Review: 2014 Dodge Durango Citadel 4WD Hemi V8

Screen Shot 2014-08-18 at 9.11.18 AM-3Back in the late 1990’s, auto manufacturers were scrambling to add more variations of the SUV theme “song” to their line-up. Gas prices were low and North Americans were in love with their sport utes. Screen Shot 2014-08-18 at 9.11.27 AM-4Dodge made quite an entry to the SUV marketplace with the Durango in 1998. Based on their new (at the time) Dakota pickup truck, the Durango offered up to seven passenger seating, the most cargo space in its class, and thanks to the body-on-frame construction, 3.5 tons of towing capacity. Buyers were so smitten by the trucky first generation Durango that they even ignored the tail lamps that were borrowed from the Dodge Caravan minivan. The rest, as they say, is history. Screen Shot 2014-08-18 at 9.11.46 AM-6 This latest Durango still wears Dodge’s signature crosshair grill but the latest iteration is now aggressively slanted forward. It’s a look that has worked well with other members of the Dodge line-up and the Ram pickup truck family, so why mess with success? Screen Shot 2014-08-18 at 9.13.05 AM-12 To launch the latest Durango, Dodge recruited Ron Burgundy (as played by Will Ferrell) in a series of risqué but funny ads. While the TV spots were hardly about the new Durango, they were a clever tie-in to the latest Anchorman movie and worked well to increase engagement with the brand. Let’s take a look to see what Ron Burgundy likes so much about his favourite SUV!

Ride and Drive

Now in its third generation, the latest Durango has also matured with the tastes of the current marketplace. It still retains its three rows of seats and the ability to hold a sizable amount of luggage space. It can still tow up to a max of 6200 pounds with the V6 and 7200 pounds with the V8 (about 1000-2000 pounds more than its competitors). Screen Shot 2014-08-18 at 9.12.17 AM-9However in this day and age where car-like crossovers rule the roads, the Durango is no longer based on the body-on-frame construction of the Dodge Dakota pickup truck. Instead, it shares its platform with the highly regarded Jeep Grand Cherokee. In fact this latest Durango is built alongside the Jeep and shares everything from its running gear, powertrain, and even some chassis components. Screen Shot 2014-08-18 at 9.12.56 AM-11This is ”a good thing” as Martha Stewart would say, because the platform is a derivative based on the current generation Mercedes-Benz M-Class SUV. Thanks to the platform sharing, the Durango has some great chassis tuning and feels almost teutonic when it comes to body control. Handling is responsive for such a large vehicle, and the ride is composed and comfortable. IMG_5863-1 The suspension is four-wheel independent and there are isolated front and rear suspension cradles paired with variable-rate springs at each corner. IMG_5862-49 My test vehicle was also equipped with the optional trailer tow package ($795) with includes rear self-levelling air suspension, a class IV hitch, and more. Screen Shot 2014-08-18 at 9.11.37 AM-5Spacious, quiet, and comfortable, the Durango combines civility and capability in a full-sized SUV. Part of the reason for this refinement is the new eight-speed automatic transmission that is paired with both the V6 and V8 engine choices. Not only are shifts smooth but also quick. If you’re feeling a bit more sporty, a quick pull of the steering wheel paddles will place gear changes in your hand.

Most Durangos come with a 290hp 3.6L V6 but my top-of-the-range Durango four-wheel-drive tester was equipped with the powerful 360hp Hemi 5.7L V8 engine.

Equipped as such, the Durango felt as if it had a hot rod’s engine shoved under the hood. Not only was there a classic V8 hemi engine note, but also a delightfully sporty exhaust note. With 390 ft-lbs of torque on hand, passing is effortless and acceleration is brisk.

However shift it into seventh or eighth gear and the Durango quietens down. It becomes a composed and comfortable long distance cruiser with relatively good fuel economy. thanks to the tall overdrive gears and the fuel-saving cylinder-deactivation system that idle four cylinders under light engine loads. IMG_5810-16Transport Canada lists the Durango V8’s fuel consumption as 15.1L/100 kms in the city, and 9.1L/100 kms on the highway. I averaged 14L/100 kms in mix highway and city driving. Hemi V8 Durangos can also be equipped with a low range 4WD transfer case for extra torque in extremely conditions such as deep snow, mud, sand, or even pulling a boat out of the water on a slippery boat ramp.

Interior

In order to make this a comfortable modern day family cruiser, Dodge has gone to great efforts to upgrade the cabin. Gone are the hard plastic trim pieces. In their place is high quality grained plastic, soft touch surfaces, and top grain leather. IMG_5829-29 The Citadel version is the top-of-the-range model and includes a long list of standard equipment including heated front and rear seats, a heated steering wheel, and luxury leather trimmed seats.

While I wasn’t a huge fan of the tan leather/black dash combination, I was a fan of the superior level of comfort afforded by all seating positions.

The big front seats are firm but padded well, almost up to German standards. They were comfortable over long hauls but could use a bit more lateral support. There is excellent leg, shoulder, head, and foot room in the second row seats, and the third row is even large enough for full-sized adults.

All rear passengers will be comfortable too with limo-style dedicated rear climate control system with satellite controls out back.

IMG_5833-32 As expected, with the third row up, cargo room is a bit skimpy. However you can still fit a few mid sized duffel bags and a couple of small suitcases if you don’t mind loading the cargo area up to the roof.

Surprisingly, the Durango’s front passenger seat can be folded flat, allowing for long objects (such as ladders) to be stowed and transported in the vehicle with the power tailgate closed. My test vehicle was equipped with the second row Captain Chairs option which sacrifices passenger carrying capacity for more comfort.

This option substitutes the second row bench seat with two individually adjustable fold/tumble bucket seats ($600) and a large centre console with armrest and storage ($250). With this option, the Durango’s passenger capacity drops from seven to six people.

Regardless of whichever seating configuration you choose, your rear passengers will be entertained by the excellent dual screen Blu-Ray rear entertainment system ($2,150 option) which includes a multitude of input options for each individual screen. Up front, the driver and front passenger have their own infotainment system in the form of Chrysler’s large 8.4” UConnect touchscreen. This is one of the largest LCD screens in the industry and its responsiveness is impressive. It’s definitely something that Ford and GM could learn from for their own systems.

Traditional knobs/buttons and a logical user interface with large icons compliment the touchscreen’s responsiveness making the overall infotainment experience very pleasant and easy to use. On the active safety front, the rear backup camera with dynamic guidelines is displayed on the large UConnect screen and works well to alleviate the typical SUV issue of rear visibility. IMG_5823-26 The Durango is also available with an both a forward collision warning system with active cruise control, and a blindspot warning system that even has cross traffic detection to warn you of vehicles closing fast from behind or vehicles approaching off to the sides while you are backing up.

Wrap-up

Previous truck based Durangos were great for off-roading and towing but light on refinement. This latest Durango retains much of what owners loved about the previous truck but also adds on heaps of refinement and proper road manners.

Screen Shot 2014-08-18 at 9.11.08 AM-2 Perhaps the Durango’s biggest challenge is its name and the potential association with its body-on-frame predecessors. If you’re looking for a full-sized SUV that can handle six or seven passengers in comfort, tow more than the average mid-sized SUV, but yet has European road manners without the teutonic price tag, the Durango deserved some strong consideration! Screen Shot 2014-08-18 at 9.10.57 AM-1 2014 Dodge Durango Citadel AWD sticker

Driven: 2014 Mercedes-Benz B-Class

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While taking part in a recent Mercedes-Benz Canada Mastering Performance school at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park recently, I had an interesting experience with of all things, a B-Class. The event, hosted by Mercedes-Benz Durham, saw students rotate through three groups of vehicles through the afternoon. Each group had a selection of three different models, with the leading instructor in a fourth. One grouping, which may seem unlikely to the non-enthusiast public, included a B-Class along with an ML and a GL, both of which were powered by MB’s super torque-y diesel engines.

As we rotated through the three vehicles, my two driving “partners” were comparing notes and both complained that the B-Class did not belong on a race track, as it couldn’t get out of its own way. Alrighty then. Bearing in mind that both of these gents were dealership customers, taking part in their first performance driving school, I took their comments with a grain of salt as I slid behind the wheel of the family hauler.

As the lead student in this session, I used the semi standard signal of pushing the instructor to make her aware that I wanted to go faster. As the speeds picked up, I found that the B-Class was actually surprisingly adept at handling the legendary Mosport Grand Prix circuit’s elevation changes and high speed curves. It is very much a momentum machine, as one really needs to limit their use of the brakes and keep the engine spinning to exit lower speed corners with any sort of oomph.
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Review: 2014 Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid

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There comes a time in a man’s life where one of his best friends bestows upon him the honour of being the best man at his wedding. Several months ago, one of my best friends, Andrew, asked if I was willing to be his best man. I, of course, happily accepted.

Betcha didn’t think you’d be reading about a wedding when you clicked on the link to this Subaru XV Crosstrek hybrid review, did ya? Don’t worry, I’ll get to the car stuff shortly.

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This trip was to be a bit of a trek (pun intended) as the wedding was not in the Greater Vancouver area where I reside, but in fact at a beautiful vineyard/orchard (named Kurtz Orchards) in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.

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Moreover, two other mutual friends from Vancouver were also invited to be groomsmen, and therefore whatever vehicle I was going to drive had to have enough room to house luggage and 3 guys.

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Plus, it had to have enough oomph under the hood to squirt around on a 3 hour highway drive without feeling like it was in limp home mode the whole time.

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As many of my readers know, much of the driving in my reviews is city-based. I figured this would be a unique opportunity to take a vehicle on a proper out-of-town road trip and give it a full road test.

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So this is that story of a 2014 Plasma Green Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid, 3 dudes from Vancouver, and a beautiful wedding between two of my favourite people.

EXTERIOR

“You’re driving us in what to the wedding”, asked my fellow groomsmen.

“A plasma green Subaru XV Crosstrek hybrid”, I answered, “…but it’s cool!”, I added with some apprehensiveness.

“What the heck is a XV Crosstrek?” was the reply I got back.

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To the uninitiated, the Subaru XV Crosstrek hybrid is a relatively new vehicle in the Subaru line-up and somewhat of a category buster. There really isn’t anything out there that is directly comparable, especially in hybrid form.

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For simplicity-sake, Subaru compares it to other small SUVs in the market, even though its own Forester is in that mix.

The XV Crosstrek is supposed to offer the benefits of a crossover (better visibility due to the raised seating position, ample cargo room, and increase ground clearance) and also the advantages of a hatchback (superior handling and better fuel economy).

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When North American dealers first saw the XV, originally conceived as a way for Subaru to capitalize on the small-SUV trend in Europe, they convinced Subaru’s top brass that it would be a hit with young urban families. And so we have them to thank for bringing the vehicle to our shores.

After decades of successful “Outback” branding to separate the Subaru Outback from the standard Legacy wagon, the company hopes to repeat the success with the XV Crosstrek as well by separating it from the Impreza namesake. But the XV Crosstrek is still essentially an Impreza hatchback with a bit more crossover utility.

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Compared to Subaru’s own Forester, the XV is 4.1” lower, 4.3” shorter, but shares the same width. Engineers have worked in additional ride height (versus the Impreza hatchback) for a total of 22 cm (8.7 inches) of ground clearance.

Tough and tumble plastic cladding helps the XV Crosstrek to further stand out from its donor platform and look more utilitarian.

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The effect is an attractive looking vehicle that boasts more ground clearance than the Mazda CX-5, Ford Escape, and even the Jeep Compass.

Note that the Plasma Green paint job on my test vehicle is a colour unique to only the hybrid versions of the XV Crosstrek.

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There aren’t any optional extras available on the XV Crosstrek hybrid as it only comes n well-equipped trim level that is equivalent to the non-hybrid’s “Sport Package” trim line.

This includes all of your most wanted bits and bobs including a moonroof, HID headlights, LED taillights, iPod/USB audio integration with Bluetooth phone and streaming audio capabilities.

INTERIOR

The interior is typical Subaru. Attractive enough, highly functional, well-equipped, but not exactly luxurious.

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With the high up sitting position afforded by the raised ride height, the driver enjoys a commanding view of the road ahead and around.

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The cabin was surprisingly spacious for a compact vehicle and easily swallowed up our suitcases, camera gear, laptops, and more. The rear seatbacks still fold flat for larger cargo and because the battery capacity of the hybrid system is only 0.55 kWh, its packaging is virtually invisible.

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Subaru says that the rear floor areas have been revised, but you’d need to park the hybrid and non-hybrid vehicles side-by-side to truly notice the difference.

As for the seats, the back seat room is  more than sufficient in the outboard positions. Both front and rear seats were comfortable enough for the 2-3 hour trek between the airport and Niagara Falls. My rear passenger even had the chance to get comfortable and catch a few winks in between cities!

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Flanking the typical no nonsense instrument cluster is what Subaru calls their MFD (Multi-Function display). The 4.3” screen can be configured to display a wide variety of information including fuel consumption, range to empty, torque distribution, and many other car settings. The screen, while small, is at least high resolution enough to be highly usable. It allows endless tweaking and a huge variety of adjustable features.

The rearview camera’s video feed also shows up on this display.

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I left the MFD in the hybrid system status mode most of the time to monitor the car’s performance as I suspect most hybrid owners will as well.

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The downside of the MFD is that its menu interface seems to have been designed by the same people who design programmable thermostats. In short, it’s not exactly intuitive and the adjustments are done via steering wheel button controls and not a touchscreen. As such it can be quite awkward until you get the hang of it.

I found myself having to cycle through the menu a couple times to get to a the same function because I pressed the wrong button the first time around.

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Despite being in the press fleet for some time now, my test vehicle’s settings were mostly unchanged from the factory defaults. I have a feeling that many of my fellow journalists never even came close to using the MFD’s full set of features or took the time to read the owner’s manual to figure out how to do so.

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Few things are more important on a road trip than a decent sound system and the Crosstrek didn’t disappoint. Its 6 speaker system was much better than expected thanks to good frequency separation. Subaru even offers a number of speaker and tweeter upgrades as dealer-installed accessories for those wanting more.

In addition to the typical USB hook-up in the centre console, Bluetooth audio streaming was relatively easy to setup even on the standard non-touchscreen head unit.

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If there is one other minor interior item I have to gripe about, it’s that the centre console armrest slides fore and aft a bit too easily (at least in my test vehicle) making it more annoying than useful.

SO HOW DOES IT DRIVE?

Ah the beauty of All-Wheel Drive. Like other Subarus, the XV Crosstrek Hybrid is equipped with Subaru’s symmetrical all-wheel-drive system. Although there isn’t the same level of adjustability that one would find in the Subaru WRX or STI, the XV’s sure-footed nature was still confidence inspiring.

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While plowing along the mud or puddle-filled dirt tracks in the vineyard where the wedding was taking place, not once did the car falter on the slippery surfaces.

The XV Crosstrek’s raised ride height also paid dividends as it breezed through these surfaces without jostling the bridesmaids’ carefully quaffed hairdos out of place.

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Steering feel from the electric power steering is bit numb but at least its precise. The system weights up progressively off centre and is actually quick enough to be somewhat fun.

Powering the hybrid Crosstrek is more or less the same 2.0 litre horizontally opposed boxer 4-cylinder engine that is found on non-hybrid models. However the engineers have bumped up the compression ratio from 10.5:1 to 10.8:1 and have fitted it with a thin electric drive motor to supplement the gas engine.

Although the small electric motor only makes 13 hp, it boosts the vehicle’s torque figures by a useful 48 ft-lbs from a low 0 to 1,500 rpms. Subsequently the hybrid Crosstrek ends up with 161 hp and 193 ft-lbs of torque versus 148 hp and 145 ft-lbs of torque in the standard gas-only car.

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The electric motor’s ability to supplement torque from the get-go also eliminates the elastic band feel that plague many CVT-equipped vehicles, including the XV Crosstrek.

The electric drive’s effect is most noticeable when moving out across an intersection after a stop light, accelerating or climbing hills, or even when executing passing manoeuvres.

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Is it possible to drive the vehicle on pure electric vehicle mode? Yes it is, but it’s not easy unless you’re very light on the throttle, creeping through stop-and-go traffic, or coasting downhill.

It quickly became a game for me to try to keep the vehicle in EV-only mode for as long as possible.

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Transport Canada rates the hybrid at 6.9L/100 kms in the city and 6.0L/100 kms on the highway. In contrast the non-hybrid version is rated at 8.2L/100 kms in the city but the same 6.0L/1000kms on the highway.

My real world road test resulted in an average of 8.5L/100 kms in a mix of highway and city driving with the vehicle loaded with 3 passengers and luggage for much of the time.

After 5 days of driving between Mississauga, Niagara Falls, and Niagara-on-the-Lake, we were still left with ¼ tank of fuel when we pulled into the gas station by Subaru press office. I have to say that I was impressed even though the XV is not as efficient of a hybrid as others out there on the market.

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WRAP-UP

Little did I know how big a part the Crosstrek would play in making the wedding the glorious success that it was. Not only did it function as reliable transport for three groomsmen to their friend’s wedding, but also as the wedding gift repository and more!

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More memorably, it was the first vehicle that the bride and groom rode in as a married couple.

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After 5 days of putting the Crosstrek hybrid through its paces and a wide variety of conditions, my road trip buddies and I came away impressed by its versatility and all-round capabilities.

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It lived up to expectation as a go-anywhere vehicle for the urban off-road enthusiast that is unlikely to see anything more challenging than logging roads, dirt paths leading to camp grounds, or snow covered ski slopes.

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I have to credit Subaru for taking a good crack at their very first hybrid vehicle. It would’ve been easier for them to develop a mild-hybrid (one that never goes into pure EV mode) and then slap a hybrid badge on for mostly marketing purposes, but they didn’t.

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Sure, the XV Crosstrek hybrid isn’t perfect. Given the $3,000 price delta between the hybrid and the non-hybrid Sport Package vehicle, one could wish for better fuel economy and more power from the electric motor.

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However, the car is sure to find its fans amongst those who are looking for all-wheel-drive safety and security to get through Canadian winters, but unwilling to compromise for front-wheel-drive hybrid such as the Toyota Prius.

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Sure it’s ultimately a quasi-small SUV version of the Impreza hatchback but it certainly has enough differentiation to make it the perfect choice for a lot of people.

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And it’s sure to be a vehicle that will always have a special place in my heart and mind.

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Driving the 2014 Dodge Challenger Shaker

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It seemed like half of North America’s auto journos were in Portland, Oregon this week, getting their first glimpse of the mighty new Challenger Hellcat. As much as I am jealous, that worked out ok, as it meant that there was a surprise opening in the Ontario press fleet’s 2014 Challenger Shaker, which I fully intended to take advantage of.

I spent a day with James Davidson from Wheels on Edge, shooting video of the bright orange machine. Not surprisingly, we learned that I am old, James is goofy and the Challenger is a hoot to drive.

Check it out. I kinda love the two guys having a conversation format instead of just one dude blathering on to himself. Let us know what you think in the comments section!

2014 GMC Sierra 4WD Crew Cab SLT All-Terrain

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“In this brand new Chevy with a lift kit, would look a hell of a lot better with you up in it”.

You know you’ve made it into the big leagues (or at least pop culture) when your brand continues to make it into the lyrics of country music songs.

While my tester for this review isn’t a Chevrolet, it’s the GMC equivalent and for all intents and purposes, the same basic truck.

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The GMC Sierra has been winning accolades in the motoring press ever since its debut last year for the 2014 model year. It even won the coveted Automobile Journalists Association of Canada’s “Best New Pickup” award, no small feat as this award results from rigorous back-to-back testing and is based on a combination of objective data and evaluation by 80 journalists.

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To test out GMC’s latest definition of their “Professional Grade” mantra, I borrowed the keys to a 2014 Sierra 4×4 Crew Cab SLT fitted with the All-Terrain package.

Giddy-up!

EXTERIOR

“If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it”.

Even though General Motors says that their Sierra is the most powerful, most advanced, and most refined truck in the brand’s 111-year history, the latest iteration is an evolution rather than a revolution of its predecessor.

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Former owners will find an update of a familiar shape, but designers have added new details such as halogen projector headlamps, LED daytime running lights, and a new grill.

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My All-Terrain Edition Sierra gave up most of its chrome bits and bobs for body-colour trim pieces as part of the package. I thought that the monochromatic effect was rather sporty and less blingy. But the All-Terrain package includes much more than just a unique exterior appearance. More on that later.

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There is certainly more than enough variation in Sierra’s available trim lines to suit your penchant for chrome or whatever else you may prefer.

The new snout has been carefully engineered to improve sealing for more efficient cooling. Meanwhile, the roof and tailgate spoiler were shaped in the wind tunnel to smooth airflow over the truck for reduced drag. New inlaid doors, which fit into recesses in the bodyside, reduce wind noise for a quieter cab.

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The new cab is also stronger with two-thirds of the structure now made from high-strength steel for improved safety, ride and handling. The main frame rails and cross members have also been upgraded to the same high-strength steel and hydroformed for reduced mass and improved strength.

Crew cab customers, who now represent more than 60% of retail Sierra owners, can choose between two bed lengths: a new 6-foot, 6-inch box is available in addition to the standard 5-foot, 8-inch box. Regular cabs continue to be available with the 6-foot, 6-inch or 8-foot box lengths, while the double cab will come exclusively with a 6-foot, 6-inch box.

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Most Sierras also now feature a rear chrome bumper with standard corner steps (a la the discontinued Chevy Avalanche) that make climbing into the bed easy regardless of whether the tailgate is up or down. My All-Terrain package’s monochromatic bumper sacrifices these corner steps for the monotone paint job.

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Four movable upper tie downs in the bed are also standard and can be placed in nine different locations. These adjustable units can bear a sizable 250-pound (113 kg) load.

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I also appreciated the available LED cargo lights integrated beneath the bed rails. These hidden LEDs help to light the bed with a flick of a switch or when a tonneau cover is in place.

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Finally, borrowed from the Toyota Tundra is the addition of a no-slam tailgate. An integrated torsion bar and damper assists with lifting and lowering the tailgate. This is sure to be a feature that everyone will now expect from all future pickup trucks.

INTERIOR

Whether it has been in a Chevy, a GMC, or a Cadillac, General Motors’ latest interiors have seemed to hit it out of the park. The new Sierra’s is the rule rather than the exception.

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The inside is a really nice improvement over its predecessor and I’m happy to say that the panel gaps and hard plastics are gone. In its place we get a Denali-grade interior with new soft-touch premium materials.

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The redesigned interior was supposedly focused on maximizing usable and productive space and it tells.

Up front are comfortable leather seats – front buckets with a faux carbon fibre pattern in the case of my All-Terrain model. GM says that the Sierra’s seats use dual-density foam designed to stay comfortable over long hours. Something that I can attest to on a 2.5 hour jaunt out of town to Whistler, BC.

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The seats are also designed to continue looking great after years of use, an important factor considering the serious beating that these trucks go through as tools of the trade.

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A new upright instrument panel with a large 8” touchscreen infotainment is the one of the stars of the show. The Intellilink-connected system has a relatively intuitive layout with easy-to-read high-resolution icons that control audio, Bluetooth phone, and navigation features.

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The newly designed knobs and buttons are large and easily within reach. The rubberized coating makes it easy to grip even through gloves.

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There are no less than 5 USB ports, 4 twelve-volt outlets, and even an AC inverter that sit in front of a clever rubberized rail in the centre console. This rail is moulded to hold electronic devices steadily without them flopping or sliding while being charged. So simple but yet clever.

Along the centre stack and console are additional cupholders and compartments that are large enough for several laptop computers. A 2nd high-mounted storage box with a flat floor joins the traditional box below.

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One thing is for sure. You’ll definitely not run out of storage space in this truck!

SO HOW DOES IT DRIVE?

If you’re a previous Sierra owner, prepare to be extra impressed. Even with an empty pickup truck bed, the Sierra rides well on everyday streets.  There is a lack of axle hop and the body motions are well controlled even on poor roads. This is even more impressive given that my All-Terrain model included the Z71 off-road suspension with stiffer Rancho shocks.

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New shear-style body mounts are designed to tune out both up-and-down and side-to-side movement for a quieter, more comfortable ride. Double cab and crew cab models now also have a set of hydraulic body mounts to further isolate the cabs. The result is a solid, refined feel with no loss in traditional truck capability.

Steering feel is also surprisingly good for a full-sized truck. Well-weighted, precise, and surprisingly quick. It’s even more impressive when you discover that this is an electric unit and not a hydraulic one.

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To motivate the Sierra 1500, my test vehicle was equipped with GM’s new 5.3L EcoTec3 direct-injection V8. This mill is good for 355 hp and 383 ft-lbs of torque. Not only is it pleasantly quiet but also has the ability to shut down half its cylinders to sip less fuel. In fact, GM claims that it offers the best fuel efficiency of any V8 pickup truck and even beats the fuel economy estimates of Ford’s EcoBoost V6 engine.

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While I found the V8 to be sufficiently powerful, especially considering the truck’s 5607 lb curb weight, two things bugged me. Firstly, the engine response feels lazy and the throttle response was a bit lacking when compared with the eager-to-rev i-Force V8 in the Toyota Tundra. Secondly, when the engine switches over from V8 to V4 mode, the change in engine noise was more noticeable than expected.

While there was never a lack of power on demand, there is a noticeable increase in coarseness when the engine is in 4-cylinders mode.

Several new active safety features also make their debut including Forward Collision Alert, which uses a forward-facing camera to notify the driver of an imminent collision, and Lane Departure Warning, which uses the same camera to track the truck’s position in relation to a road’s lane markers. Oddly though, the Sierra was not available with a blindspot warning system. Something that would’ve been  useful in such a long vehicle.

Paired with Forward Collision Alert and Land Departure Warning is GMC’s first-ever Driver Alert Seat, which generates vibrating pulse patterns on the left and/or right side of the lower seat cushion bolster to alert the driver of potential dangers, such as an un-signaled lane change or approaching another vehicle too quickly.

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My vehicle was also equipped with the MAX trailering package which included a handy integrated brake controller, enhanced cooling radiator, and a 3.73 tow friendly axle ratio.

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MORE ON THE ALL-TERRAIN PACKAGE

The available All-Terrain package is much more than just for appearances. To keep going even when the pavement ends, it adds the Z71 Off-Road Suspension with monotube Rancho Tenneco shocks, Hill Descent Control, a high-capacity air cleaner, underbody transfer case shield protection, an auto locking rear differential, and all-terrain tires and unique polished aluminum wheels.

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I had a chance to put the Sierra through some light off-roading when meeting a couple of friends who were camping and clay pigeon shooting up in Fury Creek, British Columbia.

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In order to access their location, I had drive up and down a few wide but moderately rocky paths. While this was certainly far from exceeding the Sierra’s capabilities, the 4WD low range mode, traction control, and Hill Descent Control all worked as advertised.

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Hill Descent Control worked particularly well in utilizing the ABS to keep the truck at a smooth and constant descent speed down the rocky paths. All I had to do was to keep both feet off the pedals and to concentrate on steering.

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WRAP-UP

GMC has been manufacturing trucks since 1902 and their experience in this category is unquestionable. With the importance of the pickup truck segment in Canada, the latest iteration of the Sierra will no doubt delight its GMC fans.

Between it and its bow-tie Chevy Silverado sibling, the Sierra strikes me as the more attractive of the two GM full-size trucks.

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As I mentioned in my review of the Toyota Tundra, pickup truck owners are one of the most loyal in the industry and will fiercely defend their choice of vehicles. The question is whether GM can win over these pundits from Ford, Dodge, and even Toyota.

If I have one other criticism of the Sierra, it is the very thing that will make it popular amongst its current customers. That it is too familiar of a shape, and perhaps a tad too evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

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With Ford’s all-aluminum 2015 F-150 about to hit the showroom floors in just a few weeks time, it will be interesting to see how the Sierra’s and Silverado’s sales numbers will be affected.

In the meantime, consider me a GMC Sierra fan and also my current top recommednation in the pickup truck category.

2014 Porsche 911 Turbo S Cabriolet: Vicious Elegance

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I may have grown up around one of the earliest 911s in existence, but the first time I got behind the wheel of a Porsche, any Porsche, was when I was 19. It was a sinister black 1985 911 Turbo that was less than a year old. This was the car that struck fear into the hearts of Buick Grand National owners. One of the first cars to touch the 4 second zero to sixty. It was black on black, with the requisite fat fenders and whale tail. Every bit as extravagant as the decade it was born into.

That black beast spent a weekend with a buddy and I, a debauched weekend filled with sex, drugs, booze and stop light battles. It was the first time that I had seen the high side of 160 MPH. A chance meeting with an equally sinister looking black Buick on an empty street in Hamilton on Sunday morning gave me the opportunity to see if Zuffenhausen’s weapon could slay the quickest America had to offer. The Porker did not let me down.

It was not until the drive home that I learned that the borrowed car was not exactly borrowed, rather it had been liberated for the weekend. I shudder to think how different my life would be if I had been pulled over at nearly triple the double nickle in the unlawfully obtained turbo. Needless to say, that machine solidified the Porsche brand’s mystique in my young brain.
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Review: 2014 Dodge Dart GT

2014 Dodge DartI was at the New York Auto Show when Dodge took the wraps off of its new Dart, the first car the world would see as a result of Fiat’s take over of struggling Chrysler. Dodge’s last compact, the forgettable Caliber did not impress anyone, and I think it is fair to say Dodge would like us all to forget about that car. The media swarm at the Dart’s reveal was massive. And the Dodge execs hammered the fact this car has Alfa Romeo DNA. The press swooned. Normally at a car show, a new car is revealed, everyone moves on to the next press conference. This is when I get my pictures of the car. But not the Dart. The media never left. All day long, hours after the reveal, photographers and TV crews from around the world swarmed around the new Dart.

Unfortunately, us car journalist’s views do not always coincide with the general public. Sadly, since its debut, the Dodge Dart has been a slow seller. For that, it would not be fair to blame the Dart entirely. I feel that Dodge’s indifference to compact cars over the past several years simply has most new car buyers not even consider the brand. And I think with the Dart, Dodge execs recognize that. The person who has in mind a Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla will not be swayed with the Dart. So, Dodge decided the Dart would not be a plain vanilla compact car.

Instead of a boring, appliance like device, the Dart is actually a very handsome car. Perfectly proportioned and dashing in design, the Dart is arguably one of the best looking compacts available today. There are plenty of styling cues from its big brother Charger that tie the Dart into the Dodge family, but it is not overdone. Our test car’s paint color, Header Orange, was over the top. Yes, you could literally see me coming a mile away. This is not your Grandma’s beige Corolla.

2014 Dodge Dart GTIf Dodge’s had a weak spot in the past, it was definitely in the interior. Thankfully, the Dart offers a tastefully done interior. For my family of three there was plenty of room, visibility was excellent, and the controls intuitive and easy to use. I especially liked the 8.4″ screen that controls navigation, audio, climate control and other functions. It is easily one of the best interfaces in the business. The quality of materials was above average for the price paid on the Dart. However, there is a downside. I wouldn’t call the Dart uncomfortable, but the ideal driving position seemed to elude me during my week with the car. As much fiddling I did, I nver felt like I was sitting in the car right.

As far as engines go, Dart buyers have three choices. Base Darts come with a 2.0L four rated at 160hp. The higher mileage Aero has a 1.4L turbo, also rated at 160hp. Our test car, the GT, features a 2.4L four rated at 184hp. All Darts come standard with a six-speed manual, and a six speed automatic is optional. The Aero model has a six-speed automated manual that has been criticized for slow, clunky shifts. Our Dart GT sounds aggressive at start up, and acceleration is frisky. However, EPA fuel economy ratings of 22/31 MPG City/Highway are pretty disappointing for a modern compact car. Handling and braking are excellent in our sport-tuned GT. The bottom line here is you crave great handling and an engine with attitude, and are willing to pay the price at the pump, the Dart GT may be for you.

You can get yourself into a Dart for $17,000 and change, but our test car was the GT, the sportiest iteration of the Dart. The base price on our car was $20,995USD. Standard equipment included Nappa leather seating, 8.4″ touch screen display, Bluetooth, dual zone auto climate control, heated seats, heated steering wheel, SiriusXM satellite radio, ambient LED interior lighting, power seats, fog lamps, 18″ alloys and dual exhaust tips. Our car’s options included the Technology Group (Rear park assist, blind spot and rear cross path detection, auto high beams, rain sensitive windshield wipers, ), and navigation. Including destination, our Dart GT rings in at a respectable $25,125.

2014 Dodge Dart GTIn the vast market of compact cars, the Dart is a unique option. Again, one gets the sense Dodge threw up their hands and decided no matter what they do, they will not sway any buyers of the Civic/Corolla crowd. So instead, we have a slightly edgier compact that is perfectly competent. But for the same money, you may have to give up a couple options, the VW GTI or Jetta GLI are far more satisfying rides. The Dart is a solid effort, and light years ahead of the Caliber. But with such lackluster fuel economy figures, a majoy factor in this class of car, I fear the Dart will continue to be a slow seller.

 

REVIEW: 2014 Maserati Grancabrio Sport

 

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This is the sharper, more focused version of the Grancabrio; equipped with more power, adaptive suspension, faster gear changes and added loudness.

The Sport is propelled by the same engine that resides beneath the elegantly long bonnet of the regular Grancabrio and Granturismo (the coupe) but has been tuned to serve up even more power.

The Ferrari-sourced 4.7 litre V8 transmits its 450 horses to the rear wheels through the standard car‘s ZF gearbox, which has also been ’breathed on‘ to reduce gear changes by half. All of this combines to permit a 0 to 62 time of 5.2 seconds.

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At the risk of being accused of overstatement, this car is almost improbably beautiful and simultaneously aggressive. It‘s all elegant lines and perfectly placed bulges, not to mention a pair of the nicest hips in the business sitting low on 20-inch graphite wheels. Stand back, gaze at it for a second and you‘ll realise that it‘s a striking machine from any angle.

I‘d tested the coupe version, the Granturismo Sport last year and couldn‘t get enough of it but this car had added appeal; as the name would suggest, it‘s a soft top. And it was red.

Selecting Sport mode does many things that are beyond my understanding. The entire car becomes even more taut and lively by remapping induction, ignition, damping but most importantly, it gets louder.

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Starting it from cold will give you a satisfying enough sound but as your hand inevitable strays to the Sport button, a relatively refined idle becomes a guttural growl, then a sharp bark when you dip the throttle. A cacophony of pops on the overrun will then widen your grin. All of this gets better when the Grancabrio is introduced to tarmac.

I got myself installed behind the ’wheel and into the supportive seats. The ride is refined and the cabin is surprisingly well insulated from road and wind but thankfully not the delights produced by induction and exhaust. It will cruise contentedly for as long as you want it to and you‘ll be perfectly comfortable.

However, you‘ll get the most out of this car on fast, clear A roads with the roof down. It was still a bit nippy so I had my seat heater on maximum.

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Gearing down from almost any speed will produce blinding acceleration and at the first set of good bends, you‘ll experience the tremendous grip at all four corners.

Point the car in and you‘ll be rewarded with accuracy, apply some good throttle on the exit and you‘ll feel a touch of movement from the back wheels.

An intuitive traction system ensures that even the most ignorant of drivers can convince themselves that they have talent. If there‘s even the slightest hint of body-roll, the Grancabrio Sport will not bother telling you about it.

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Run out of road and the huge discs and calipers will heave the big car down from the most impossible of speeds without any drama.

This is a superbly balanced car and Maserati has not achieved this by accident. A lot of attention has been given to things like mounting the gearbox at the rear, counter-balancing the mid-front positioned engine, lowering the suspension and stiffening the springs and dampers. All of this has been dialled into this sport-focused car but without the loss of any of its character or unquantifiable Italian flair.

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I was left with the feeling that this was not simply a GT convertible and not quite a supercar but a fine blend of both. The Sport is blisteringly quick, accurate and sounds fantastic if it‘s a tool for a couple of hours of fun but is also impeccably behaved and supremely comfortable on longer hauls.

This is a car that any manufacturer would be proud of but isn‘t – because they haven‘t built it. However, Maserati has and I always expected it to be this good.

REVIEW: 2014 BMW X5 xDrive50i M Sport

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They said no one would be interested. They said that SUV drivers loved the trucky ride and feel of their rough and tough vehicles. But what do they say now?

Behold, what we have here is genesis!

Over 1.3 million vehicles and two generations ago when BMW introduced the X5 in 1999, SUVs at the time were mostly based on pickup truck platforms. Built on traditional body-on-frame platforms, these vehicles were capable tow vehicles and superior off-road. However the drawbacks included rougher rides, high step-in heights, and truck-like handling.

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It isn’t often that an auto manufacturer gets to launch an entirely new vehicle segment. But with the X5, coined the world’s first Sport Activity Vehicle, BMW proved to its competitors (and customers) that there was and is indeed a market for a vehicle with all the pros of an SUV (added space, higher seating position, etc) but with the luxury, safety, security, ride and handling, and performance of their Ultimate Driving Machines.

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Fast forward to 2014 and every major auto manufacturer worth its salt has some sort of crossover vehicle in its model line-up. Even Lamborghini is working on one! As the old adage goes, if you can’t beat them, join them!

For this review, I tested the “bad boy” in the X5 line-up, the V8 powered X5 xDrive50i M Sport. Keep reading to find out why this is the closest thing you can get to a brand new X5 M…for now.

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EXTERIOR

This 3rd generation X5 still shares a lot of its design traits with its popular predecessors. BMW defines these as a long wheelbase, short front overhang, upright A-pillars, and a short distance between the front axle and the leading edge of the front door.

Look closely and you may even be able to spot the front bumper’s subtle X-shaped contour lines which are meant to identify the vehicle as a member of BMW’s X model family.

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As with every BMW, the 3D kidney grill is present, larger than ever before, and the hallmark four round headlamps have been elongated to meet the sides of said kidney grill (a la 3 and 4-series cars).

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All X5 models are equipped with standard adaptive Bi-Xenon headlights, but new to the game is the availability of BMW’s Adaptive LED headlights. In this latest iteration, the LED accent rings (aka angel eyes) have been flattened along the bottom edge and overlapped at the top.

LED front foglamps are also standard equipment on all X5 models.

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Add BMW’s optional High Beam Assistant (part of the $3,800 technology package) which automatically turns the high beams on and off, and you truly have the best lighting system money can buy on an SUV today.

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The LEDs resemble daylight more closely and cast a controlled flood of light that can even change pattern according to the speed of the vehicle and type of road it is being driven on (e.g. city or highway).

BMW’s Drag-reducing Air Curtains also make their debut on the X5. The engineers claim that these vertical apertures are designed to guide the incoming air around the wheel arches, creating a curtain of air over the wheels before making a controlled escape through the Air Breathers in the side of the front fenders.

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Out back, the X5 is mostly unchanged from its predecessor. The Range Rover-like two piece power tailgate is retained, and the thin 3D LED light strips in the classic BMW L-shaped rear lights create an even more striking night-time signature.

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My X5 xDrive50i test car was equipped with the $4,000 optional M Sport Line package, which, among other things, included a set of attractive 20” M Double-spoke alloy wheels mounted on massively wide tires (275/40 up front and 315/35 out back).

IMG_4980-2These are rear tires worthy of a Porsche 911 Turbo and they really help to accentuate the wide track and sporty stance of the X5. However aware that replacement tires will not come cheap.

IMG_4981-3The M Sport package also includes an M-aero body kit, Shadowline trim that replaces all of the chrome trim, as well as high-gloss roof rails.

If you’re looking to set your X5 apart from the more pedestrian looking ones in the mall parking lot, save your pennies and spring for this performance-orientated package full of goodies. It really helps to emphasise the “Sport” in Sport Activity Vehicle.

INTERIOR

This is where BMW has clearly invested some time and money. If you’re familiar with BMW’s latest interiors, you will feel right at home in these new digs.

IMG_5039-18A new multi-layered horizontal design has been applied to the X5’s dash and instrument panel. BMW says that the use of layered surfaces helps to reflect the spaciousness of the new cabin.

The result is a more interesting take on the usual business-like interior. The new 3D design and contrasting surfaces colours play off nicely against each other.

IMG_5063-34The configurable ambient lighting system adds a high class touch to the interior, not unlike that in a Rolls Royce (which is part of the BMW Group).

IMG_5048-24Also new to the X5 is a heads-up display system that can display your music selection, warning messages, speed, and navigation directions. It’s highly visible even in bright sunlight and highly recommended.

A central piece of this revised interior is the enlarged 10.23” freestanding iDrive screen. Controlled via the iDrive touchpad, this screen has impressive high resolution and contrast.

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Due to the upsized display, the live video feed from the 360 degree Surround View camera system is also proportional improved in clarity and usability.

As mentioned in my previous reviews, I truly believe that BMW has the best 360 camera system in the business.

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The M Sport Line package’s offerings continue inside with the addition of an anthracite headliner, an M-sport steering wheel with flappy paddles, and multi-contour sport seats.

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Speaking of the front seats, they’re nicely trimmed in BMW’s Dakota leather and are top notch – supportive, all-day comfy, and adjustable in enough ways that even the pickiest driver or passenger can find a suitable position.

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Second row passengers won’t be missing out either, particularly as my test vehicle’s Premium Package also included 4-zone climate control, heated rear seats, rear window sunshades, and a $1,950 optional rear seat entertainment system with dual 9.2” screens.

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This rear entertainment system includes a DVD changer and allows the rear passengers remote-control functions to the ConnectedDrive system.

TV, radio, DVD, and even navigation functions are accessible from the rear seat independent of the driver and the front iDrive display. Auxiliary connections are also available for MP3 players and game consoles.

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As nice as this system is put together, the option price is rather steep. I would personally skip it for a couple of iPad Airs instead and still come out ahead by a few hundred dollars.

If you’re an audiophile, one option that would be hard to pass up on would be the $4,900 optional Bang & Olufsen Sound System.

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Equipped with a new Dirac Dimensions signal processing system, the Bang & Olufsen High End Surround System includes 16 speakers and a whopping music output of 1,200 watts.

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The system’s party trick is an automatically extending (and lit) centre speaker on the dashboard carrier.

This speaker is a mid-range unit featuring Acoustic Lens Technology for consistent sound quality on all seats.

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You can choose between two sound settings: “Studio” for authentic sound and “Expanded” for surround sound.

The lighting scheme of individual speaker covers is also sure to illicit “oohs” and “ahhs” from your passengers.

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The X5′s versatility also gets cranked up a notch or two with the addition of a 40/20/40-split folding rear seat which allows the loading of long and slim objects like skis, but without sacrificing room for back seat occupants.

Optional third row seats are also available but judging from the available cargo area space, the seats are likely to be suitable for only small children.

So how does it drive?

The answer to the million-dollar question is a resounding “YES”.  The BMW X5 still does handle like the company’s famed sports sedans, which is the top reason to consider this crossover.

The xDrive50i’s V8 engine produces gobs of power and an angry snarl. It’s a truly intoxicating guttural noise that encourages you to rev it more. Unlike the Range Rover Supercharged I tested earlier this year, the X5′s racy V8 does entice you to push its limits. And anytime you need the muscle it’s there for the taking.

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The direct injection 4.4L TwinScroll Twin Turbo V8 engine generates 445 prancing German ponies and 479 ft-lbs of torque between 2000-4500 rpms. The relatively flat torque curve is the main reason why the grunt is there in abundance at all times.

0-100 km/hr whooshes by in a sports car like 5.1 seconds. Not bad for a vehicle tipping the scales at 5,150 lbs.

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BMW Canada rates the xDrive50i at 14.6L/100 kms in the city and 9.2L/100 kms on the highway. I managed 16.5L/100 kms in mostly city driving and admittedly with a heavier than normal right foot.

But let’s face it. Customers who opt for the high output V8 engine aren’t too worried about its fuel consumption. For those who are, the miserly xDrive35d turbo-diesel is rated at an impressive 8.7L/100 kms in the city and 6.3L/100 kms on the highway.

To help stretch out the distance in between fill-ups with the maximum 85L of fuel on board, BMW offers a few clever tech innovations. Firstly, the ECO PRO drive control mode retards downshifts and relaxes throttle response. On the highway it will even automatically shift the transmission into neutral when coasting, so as to lower the engine revs.

The system works extremely well and even reports the kilometres of range extended by using ECO PRO.

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Conversely, toggle the Dynamic Drive active chassis control’s switch over to Sport or Sport+ and the X5 livens up with noticeably sharper steering, faster and more aggressive gear changes, and a much more responsive throttle pedal.

To tie that all together is BMW’s Adaptive M Suspension, part of the M Sport Line package. Offering firmer settings and a self-leveling rear air suspension, the system is also linked to the Dynamic Drive control and helps the X5 make the claim of being the closest thing to driving a sports car one can get whilst still in an SUV (save for the Porsche Cayenne Turbo).

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On my usual test loop, the xDrive50i was seriously accomplished even when judged by car (and not just SUV) standards. The benefits of the 50/50 weight distribution are even more evident with this heavier vehicle, and the meaty tires offer huge amounts of grip especially when combined with BMW’s excellent xDrive all-wheel-drive system.

It feels surreal to be driving something with such a high up seating position but with quick and precise steering, little body roll, amazing power delivery, and an angry exhaust note to boot.

The 5,000+ curb weight does make itself apparent when “throwing” the X5 around tight off-camber ribbons of tarmac, but most drivers will never get anywhere close to its limits unless they’re doing something truly stupid.

WRAP-UP

As with all BMWs, be careful with the options sheet or the sticker price can escalate quickly. My X5 V8 tester’s price was a gulp-worthy $96,400 before taxes, freight and PDI.

This 3rd generation X5 is more of an evolution rather than a revolution. But as the saying goes, “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it”.  And thus BMW has taken a calculated approach not to mess up a good thing.

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As its predecessors have done before, this latest X5 once again sets new standards for luxury, versatility and – because it is a BMW first and foremost – driving dynamics.

BMW has focused on the things that its customers care about the most. Improvements in quality, technology, space, driving dynamics, and the upgraded appearance of its cockpit top the list.

And as Martha Stewart says, “That’s a good thing”.

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Review: 2014 Scion xD

profileA decade ago Toyota realized they had an image problem on their hands. Despite being one of the largest car companies in the world, in contemporary North America Toyota is viewed as, well, a car for old people. I can’t disagree, as my 76 year old father in-law has owned his faithful Camry for years. Discontent with their image as a car company for older buyers, Toyota created the Scion division in an attempt to distance themselves from staid Toyota. Unlike Lexus, which Toyota sells through exclusive, high end dealers, Toyota and Scion cars sit side by side on the same dealer lot.

The Scion xD is no spring chicken, as it has been sold here in the US since 2008, and 2011 when Scion opened up shop in Canada. Since its introduction in 2008, the xD has received very little attention in terms of updates from Scion. For a brand that was created to appeal to today’s youthful car buyer, the xD’s exterior styling hardly projects that attitude. Yes, the xD is tastefully styled, but in terms of being hip, the car falls flat on its face. With cars like the MINI Cooper, Fiat 500, and even the Kia Rio looking far more interesting to look at, the xD’s toaster oven appearance does it no favors to draw appeal to the savvy young buyer Scion hopes to lure.

overviewThe interior of the xD is stark, and very utilitarian. The driver is faced with a three pod instrument cluster, but only the center one contains any useful information, with a speedo and tach incorporated in one. Acres of black plastic prevail throughout the interior. For a brand created to appeal to younger buyers, the xD offers nothing in terms of style. The driving position is extremely upright, and I was disappointed the steering wheel only tilts up and down, but cannot be moved forward and back. As expected, fit and finish is excellent, and the xD provides an airy cabin with exceptional visibility. The cupholders are a joke. Not even driving the car hard I would take a corner and my water bottle was sent hurling into the passenger side footwell, so you can forget about tooling around town with a latte without it spilling out.  Trunk space is on the small side, and cannot even come close to the Honda Fit. Scion’s only nod to their target buyer is a nice sound system. But with such dark colors, bolt upright seating position and ho hum styling, the xD hardly seems appealing to the young hipsters it wants to attract.

The xD comes in one flavor only, with a 1.8L four cylinder engine rated at 128hp. Buyers have a choice of a 5-speed manual or a 4-speed automatic. Our test car had the ancient four speed automatic. Acceleration was good, with a 0-60mph time of 8.3 seconds, with a top speed of 120mph. Driving the xD was smooth, and despite the antiquated four speed slush box, was unobtrusive. The ride was comfortable overall. However, buyers in this class want and expect superb fuel economy, and here, the xD falters. With an EPA rating of 27/33 MPG city/highway, the xD is far behind its peers.

rear_3_4The Scion xD comes in one trim model only. Buyers have the option of adding their own personal touches from dealer installed options. Our automatic xD started with a base price of $16,720USD. Standard equipment included LED turn signals, rear spoiler, chrome exhaust tip, 6.1″ touch screen Pioneer with six speakers, iPod connectivity and Bluetooth. Options on our test car included a rear bumper applique, center armrest, BeSpoke premium audio, and 16″ alloy wheels. Including destination charges, our xD rings in at $19,876.

Looking at the sales numbers of the xD, the car is a dud. And living with the car for a week, I was not sad to see it go. If Toyota is so concerned about its image as an older persons brand to the extent they create a sub-brand like Scion, for Pete’s sake build a youthful car with a statement. With forgettable styling, a depressing interior and non-competitive fuel economy ratings, it’s hardly a surprise the xD is not selling. For a car company that once gave us the MR-2, Celica, and Supra, we know you can surely do better than this.