form of a press introduction in Knoxville, Tennessee, followed by a long drive to Asheville, North Carolina, in conditions that could best be described as “forty percent chance of loading pairs of animals into a homebuilt ark.” The particular vehicle we drove was a white front-wheel-drive Taurus Limited with a reasonable but not comprehensive selection of the available options. Although the Taurus SE starts at $25,995, same as its predecessor, expect real-world stickers to range between twenty-eight and thirty-four grand for “popularly equipped” lot stock.

The alert reader will note that this price range is not really “Camcord” territory. The vast majority of the Japanese-brand mid-sizers sold are automatic-transmission four-bangers which leave the lot for a price well south of the base Taurus. This is fine with Ford; those buyers will be shown a Fusion. Instead, the Taurus is aimed upmarket. The media kit mentions the Audi A6, Lexus GS350, Chrysler 300, and Toyota Avalon. The first two comparisons can be dismissed as fantasy, the third is likely to be increasingly irrelevant, but the fourth is critical. There are plenty of older people in America who like the idea of buying a large sedan with a few gadgets on it, and those people are very fond of Toyota’s big Camry derivative.

Towards that end, Ford’s made no fewer than ten killer-app gadgets available on the Taurus, including radar cruise control, a surprisingly effective blind-spot warning system that can also notify the driver of cars approaching from the side in a parking lot, and the Orwellian “MyKey” that allows a top speed to be set for the valet key. Presumably this last feature is aimed at overprotective parents.

The MyKey setting on our car was turned off, so we headed for the hills to engage in a little bit of the old ultraviolence. Seated behind the Ford corporate steering wheel and fiddling with SYNC to our hearts’ content, we mercilessly tortured the charmless Duratec 3.5 for every last pony. This is not a fast car by any means—the SHO (in a forthcoming review) will address this—but it can be driven very hard in lousy weather. Stability is outstanding, steering feel is usable, and the chassis provides a sound ride while preserving a modest ability to be turned in on the brakes, should some irresponsible Boomer try it.

Over space and time, the new Taurus proved itself to be a quiet, comfortable vehicle with plenty of useful features. The exterior styling is up for debate, but the interior really does satisfy, providing ninety-five percent of the Lincoln MKS experience for about sixty percent of the price. Lon Zaback, Ford’s Interior Design Manager, waxed eloquent to us on the terribly complex process by which the absolutely convincing-looking faux-stitched leather doors were produced. The doors deserve a story all by themselves, but for now just consider it emblematic of the effort put into the Taurus by all hands.

The last Ford sedan to have this kind of whole-hearted effort devoted to it was the 1996 Taurus, and we all know what happened to that well-intended but ultimately star-crossed effort. It was a premium product and design statement masquerading as a family car, but the 2010 suffers from no such mission confusion. Comparing this very competent and interesting big sedan to the aging Impala or Chrysler 300 is bringing a gun to a knife fight. Against the Maxima, Avalon, and Azera, the Taurus offers size, styling, unique features and perhaps the most focus on the driver to be found in the segment. Don’t expect it to save Ford, but don’t expect it to fail, either.

[Ford provided the vehicle reviewed, gas, insurance, transportation, lodging and food.]

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