The Truth About Cars » Test Drive http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Tue, 05 Aug 2014 21:18:09 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.1 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 editors@ttac.com editors@ttac.com (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 » Test Drive http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/wp-content/themes/ttac-theme/images/logo.gif http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com New or Used: The $32,000 Question http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/08/new-or-used-the-32000-question/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/08/new-or-used-the-32000-question/#comments Sat, 11 Aug 2012 19:24:37 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=456364  Ian writes: My wife drives a 2007 Lincoln MKX in need of shrewd replacement. The good lady finds the Mark Ten a chore to use around DC: clumsy, hard to see from, and very thirsty for all the enjoyment she gets from it. It also lacks exactly the features that she prizes: a sunroof, and […]

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 Ian writes:

My wife drives a 2007 Lincoln MKX in need of shrewd replacement. The good lady finds the Mark Ten a chore to use around DC: clumsy, hard to see from, and very thirsty for all the enjoyment she gets from it. It also lacks exactly the features that she prizes: a sunroof, and up-to-date bluetooth – iDrive – voice/nav goodies. After a 16-month test drive of this very kind gift, it’s time to trade it towards something more suitable.

To narrow the field: We prefer wagons to crossovers, but are open to persuasion on the latter category — especially if better maneuverability and fussy electronics are on tap. No hybrids, definitely open to diesel. Big fans of used/CPO vehicles, inclined to buy and hold.The budget’s around $32k total. Every idea from new Focus ST to 4-yr-old Cayenne has crossed our kitchen table, so there’s barely a box to think outside of, and here’s the trick:

The puppy’s car-trained and our first baby en route. So this is the last car we’ll buy for years where gearhead intangibles might factor in the selection process. This car also is likely to become mine in 3-5 years (replacing my 08 CPO 535xi at 99,999 miles, and staying a Long Time), so I’m willing to go an extra mile on behalf of dumb stuff like steering feel, all-day seats, real durability and such.

If you had to sell a new Beltway mom a car today, that will become your war horse in 2016, what car would it be?

Steve Says:

This is the hard part. My wife’s tastes are probably a complete 180 to the two of you. Her idea would be to buy a reasonably kept older car in the $6k to $10k range and spend the rest on travel.

So the first thing I naturally think of when I hear a $30,000+ family car for what amounts to family errands is…
“Really? You want to spend that much?”
No offense. But when I deal with someone who is already dissatisfied with a loaded luxury vehicle after less than a year and a half, I get concerned about steep depreciation curves and fickle fashions.
So I would do it this way.
Have her do the shopping list first. Find six vehicles that really could do the trick for the two of you. Three new and three used. Throw in one or two vehicles as well that are on the cheaper side of $25k (you may be surprised) and test drive all of them.
Take notes, discuss it together, read up on what current owners have to decide, and then make your choice.
Good luck!
Sajeev Says:
Mark Ten?  You stole my bit!
So anyway, making a recommendation with such vague requirements (yes, really) is more than a little difficult.  Go test drive stuff!
Why am I saying this? The MKX is a pretty decent vehicle for your needs, and yet you’re ready to dump it and find another vehicle that you’ll hate in a matter of months. Get a new smart phone instead and keep this Lincoln, mission accomplished. Or buy something absolutely silly (Cayenne) fully understanding that you’re foolish or get a 4cyl CUV for the ultimate in long term value.
I have no clue what’s gonna make you happy.  Go test drive stuff, or you’ll regret it.

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How To Buy A Used Car Part Two: The Test Drive http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/08/how-to-buy-a-used-car-part-two-the-test-drive-2/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/08/how-to-buy-a-used-car-part-two-the-test-drive-2/#comments Thu, 09 Aug 2012 16:59:50 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=456083 [Editor's note: Part One of Steve Lang's updated guide to used car buying can be found here] Schedule the test drive for a time when there’s no rush. If it’s bad weather, reschedule. Take a little notebook, write a quick check list based on this article, and make notes. When you approach the car’s owner, be […]

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Picture Courtesy of Gameguru.in

[Editor's note: Part One of Steve Lang's updated guide to used car buying can be found here]

Schedule the test drive for a time when there’s no rush. If it’s bad weather, reschedule.

Take a little notebook, write a quick check list based on this article, and make notes.

When you approach the car’s owner, be friendly, polite and courteous. Do NOT try to “beat them down” to get a better deal on a test drive. Ever. While you have every right to ask direct questions, you have no more right to insult their car than one of their children.

 

Fluids

Open the hood and look at five big areas. Oil dipstick, coolant, power steering fluid, radiator cap and brake fluid.

Oil: Golden brown, light tan, a little dark, or even dark brown to light black are fine. The oil is just doing it’s job. A tar color or tar like consistency is not good.

Check the dipstick for level and color. Then check the oil cap on top of the engine (on most models) for anything that resembles milky crud. If it has a thick film of milky crud, that’s engine sludge, you’re done.

Coolant: Check the coolant reservoir for level. Most sellers pay attention to this. But a few don’t. Remove the radiator cap if it’s accessible. If you see crud on the cap, you’re done.

Power Steering and Brake Fluid: Check for the level. In the case of power steering, check for any heavy leakage around the hoses. If the power steering hose is saturated with oil, this could be a sign of a more expensive repair in the times ahead. Make a note of it.

 

The Tires And Body

Tires: First, check the tires. Pull the steering wheel all the way to the left (and then right later on) so you can see the entire tread. Uneven tire wear– marks on the side or deep grooves in the middle– may indicate suspension issues. And nothing screams “lemon” louder than cheap, bald or strangely worn rubber.

Doors: Next, open and close all the doors several times, including the trunk and hood. This will also give you the opportunity to inspect the seats and floor. On the doors, check for paint on the hinges and black moldings. If a door creaks, it’s usually no big deal. If a door has trouble closing, make a note of it if you later chose to have the vehicle inspected. It can signal anything from a broken hinge to frame damage.

Panel Gaps and Trunk: Have a quick look at the panel gaps, especially the hood and trunk. Unless you’re looking at an old Land Rover, they should all be even. Check for water leakage in the trunk. Damp and/or a mildew smell often indicates problems underneath if you live in an area where rust is an issue. Lift the trunk’s carpet and see if there is any water or damp residue underneath.

 

The Interior Features And Lights

When you climb aboard, don’t be put off by worn seats or busted radios. Most interior surfaces and parts can be repaired or replaced easily and cheaply.

Windows: Lower each of the windows first while the key is at the ‘on’ position, and fire up the car.

Engine: Do you hear any tapping or pinging sounds, or does it kick over with a smooth ‘vrooom’ and settle into an easy, quiet idle? Start it up again if you aren’t 100% sure.

Buttons: Test all the buttons and switches including the radio stations. Ask for help and have the owner turn on the ‘left’ signal and look at the front and rear to make sure the bulbs work. Repeat with the right.

Exterior Lights:  Then check the headlights along with the brights. Brake lights should be checked in the rear as well as reverse. This may be your only time to verify their proper operation before owning the vehicle. So take the time to do it.

Windshield Wipers and E-Brake: Finally have the fellow spray their windshield and make sure the wipers are in good order. Thank them for helping them you and then test the emergency brake to ensure that it’s operating properly. If you’re driving a stickshift you will want to do this later in the test drive on a steep upward incline.

Air Conditioning: Flip on the A/C. It should kick out cool air within fifteen seconds. With an older vehicle the performance of the A/C system should be one of the more critical concerns. (HVAC repairs can run as high as $500 to $1500.) When you’re on the road, test the heat and the A/C again to make sure the temperature and fan speed are constant.

Power Steering: Finally before going on the road lower your windows and turn the steering wheel all the way to the left and right. The motion should be seamless and silent. If there’s a lot of resistance, or the force required is uneven, the steering system may need anything from power steering fluid (cheap) to a power steering pump assembly (moderate) to a new rack (first born). Make a note of it.

 

The Drive

Shift: Now put the car in gear. Aside from a few models (older Mercedes in particular), a late or rough shift from park indicates that the car’s transmission may soon give up the ghost. If you experience very rough or late shifting, you’re done.

Brakes: Brake force should be quick and constant. Unless the brakes have been recently replaced (ask), you shouldn’t hear any squeaking sounds. Keep the driver’s window open during the first half of the drive.

Transmission: Drive the car through a variety of traffic conditions, inclines and speeds, for at least fifteen minutes. When going uphill, take your foot off the accelerator for a moment. Coast downhill as well. If the car’s transmission hunts, clunks or has trouble catching, the vehicle probably has a transmission or linkage issue. Make a note of it.

Engine: If you hear a lot of ‘clacking’ or other unusual engine noises on initial acceleration, the engine’s components may need attention. If there’s an oil gauge, keep an eye on it. It should show approximately 25 to 80 psi during acceleration, and 10 to 20 when idling. The coolant temperature gauge should hit a fixed point within ten minutes and never move.

 

Quick Stop

After about twenty minutes of driving, take the car to a gas station. Keep the engine on.

Gas release: Open the hood and the gas cover release to make sure they’re in proper working order. I also take this time to put $5 of gas in as a goodwill gesture.

Most folks will not have a car buyer as studious as you, and it’s nice to reimburse folks for an expense.

Transmission Fluid: Restart the car. If you know where the transmission dipstick is (and it’s a damn good idea to find out), check the level and color. Does it have bubbles? If the fluid is very dark brown or black, or smells burnt, it could be a sign of future transmission issues.

Final Oil Check: Turn the vehicle off and again, check the oil. If it’s not between the marks (too low or too high), or if the oil cap is milky brown, you’re done. I’ve dealt with more than a few cars that had their oil caps wiped clean before the test drive.

 

Last Inpsection And First Decision

After leaving the gas station, see if you can find a nice open parking lot or area where you can do a few ‘figure 8’s’.

CV Joints: Lower the windows and turn the steering wheel all the way to the left. Drive very slowly and see whether you have any ‘clicking noises’ near the wheels. If it does, you will likely need to have the CV axle replaced on that side. Now turn it all the way to the right side and repeat. The turns should be ‘click’ and noise free.

Decision Time: By this point, you should have a pretty good idea whether your next step is towards purchase or home sweet home. If you’re blowing it off, thank the owner politely and leave promptly, without engaging in any further discussion whatsoever. (“It’s not what I had in mind.”) Show them the gas receipt as a goodwill gesture and thank them.

If you’re ready to move forward, it’s time to schedule a professional inspection.

[Mr. Lang invites TTAC readers to share theirused car test drive advice below. He can be reached directly at steve.lang@thetruthaboutcars.com]

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New Or Used? : The Passion Of The Chrysler http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/07/new-or-used-the-passion-of-the-chrysler/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/07/new-or-used-the-passion-of-the-chrysler/#comments Tue, 31 Jul 2012 02:07:58 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=454809   Gentlemen, there’s some automotive/emotional baggage that I need a resolution for. I’m finally in a position to replace a Celica with something that will possibly see an HPDE, and the occasional autocross. I have $9000 to spend. Although the Celi drove beautifully, it wasn’t a viscerally thrilling car and I’d like to learn the […]

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The Lord Needs No Restraint

 

Gentlemen, there’s some automotive/emotional baggage that I need a resolution for.

I’m finally in a position to replace a Celica with something that will possibly see an HPDE, and the occasional autocross. I have $9000 to spend. Although the Celi drove beautifully, it wasn’t a viscerally thrilling car and I’d like to learn the dynamics of a rwd platform.

It will mostly serve as a weekend car/alternative to my DD pickup.

Fuel economy and number of doors I’m not concerned with. It just needs to have a comfortable cabin, shift/handle well, and make me want to take it out for a drive with no destination, like the Celica did.

When I presented this conundrum to my friend, he threw me a curve ball in the form of offering me his 2005, very low mile Dodge SRT4 for WELL under my budget ceiling and it’s market value. Not the rwd sports/sporty car I had in mind, but fun in its own right with plenly of capital left over to push it into high HP territory. The car is factory stock, with a clean service history (friend is a Chrysler technician).

What are your thoughts, biased or otherwise? Should I reconsider one of the popular choices? Hold out for greatness? or pounce on a wicked deal(that will be around for a while)?

 

Steve Says:

I would pounce on this deal.

Why?

Well, in my case it’s because I could nearly double my investment by financing it out to someone who is a little less picky. SRT4′s and other affordable sports sedans of the mid-2000′s go for utterly insane amounts of money. We’re talking enough proceeds to buy a new mid-level compact sedan with cash left over for your first year’s worth of insurance.

Your case is different since you’re trading $9,000 worth of savings for a long-term divestment. You buy. You keep. You lose money. But gain a bit of fun and freedom in the end.

To figure out if this is the right decision for you I would do three things.

1) Drive the vehicle for an hour or two.

Offer to fill the SRT up with a full tank of gas, let your friend in on the dilemma, and just spend a couple of hours driving it in different environments. Figure out if this vehicle is a good fit for you.

2) Visit a few enthusiast sites.

One of the reasons why I decided to keep my little 1st gen Insight, and sell everything else, is because I found a community that was agreeable to my interests. The folks at VWVortex are far different from the Insightcentral crowd, who in turn are more hands on than the Planet Lexus community.

Are you the type that can get into this type of car over the long run? A few evenings reading about the car in question can make you far more aware of the long-term ownership experience than a simple test drive.

3) Will you invest?

No one wants to invest in a Chevy Aveo. They want the car to run, hopefully, and nothing more.

A performance machine goes by a far different set of financial criteria.

Tires? Preventive maintenance? Premium parts?

All this and the inherent defects of the vehicle will go hand in hand with the ownership experience.

The true question you have to answer is, “Am I willing to invest thousands of dollars to keep this car in tip top shape as the years go by?”

That’s the question only you can answer. I wish you luck in whatever you decide.

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How to Buy a Used Car Part Two: The Test Drive http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/07/how-to-buy-a-used-car-part-two-the-test-drive/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/07/how-to-buy-a-used-car-part-two-the-test-drive/#comments Mon, 25 Jul 2011 18:21:49 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=404205 [Editor's note: Part One of Steve Lang's updated guide to used car buying can be found here] Schedule the test drive for a time when there’s no rush. If it’s bad weather, reschedule. Take a little notebook, write a quick check list based on this article, and make notes. When you approach the car’s owner, […]

The post How to Buy a Used Car Part Two: The Test Drive appeared first on The Truth About Cars.

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[Editor's note: Part One of Steve Lang's updated guide to used car buying can be found here]

Schedule the test drive for a time when there’s no rush. If it’s bad weather, reschedule. Take a little notebook, write a quick check list based on this article, and make notes. When you approach the car’s owner, be friendly, polite and courteous. Do NOT try to “beat them down” to get a better deal. While you have every right to ask direct questions, you have no more right to insult their car than one of their children.

First, check the tires. Pull the steering wheel all the way to the left (and then right) so you can see the entire tread. Uneven tire wear– marks on the side or deep grooves in the middle– may indicate suspension issues. And nothing screams “lemon” louder than cheap, bald or strangely worn rubber.

Next, open and close all the doors several times, including the trunk and hood. Check for paint on the hinges and moldings. If a door creaks, it’s usually no big deal. If a door has trouble closing, it can signal anything from a broken hinge to frame damage.

On the driver’s side, make sure that the VIN sticker or VIN plate hasn’t been removed behind the driver’s side windshield.

Have a quick look at the panel gaps, especially the hood and trunk. Unless you’re looking at an old Land Rover, they should all be even. Check for water leakage in the trunk. Damp and/or a mildew smell often indicates problems underneath.

When you climb aboard, don’t be put off by worn seats or busted radios. Most interior surfaces and parts can be repaired and/or replaced easily and cheaply.

Lower the window and fire up the car– a few times. Do you hear any tapping or pinging sounds, or does it kick over with a smooth ‘vrooom’ and settle into an easy, quiet idle?

Test all the buttons and switches including the radio stations. Bring someone with you or ask the owner if he can help you out with the remainder buttons and turn stalks. Have them turn on the ‘left’ signal and look at the front and rear to make sure the bulbs work. Repeat with the right.

Then check the head lights along with the brights. Break lights should be checked in the rear as well as reverse. This may be your only time to verify their proper operation before owning the vehicle. So take the time to do it.

Finally have the fellow spray their windshield and make sure the wipers are in good order. Thank them for helping them you and then test the emergency brake to ensure that it’s operating properly. If you’re driving a stickshift you will want to do this later in the test drive on a steep upward incline.

Flip on the A/C. It should kick out cool air within fifteen seconds of ignition. With an older vehicle the performance of the A/C system should be one of the more critical concerns. (HVAC repairs can run as high as $500 to $1500.) When you’re on the road, test the heat and the A/C again to make sure the temperature and fan speed are constant.

Finally before going on the road lower your windows and turn the steering wheel all the way to the left and right. The motion should be seamless and silent. If there’s a lot of resistance, or the force required is uneven, the steering system may need anything from power steering fluid (cheap) to a power steering pump assembly (moderate) to a new rack (first born).

Now put the car in gear. Aside from a few models (older Mercedes in particular), a late or rough shift from park indicates that the car’s transmission may soon give up the ghost. If you experience very rough or late shifting, you’re done.

Brake force should be quick and constant. Unless the brakes have been recently replaced (ask), you shouldn’t hear any squeaking sounds.

Drive the car through a variety of traffic conditions, inclines and speeds, for at least a half hour. When going uphill, take your foot off the accelerator for a moment. Coast downhill as well. If the car’s transmission hunts, clunks or has trouble catching, the vehicle probably has a transmission or linkage issue.

If you hear a lot of ‘clacking’ or other unusual engine noises on initial acceleration, the engine’s components may need attention. If there’s an oil gauge, keep an eye on it. It should show approximately 25 to 80 psi during acceleration, and 10 to 20 when idling. The coolant temperature should hit a fixed point within ten minutes and never move.

After about twenty minutes of driving, take the car to a gas station. Keep the engine on. Open the hood and the gas cover release to make sure they’re in proper working order. If you know where the transmission dipstick is (and it’s a damn good idea to find out), check the level. Does it have bubbles? If the fluid is brown or black, it could be a sign of future transmission issues.

Turn the vehicle off and check the oil. If it’s not between the marks (too low or too high) or milky brown, you’re done.

Finally, get a wet paper towel, wipe the dirt off the relevant reservoirs and check the coolant, power steering and brake fluids to make sure they’re at their proper levels. S-l-o-w-l-y open the reservoir tank and check the coolant’s color. If it’s a multi-colored muck or brownish black, note it down.

After leaving the gas station, see if you can find a nice open parking lot or area where you can do a few ‘figure 8’s’. Lower the windows and turn the steering wheel all the way to the left. Drive very slowly and see whether you have any ‘clicking noises’ near the wheels. If it does, you will likely need to have the CV axle replaced on that side. Now turn it all the way to the right side and repeat. The turns should be ‘click’ and noise free.

By this point, you should have a pretty good idea whether your next step is towards purchase or home sweet home. If you’re blowing it off, thank the owner politely and leave promptly, without engaging in any further discussion whatsoever. (“It’s not what I had in mind.”) If you’re ready to move forward, it’s time to schedule a professional inspection.

[Mr. Lang invites TTAC readers to share theirused car test drive advice below. He can be reached directly at steve.lang@thetruthaboutcars.com]

The post How to Buy a Used Car Part Two: The Test Drive appeared first on The Truth About Cars.

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Review: 2011 Cadillac CTS Coupe http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/06/review-2011-cadillac-cts-coupe/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/06/review-2011-cadillac-cts-coupe/#comments Mon, 21 Jun 2010 18:11:17 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=359207 What is luxury? In the American car market, that question doesn’t have an easy answer. Driver-focused performers like BMW’s 3-series sell well here, but so do feature-loaded versions of mass market sedans, like the Lexus ES. Blinged-out baroque still has its adherents, but as the Napa Valley hotel where the Cadillac CTS Coupe was launched […]

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What is luxury? In the American car market, that question doesn’t have an easy answer. Driver-focused performers like BMW’s 3-series sell well here, but so do feature-loaded versions of mass market sedans, like the Lexus ES. Blinged-out baroque still has its adherents, but as the Napa Valley hotel where the Cadillac CTS Coupe was launched proves, a more subtle, sophisticated version of luxury is gaining popularity as well, differentiated by the use of recycled materials and environmentally-friendly technologies. So where in this fragmented and changing category does the CTS Coupe belong?

The last time Cadillac sold a traditional coupe, it bore the heritage-laden Eldorado nameplate which, by its last year of sales in 2002, was grasping at the tatters of a long, once-proud legacy. The Eldorado name may not have launched the “Personal Luxury Coupe” segment (this honor goes to the Ford Thunderbird), but by the dawn of the new millenium, it was keeping the old-school, front-drive, waft-all-day luxury coupe flame alive. Barely.

In the eight years since the Eldorado got lost in the shuffle, the CTS nameplate has ushered in a new era at Cadillac. With the return of rear-wheel-drive and concessions to performance and dynamics, the brand seemed desperate to leave its legacy of large, squishy touring coupes behind. Unfortunately, this meant abandoning the coupe segment altogether, leaving a fundamental element of the brand unrealized for nearly a decade.

Until now. After a few bankruptcy-related false starts, the CTS Coupe that debuted at the 2008 Detroit Auto Show is now sitting in the forecourt of a $450/night hotel, looking nearly unchanged from concept form, and entirely at home. Which is to say, it looks good. In dark colors, it’s Darth Vader meets Don Draper: a symmetrically-creased exercise in sleek, bunker-windowed coupe-dom. From the shortened overhangs, to the faster windshield, to the langheck echoes of the gracefully curving C-pillars, Cadillac has taken the CTS design to what feels like its logical conclusion.

And though Cadillac aptly calls its Coupe the “ultimate expression” of its Art-and-Science styling, there are some pleasing echoes of Cadillac’s past baked into the design. The proportions are classic “Personal Luxury” coupe: kicked-back cabin, long doors, bold face, clean rear-quarter. Viewed side-on, there’s even a hint of Mitchell-era Eldorado about the angular C-pillar, and the rear-deck’s three peaked taillights (the middle of which apparently generates downforce) are as close as a Cadillac’s come to having tailfins since Mitchell took over. Only the shortness of the front and rear overhangs, and the almost cartoonish ratio of steel to glass give the proportions a more purposeful, modern feel.

The promise of this neo-classical look is, of course, that this Cadillac Coupe will do things that no two-door Caddy has done before. Though the two-inch lower roof and sharply-raked windshield are purely aesthetic changes, the shortened overhangs and one-inch wider rear track are meant to do more than introduce a pugnacious profile and gentle, organically-swelling rear fender bulges. Along with a revised axle ratio (3.73:1 replacing the sedan’s 3.42:1) and thicker rear stabilizer bar, these changes were made in hopes that the odd auto journalists might rehabilitate the old “Caddy that Zigs” tagline.

But before getting the chance to test the Coupe’s zigging ability, you have to get into the thing. Touch-button locks keep the exterior looking clean, and work well once you’re used to them. Inside, the interior is unchanged from the CTS sedan, meaning there’s a lot of design, a lot of materials, and a very adequate sensation of luxury. Here, more than anywhere else, Cadillac has a few things to learn from its choice of launch hotel, which managed to make reclaimed wood and rusting steel seem luxurious, and the Caddy’s interior seem downright garish.

Interior dimensions are predictably hampered by the Coupe’s crisply-tailored suit. At about six foot one, my head resolutely grazed the headliner until the driver’s seat was at its lowest setting. Even then, spirited driving over bumpy roads caused the occasional annoying head-tap. The rear bucket seats are surprisingly spacious… below shoulder-height. Hip and leg room are more than adequate, but head and shoulder room are non-existent for the post-pubescent. But then I don’t seem to remember Don Draper or Darth Vader ever volunteering their personal luxury coupes for carpooling duty.

Fire up the standard 3.6 liter V6, pop the shifter into drive, and the Coupe pulls into traffic with ease. The lower axle ratio is immediately noticeable when pulling away from stops, but probably only if you just got out of a CTS Sedan or Sportwagon. Don’t expect noisy burnouts though: the difference is manifested more as a slight annoyance with the sedan than a sense that the Coupe is a drooling, snarling beast. In fact, cruising through the small towns and curving roads of California’s wine country at the speed limit is a quiet, refined experience. The only thing missing from the smooth, revvy V6 is some soft V8 burble. Otherwise, this coupe has more horsepower (304) and only 27 lb-ft less torque than the old Eldo’s Northstar, and makes a great wafting companion. Things have changed in eight years, but Cadillac Coupes are still best when cruised graciously from luxurious destination to luxurious destination.

And what if a few curves appear? Slide the shifter towards the passenger to activate sport mode, and “turn off” the traction control, and the CTS loses its bourgeois decorum faster than a sorority girl at Señor Frogs. Though Cadillac does not re-map engines for sport-mode, the transmission changes alone are downright surprising. Not only will it hold a gear until you’ve wrung every last raspy gasp from the V6, but it’s far more aggressive in its downshifts than you’d expect. In fact, once in this so-called “competition mode” the drivetrain absolutely insists that you abuse the right pedal, punishing half-hearted pokes at the throttle and brakes with deep downshifts and soaring revs. Nail it hard, and it will stay right with you, keeping a low gear gear coming out of a corner, when other “sport modes” would have short-shifted mid-corner. Technically there are paddle shifters located behind the steering wheel, but most owners will either never know, or quickly forget that they’re there at all.

Unfortunately, the drivetrain’s playfulness is never quite matched by the steering and handing. In fairness, the steering is better weighted than other GM products, and the chassis (tested with FE3 sport suspension) is generally competent at both cruising and cornering. But with the engine and transmission begging for a spanking, it’s all too easy to find the CTS getting flummoxed. There’s grip aplenty from the optional summer tires and uprated suspension, but there’s no respite from the physics of nearly 4,000 pounds trying to hold onto the road. Thanks to the wider rear track, there’s little scope for tail-wagging, and you’ll probably find the Coupe pushing on its front tires as often as it slips its rears. Grab a line and power through a sweeper, and you’ll want for nothing from this loaded example. Try to string several smooth corners together, however, and unless you’re a truly seasoned driver, you’ll end up with more tossing and thrashing than you’ll get out of certain competitors. Weight, visibility and damping deficits keep this Cadillac firmly in the “competent” category of cornering coupes.

And somehow that’s quite alright. Sure, Cadillac wants to be perceived as the equal to a BMW or Mercedes, and clearly this Coupe could do more to flatter the driver around tight roads. But the CTS-V Coupe is being launched later this summer, and its extra 250-odd horsepower and adaptive suspension should fulfill the performance promise of a range-topping luxury coupe. Meanwhile, the standard CTS Coupe is available at a base $38,990, with prices ranging to our loaded tester’s $51,825. Like the Buick Regal we tested recently, the CTS Coupe shows GM’s new approach to luxury: Ride and handling that are refined for commuting duty yet up for some occasional fun, wrapped in a distinctively-styled, modern body.

Unlike the Regal, however, the CTS Coupe hits its styling cues to perfection, and manages to fuse the brand’s future to its past in terms of both style and abilities. It’s a car that makes a distinctive and undeniable fashion statement that you either love or hate. This is the kind of Cadillac that you’d buy after landing a big client, or crushing a nascent rebellion… and if it had been launched in the midst of a go-go economy, it would doubtless sell like hotcakes. In today’s brutally-competitive luxury market, however, it’s neither extra-refined and luxurious nor a therapeutic joy to fling around a windy road. As such it has the same work cut out for it that the CTS sedan still does, some 8 years after it was first launched.

Cadillac paid for our airfare and accommodation for this new product launch, including several delicious meals and an open bar. Since it took place in California’s tony Napa Valley, none of it was cheap.

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Rentin’ The Blues: Second Place: 2009 Mercury Sable Premier http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/04/rentin%e2%80%99-the-blues-second-place-2009-mercury-sable-premier/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/04/rentin%e2%80%99-the-blues-second-place-2009-mercury-sable-premier/#comments Mon, 12 Apr 2010 18:06:24 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=352211 I was born in the city A city with no shame And when I play guitar They all know my name Well, as fate would have it, they only really know my name at the local restaurant where I play lunch gigs on my Gibson CS-336. I don’t consider myself a blues man, but I […]

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I was born in the city

A city with no shame

And when I play guitar

They all know my name

Well, as fate would have it, they only really know my name at the local restaurant where I play lunch gigs on my Gibson CS-336. I don’t consider myself a blues man, but I will go to see the blues played when I have a chance. My plan for last week was simple: drive from Columbus, Ohio to New York City to see Robert Cray perform, and then to head down Memphis way to catch the various acts on Beale Street. Tie in an additional trip to the New York Auto Show afterwards, and we’re talking 4,100 miles and plenty of dicey parking. Might as well rent some cars and do an old-school TTAC rental review or two.

It’s been nearly a year since the last Sable rolled off the assembly line. It was a stopgap car, an attempt to rectify the most serious failings of the showroom-cobweb-holder Mercury Montego and mark time until a fully revised 2010 model could debut along the MKS and low-roof Taurus. Ford’s decision to take Mercury in the proverbial “different direction” doomed the Sable to rental-car hell and astonishingly low resale value. It’s possible to pick up a fully-loaded, low-miles Sable Premier for well south of twenty grand.

As I rolled along I-80 in Pennsylvania, the cruise control set to 82 miles per hour and the average-economy readout hovering at 27.9mpg, I had to admit that such a Sable purchase would represent a pretty decent value. It’s a nearly effortless freeway car, tracking straight and true, surprisingly indifferent to sidewinds. The seating position is seemingly about half a foot above what one would have in, say, an Audi A4, and visibility is good as well.

The Montego had a gutless three-liter Duratec and a rubber-band CVT, which probably did a lot to kill showroom excitement about what otherwise would have been seen as a decent 9/8ths-scale American knockoff of the B5 VW Passat. (Is it really a knockoff when you hire the same designer to do the same thing? Somebody should ask Gerald Genta.) This 3.5L/six-speed combination is manifestly better. It’s never strong or impressive, but it’s fast enough for modern American traffic, even in the cut-and-thrust of Manhattan’s Garment District. Hard launches spin the front wheels and bring the hammer of a very strict TCS down on the engine almost immediately. It’s not an enthusiast’s car in the traditional sense, or in any other sense.

Ford’s SYNC system was included on the car I drove, and as usual it’s just about the best way to control an iPod and Bluetooth phone together. The sound system was decent enough but lacking any sense of “dynamic attack”, “stage presence”, or any of the stuff you’d get in one of a name-brand luxury-sedan installation. A full navigation screen is an optional extra and one you’d be unlikely to find in an ex-rental.

I wasn’t more than a few hours away from Ohio when my traveling partner announced her complete lack of satisfaction with the Sable’s flat-bottomed leather seats. “They need to be good like the ones in your green car,” was the succinct evaluation. She chose instead to take a nap stretched out across the three-person back seat, wrapped up in a blanket and comforted by the Sable’s better-than-Camcord-class freeway ride. Four hundred miles later, my back was sore. These are not good seats; the ones you would get in an MKS or 2010 Taurus are miles ahead.

I believe the Autowriters’ Code of Conduct calls for me to mention the Volvo S80 at this point, along with something about ancient platforms. Truth be told, I’ve driven plenty of miles in a first-gen S80 and it’s a very different car. Both the Volvo and the Sable have that slight feeling of front-end crashiness and brittle response one gets from heavy transverse-engine platforms, but other than that it really doesn’t feel much like an S80.

It’s been a while since I resisted the temptation to run a car into the triple digits, even briefly. The Sable never even saw 90mph. It’s not an inspiring vehicle. It’s safe (allegedly), quiet, comfortable in some ways, well-equipped, spacious, and inoffensive-looking. I cannot see why anyone would pick the bloated, low-content Camry over this car, if the money is equal. Problem is, the money wasn’t equal. Ford wanted a lot of cash for the Sable.

Luckily, the used market has corrected that disparity. I turned around after Mr. Cray finished his two-hour set at B.B. King’s and drove back to Ohio. Twelve hundred miles in a day, about 27.5 mpg including time in the city. Not bad, but very far from being memorable. The next car I’d rent would be quite different.

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Review: Lincoln MKZ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/04/review-lincoln-mkz/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/04/review-lincoln-mkz/#comments Wed, 07 Apr 2010 13:19:57 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=351665 The logic behind the Lincoln MKZ is clear enough: if Toyota can get away with making a Lexus out of a Camry, why can’t Ford do the same with a Fusion? The ES 350 is arguably convincing as a Lexus (I’d argue pro, if not with much vigor, while there’s no shortage of people who’d […]

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The logic behind the Lincoln MKZ is clear enough: if Toyota can get away with making a Lexus out of a Camry, why can’t Ford do the same with a Fusion? The ES 350 is arguably convincing as a Lexus (I’d argue pro, if not with much vigor, while there’s no shortage of people who’d take the other side). But does the MKZ make for a convincing Lincoln?

The MKZ spent one year as the Zephyr, and received a more thorough revision for 2010. Both the grille—Lincoln’s current twin waterfall—and the tail lamps have gotten larger, in the current fashion. Unlike with the Fusion’s tri-bar, the supersizing doesn’t hurt. But the grille does nothing for the side view, from which the MKZ, though handsome, appears much less distinctive. Even with bespoke sheetmetal fore and aft of the doors, the midsize Lincoln sedan doesn’t look even as different from the Fusion as the ES does from the Camry. The money for dedicated fenders was not well spent—this is the way GM used to do it. If you’re going to spring for unique metal, spend a little more to alter the basic shape.

A larger problem: the MKZ doesn’t look much different than any other conventionally packaged three-box sedan. Ask a kid to draw a sedan, and he’d likely draw this. I dropped by a Buick showroom while driving this car, and the LaCrosse makes the MKZ appear just so twentieth century in comparison.

This story continues inside the MKZ. The Zephyr and pre-refresh MKZ had a three-quarter Town Car IP that, though certainly dated, was definitely Lincolnesque. There’s nothing remotely memorable about the new IP with the possible exception of the lighted hash marks that ring the instruments—a trait shared with other current Lincolns. Some other bits of style: the light gray piping on the steel gray seats and a tasteful level of chrome trim. The interior materials, while not those of a $41,000 car, are certainly better than those in the Fusion. The padded door panels are an especially welcome upgrade. But the Fusion should have door panels this nice, rather than the econo-car moldings it does have. A Lincoln interior should be nicer still. Beginning with the sound the doors make when pulled shut.

One dividend of the MKZ’s conventional packaging: good visibility to the front and sides. The thick-pillared, high-belted LaCrosse can’t touch it here. The front seats, though less cushy than those in the larger MKS, provide good lateral support. Together with the hand-operated parking brake, they suggest that we might even have a sport sedan on our hands. The rear seat, while fairly roomy, has on overly flat bottom cushion, for me among the least comfortable in any car.

Cargo is a strong point. Unlike in the MKS or the LaCrosse, the opening is as expansive as the trunk itself. Credit the conventional three-box shape. The hinges are the non-intrusive sort. And, for even more space, you can fold the rear seat. Can’t do that in a LaCrosse or a Lexus ES. One omission: no interior handle to close the trunk—you must touch the outer surface of the lid. Why?

A 263-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 remains the sole engine option. It’s no EcoBoost—if Ford offered that engine it could just put the MKZ on the enthusiast map—yet the sans-boost six is more than adequate.  If you don’t want a little torque steer, you want the optional all-wheel-drive. Fuel economy in mildly aggressive suburban driving was about 18.5—almost the same as the larger, heavier, considerably more powerful all-wheel-drive MKS EcoBoost. Go figure. The six-speed automatic can be manually shifted, which can be handy on curvy or hilly roads.

Manually shift a Lincoln, really? The tested MKZ was fitted with an optional sport suspension that certainly livens things up. After a few days in an MKS, this MKZ felt like a Miata until my reference point readjusted. It’s taut.

Perhaps too taut. With the sport suspension, the MKZ’s ride quality is often jittery, and occasionally crosses the line into harsh. I don’t recall the Fusion Sport riding this firmly, though certainly it must have? With a Ford badge and tighter steering I might have found this ride/handling balance agreeable, at least on the right road. In a Lincoln it seems…inappropriate.

Noise levels are fairly low, but not MKS low. When I drove an MKS with the regular suspension and a Milan back-to-back a few years ago, I found that the former was notably smoother and quieter. Possibly because the typical mainstream sedan has gotten so much smoother and quieter in recent years, I didn’t get the same premium feeling this time around. If the Fusion isn’t this smooth and quiet, it ought to be.

Perhaps it’s time to change our perceptions of what a Lincoln should be? Problem is, we need something to change them to. Like the MKS, but to an even greater degree, the MKZ lacks a coherent, distinctive character. The MKS at least had the “big and cushy with tons of stuff” thing down pat. As much as I hate to say it, the MKZ is just a mildly upgraded Fusion. Not a bad car by a long shot, since the Fusion is a good, reliable basis to start from. And at the right price I’d gladly recommend the MKZ, and certainly wouldn’t kick one out of my garage. But the $41,355 on the tested car’s sticker is not the right price. To deserve that kind of money, Lincoln needs to offer something more special. Perhaps the most telling indicator: while my luxury-loving wife hated to see the MKS go back, she hasn’t missed the MKZ for a moment.

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

Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online provider of automotive pricing and reliability data

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Review: 2010 Hyundai Tucson http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/02/review-2010-hyundai-tucson/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/02/review-2010-hyundai-tucson/#comments Wed, 17 Feb 2010 16:45:36 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=345730 When Hyundai introduced its first Tucson in 2004, the term crossover still hadn’t crossed over from the world of marketing into the public imagination. At the time, the term SUV still carried enough equity to convince even the ute-lets built on compact car platforms to emphasize their rugged inspiration with upright, boxy styling and spartan […]

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When Hyundai introduced its first Tucson in 2004, the term crossover still hadn’t crossed over from the world of marketing into the public imagination. At the time, the term SUV still carried enough equity to convince even the ute-lets built on compact car platforms to emphasize their rugged inspiration with upright, boxy styling and spartan utility. These car-based “cute-utes” were, according to the logic of the time, for consumers who wanted in on the SUVs alleged lifestyle enhancements without the profit-swelling sticker shock and ruinous fuel bills. Today, the crossover has properly crossed over, leaving behind the pretensions of the SUV-weaning generation to assume its own identity in the automotive market. For better or for worse, the new Hyundai exemplifies this new state of the crossover, and it makes the case for itself without reference to its previous status as a cheap substitute for an SUV.

Where other recent Hyundais have built the company’s reputation by taking laser-guided aim at American market hits like the Toyota Camry and Lexus LS, the Tucson’s roots are traceable to the spiritual home of the compact crossover: Europe. Designed and developed in Germany, where it will be sold as the Hyundai iX, the Tucson moves Hyundai’s crosshairs away from its traditional target on Toyota’s back towards Nissan’s European hit crossover, the Qashqai (a variant of which is sold in the US as the Rogue). The Tucson’s passenger dimensions are on-par with Rogue, Toyota’s RAV4 and Honda’s CR-V (with about 40 inches of headroom front and back, 41 inches of legroom in front and 38 inches in back), but cargo space comes in below all of its competition (but closest to the Rogue) with only 25/55 cubic feet with the rear seats up/down.

But fixating on practical numbers isn’t what the new crop of crossovers is about. If car buying were as simple as number-crunching, Hyundai’s Elantra Touring would cannibalize the new Tucson before it even arrived, offering similar dimensions and nearly identical mileage at a lower price point. Luckily for the auto industry, the emotional appeals that once sold SUVs by the boatload are hard at work in the new crossover class, and luckily for Hyundai, the Tucson hits all the notes needed to convince a buyer to abandon the rational analysis that might send them home with a mere station wagon.

The Tucson’s styling is some of the best in the compact CUV class, offering a taut, sculpted, sophisticated look that owes nothing to the crossover’s SUV-lite genesis. Which is not to say that the Tucson lacks stylistic debt: its “Fluid Sculpture” design language is more than a little reminiscent of Ford’s “Kinetic” aesthetic, making the Tucson something of a larger, less restrained Ford Kuga. In a US-market segment that boasts styling ranging from the timelessly anodyne (CR-V) to the faux-butch (Ford Escape) to the just-plain-uninspired (RAV4, Rogue, Equinox), the Tucson can expect to get good mileage from its distinctively European looks.

Especially considering that the impression of German world-car values continues inside. The center console is clean and clutter-free, with just enough funky flair from its flanking air vents and detached HVAC controls to prevent a sterile, industrial aesthetic. Interior design is more similar to the Chevy Equinox than the grey-plastic wonderlands of its Japanese competition, but unlike the Equinox, a sense of German propriety keeps the design from overshadowing its execution. Faux-alu plastic is blessedly kept to a minimum, while the solid swaths of dash material are well-arranged, tolerable to the touch, and seemingly set in concrete.

Though the interior walks the line between bland competence and Euro-sophistication, the drivetrain falls solidly on the side of bland competence. The good news is that the 2.4 liter engine’s smooth, if characterless performance, helps the Tucson deliver a quiet impression of isolation that actually adds to the sophistication side of the ledger. The less good news is that the engine itself is entirely unremarkable, developing its 176 horsepower without much in the way of drama, noise, or excitement. Hyundai’s in-house, six-speed automatic transmission is similarly lacking in defining characteristics, shifting smoothly if not snappily. Considering the distinct shortage of enthusiast options in this segment, this smoothed-out, inoffensive, and just-plain competent drivetrain isn’t likely to be a sales liability (and a turbo option is rumored).

Given the Tucson’s appliance-like drivetrain, there was no reason for Hyundai not to equip it with a soft, cruising suspension and call it a day. At least not if, like the RAV4 and Equinox, it were developed specifically to appeal to the US market taste. Instead, the suspension is remarkably taut, delivering a firm, pinned-down ride. The downside, of course, is some roughness over poorly-paved roads, but the combination of good damping and an impressively stiff body keep these disturbances feeling remote and manageable. Electric power steering helps the AWD Tucson to its 21/28 mpg EPA numbers just as much as it adds to this sense of remote isolation, but at the obvious expense of any road feedback through the wheel. Though it matches the drivetrain’s appliance-like competence and isn’t the most egregiously inconsistent EPS setup we’ve driven, the shockingly able suspension cries out for a more connected helm.

Not that anyone in the Tucson’s target market will care. With prices for FWD, manual models starting below $19k, and fully loaded Limiteds (pictured) topping out under $30k, it’s more fun to drive, more stylish and and more affordable than most of its Japanese and American competition. Our AWD GLS tester with the $1,700 “popular equipment package” offers the Bluetooth, steering wheel controls, leatherette accents, and a host of other items for a whisker under $24k. Which is about where no-option, AWD versions of its (slightly larger) competitors live. It won’t tempt anyone who still drives an SUV down into the burgeoning crossover class, but it certainly makes a strong rational case for itself to buyers with a Rogue or RAV in their sights. Heck, as an emotional, stylish design, it might even tempt a few otherwise reasonable folks out of an Elantra Touring. How the crossover has changed.

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Review: 2010 Nissan Maxima http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/02/review-2010-nissan-maxima/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/02/review-2010-nissan-maxima/#comments Fri, 12 Feb 2010 15:02:52 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=345144 Fifteen years ago, Nissan’s Maxima was one of a handful of genuinely sporting four-doors that wouldn’t saddle you with German car payments or reliability. After a decade of letting dozens of overpowered family haulers whittle away at the Maxima’s individualism, Nissan upped the game for 2009. Since we’re talking about what was once billed a […]

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Fifteen years ago, Nissan’s Maxima was one of a handful of genuinely sporting four-doors that wouldn’t saddle you with German car payments or reliability. After a decade of letting dozens of overpowered family haulers whittle away at the Maxima’s individualism, Nissan upped the game for 2009.


Since we’re talking about what was once billed a four-door sports car, let’s dive right into performance.

Coming from a daily driver down by over a hundred horsepower, the Maxima’s engine is just tremendous. The car launches with a firm shove limited just a touch by traction control, but it’s the range from 25 MPH to 70 that really impresses. Flooring it yields the oddest sensation of controlling the speed of other drivers. Very quickly, they all start to move backwards. There is some torque steer, though nothing I couldn’t handle with a single firm hand.  This car lives for speeds between 70 and 100. It has significant passing urge even at 85, where most sub-250 HP cars I’ve driven require far more planning. Pity then that the highest limit in the U.S. is 5 MPH less.

Road noise at that speed is minimal. Wind noise is more pronounced, and I noticed a subtle whistling from behind me on my rental with thirty-thousand miles. Nissan has heavily damped engine noise from the outside, so most of the aural enjoyment comes with the windows closed. I’d heard that the 3.5L had lost some smoothness at the top end relative to VQs of lesser displacement, but if that’s so, it certainly wasn’t evident with this version. This VQ sounds like it could hold at redline all day without a care. I could stand to hear more of it by half both in and out.

Prior to the Maxima, I’d had no experience with Nissan’s variable CVT transmission in any form. I came away from this one impressed. In Drive mode, it feels like an automatic with no shift points. It has the same creep at slow speeds, and the subtle wheel vibration of a car in gear when stopped. Slow acceleration keeps the engine around 2000 RPM. It otherwise loafs at 1200 RPM, imitating the practiced boredom of a Corvette in high gear.

This yields terrific mileage. Another more moderate driver in the family reported 28 MPG in a mix of highway and around-town cruising.
Wood the gas and the engine will zing to 4500 RPM, slowly rising to near redline as the car accelerates. If you’re aggressive, the system will assume you want to play and will hold 2500 RPM for a few seconds until it thinks you’ve relaxed. The heightened revs persist if you shift into Sport mode by moving the stick to the left gate. Sport can also add predetermined shift points to the CVT, an affectation that does no favors for acceleration. Even so, shifts are very quick. Holding a low gear and letting off the gas slows the car as if restrained by a giant hand. The connection isn’t quite as direct as a true manual, but it’s an interesting gimmick and sharper than any automanual I’ve tried. I personally found Drive so effective that Sport was superfluous. If selecting pseudo-cogs has more appeal to you, order the Maxima SV with paddle shifters. It takes much more concentration to keep the car pointed in the right direction at full tilt when you’ve devoted a hand to the gear lever.

I was uncertain at first what to make of the brakes. The pedal is touchy at the top of the range, and it took me over an hour to consistently stop without lurching. My fifth-gen Malibu is positively wooden by comparison; the pedal pressure in that one is probably three times greater for the same effect. Ultimate braking power is very high, though the ABS engages only when you’re near the stops. I think the car would benefit from a less linear braking curve, with reduced initial bite, but much more rapid deceleration in the bottom half of the travel. It’s too easy to use less than the car’s full braking ability. The ABS action is far more refined and effective than the Malibu’s, though a Porsche Cayenne is smoother still. This is gentle criticism; on the whole, I was pleased with the strength and consistency of the Maxima’s braking performance.
Grip limits were beyond my purview in this test. The base Goodyear RS-As have more than the engine can use. On dry roads, it took full steering lock and the gas to the floor to get any obvious engagement from the traction control system, and that was only for a moment. Disabling Nissan’s VDC stability control (and TC by extension) gave slightly quicker acceleration off the line. Handling was unaffected because I couldn’t make myself drive in a way that would activate VDC. Anyone hooligan enough to be bothered by it should probably leave it on.  

Those accustomed to the hairy-chested steering of a genuine sports car might find the Maxima’s wheel too emasculated for comfort. The leaden heft of a sport-package BMW at slow speeds is nonexistent in this car. It’s no more difficult to maneuver in a parking lot than an old Buick. That persists until about 40 MPH, when the wheel quickly and noticeably firms to a level still a few notches below where I’d like it to be. This weighting lends the Maxima an unnatural eagerness to change direction in slow turns. Handling seems to improve as the lateral forces increase; the real fun is in long, high-speed sweepers that liven the steering and let the car take a set. Highway stability is exemplary. The Maxima never feels as agile or sporty as a G37, but this seems less a chassis limitation than a mental trick. The ample cockpit and vanishing hoodline impart a bigness that encourages methodical driving. Dynamics aside, there are more intimate partners for channeling your inner Andretti on the backroads.

Interior quality seems at least as good, if not better than a cira-2007 Infiniti FX35. It makes the G8′s feel low-rent for reasons obvious even in pictures. My Maxima had leather accents and cloth seats with a vaguely suede-like finish. No lumbar support that I could find, but I was just as fresh after an hour in the seat as I was before. Coming from someone with back issues, this is a major achievement. There’s no shame opting for cloth over leather, if you can stand the fetish it seems to have for lint.

Side bolstering in the front seats is significantly tighter than the G8. Where that seat felt cavernous, this one extends only an inch or two more than I’d like. Bonus points as well for a beltline low enough to rest an arm on the window sill, and a comfortable armrest for the other. The rear seat is suitable for large people. I’m just over six feet, and when I set the driver’s seat to my preference, I still have two inches of knee clearance in the rear and at least one to the headliner.

The Maxima S is well-equipped for a base vehicle. All S models have a sunroof, driver and passenger electronic seat adjustments, a folding rear seat, and an auxiliary stereo input. Much of the value of the Maxima is here; while the SV can be optioned with larger wheels and all manner of gadgets, none of it is essential to enjoying the car. With rear-wheel-drive competition prowling the market in the high thirties, the point of diminishing returns for an enthusiast approaches rapidly.

Pictures do the Maxima’s styling little justice. The exaggerated Coke-bottle shape of its side bulges is much more attractive in person, concealing the car’s mass like a European suit would a sprinter. While it doesn’t inspire the lust of a Mustang or an M3, it does look classy and upscale in a way that an Accord or equivalent can’t match. The gaping maw of this Maxima is a lesser styling faux pas than the whole of Acura’s product line. Neither that, nor the awkward rear detailing is enough to turn me off to the rest of the car. Visibility from the inside suffers from strong A and C pillars, though not so much that I found it an impairment. Vettish front wheel arches add a bit of subtle aggression from the driver’s seat.
Before I was given the choice between a Focus and a Maxima at a rental agency, the latter wasn’t even on my buying radar. It’s since found a permanent home in my driveway. This is partly because of the Maxima’s unique brand positioning. A variety of V6-equipped sedans, including Nissan’s own Altima, can match the premium feel of the Maxima S for a few thousand less. None, however, are quite as fast, stylish, or sporting.
Luxury brands afford incremental improvements in speed and sport, but only after you leap the no-man’s-land between $30,000 and $35,000. The most apt competitor is actually the front-wheel-drive Acura TL, but that car bests the Maxima only with toys; it’s otherwise slower, less attractive, more ponderous, and quite a lot more money. Save for the ugly, the same could be said for the Hyundai Genesis. If you want fun, space, and style for less than thirty large, the Maxima S is one of the only games in town.

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Review: 2011 Fiat Bravo 1.4 T-Jet http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/02/review-2011-fiat-bravo-1-4-t-jet/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/02/review-2011-fiat-bravo-1-4-t-jet/#comments Wed, 03 Feb 2010 13:45:15 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=343993 Hop back to the distant (or not so distant) days of high school. Remember the complex universe that is class dynamics? Each class had its typical individuals. There was that all-around kind of guy. Perfect looks, perfect grades, perfect girlfriend. Maybe a little boring, but who cares when you can passionately discuss Fermat’s last theorem […]

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Hop back to the distant (or not so distant) days of high school. Remember the complex universe that is class dynamics? Each class had its typical individuals. There was that all-around kind of guy. Perfect looks, perfect grades, perfect girlfriend. Maybe a little boring, but who cares when you can passionately discuss Fermat’s last theorem at your own leisure?

Then there was the troublemaker: not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer, but always a lot of fun to hang out with during sleepless nights. Not that your mom would approve.

But tucked away into the darkest, farthermost corner of the classroom was that quiet kid that could stay utterly silent for days, and when he finally had something to say, he murmured it a hushed tone that even the teacher ignored. This, believe it or not, brings us neatly into the subject of the new Fiat Bravo. Euro car buffs probably remember this nameplate from the late 1990s hatchback which replaced the fairly successful Fiat Tipo. The Bravo – and its five door sibling, the Brava – slotted in the family hatchback segment, and were replaced in 2001 by the Fiat Stilo.

The Stilo, to put it mildly, didn’t exactly top the charts back in the Old Continent, and was criticized for its complete dullness. So after 6 years of declining sales, Fiat resurrected a nameplate from the turn of the century and drummed out a replacement: the new Fiat Bravo.

With the (wait for it…) Brave new Bravo, Fiat intends to retake the family hatchback market with a storm – and considerable Italian flair. Fiat would rather you didn’t know it, but the new Bravo isn’t totally new. In many parts it is, but it’s still based on the underpinnings of the unloved Stilo.

Funnily enough, this all-important VW Golf challenging car was developed in only 18 months, and used extensive computer simulation to speed things up. So, how does it all work out?

Well, for starters – no matter where you come from, this is car is a looker. Up front, the Bravo has the familiar Punto grille plastered on it and the back lights are influenced by the original Bravo. The overall shape is sleek and fluent – no design committees here. In a bid to avoid our daily allowance of Italian-car-related-clichés, we’ll let you overview the rest. To our eyes, this is a win for Fiat’s design studio, with clear influences from Fiat group’s other offerings, such as the Alfa Romeo MiTo. However, our metallic-black tester didn’t do the Bravo justice – this car aches for a bright color.

On another note, a closer look at the Bravo’s wheel arches gave us the slight impression that it was a little more high-riding than we’d want. Or maybe it just needs a bigger set of wheels – the ones you see in the photos are a custom job by the dealer.

The interior is a revelation, speaking in Fiat terms. This is undoubtedly one of the best interiors the Italian company has ever produced to date, and we weren’t even bothered by the fake carbon-fiber panels which felt fairly good to the touch. Most controls are logically arranged and there’s orange ambient lighting all around. But wait, there’s more: the door and trunk close with a reassuring thump that’s been long missing from Fiat’s midsize offerings.

Still, there are a few issues. Ask and thou shall find hard plastics where the eye doesn’t see and even where it does – like in the gearlever area. The wiper and turning signal handles belong to the better part of the 1990s and there are not as many soft-touch areas as you’d find in some competitors. We could also see no good coming out of the partially reflective plastic covering the dials either, but the dials themselves – in good Fiat tradition – are visible to the driver only. No more nagging from the wife when you drift to 85.

On the practicality front, the Bravo takes a few hits. The front seats feel a little awkward at first, but prove to be comfortable on long journeys – if a little hard. Rear legroom, however, is limited and you wouldn’t want to place anyone you love in the middle rear seat. It could get nasty. The trunk itself isn’t exceptionally big, but it’s deep enough to comfortably fit an adult (don’t ask).

Things get interesting under the bonnet. The gas engine range consists of 3 different states of tune of the same 1.4 liter, 16 valve unit – a naturally aspirated variant with 90 horsepower and two turbocharged versions, called T-JET, with 120 and 150 horsepower. If this all sounds familiar to you, it’s because it is – this flexible little engine appears everywhere in the concern’s offerings, including the Alfa MiTo and Abarth versions of the Punto and 500.

Unsurprisingly, Fiat’s intention is to compete with Volkswagen on the small turbocharged engine front. Over the last two years, VW has been constantly replacing its lower capacity gas engines with smaller, turbocharged (and in some cases, supercharged as well) units, and Fiat has clearly spotted the advantage of the added torque and power availability.

Our tester was equipped with the mid-range motor, producing 120 horsepower. Consumers in the Holy Land – much like in the States – prefer their cars with two pedals only and without that odd stick to their right, so our tester was mated to a six-speed Dualogic sequential gearbox.

The first part of this combination impresses. 120 horsepower doesn’t sound like much, and a sub-10-second sprint to 60 doesn’t exactly rock the earth, but the flexibility of the turbo engine allows for excellent mid-range power. The spec sheet says that maximum torque is available from as low as 1,750 RPM – and thankfully, there’s no noticeable turbo lag unless you really push it. As an added bonus, this engine has a great throaty sound and turbo hiss that’s only noticeable if you open the window and concentrate. At which point you may put the Bravo’s 5 star EuroNCAP crash test rating to review – be sure to let us know.

The bad news, as you’ve probably expected, come from the gearbox. We’re well acquainted with the said Dualogic gearbox, but with this engine and car it feels even more frustrating. Instead of a traditional automatic setup utilizing a torque converter, this gearbox uses an electronic clutch which shifts gears automatically. The result is, well, bumpy.

The Dualogic is simply not as smooth as a conventional automatic or a dual clutch gearbox like VW’s DSG. And unlike the 500, the Bravo isn’t equipped with any sort of a hill holding system (and there’s no creeping), which means that the second you release the brake, the car will immediately succumb to the laws of physics and roll in the general direction of the gradient, which could coincide with the general direction of the car behind you. Possible solutions: growing a third leg or braking with your left foot, neither of which TTAC recommends.

To make matters worse, this autobox is hesitant and when it does finally decide on the proper gear it lets you know with a friendly kick. In town, it’s a rocky and unpleasant experience. On the highway, it gets better. Here’s the thing: if you drive this car like a regular automatic, you’ll be disappointed. If you keep its manual roots in mind, lift off the throttle during upshifts and use the handy steering wheel mounted shifters, it’s actually not an entirely traumatic experience – it even blips on downshifts. Which begs the question: why not get the manual (and save money) in the first place?

The ride leans to the harsh side. It’s by no means uncomfortable, but slightly restless around town. On better roads it feels fairly composed, but wind noises intrude the cockpit in speeds approaching the legal limits.

When the roads got twisty, we had some expectations from the Bravo, as it comes from the company which has been producing sweet handling cars since the dawn of automotive time – not to mention owning Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Maserati and Lancia. Coincidentally, this was also one of the most disappointing aspects of the Bravo.

There’s the steering. The thick-rimmed leather wheel – which is pleasant to the touch – quickly proved just how bad an electro-hydraulic setup can get. It’s over-assisted, imprecise and vague, with minimal Playstation-like levels of feedback. The gas pedal has a rubbery feel to it and the brakes – although having good initial response – give up and go on a smoking break way too quickly. Not exactly a recipe for a fun Sunday drive, but in the end of the day, there are worse cars to drive, thanks to a good chassis and controlled body roll thanks to the toughened suspension. It’s a shame you have to dig deeper than most drivers naturally will to discover these positive qualities.

The Fiat Bravo isn’t a bad car. It’s actually one of Fiat’s best efforts to date: it’s an attractive and fairly refined car with a worthy engine that’s let down by disappointing driving dynamics and a poor automatic gearbox – though the latter is about to change with the introduction of Fiat’s first dual clutch transmission (DCT) later this year. But it’s still not as complete as the Volkswagen Golf or even the Ford Focus, and it suffers from Fiat’s poor reputation when it comes to family hatchbacks.

The Bravo then, is that quiet student perched against the class wall. It can’t be that awe-inspiring all-knowing guy – let’s call him Golf – but neither can it be ‘the dude’ because of its mediocre driving dynamics and lack of driver appeal. And as quiet individuals go, it’ll be ignored by most shoppers looking for a family hatchback – and that’s a shame, because it still manages to be a refreshingly original pick in an otherwise boring class (pun unintended), that’s also significantly cheaper than its more accomplished competitors. Bravo (sorry, we had to).

Fiat provided the vehicle for this review, along with insurance and one tank of gas

This review made possible by icar.co.il

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Review: 2011 Fiat 500 1.2 (European-Spec) http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/01/review-2011-fiat-500-1-2-european-spec/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/01/review-2011-fiat-500-1-2-european-spec/#comments Wed, 27 Jan 2010 15:06:22 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=343143 Retro cars sell on looks. Take the Chrysler PT Cruiser as an example – automotive perfection it wasn’t, and yet it sold like iPods on a Black Friday. Others, like the Mini Cooper, proved that retro cars can look like the past and drive like the present. But worth driving or not, almost every retro […]

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Retro cars sell on looks. Take the Chrysler PT Cruiser as an example – automotive perfection it wasn’t, and yet it sold like iPods on a Black Friday. Others, like the Mini Cooper, proved that retro cars can look like the past and drive like the present. But worth driving or not, almost every retro car introduced over the last few years has been a marketing sensation, bringing easy revenue and much-needed customers into an otherwise dull product line, and reviving deserted showrooms. No surprise, then, that upon reviewing the stellar sales of the Ford Mustang, Mini Cooper and the Volkswagen New Beetle, Fiat’s chiefs in Torino decided that it was time to launch a true Italian vendetta. It didn’t take long to find inspiration: the instant choice was the Fiat 500.

The Fiat 500 is to Italy what the iconic Beetle is to Germany. A small, bread-and-butter car that put a shiny new automobile in every driveway in a country plagued by post-war trauma. Introduced in 1957 and produced through 1975, nearly 3.9 million 500s were made over the years – and some 400,000 of them still travel on the roads of Europe today.

So, Fiat’s designers put their retro hats on, and in 2007, the new Fiat 500 – or cinquecento, as the Italians call it – was born. The new 500 is remarkably similar to its predecessor with a flowing and harmonic design which softly mutters – rather than screams – retro. In flowing Italian.

The end result of Fiat’s effort is a car that people smile at – on the streets, in parking lots and in traffic jams. Not many cars can be called ‘sweet’, but the Fiat 500 can definitely satisfy any automotive sweet tooth.

Unlike BMW with the MINI, Fiat has decided to indulge in some clever platform sharing. Underneath the shiny bodywork of the 500 lies a much less shiny car – the Fiat Panda, also the cheapest car the Italian company currently offers. And they have a very good reason for this, as the 500 significantly undercuts the Cooper in its pricing.

Does it show? In a word, yes. The interior continues the retro trend with shiny plastic that is color-coded with the exterior – it does look like an original effort, but a quick touch reveals the sound of hollow, low-grade plastic that’s not at all satisfying to touch. The interior is, however, well put together and otherwise very pleasant to look at, with nice touches and attention to detail – like the chrome surroundings around the buttons.

There are also some obligatory Italian-engineering quirks included with the 500. Take, for example, the seat reclining lever which is awkwardly hard to reach or the unnecessarily-complex gearlever on our automatic tester.

Space up front is not bad and the funky looking seats are good, but getting comfortable in the rear is a challenging experience. Although, surprisingly, rear legroom and space is ample, our tester’s rear seats were more of a bench, providing an awkward sitting position that inspired backaches after mere minutes of commuting. You do pay – handsomely – for this relative comfort, with the trunk measuring a miserly 185 liters (6.5 cubic feet), so don’t go planning any road trips.

Under the hood of our Euro-spec tester was a 1.2 four-banger unit putting out 70 horsepower. Combined with a curb weight of 1900 pounds, you may have already guessed this 500 won’t win any drag races, completing the sprint to 60 in just under 13 seconds. There is also a more powerful 1.4 unit with 100 horsepower, and of course – the Abarth with its 1.4 TurboJet engine pumping out 133 horeses (and a more impressive 7.9 second sprint to 60).

Our tester was also equipped with an optional Dualogic automatic transmission. This is no regular automatic though – it’s a single-clutched, manual based, computer controlled unit. Although it’s not a bad effort for this kind of a gearbox, after Volkswagen has shown us how to execute the semi-autobox it with its DSG dual clutch gearbox, it’s hard to go back. This transmission offers slightly jerky performance in heavy traffic and doesn’t shift as smoothly as a conventional automatic or VW’s said gearbox. There is a clever Hill Hold feature, which will hold the brake pedal for you for 3 seconds to prevent rolling down hills, but we’d rather pick the stick or a conventional automatic which may or may not be added for the American market.

But perhaps the most disappointing part about the 500 is its ride. In its seemingly natural habitat – urban areas – this Fiat provided a jerky and uncomfortable ride, crashing over bumps and minor road imperfections with what appears to be very short suspension travel. This condition improved when taken to the freeway, but we’d gladly trade some cruising comfort to spare our backs in town, not to mention that the 500 doesn’t feel very much at home cruising on the highway.

The upside to the harsh ride is the handling, which is good. It’s not as composed as say, well, the Mini Cooper, but the 500 is still a fun car in the corners, although we were limited in this judgment by the engine’s lack of grunt. The electrically assisted steering is a little too light and lacks a certain amount of feel, but all-in-all the result is fair enough. For tight parking spots and difficult urban maneuvers, Fiat has provided a magic button which makes the steering even lighter – frighteningly so.

So, what about the United States? Well, there are several question marks left, but the 500 is well on its way stateside as part of Fiat’s attempt to re-enter the American market after leaving with its tail between its legs back in the 80s. It will be produced in one of Chrysler’s North American factories, and the convertible version of the Italian mini car, called 500C, will also make it across the pond. There are also plans for a wagon-esque spinoff (read: Mini Cooper Clubman).

At least for the time being, however, Chrysler-Fiat have no intention of opening a separate Fiat dealer-network, so that the 500 will be sold in Chrysler showrooms, and well, we can see some problems with the idea, separate showroom floor notwithstanding.

But back to the car. The 500 proves that Fiat can do retro too. And although the obvious comparison to the Mini Cooper (fun fact: both cars were designed by the same man), the Fiat 500 is smaller and cheaper – and it doesn’t manage to hide it.

Financially, the 500 makes very little sense. It isn’t very comfortable, quality could use a brush up and it’s not the most rewarding car in the world to drive (the Abarth should fix that impression, though). Yes, it is cheaper than the Mini, but it’s by no means cheap. You could probably buy a modern, well-equipped sub-compact for the 500’s non-retro price, but that would be using common sense, and common sense just doesn’t apply here.

You see, the 500 has this sense of occasion to it. It’s a (relatively) cheap-and-(very) cheerful car, if you like – and it’s been a while since we could genuinely say this about any new car. It functions better as a fashion accessory than a practical solution, and if that’s your cup of tea, you might as well take a long sip. Did we mention that retro cars tend to sell on their looks?

This test drive made possible by iCar.co.il

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Comparison Review: Toyota Venza Versus Honda Crosstour: Second Place: Toyota Venza http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/01/comparison-review-toyota-venza-versus-honda-crosstour-second-place-toyota-venza/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/01/comparison-review-toyota-venza-versus-honda-crosstour-second-place-toyota-venza/#comments Wed, 20 Jan 2010 13:30:56 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=342370 Cross a car and a truck, you get an SUV. Cross a SUV with a car and you get a CUV. Cross that CUV with a car and you get a Crossover Sedan, the term used by Toyota marketing mavens for their Camry-based Venza. With this step the evolution comes full circle, as the Venza […]

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IMG_2590

Cross a car and a truck, you get an SUV. Cross a SUV with a car and you get a CUV. Cross that CUV with a car and you get a Crossover Sedan, the term used by Toyota marketing mavens for their Camry-based Venza. With this step the evolution comes full circle, as the Venza is really just a good ole station wagon. Not to be outdone, this year Honda released a Crossover Sedan of their own, only they don’t call it a Crossover Sedan. Instead, Honda says their new Accord “blends sporty, low-profile contours with CUV functionality.” Get the picture? Actually, the new Honda should be called the Accord hatchback. So it is that I evaluate these two new Crossover Sedans wrought from the DNA of two of the top selling cars in North America. First up, second place: the Toyota Venza.

IMG_2578Call the Venza whatever you like, it is big and shares nary a body panel with the Camry. Its hood is broad, short, flat and lacks the Camry’s obscene protruding bulge. The doors too are flat and tall, making the most of the space above the vehicle’s footprint. This Colossus of Roads stands 3.3” wider and 5.5” taller than its (relatively) diminutive chassis partner.

Inside, the sense of spaciousness continues. In fact, call it vast; a vast expanse of hard cheap plastics. The most striking thing about Venza’s inner confines, other than the openness of the space, is that it looks like futuristic interior mockups that carmakers like to put into concept vehicles for auto shows. You know, the ones where none of the buttons or gauges are real and they use a lot of sterile colors accented with splashes of neon lighting, and long flowing lines. Seats: meet George Jetson.

In their wisdom, Toyota engineers planted Venza’s gear select in the middle of the IMG_2580dashboard. Not only does this placement bring on the very minivan blahs the “crossover sedan” category might have been invented to avoid, it also crowds the HVAC controls away from the driver into an asymmetrical contortion of buttons and knobs. On the positive side, it frees up the center console space to be used as a dedicated storage bin filled with handy cubbies and niches that lift and slide into multiple handy configurations. Auxiliary audio jacks are conveniently located at the front of the center console.

The highlight of the Venza’s interior is the light high above the passenger’s heads that Toyota calls the panoramic glass roof option. It is a conventional sunroof plus a large fixed pane over the rear seat occupants, perfect for taking your kids on a driving tour of Jurassic Park.

Automatic folding rear seats can be actuated by levers conveniently located on either side of the lift gate. With the seats up, the rear quarters can accommodate 30.1 cu.ft. of cargo. Fold the rear seats down and that space grows to 68.8 cu.ft. For those of you keeping score, that’s 4.2 cu.ft. smaller than the back of the RAV4. But it’s also four and a half times more than you can squeeze into the trunk of a Camry.

Everything about how the Venza drives is tuned for comfort and smoothness. My Barcelona Red Metallic test car was powered by Toyota’s 268 hp 3.5-liter V6 engine mated to a 6-speed electronically controlled transmission. If you have the patience, it is actually capable of producing a fair amount of power. If you have the patience.

IMG_2601Before the engine will sing though, you have to endure it lugging through low rpms at the shallow end of the power band and wait for the slothful transmission to downshift a gear. Or two. Or three. I suppose this is for the best since the car has the weakest brakes I have encountered since I began my saga testing cars for TTAC in 2006.

The traction control allows for excessive wheel spin before it invokes ABS intervention, which then comes on way too hard. Furthermore, the electric power assisted steering pulls demonically to the right after the car shifts into second gear at about 50 mph during full throttle blasts. Otherwise, torque steer isn’t a problem (I type with trembling hands).

But hey, it’s a family-oriented station wagon. Gear shifts are as disruptive as the flutter of a butterfly’s wing. The velvety suspension devours potholes so you don’t have to. Under normal driving conditions, the Venza is a rolling sensory deprivation chamber, perfect for pacifying fussy babies and soothing the savage beast after a long day at the office.

And long days are exactly what you will have to work in order to pay for Toyota’s fancy station wagon. My test model rang in at $34,893, $4,513 more than the Accord Crosstour EX. Throw in AWD and navigation and you’ll get stuck for $40 large.

[Toyota provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review]

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Comparison Review: Kia Soul Versus Nissan Cube: Second Place: Kia Soul http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/01/comparison-review-kia-soul-versus-nissan-cube-second-place-kia-soul/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/01/comparison-review-kia-soul-versus-nissan-cube-second-place-kia-soul/#comments Mon, 04 Jan 2010 20:49:12 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=340692 Back in 1997, when Volkswagen introduced the New Beetle, my wife badly wanted one because it seemed so much more young and fun than her current car. But she also wanted children. The two were not compatible, so no Beetle for her. No doubt she was not the only person seeking a cute, quirkily styled […]

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Sould?

Back in 1997, when Volkswagen introduced the New Beetle, my wife badly wanted one because it seemed so much more young and fun than her current car. But she also wanted children. The two were not compatible, so no Beetle for her. No doubt she was not the only person seeking a cute, quirkily styled car with four doors. But at the time there were no such cars. Chrysler was arguably first to fill this void, with the PT Cruiser. So that’s what my wife has been driving for the past five years. Today there are a number of contenders. The latest: Kia’s Soul and Nissan’s cube. Which comes closest to the mark? Well, since you’re reading about the Soul first, clearly the cube. Here’s where the Soul falls short…

Picture 72First, a step back. Japan has been awash in quirky small cars for years, but the 2004 Scion xB was the first to reach American shores. The extreme rectilearity of the xB polarized opinion. Most people found it ugly, but enough found its combination of anti-style, roominess, and economy appealing enough to make the first-gen xB a hit.

The Kia Soul is Korea’s response to that xB. It answers the question: what happens if you keep the basic box, but do more with it than add wheels? What if you actually put serious thought into the design? In the case of the Soul, an upward angled beltline, downward angled roofline, flared wheel openings, and various other details perfectly meld to form a much more attractive box. This is the sort of innovative yet cohesive design Honda used to be capable of, but somehow forgot how to do. The Soul hasn’t repulsed people the way the xB has, and I’d personally feel much more comfortable driving one.

But perhaps this is a sign that Kia hasn’t pushed the envelope hard enough. While attractive, the Soul doesn’t challenge aesthetic conventions the way the xB and cube have. It doesn’t seem as quirky, and doesn’t stand out as much in a sea of other cars. So it doesn’t appeal as much to people like my wife who want something clearly different from the mainstream. Those macho fender flares and angles might also be a factor: there’s more sport and less cute in this exterior design than in the cube’s.

Inside, color provides the Soul with much of its soul. Well, not in the lower two trim levels—their interiors are un-fun solid black. Soul! InteriorBut the !’s interior (yes, ! is a trim level, as is +) is a combination of beige and black, while the sport’s (lowercase intended) is red and black. Opt for the red only if you really like red. There’s a lot of it, including nearly the entire instrument panel, and hard plastic is clearly hard plastic in this particular shade. You’ll want to wear your shades. Beige veers too far in the other direction, but houndstooth seat inserts save the !’s interior from appearing mundane.

The Soul’s most unexpected feature: speaker lights. The great-sounding 315-watt, eight-speaker audio system has lights in its two front door speakers. And, no, that’s not the end of it. These lights have four settings: off, on, mood, and music. In “mood,” you set the frequency with which they blink. In “music,” they beat to the music. An excellent way to entertain the kiddies—except that the rear door speakers are not similarly endowed. Why not?

Another problem with the speaker lights: responses to TrueDelta’s Car Reliability Survey suggest that they often failed to work as designed. Kia has a fix for this problem, though, so it shouldn’t affect recently produced cars.

Sitting in the Soul feels much like sitting in a regular compact, just with your rear a half-foot further from the ground. While a protruding center stack benefits ergonomics, it also reduces the perceived roominess of the interior. Similarly, the large, modestly raked windshield provides a familiar view from the driver’s seat, but cuts into perceived roominess more than an upright windshield would.

Picture 74All of these tall boxes provide more rear legroom and headroom than in the typical small car, and the Soul is no exception. Two adults will fit in back, no problem. Cargo space with the second row up is limited, but simply fold the rear seat to more than double it. The Soul could carry even more stuff if the front passenger seat also folded, as in the PT Cruiser. Alas, it does not.

Unlike in the cube, the cargo floor is flat when the rear seat is folded. The trick: a false floor behind the rear seat. Useful storage compartments occupy the space between this false floor and the floor over the spare. Up front, storage areas include a huge bi-level glove compartment and a storage box atop the IP. So there’s plenty of space for four people or stuff, if not four people AND their stuff.

The Soul looks like fun, and it has those nifty speaker lights. But it is fun to drive? A 2.0-liter four good for 142 horsepower motivates 2,800 pounds, not a bad ratio. Problem is, the automatic transmission has only four speeds, and upshifts much more readily than it downshifts. So, at least with this transmission, the Soul feels much more sluggish than the numbers suggest it should. An additional ratio or two would also permit more relaxed and economical highway driving.

The Soul sport has a sport-tuned suspension. The most obvious difference between it and the !: the sport’s heavier steering feels less natural and makes the vehicle feel less agile. With either suspension, body roll is fairly well controlled for a 63-inch-tall vehicle and there are none of the fore-aft bibbly-bobblies found in some tall boxes. The Soul generally feels tighter and firmer than key competitors do. But for truly fun handling you’ll want something with a lower center of gravity. Sick of the puns yet?

The Soul’s handling advantage vis-à-vis direct competitors comes at the evident expense of ride quality. On subpar pavement the busy ride borders on punishing, for the ears even more than the seat of the pants. While the base Soul has 15-inch steelies, and the + has 16-inch alloys, both the ! and the sport are shod with 18s. The Soul’s bold fender flares certainly pair best with the large wheels, but the attendant low-profile tires thump loudly across every bump and divot. This sort of ride might be worth paying for sports car handling. But many sports cars these days ride much better, and the Soul certainly doesn’t handle like a sports car.

In the final assessment, the Kia Soul is an attractively styled, functional box with some rough edges. Perhaps Kia will add some needed refinement in coming years. The powertrain from the Forte SX and more polished suspension tuning would be a good start. Even as-is, the Soul will appeal to those who prefer sporty to cute and quirky. But car buyers seeking cute and quirky in conjunction with a more relaxed driving experience (e.g. my wife) will be better off elsewhere.

[Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, a source of pricing and reliability data]

The post Comparison Review: Kia Soul Versus Nissan Cube: Second Place: Kia Soul appeared first on The Truth About Cars.

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