Way back in 2007, I kicked off the Down On the Street series (which was supposed to be a one-time reference to the title of a Stooges song beloved by me and the late Davey J. Johnson) with the first of what would turn out to be hundreds of interesting street-parked cars: a 1984 Cadillac Cimarron d’Oro. That led to something of a Cimarron obsession, and I’ve spent the past 15 years documenting every semi– intact Cadillac J-Body I find during my junkyard adventures. You’d think they’d all have been crushed by now, but such is not the case; I found this loaded Brown Overload Edition ’85 in a yard near Pikes Peak earlier this year.
A friend once asked me — jokingly, mind you — what vehicle would be the ride least likely to arouse suspicion from the police. The anti-heat score, if you will. As a proud (multiple) past owner, I knew the correct answer — a grey, ubiquitous, anonymous five- to 10-year-old General Motors sedan. At least, I thought I did.
Well, I take it all back.
Only while driving a Hyundai Santa Fe Sport does one realize that everyone else drives a Hyundai Santa Fe Sport. Everyone. In fact, you’re probably reading this in a Hyundai Santa Fe Sport. Allegedly, Hyundai sells the popular crossover in splashy colors like red, but a shade reminiscent of the slate-grey November sky that murdered the Edmund Fitzgerald’s crew seems to be the go-to choice for most buyers. Would-be bank robbers, scofflaws and undercover cops, take note.
If you’re one of the few who hasn’t yet signed on the dotted line for the Big Blue H’s lower-midsize crossover — newly refreshed for 2017, in case you weren’t aware — I drove one so you won’t have to.
Now, why does my mind keep returning to the ocean?
I’m sitting on the pit lane of my local track — Atlantic Motorsports Park in Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia — surveying the empty course. My helmet is on the seat beside me, my hands are gripping the leather-wrapped wheel, and I can hear the low growl of three-cylinders idling as they wait for me.
But before I get to that, a bit about what I’m driving.
This is the Mitsubishi Mirage G4. It’s what happens when the oft-cheapest new hatchback in Canada (depending on who is offering what cash on the hood that month) grows a trunk. Under the hood: a 1.2-liter three-cylinder engine that has 78 horses in there somewhere. Connected to that is a continuously variable transmission, the only transmission available on this SEL trim tester.
I do a quick check of the course to make sure it’s still empty. My foot hits the floor.
When the previous generation of Astra made it to American shores — dressed in leather, wood and Buick Verano badges — it wasn’t a foreign invasion. Instead, the Astra-cum-Verano was a good soldier coming home; the Astra J always felt like a Buick.
The brand-new Astra, now wearing the K designator, is lighter, more agile and stuffed with lots of new-fangled tech. Europeans love it, as shown by its European Car of the Year award. But will Americans love the next Verano, which is bound to be based on this European compact?
In case you didn’t know it, Kia’s on a roll. Sales have more than doubled since 2009, propelling Kia from a Mazda-sized player in the American market to one that outsold established brands like Subaru, GMC, Chrysler and Volkswagen.
Kia’s transformation may seem like a night-and-day makeover, but closer inspection reveals that it’s really the result of consistent incremental improvements to its products, frequent designs and refreshes, and astute pricing.
You can think of the Sportage as the final piece of Kia’s evolving puzzle. Sales may be on a roll for the Korean automaker, but the Sportage has never sold in large numbers. It finished 14th in a segment of 17 models last year. (The Sportage beat the Volkswagen Tiguan, Mitsubishi Outlander, and Chevrolet Captiva Sport). It could be that the Kia Sorento did a better job of nipping at the heels of mid-trim Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V models. For 2017, Kia gives us a new Sportage targeted more at Mazda and Ford than Toyota.
The promise of improved performance and tree-hugging fuel economy has made turbocharged engines all the rage in luxury cars. Despite the often failure of those boosted motors to meet their lofty, published fuel economy ratings in the real world, forced induction has a significant — and positive — impact on performance.
It seems Infiniti had gotten the memo.
A few short weeks ago, I was inside a very purple 2016 RAV4 marveling that Toyota’s compact crossover nearly outsells the Mazda brand. My bottom line for that RAV4 read like this:
Why are the RAV4’s sales so high when there are more fun options out there? The reasons can be found in its strong value proposition, a soft ride about which journalists often complain, included scheduled maintenance and Toyota’s reputation for reliability.
The 2016 RAV4 isn’t going to light many souls on fire, but it gives the average CUV shopper more of what they obviously want.
Except fuel economy or performance.
That’s where the first full-hybrid compact crossover since Ford abandoned the Escape Hybrid five years ago comes in.
Traditional car shoppers are moving away from small sedans and toward compact crossovers. That’s the conventional wisdom used to explain the slowing sales we see in some models. But could there be another reason? Could it simply be a lack of focus and attention to the compact segment?
There is one model that’s seen a meteoric rise in sales since 2013: the Sentra. Nissan’s complete overhaul three years ago and aggressive pricing doubled Sentra sales since then, moving it from a “top 15” player in sales to number five in 2015.
In an effort to maintain the trajectory, Nissan opted for a major refresh after just three years on sale. (Sounds like the Honda plan with the Civic, doesn’t it?) Perhaps the key to compact success is a combination of frequent updates and more gadgets for shoppers to choose from. That sums up the 2016 Sentra perfectly.
Honda received much flogging from the press for the last-generation Civic. The 2012 model was the result of Honda improperly reading the Magic 8-Ball amid the global slowdown. Honda’s decision makers assumed shoppers would be looking for something more modest, perhaps even austere, and changed direction to suit. The competition, assuming shoppers would be looking for greater creature comforts in a smaller package, went the opposite direction and doubled down on luxury features.
The conventional wisdom has been that Honda “stepped in it” with the ninth-generation sedan. Journalists complained about the plastic quality, the styling and … customers paid little attention. The Civic’s sales dipped slightly in 2011 during the changeover, but rapidly rebounded to over 315,000 units a year since. Some would say that Honda’s “emergency refreshes” were the reason for the sales success, but I propose a different answer: the continued sales success of the lesser-than Civic and an increase in sales of “premium” compacts showed there was plenty of room in the segment for both.
Whatever the reality, one thing is for certain: When it came time to design the tenth-generation Civic, Honda had “austere” removed from the company dictionary.
Lexus has tended to prefer conservative design in almost every aspect of product development. Words like reliable and dependable usually spring to mind before sporty or exciting.
Yet, the brand has been trying to change that over the last few years with love-it-or-hate-it designs; in particular, Lexus’ new “Predator mouth.” The changes aren’t simply skin deep. The current-generation IS sedan also stepped outside the luxury brand’s comfort zone with sharp handling and a focus on dynamics. Of course, this is Lexus we’re talking about, so this change in a more aggressive direction is happening at, you guessed it, a conservative pace.
Now in its third year of production, the third-generation IS isn’t getting a refresh like we’d typically see in from ze Germans. Instead, Lexus has decided to focus its attention under the hood with a new turbocharged four-cylinder engine and a de-tuned V-6 for mid-level shoppers.
Can a refreshed drivetrain help the IS stand out in a crowded segment? Let’s find out.
I call Scions “the acronyms from hell” because even I have trouble keeping up with all of them.
iQ, iA, iM, tC, xB, xD. Did I forget one? The xA and…wait! I forgot the FR-S, but that’s only because I rarely see those go through the auction block. Everything else, save the two new iA and iM models, seems to make a perennial pilgrimage to the wholesale heaven of unwanted used cars for one unfortunate reason.
Scion, historically, can’t help but hit ’em where the customers ain’t.
It only took Honda 15 years to get the Civic right again.
After Honda, a company known for engineering prowess in the 1990s, attempted to make the Civic a more palatable option for plain jack and janes — enthusiasts either hung on to what they had or went elsewhere.
To me, the last real Civic was the sixth-generation model, which Honda sold from 1996 to 2000. It was also the last generation that Honda sold as an honest to goodness hatchback in North America. Sure, the British-built Si came to our shores later, but you needed to shell out big bucks for Honda’s pride and joy from Swindon.
Thankfully, the automaker is going back to its roots — 15 years in the past — to deliver a driving experience I’ve missed since saying goodbye to my 2000 Honda Civic Coupe many, many years ago.
And, to top it all off, there are now two flavors — regular and turbocharged.
BMW has M, Audi has a whole alphabet and Honda has Si. In truth, just the Civic has Si. Honda’s “Sport injection” trim started back in the 1980s but never expanded beyond its compact offerings in the U.S. Honda’s performance trim also never expanded beyond sharpened responses, a modest dollop of power and some looks-fast trim additions. The first Honda Si model came to our shores in 1985, but the first wasn’t a Civic — it was a Prelude. The Civic Si joined us a year later in 1986. But I digress.
Cars like the Civic Si are popular with journalists like me. The reason is simple, quite like the Civic itself. Unlike some performance packages, the Si treatment still favors sharpened responses and improved feel over simply jamming an over-boosted turbo engine under the hood. While the later is obviously a hoot and a half, the former is ultimately more pleasing to my peculiar tastes.
Automotive News Europe reported that Volvo will offer a new compact crossover, based on a new architecture, in 2018 that will likely be called the XC40.
The crossover will be built in Ghent, Belgium and possibly in China, using the same platform being developed for compact cars in Europe.
The crossover will get Volvo power plants that include a hybrid variant. It would also likely get some sort of semi-autonomous driving feature as the Swedish automaker further develops its technology.