By on November 26, 2018

Before we go any further, I just want to point out one thing — I hate the BMW X3. I loathe even the idea of it. I grew up on the E30 3 Series and the E23 7 Series, both of which were in my father’s driveway well before most people in Suburbia knew what the hell a “Bimmer” even was. I find the concept of an Ultimate Driving CUV to be a blight on the brand itself, a disgrace of the highest order.

The last generation of the X3 was total trash. It was a rough-riding, fuel-guzzling exercise in badge whoring. Its sole purpose was to impress other moms in the school pick-up line. There was nothing the previous X3 could do that literally any other entry in the small CUV sector couldn’t do better. I’m including the Kia Soul in that comment, by the way.

So when I saw a 2018 BMW X3 on the Emerald Aisle at MIA, I was excited to rent it. Not because I thought I would enjoy it, but because I thought it would give me the chance to write a hateful screed about another automotive abortion from Spartanburg. Alas, it was not to be. Because the new X3 is likely the best car BMW makes today.

(Read More…)

By on August 31, 2018

Sometimes one just has to appreciate the complete absurdity of a vehicle. The never-ending available horsepower in the current pony car wars, for example. The over-the-top quilted interior of the limited-run Bentley Continental GT3-R. And then we have the 2018 Nissan Armada, which is completely and totally ridiculous in its own right.

It’s substantially bigger than anybody could ever possibly need it to be. It’s superfluously more expensive than any Nissan has a right to be (come at me, GT-R fanbois). The engine is more forceful than you’ll ever require it to be.

But I kinda like it anyway. At least, I think I do.

(Read More…)

By on July 19, 2018

“It’s a Jeep thing; you wouldn’t understand.” That phrase might be a breathtaking bit of cultural appropriation at a level that shocks even your aging and decidedly hidebound author, but it’s not wrong.

Consider, if you will, the vehicle pictured above. It’s the old “Wrangler JK” — a vehicle which has had a decade-plus run as talisman, touchstone, profit center, and Jurassic-DNA-in-mosquito-frozen-in-amber for Chrysler in no fewer than three corporate iterations. From the moment you touch the rough plastic of the pushbutton exterior doorhandle, it’s absurdly plain that everything on this vehicle was designed from the outset to cut costs, only to have more costs cut as the years go on. Not that the bones of the thing aren’t fit for purpose — they are — but my God has there been a Great Cheapening going on in Wrangler-land over the past few years.

“Listen, dummy,” you’re no doubt saying, “of course this is going to be cheaped-out. It’s the final form of the model, kept in production until recently for the rental fleets, the skinflints, and the people who are both allergic to change and unable to get themselves to a dealership during an entire year’s worth of new-for-2018 Wrangler publicity. What did you expect? A ‘Golden Eagle’ luxury model?” Well yes, I did expect that, and they did in fact make some, but that’s not the problem here. Nor is it the fact that Jeep ran the old model for an extra year. That was a groundbreaking practice in 1996 when Ford did it to hedge its bets with the jellybean ’97 F-150, but it’s become fairly common in the two decades since then. Birds do it, bees do it, Malibus do it. (A bit of trivia for you: Ford had planned to do that as well with the 1986 Taurus, by keeping the aero Fox LTD in production at the Atlanta plant, but as the zero hour approached they decided to go all-in on the new car. What a disaster that would have been.)

No, my beef with this coupon-clipper old-shape 2018 Jeep is as follows: It ain’t cheap.

(Read More…)

By on June 13, 2018

Has it really been five years since I rented and tested the previous Nissan Maxima? Well, as Natalie Merchant once said about children, “At your age / in a string of days / the year is gone.” That less-than-maximum Max was, in my opinion anyway, the worst Maxima ever.

Is there anybody out there who expected anything more than mediocrity from the current Maxima, despite the in-your-face styling, despite that hugely evocative Super Bowl ad? I doubt it. The five-year gap between my last go-round with a big Nissan sedan shrinks to insignificance when compared to the three-decade gap that separates today and the introduction of the first (and last) first-rate automobile to bear this particular nameplate.

Here’s the good news: The new one’s better than the old one, and the one before that. It counts as a pleasant surprise in a business which is increasingly bereft of such consolations. All you need to appreciate this car is the proper perspective, which we’ll triangulate based on two historical points: the first-generation Datsun 810 “Maxima”, and the Renault Laguna.

(Read More…)

By on June 7, 2018

It seems like lately I’ve developed a habit of reviewing vehicles on the verge of being replaced by a brand new generation. And by habit, I mean one review. But it seemed fitting when the local Enterprise location handed me keys to a “Full Size” and it turned out to be the soon-to-depart, current-generation Nissan Altima.

With a new Altima already unveiled, promising more/better/faster everything, is there anything to miss about the outgoing model? After a week living with one, I can definitely say there might be.

Probably.

(Read More…)

By on May 30, 2018

Image: Jack Baruth

It’s a truism, but it’s true nonetheless: Every brand has a core product, and this is doubly true for automakers. The core product for BMW is the 3/4/whatever-Series of once-compact cars. If you buy a 3 Series BMW, it requires no explanation. Audi’s core product is currently in the process of Schrodinger-vibrating between A3 and A4; those are the cars that make the most sense in Ingolstadt’s lineup.

The core product at Mercedes-Benz, at least for those of us who don’t own G-wagens, is the S-Class sedan (in America) and the E-Class sedan (in Europe). They are the descendants of the almighty Seventies-era 240D and 450SEL that built the Benz brand around the globe. The values associated with that brand don’t translate very well to smaller cars. The 190E did a pretty good job in my opinion, but both it and its successors have long been the victims of color-magazine after-the-fact snark the minute the next model showed up.

The 2017 C300 that I rented in Las Vegas for a quick trip to Ventura, CA and back is, theoretically, the modern equivalent of the 190E 2.3, right down to the miserly specification and the characterless inline-four moaning under the hood. After several hundred miles behind its Benz-generic wheel, however, I’m thinking that Mercedes-Benz has finally succeeded in connecting its smallest Systeme Panhard sedan to a greater and more resonant tradition.

(Read More…)

By on March 29, 2018

If the 60 Minutes-driven fall of Audi in America was a perfect example of media activism gone wild, the brand’s Millennial resurrection was surely a perfect combination of cynical engineering and masterful marketing.

Yes, there was some genuine innovation present in the form of the aluminum-framed A8 — but it was the decidedly prosaic A4 that led the charge back to desirability. Essentially an early release of the G.O.A.T. with less room, more profit, and a variety of “Cool Shades” that looked stunning in the showroom but persisted only indifferently under the assault of the Southern sun, the A4 was a showroom success simply because it offered a credible alternative to the default-choice E36 BMW 325i. The fact that the BMW was a thoroughbred rocketship while the A4 was a slightly scaled-up Volkswagen Fox mattered not at all. By 1995, the Roundel had become more than a bit passe among the cool kids.

Fast forward 20-plus years and four generations. The A4 is neither cool nor hot nowadays. Rather, it’s the sensible-shoes sedan for people who are too proud to buy the Golf-derived A3 and too poor to buy the increasingly strident A6. It’s also a pretty good value. A front-wheel-drive, 190-horsepower “Ultra” model starts at just $36,500, while the 252-horse Quattro Premium is a tick north of forty grand. Hertz would love to sell you a used 2017 A4 2.0T Quattro Premium at a $15,000 discount. Should you bite on that? And what if you found out that the person who rented it before you bought it took it to a racetrack? Would that bother you?

(Read More…)

By on February 22, 2018

mercedes benz cla 250

To be honest, I would have rather had anything else on the lot, and I do mean anything. However, when I arrived at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, National Car Rental was a bit short on cars on the ol’ Emerald Aisle. There was a line of people about ten deep waiting for cars to be brought up from the overflow lot, and I had a meeting to get to. So I did what anybody else (who rents 40 cars and spends about $10,000 annually with National) would do — I walked over to the “upgrade” area, hopped into the least expensive “luxury” car available, and drove it to the exit booth.

“I won’t be paying any extra for this,” I explained to the booth attendant, “because a Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 is not an upgrade.”

Three days and a couple hundred miles later, I realize how prescient I’d been at the time. I would have rather had a Chevrolet Impala, a Dodge Charger, or even a Nissan Altima over the Hungarian Baby Benz. Here’s why.

(Read More…)

By on February 1, 2018

I don’t think I heard the term “MVP” used in software development until six or seven years ago. It doesn’t mean “Most Valuable Player,” nor does it mean either of the two rude but hilarious things from the “roasting” episode of Arliss, neither of which would be appropriate for a family website like TTAC. Rather, it means “Minimum Viable Product.”

The purpose of an MVP is to get your software out there in public usage so you can both obtain user feedback for future development and earn enough money to fund that future development. Google is well known for doing this: its original search page was the very definition of MVP compared to the monstrous multi-purpose interface that it is today.

You can make the argument that some non-software products out there are also MVPs. The toothbrush and toothpaste you get at a Holiday Inn Express when you’ve forgotten your own Black Series electric? That’s definitely a minimum viable product. When most young people furnish their first dorm room or apartment, they are definitely looking for their own MVP. When you’re traveling for business and they call closing time at the bar, you’re going to take a very open-minded view of what constitutes that minimum viable product for the evening.

What about cars? What’s the MVP of the modern automobile? Contrary to what some of the B&B believe, it’s not a 200,000-mile Corolla or Volvo. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you gotta be rich to own a cheap car. Let’s look instead at what the minimum viable product might be for someone with very limited mechanical knowledge. Someone with no tools, no covered parking, no garage in which to service, no high-school buddy who now owns an import repair shop. In other words, a reliable vehicle with low cost of entry, low cost of operation, and a high likelihood of starting and running at all times.

What would that look like? What would it cost?

(Read More…)

By on November 2, 2017

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Twenty years and five months ago, I took delivery of my first Land Rover. It was a five-speed ’97 Discovery SD, black with tan interior, leased for $451 per month, driven to the absolute limit of its 15,000-mile-year contract provision as I criss-crossed the Midwest pursuing the bitter end of my ur-career as a professional BMX racer and cycling journalist.

Those early US-market Discos were infamous for giving trouble but mine was almost flawless despite enduring more than its fair share of dirt road and winter-recovery stupidity. My father was so impressed by the truck that he promptly snagged a ’99 Range Rover, which proved to be the nightmare embodiment of British quality stereotypes. His experience did not put me off. I replaced the Discovery with a Freelander then traded it in 18 months later for the ultimate final Disco, a 2003 4.6-liter seven-seater in a fetching shade of green frost.

Where am I going with this, other than into the gauze-covered abyss of nostalgia? Just here: I want you to understand that I have genuine affection for, and not inconsiderable experience with, proper Land Rovers and Range Rovers. I was an unabashed fan of the brand for a very long time. I don’t use Land Rover or its products as the punchline for a cheap auto-journo joke and I don’t mindlessly repeat stereotypes about the quality or performance of products from the formerly British firm. I approach every new product from Land Rover with the same sense of fondness that some people reserve for reunions with distant but dearly missed family.

So when I tell you that the Range Rover Evoque is an exercise in sloppily-executed cynicism that makes the Cadillac Cimarron look like the 1995 Lexus ES300 by comparison, I hope you’ll understand that it hurts me to tell you that. Want to hear why? Click the jump and join me on a less-than-solid Tennessee excursion that ends with me returning a rental car just a few hours after picking it up.

(Read More…)

By on October 27, 2017

2017 Chevrolet Suburban

When people saw me in the 2017 Chevrolet Suburban last week, resplendent in black-on-black leather, they typically had one of a few reactions:

My God, why is that thing so big?”

“Why did you rent such a huge vehicle?”

“Roberto? Wait, you’re not my UberXL driver?”

In all three cases, they weren’t wrong to ask. When I stepped into the rental car garage at Miami International Airport this weekend, I was faced with three options.

  1. Dodge Journey
  2. Ford Expedition EL
  3. Chevrolet Suburban LT

Having just recently rented the Expedition in Raleigh, and not ever wanting to put myself through the joyless exercise of driving a Journey again, I opted for the mighty GM. It is, dare I say, an elegant vehicle, typically reserved for doing important things like shuttling the members of the President’s security detail around or picking up large groups of people from the airport (Hi, are you my UberXL? STILL NO). It’s also one of the most expensive vehicles you’ll ever find on rental row — a Suburban LT, optioned exactly like mine, starts at $56,575 at your neighborhood Bowtie dealer. (Read More…)

By on October 17, 2017

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

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

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. (Read More…)

By on September 25, 2017

 

2017 Dodge Challenger R/T

“Rumble, young man, Rumble!”

— Muhammad Ali

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

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

By on August 22, 2017

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Confirmation bias can be a tricky thing to overcome in this business. You might not know this, but some people in this business think I have a bit of a preference for the Blue Oval. Some of my frenemies in the automotive journalism world have accused me of being pro-Honda. As for me, I’d like to think that I can objectively evaluate any car, but let’s be realistic here — we’re all humans. We have experiences and biases that rear their ugly heads even when we are doing our damnedest to shove them deep down inside ourselves.

But there’s a entire class of car I personally find reprehensible, for no other reason than I find the types of people who drive them to be, well, reprehensible. When I think “Luxury Compact CUV,” I think “Basic Bitch.” These vehicles serve no actual purpose. In most cases, they have less space than their compact car siblings, worse gas mileage, and prices that soar at least $5-7k higher. The only reason to purchase or (more likely) lease such a Basicmobile is to fit in with the other SAHMs in your subdivision who have seamlessly transitioned from college frat mattress to PTA vice-president in only 10 years flat. When a female friend of mine texted me recently with, “What do you think about the Audi Q3?” my response was so vile that I can’t put it into print (and if you think about the things I’ve written, that’s saying something).

As a result, I was absolutely determined to hate the 2017 Audi Q3 Premium when I selected it from the Emerald Aisle at Miami International Airport. There was only one problem with drinking this particular flavor of haterade.

It’s a pretty damn good car.

(Read More…)

By on August 7, 2017

2017-subaru-legacy-limited

The blower motor in my WRX seemed to be getting louder by the day and, while adding an insulation panel seemed to help, I still wasn’t satisfied. The noise was intermittent, making it hard to reproduce, though a tech working at my local dealer discovered a technical service bulletin and offered to replace it while the warranty was still in effect.

So, I scheduled an appointment to drop the car off to replace the blower motor and perform a technical service bulletin to resolve my squeaky clutch pedal issues. Because they needed time to get some extra parts in, I was told I’d be given a loaner for a few days. I dropped the WRX off and expected to walk out to a base Impreza, but was pleasantly surprised to be greeted by a plush Legacy 2.5i Limited.

(Read More…)

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