Review: 2014 Subaru Forester

091_2014Forester25iAh, Subaru. While the company has made great strides in going mainstream over the past few years, they still are not quite on the radar for the casual car buyer, who cannot be bothered to think about cars. You buy a Subaru because you seek one out. Sure, the easy thing is to just walk into a Honda or Toyota showroom, but even as Subaru is losing its quirkiness and expanding their appeal, their legion of fans remain loyal. I should know, I have relatives who have owned Subaru’s for nearly thirty years. And I get the appeal. My cousin taught me how to drive a stick shift in his 1976 Subaru wagon, which was an absolute riot to drive. Tall and narrow, we would navigate completely unmarked trails at the local park with nary a problem. Light blue with a blue plaid and vinyl interior, I was smitten with that car, and I wanted it badly, but by the time I was of driving age rust had taken its toll on the old girl.

So I had to smile when a 2014 Marine Blue Pearl Forester was dropped off to me, which has been redesigned for this year. Sadly, without a matching plaid interior. Yes, it is far more refined than the old ’76 Subie, but is the modern iteration of the tall, narrow wagon, or should I say crossover. What I miss about Subaru’s are their endearing but dorky looks. To the casual observer, this could be any car. Subaru has never been a company that looks to seek attention to itself, or be flashy, but the stylists took conservative styling to an extreme. Yes, it is a fine looking car, but what it lacks identity and character, qualities that were once the hallmark of Subaru.

137_2014ForesterLtdSubaru is known for their utility, and the interior of the Forester continues that tradition. Yes, it’s a little short on style, but that isn’t the point here. What we do have is a roomy interior with an impressive amount of cargo space. Finding a comfortable driving position is simple enough, and most of the main controls are intuitive to use. Unfortunately, our test car’s navigation and infotainment system was frustrating to use, and lags behind the competition. Selecting the SiriusXM satellite radio station you want should not have to be that hard. So, if you are in the market for a Forester, skip the high-end options, you will be much happier for it.

The new Forester is available with a choice of two engines, the first a 2.5L boxer four rated at 170hp, and a 2.0L turbo boxer four rated at 250hp. Of course, all Foresters are all-wheel drive. Base 2.5 Foresters can be had with a six-speed manual, but once you move up to higher trim levels, a Continuously Variable Transmission is your only choice. A manual tranny is not available with the turbocharged engine. Acceleration around town is adequate, the ride is comfortable enough, steering a bit numb-but the same can be said for most four cylinder small crossovers. The Subaru does the job it is supposed to do, but you never forget you are driving an appliance. Even the Subie’s signature boxer four’s engine note is muted. To quote, isn’t that what makes a Subaru a Subaru? The Garage are no fans of the mooing CVT transmissions which extracts all the joy out of driving, but buyers will no doubt appreciate the 24/32 MPG city/highway EPA fuel economy figures.

102_2014Forester25iThe Forester is available in six different trim levels. Our test car was the 2.5i Touring, the top-spec for for the base non-turbo engine. Standard equipment includes 17″ alloys, panoramic sunroof, dual zone auto climate control, 6.1″ LCD touch screen control panel with Navigation, Bluetooth, Harmon Kardon audio with HD radio and XMSirius satellite radio, power driver’s seat, power rear lift gate, leather interior, and heated front seats. Our test car added an option package which included keyless access and start, EyeSight Driver Assist, Pre-Collision braking system, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and pre-collision throttle management system and HID headlights, which are some pretty high-end tech items for such a modest CUV. All in, our Forester has an MSRP of $33,220USD. This is on the high end of the compact CUV price scale, but not a bad value for having the latest in high-tech safety features.

For sure, it was impossible to not recall my fond memories of my cousin’s beloved ’76 Subie, and as I watched the Forester drive off, again, I smiled having lived with a light blue, tall Subaru wagon. Yes, it still has the basic elements that make a Subaru a Subaru, chiefly a boxer engine, all-wheel drive, a no-nonsense interior and plenty of utility. What it lacks from Subaru’s of yore is that quirky character, but Subaru will quickly point out to me how much their sales have improved since they went mainstream. And they would also likely counter if it turned off their previous customers? To answer that, Subaru would also point out my cousin just bought a Subaru XV CrossTrek. His wife has a new Outback. And their son has a new Legacy. Question answered Subaru, carry on.

Review: 2014 Hyundai Tuscon GLS AWD

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When the Hyundai Tuscon first came out in 2009 as a 2010 model, small SUVs were practical but not very attractive. Many were boxy and functional but not something that you could call “pretty” to look at.

Hyundai changed all of that by adding some spice to the small SUV segment. These days most of the small SUVs have become more shapely, more attractive, and arguably we have Hyundai to thank for that.

In this increasingly competitive small SUV market, can look-at-me styling and newfound efficiency still keep Hyundai’s trucklet as a contender? Keep on reading and find out.

EXTERIOR

Gone is the love/hate puppy dog styling of the previous generation Tuscon. The current model features swoopy styling with its stylish taper from the A-pillar to the D pillar.

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The rising beltline looks nice but it is more difficult for kids to see out of the rear door’s windows because of this styling trait.

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Personally though, I didn’t find it to be too much of a problem when merging or checking blindspots. With its large windshield, visibility out front is excellent. Just be careful when parking as the nose tapers off significantly. Fortunately, the Tuscon’s snout is not too long so judging where the front end is will not be too difficult.

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Speaking of snouts, new for 2014 is the addition of Audi-like LED daytime running lights. They definitely help to bring the Tuscon upmarket.

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INTERIOR

Inside you’ll find a basic but well organized interior. Step-in height is reasonable with its low floor and seat height. No need for any running boards or side steps here.

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My only complaint was the width of the sills. You’ll have to step in and lift your limbs up carefully or your pant leg may get dirty from touching the sill.

The dash is organized in a no nonsense fashion with large and easy-to-use (and find) buttons. The controls are at a nice height with not too much reach from the driver’s seat.

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There was plenty of legroom and headroom for myself at 5’9”. The seat has a wide range of adjustments and can be lifted quite high for shorter drivers. The steering wheel also tilts and telescopes for maximum adjustment.

One small complaint is that the plastic trim on the steering wheel extends all around the lower inside circumference of the wheel. I thought that it was a tad hard and uncomfortable over longer drives but your mileage may vary.

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The front cloth/leatherette seats in my Tuscon GLS were surprisingly sculpted for a small SUV. There is an above average amount of lateral and thigh support but no lumbar support. A small demerit there.

While the lateral support is great for driving enthusiasts such as myself, my passengers were divided into two camps. Half found the front seats really comfortable and supportive, the other half flat and a bit firm for longer hauls. I should note that the leather seats in the Tuscon Limited do feel more cushy than in my GLS tester, so be sure to try them out in that trim level when shopping around.

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The rear seats were very roomy for up to two large adults or three smaller ones. The outboard rear positions were even heated, a rarity in this class.

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The only complaint I heard from my rear passengers was that the seat base angle is a bit low and could use more thigh support for longer trips.

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Happily, the rear floor is nearly flat with minimal driveshaft intrusion, thereby resulting in no rear centre floor “hump”. This contributes to more rear leg and foot room especially for the centre rear passenger.

Despite the niggles, all passengers unanimously enjoyed the trucklet’s expansive glass moonroof. It really brightened up the interior significantly.

Cargo space in the Tuscon is much improved over the previous generation vehicle but it still has less cargo space (25.7 cu ft with seats up) than some competing vehicles in its class. The steeply raked tailgate window eats up some room here.

The Mazda CX-5 for example, has 34.1 cu ft with the rear seats up. For the most part, I don’t think this is too much of an issue unless you need to move a lot of stuff in one trip.

Notable mention: While my Tuscon GLS did not come with a navigation system, Hyundai cleverly integrated a trick rearview camera display into the rearview mirror.

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The built-in screen is totally hidden until the reverse gear is activated at which point a small but clear view of the area behind the Tuscon is displayed on the left of the mirror.

It was much appreciated as the Tuscon’s view out back is a limited due to its smallish rear window.

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SO HOW DOES IT DRIVE?

Handling-wise, the Tuscon feels quite agile and nimble. There is an acceptable amount of body roll unless you really push it hard in the twisties. Because the Tuscon is one of Hyundai’s older designs, it has an honest to goodness hydraulic power steering rack. It has a decent amount of road feel, much better than electric systems. My only complaint is that it is a bit numb off-centre and that the steering ratio could be a bit quicker.

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The Tuscon’s good handling helped it through any slippery conditions and emergency manoeuvres I had to put it through. The stability control seemed to be well calibrated enough to step in only when needed and the intelligent all wheel drive system seemed to work quite well. Drivers can also lock the torque split 50/50 between front and rear wheels for deep sand or snow.

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What isn’t as impressive about the Tuscon is its ride on rough roads and the road noise. Small SUVs as a class are a bit noisy and the Tuscon is no exception. Wind noise is acceptable at low speeds but as you make it up to highway speeds it gets a bit loud inside.

On well paved surfaces the ride is perfectly acceptable. However on poor roads, the ride is a bit too stiff and the suspension lets even minor surfaces undulations ripple through more than I liked.

Power comes from Hyundai’s 2.4L 4-cylinder direct injection engine with 182hp and 177 ft-lbs/torque. It has adequate power around town and is competitive with other vehicles in its class. It won’t blow your socks off, but it’s responsive and delivers decent fuel economy.

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The 6 speed transmission also performs well with no delays in kickdowns upon command. My only complaint was that, like its big brother Santa Fe, the auto-manual shift gate lacks some feel.

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Hyundai claims fuel consumption ratings of 10.2L/100 kms in the city and 7.8L/100 kms on the highway. My observed fuel consumption after 80% city driving was 10.5L/100 kms.

Like some other Hyundais, there is an “Active ECO” function that can be activated to save fuel. Essentially, it modifies engine operation so you get more gradual acceleration. Transmission behaviour is also altered so that it tends to shift to higher gears sooner and isn’t as quick to downshift for passing. Active ECO also cuts off the fuel supply during deceleration. Hyundai says all this electronic management can increase fuel economy as much as 7%.

WARRANTY

Normally a vehicle’s warranty coverage is not worth of being mentioned in a review. However Hyundai is so confident in the quality of its products that it provides an absolute standout in the industry.

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Whereas other vehicles in its class only include a 3 year/80,000 kms warranty, the Tuscon, like other Hyundais, comes with a 5 year/100,000 kms comprehensive limited warranty (that includes powertrain and emissions). It also includes a 3 year unlimited mileage roadside assistance program.

WRAP-UP

It’s really quite amazing how much progress the South Korean auto manufacturers have made over a few short years.

My Tuscon GLS came in at an MSRP of $28,899. This is over $3,000 cheaper than a comparably equipped Mazda CX-5!

Overall, the Hyundai Tuscon is a pleasant small SUV.  While the platform is starting to show its age a little, the Tuscon is still worth considering particularly due to its outstanding warranty and unbeatable value.

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The Garage Guy drives 2014 Cadillac ATS

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Can the littlest Caddy on the market really compete with the small sedans that European manufacturers have to offer? In this week’s video review, I drive the 2014 Cadillac ATS to see if it can really be considered a contender in this segment.

Review: 2014 Mazda6 GT – Rocky Road ice cream in a freezer full of vanilla

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According to the International Ice Cream Association, vanilla ice cream is the USA’s favourite ice cream flavour and beats out chocolate. More exotic flavours like Butter Pecan or Rocky Road fall into 4th or 5th.

One can draw a similarity when it comes to mid-sized family cars. The top selling car in America is the Toyota Camry. A competent but safe choice, sort of like vanilla ice cream.

Even Honda played it safe with the Accord’s styling when the sedan was redesigned recently. The top selling sedan has been criticised for looking too derivative even though the new shape is certainly an upgrade over the prior model.

The Mazda6? Well it’s sort of a wallflower among the big selling midsized sedans. While it’s probably never going to sell in the same numbers as the Camry or the Accord, consumers would be remised in passing it up during their shopping.

Personally, I’ve always enjoyed Rocky Road ice cream. So when I recently had the chance to get the keys to a 2014 Mazda6 GT with <gasp> a 6 speed manual transmission, I knew I had to give it a go.

EXTERIOR

The Mazda6 is definitely one of the sleekest sedans you can buy. Mazda’s Kodo “Soul of Motion” design language, which is supposed to mimic the calm and furious states of nature, has resulted in an aggressive front fascia and plenty of attractive character lines along its profile.

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And look at those front fender bulges! Where can you find them on another sedan, let alone what is traditionally expected on a plain-Jane family sedan?

In fact, Mazda says that their new 6 is probably the purest expression yet of the Kodo design language.

In this case, the aggressive front end is supposed to look like an animal that is crouched and ready to spring into action.

Overall, I think that the eye-catching coupe-like styling looks quite fetching and the ties the Mazda6 with the Ford Fusion for the best looking mid-sized sedan.

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My other favourite exterior design element aside from its bulging front fenders, is the combination LED strip and halo ring within the headlamp unit. It adds an upscale flair to the car, and is something different than the now ubiquitous strip of LEDs along the bottom perimeter of the headlamp.

INTERIOR

No matter which trim level Mazda6 you choose, you’ll end up with a car with a roomy and comfortable driving position.

It is a little bit of a pity that the interior design team didn’t have the same exuberance (or perhaps the same budget) as the exterior designers.

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The 6’s cabin is an almost identical photocopy of the Mazda CX-5. Not a bad thing but just a bit bland. Then again as discussed at the beginning of this review, vanilla ice cream reins supreme in the conservative midsized family car market and not Rocky Road.

Regardless, the inside of the 6 is neatly trimmed with comfortable and supportive seats. My top-end GT spec car included standard leather hides and all trim levels include generous applications of soft-touch dash plastics.

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The design is more minimalist than techy, and the gloss black plastic trim that spans across the dash has a hint of BMW design to it. Not a bad association to be made.

I like that the steering wheel both tilts and telescopes for maximum adjustability. To compliment it is an 8-way power adjustable driver seat. This makes finding the perfect driving position a clinch.

Previous Mazdas have been so-so when it comes to the interior electronics, but no longer.

A touchscreen now replaces the odd split-control radio headunit design in the previous generation Mazda6. The new system is much easier, albeit a bit plain due to its TomTom borrowed interface.

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Thankfully there are many redundant hard buttons for the climate control system, which has not been integrated into the touchscreen interface unlike an increasing number of cars. I prefer this than the fussy virtual interfaces that some vehicles have these days.

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One bone of contention. While I appreciated that Mazda has taken the effort to include a rotary BMW iDrive-style knob that also controls the headunit, it seems almost redundant when the touchscreen is so easy-to-use and so close at hand.

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Irritatingly, the headunit still locks out most functions when the vehicle is on the move, so neither driver nor front passenger can program the system using this Controller knob anyway.

On the plus side, almost every 6 will have Bluetooth and a backup camera. The GPS Navigation screen is a bit small, but high resolution. Blindspot monitoring was a standard feature on my GT model and it worked well. Opt for the Tech package and you also get Smart City Brake Support, which can automatically brake to prevent low speed collisions.

Out back, the rear seats have a lot of room. Thinner front seats and widened openings under them mean that rear seat passengers now benefit from extra knee and foot room.

Just how commodious is the space back there? I invited fellow car enthusiast, Mitchell Sayers, to give the rear seats a try. At 6’5”, he’s not exactly what you would call of average height. But even he was surprised by the amount of rear cabin space.

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While the lower roofline meant that Mitch had to swoop a bit when getting out, the headroom was more than enough for him. My kudos goes to the Mazda designers and engineers for their clever interior packaging and ergonomics.

SO HOW DOES IT DRIVE?

Being a smaller company, Mazda doesn’t have the resources that Honda and Toyota do. And now that they’re going in alone (without any more Ford resources), they have to play it smart.

As a result, they build their products on a modular structure. The 6 shares the same platform as the well-regarded CX-5 small SUV. It also shares the same engine, a variable valve timed SKYACTIV-G 2.5L direct injection 4 cylinder engine with 184 hp at 5700 rpms and 185 ft-lbs of torque at 3250 rpms.

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Mazda wants to be known for its efficiency but does it via conventional ways without expensive hybrids. The key is Mazda’s comprehensive suite of SKYACTIV technology, including direct fuel injection and a race car high 13:1 engine compression ratio.

Some models have an optional system named i-ELOOP (aka Intelligent Energy Loop), which stores power from regenerative braking into a special capacitor. This is used to run electrical accessories such as the lights and the climate control.

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Mazda says that capacitors are much better at quick charges and discharges as they don’t involve the same chemical reactions as conventional batteries. As a result, they are much more apt at delivering quick bursts of power, reducing fuel consumption by as much as up to a claimed 10%.

Mazda claims fuel economy ratings of 8.1L/100 kms in the city and 5.3L/100 kms on the highway for my manual transmission car. I averaged 8.5L/100 kms in mostly city driving in my non i-Eloop car. Interestingly, the automatic transmission car gets a better 7.6/5.1L city/highway rating.

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A bigger fuel economy bump is going to come when Mazda sells a diesel version of the 6 in the near future, competing with the VW Passat TDI.

Despite just having a 4 cylinder engine, the car lives up to the brand’s zoom-zoom character. My test car felt agile for its size and more than quick enough for everyday situations. There is acceptable amounts of body roll and it is competent in the corners.

Thanks to the SKYACTIV philosophy of reducing curb weight, it also felt surprisingly light on its feet and drives smaller than it is.

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The vast majority of buyers will choose their Mazda6 with the 6 speed automatic gearbox. However, one of the main reasons that I was looking forward to testing this car was because of the available 6 speed manual gearbox.

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According to Mazda, it is said to have been tuned with inspiration from the MX-5 Miata.

Continuing with the SKYACTIV mindset, this gearbox has also been lightened and modified for less friction in the pursuit of improved fuel economy.

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I’m happy to report that the short throws and good clutch feel make the gearbox a pleasure to use. Not only does it snick from cog to cog smoothly and precisely, but there is enough mechanical feel dialed into the system that you never forget the box full of gears at the other end of the stick. Exactly what manual transmission fans are looking for.

This easy-shifting transmission really did do justice to Mazda’s sporty heritage and adds the right amount of excitement this car deserves.

WRAP-UP

The family sedan market is a very crowded one. But Mazda stands out from the crowd by offering a good looking, well-equipped sedan with the “zoom-zoom” sportiness it is known for.

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It’s no wonder that journalists in the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) voted it as the 2014 Canadian Car of the Year. The Mazda6 also won AJAC’s prestigious award for the 2014 Best New Family Car over $30,000.

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So it’s really too bad that the Mazda6 often gets overlooked by many shoppers in the category. It really should be in the spotlight thanks to its blend of sporty driving character, eye-catching coupe-like styling, and excellent fuel economy.

If you need the practicality of a midsized family sedan but don’t want to give up sleek styling or sporty handling (or if you like Rocky Road ice cream and don’t want to own a Camry or Accord), you might want to take a very close look at the Mazda6!

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Review: 2014 Volkswagen CC

164666342252ab4e6bc1fa5A couple years ago, Volkswagen, already one of the biggest auto manufacturers in the world, announced that they wanted to step sales up further, especially here in America. Here’s the strange thing though-when VW made this pledge, there was nothing wrong with their cars. Far from it. Fun to drive, expertly engineered, and boasting near luxury car standards on the interiors, the powers that be at VW saw one problem. You certainly got what you paid for, but the reality was, Volkswagens cost a little more than its competition. The brass at VW North America seemed to think this was their Achilles heel.  The solution? An all new Jetta and Passat, except this time we’ll sell them at a much lower price, drastically reduce the quality of the materials in the cabin in which we had grown such a great reputation for, and offer the Americans a cheap but roomy interior. They’ll never notice. And by golly, they were right. Us Americans are really that stupid. Sales went up because VW was now selling cheaper, but inferior cars than before.

But not all Americans. Before VW decided they wanted to conquer the sales charts, they had a hard core fan base here, who loved and embraced their cars because they were simply excellent cars. While all the media focuses on the ‘American-ized’ VW’s, Volkswagen still quietly offers cars for the loyal folks who have been long time fans and customers. The Volkswagen CC is one of those cars. Originally sold here as the Passat CC, VW wisely distanced the CC by dropping the Passat moniker once the Passat sold here took a new path.

The CC is part of a small, but elite group of German sedans whose styling is meant to mimic that of a coupe, albeit in four door form. The CC is easily the most handsome of all VW’s currently sold here, with a level of class and sophistication it’s siblings cannot even come close to matching. In 2013 the CC received some minor styling revisions front and rear, but with such timeless styling, VW has not tinkered much with the look of the car. Sure, I love the silhouette of a Mercedes-Benz CLS, but cannot afford it. The VW CC offers the same styling concept at a much more approachable price.

85232746752ab4e0ed00a8Inside the CC, you can set aside any reservations you may have about VW’s appetite for cost cutting. This is the VW you know and love from ten years ago. Excellent build quality, and rich feeling materials. The design is clean, simple and elegant. This is an easy cockpit to get to know and use, but I find VW’s infotainment/navigation system a step behind the competition. Up front, the CC is plenty roomy and extremely comfortable. However, there is a trade-off for the swoopy exterior. Rear seat headroom isn’t great, and the trunk space is merely adequate. The good news is that VW ditched the center console that ran the length of the car front to rear, so the CC now can seat five adults instead of four.

The CC is offered with two engines, the first a 2.0L turbo four cylinder rated at 200hp. Buyers can choose between a six-speed manual or a six-speed DSG automated manual. The Garage last sampled a CC back in 2010, and we had the turbo four with the DSG, and for a car this size, I came away satisfied. This time around, our CC was fitted with a 3.6L V-6 rated at 280hp, paired to a six-speed automatic and 4Motion all-wheel drive. VW offers the CC with a diesel engine in Europe, but not here. Sure, the six under the hood adds a little more refinement, but considering how well the turbo four performed, I’d save my money and take that motor over the V-6 and enjoy better fuel economy and only losing a couple tenths of a second on the 0-60mph run. The CC is comfortable and compliant, but is not what I would call a sports sedan. Quiet and comfortable, the CC was a perfect accomplice to cruise the interstate for a family party in north eastern Connecticut.

73663073352ab4e7917163VW offers the CC in Sport, R-Line, and Executive trim levels. Our test car was the CC V-6 4Motion Executive, otherwise known as the top dog in the CC family. Standard equipment included navigation, premium Dynaudio sound system, panoramic sunroof, rear view camera with park distance control, bi-xenon headlights and LED daytime running lights, dual zone auto climate control, power rear sun shade, leather seats, and front heated and ventilated seats with driver massage. Total price comes to $43,310USD, including destination charges. You can argue that is a lot for a VW, but I dare you to find a sedan that looks this good, with this level of content for less money.

There has been plenty of hand-wringing about VW going mainstream here in the US, and coming from someone whose first car was a VW, and has owned more VW’s than any other brand, I can’t say I am impressed with the latest cars. But, when a car like the CC is dropped off at my door, it is with a sigh of relief, and a reminder that the folks at Volkswagen still remember how to build a great car with the solidity, elegance, poise, and luxury that once defined Volkswagen’s presence in North America.

Review: 2014 Cadillac SRX

2014 Cadillac SRXTime flies. No, really, it does. When our ’14 Black Raven Cadillac SRX rolled up to my door, I simply could not believe how long it had been since I wheeled an SRX. That would be back in 2010 (click here for my review), and I had taken the SRX for the weekend to Hartford, Connecticut, our state capital, to enjoy some culture at the Wadsworth Atheneum art museum, fine dining, and hole up at night at the Hilton to enjoy the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Flash forward to the present, and while the keys to the SRX are handed to me, the finishing touches are being put on the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Four years passed in the blink of an eye.

So, in four years, what is new with the SRX? Actually, not that much. In 2013, the SRX received subtle revisions to the front and rear fascias. And by subtle, I mean subtle. In fact, I had to flip from one tab of the old car to the new car to try to spot the differences. Not that I am complaining. Hardly. The SRX was, and continues to be a striking luxury crossover. The modern crossover is so easily lost in the crowd, but not so with the SRX. From any angle it is distinctly Cadillac. Crisp angles set off by just the right amount of chrome conspire for a cohesive, elegant look. Observing our Black Raven test car, I was inspired to think of a classic Ralph Lauren black tuxedo complimented with a set of Gucci cufflinks. So for the naysayers out there who may carp that the SRX is hardly a fresh design, tell me when that fashion look went out of style? It hasn’t, and the SRX still looks modern and has plenty of swagger.

2014 Cadillac SRXInside, the SRX’s well done cabin remains intact. Everything you see and touch has a premium look and feel to it. As expected, the SRX is an exceptionally comfortable car. Our SRX would take my family from the Connecticut shore to the rolling hills of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania for an early Christmas with my wife’s family for a weekend. Fighting holiday traffic, New York, other harried holiday weekend travelers and last minute shoppers, the SRX was a quiet oasis, playing Christmas favorites on SiriusXM satellite radio. No, the SRX cannot tone down the craziness of the holidays, but it sure helps to make it all a little easier in keeping the spirit up. The SRX easily swallowed up all our luggage and Christmas gifts and then some.

In 2013, Cadillac added CUE, short for Cadillac User Experience, which is the only major departure from the SRX we tested in 2010. CUE is the epicenter of controlling the audio, climate control, navigation and other ancillary features of your SRX. In essence, Cadillac’s intent was to have you control these functions in a way similar to how you work your smartphone. You are not actually pushing a button, you are hitting a touchpad. It sounds cool, but I was left unimpressed. It took several touches to adjust things like the cabin temperature or the setting on my heated seat. Yes, it makes for a clean, uncluttered center stack instead of rows and rows of buttons, I just wish it worked in a way that was faster and more responsive. That said, we did find the new Cadillac navigation interface to be one of the best around currently.

At the time of our last look at the SRX, buyers could choose from a standard V-6, or an optional turbo V-6 sourced from Saab. Our test car had the turbo V-6, and I was content with the power, smoothness and delivery. However, that engine was only available on the top-end SRX’s, and had a very low percentage of overall SRX sales. The standard V-6 was merely adequate, but critics complained it simply did not have the juice to move the SRX with authority. Cadillac has since simplified matters in the engine room. All SRX’s come with a 3.6L V-6 rated at 308hp, mated to a six-speed automatic. Front wheel drive is standard, all-wheel drive is optional. The SRX has just the right amount of power to charge up an on-ramp and to pass with authority. The ride is comfortable and exceptionally well controlled. Once out of the traffic mess of New York, the SRX flew as the road opened up. The SRX positively shined as a stout, composed highway cruiser.

Yet, I couldn’t help thinking when Cadillac would follow its German competitors, and let their performance V-Sport guys conjure up a hotted up version of the SRX. AMG does it with Mercedes-Benz. M Sport does it with BMW. So, Cadillac, why not answer back with an SRX V-Sport?

2014 Cadillac SRXThe SRX is available in four trim levels, with the base, front wheel drive model starting at just over $37,000USD. Our test car was the top-spec Premium with all-wheel drive. Standard equipment includes 20″ polished alloys, Navigation, Bose surround sound, HD radio, SiriusXM satellite radio, heated steering wheel, heated/ventilated power front seats, heated rear seat, power adjustable pedals, remote start, wood-trimmed interior, panoramic sunroof, three-zone auto climate conrol, power liftgate, xenon headlights and LED interior ambient lighting. Our test car added optional extras such as a rear entertainment system with two screen, Blu Ray DVD, the Driver Assist Package featuring adaptive cruise control, front and rear automatic braking, and automatic collision preparation. All in, including destination charges, our SRX stickers at $56,465. Inexpensive? No, but this is the premier luxury crossover on offer from American shores. A premium automobile brimming with the latest in technological and entertainment features rightfully commands a premium price. If you still disagree, I played with BMW’s price tool. A similarly equipped BMW X5 will run over $11,000 higher than our SRX.

For all the media hoopla over the new ATS and CTS sedans, the bottom line is the SRX is Cadillac’s best selling car. And those are great cars that just came out. The SRX, which is no spring chicken, is a testament to what an excellent premium crossover it is. It has stood the test of time, and buyers continue to buy the SRX over any other Cadillac. The formula works, and I cannot fault Cadillac for not fiddling with such a successful car. The SRX rightfully stands toe to toe with the best the rest of the world has to offer. And hopefully, if another SRX arrives at my door in time for the 2018 Winter Olympics, I hope to report the same.

 

Review: 2014 Volvo S80

124370_1_5The Flagship. The most enviable position in any car company’s line up. It is the pinnacle of what you have to offer. The best of the best. Right? The Volvo S80 is the car that sits at the absolute top of the totem pole, yet it seems to sit there very quietly. No buzz, no ‘ooh or ahh’ factor. For a flagship car, the S80 leads what appears to be a low key existence. For 2014, Volvo gave the S80 a very mild refresh-so subtle it would take a Volvo fanatic to notice the slight exterior changes. It’s worth noting that this is actually the current S80′s second refresh. The current, second generation S80 has been around since 2006, and with a car that old, it is of little surprise it has dropped off the radar of luxury car buyers.

For such an old design, the S80 still looks great. Our test car arrived in a deep dark blue metallic that positively dripped with class and elegance. Styling is clean, and after two refreshes, looks timeless. If anything, Volvo has proven once again that a great design to start with can stand the test of time. In the luxury car class, the S80 is understated, exuding a cool Swede charm in contrast to its more brash German competitors. For some, that is the appeal of the S80; for others more intent on trying impress others, the subtle demeanor of the S80 would be a turn-off for the guy trying to fuel his ego.

124400_1_5Stepping inside the S80, the car does show its age against the competition. Groups of tiny buttons and a navigation system that seems hopelessly trapped in the past are clear indicators the S80 is no spring chicken. But, it is a great cabin in spite of its age. The vertical gauges flanking the tach are LCD but offer a clear nod to Volvo’s of yore, and no other manufacturer offers anything like it. I love the back lit transmission selector, and I don’t know why other car companies have not followed in Volvo’s foot steps. The seats are supremely comfortable. I appreciated the warm luster of wood accents and highly polished metal decorating the interior. But again, the S80′s age is tough to ignore. For some. Sure, I could get another car with a more up to date interior, but after spending a week with the S80, I concluded this car was so comfortable I put it on my short list of cars I could drive across the US in.

The S80 is available in two flavors. The base model is front wheel drive with a 3.2 inline six rated at 240hp. Our test car was the S80 T6, equipped with a 3.0L turbocharged inline six rated at 300hp, with all-wheel drive. Both models share a six-speed automatic. The EPA pages fuel economy at 18/25 MPG city/highway, hardly stellar figures despite being an all-wheel drive luxury car. The Volvo provided plenty of power when needed, and positively excels in cruise mode. This is not a sports sedan however-everything has been tuned to comfort and isolation. No, it’s not exciting to drive, but what it lacks in driving excitement, it makes up for in complete comfort.

47858_1_5A base S80 starts at a modest $39,900USD. Step up to our T6 AWD, and the starting prices is raised to a still reasonable $43,950. Standard equipment includes an eight speaker stereo with satellite radio, Bluetooth, power moonroof, leather interior, power front seats and walnut wood inlays. Our heavily optioned test car added the Platinum Package (Navigation, Premium sound, rear view camera), Climate Package (heated front and rear seats, heated steering wheel), Inscription Package (Sovereign Hide leather, ventilated front seats, leather covered dash),Technology Package (Adaptive Cruise Control, Collision Warning with full auto brake, Pedestrian/Cyclist Detection with auto brake, Distance Alert, Driver Alert, Lane Departure Warning), and active xenon headlights. All in, including destination charges, our S80 stickers at $55,765. It’s hardly inexpensive, but compared to the competition, the Volvo is priced far below similarly equipped cars.

The S80 reminds me of how Volvo once used to be. You crank out a solid, well designed car, and make modest updates over time, like the iconic 240. The Volvo of yore was never a slave to fads or fashion, and their buyers appreciated that, and repaid that mentality with a fierce loyalty. Unfortunately in today’s luxury car market, that mentality is overlooked. While the competition is grabbing headlines and the attention of the media and buyers alike, the S80 quietly soldiers on with little or no fanfare at all. And that is a shame, because Volvo has built a fundamentally excellent luxury car. Yes, she is showing her age, but the greatest compliment I can pay the S80 is that it would be the perfect cross-country cruiser.

Review: Nissan XTerra

2013 Nissan Xterra‘Kickin’ it old school’ and ‘Keepin’ it real’ are two much abused phrases today, but in the case of the Nissan XTerra, these are absolute truths. The first XTerra saw the light of day as a 2000 model, followed by a second generation bowing in 2005, and that is essentially the same XTerra you will find at a Nissan dealer lot in 2014. So yes, change with the Xterra tends to move at a glacial pace, but you need to understand what the XTerra is about to understand why that is perfectly acceptable.

The XTerra is based off of the Nissan Frontier pick up truck, the way every car company did its SUV’s before the crossover existed. In appearance, the XTerra is upright, purposeful, and most of all, dead serious. With an imposing front fascia, knobby tires, over the top roof rack and sharply sculpted fender flares, the XTerra in stock form almost looks as if it do duty as a Dakar Rally support vehicle. Backing up that persona are roof mounted off-road lights, roof mounted air dam gear basket, rear side bumper steps and a front tow hook. From the outside, the XTerra puts the ‘U’ in Utility, and the overall look is classic SUV, looks terrific, and oozes character in a growing sea of wishy-washy crossovers. Put another way, this is not a vehicle you will spot your typical suburban housewife flitting between Starbuck’s and her mani/pedi appointment.

2013 Nissan XterraClimb inside, and the utility theme continues. There is nothing superfluous or fancy to be found here. No nod whatsoever to style. In fact, the XTerra’s dashboard and controls are so simple compared to its contemporaries it is almost shocking. To some, the minimalism shown here may be extreme, bordering on the austere, but pause here for a moment, and look again. Acres of unforgiving hard plastic and a lack of gimmicks all add up to an interior that is ready to be beaten up. The XTerra’s cabin was designed to be abused. Yet for as primitive the XTerra’s interior appears, all the tech features one would expect to find on a current SUV are accounted for.

All XTerra’s share the same engine, a 4.0L V-6, rated at 261hp. You can order your XTerra as a 4×2 or 4×4. Rear-wheel drive only XTerra’s are only available with a five-speed automatic. Go for the 4×4 (honestly, if you are committing to this car, why wouldn’t you?), and you have a choice of a six-speed manual or the automatic. Our 4×4 was fitted with the automatic. Acceleration was more than adequate, and no doubt offers enough grunt in difficult off-road situations. And the XTerra should shine off-road. I know, because I have driven both am XTerra and the Frontier on which it is based at IMPA’s Test Days off-road course, set up and designed by Land Rover, the benchmark of all off-roaders. Trust me, the XTerra has the chops it takes for some brutal off-roading. And it’s fun too.

That’s important to keep in mind, because around town, the XTerra, while fully capable, never lets you forget you are essentially driving a truck ready for severe off-roading. If you’re OK with that, no problem. But if you are contemplating an XTerra, knowing full well you will never subject it to anything harsher than a dirt road, you should really ask yourself if you are willing to live with the compromises an SUV with such impressive off-road capabilities comes with. And if your answer is yes, then my next question is who are you trying to impress? There are simply too many other alternatives offering the space and utility of an XTerra that are much easier to live with on a daily basis. Buying an XTerra with the intent of never taking it off-road makes as much sense as buying a Nissan GT-R and never intending to exceed the speed limit.

2013 Nissan XterraThe XTerra is available in three trim levels: base X, S, and top-spec PRO-4X. Our test car was the PRO-4X. Standard equipment backs up the off-road ability with features such as Bilstein shocks, Hill Descent Control, Hill Start Assist and OWL rugged trail tires. Other standard features include navigation, Rockford Fosgate premium audio, SiriusXM satellite radio, iPod connectivity, Bluetooth, RearView Monitor, First Aid Kit, and multiple 12V DC outlets. Fitted with only a couple accessories, our XTerra rings in at a respectable $31,925USD, including destination charges.

The XTerra is impressive in that it has remained true to its mission since day one as a no-frills, no-nonsense, go-anywhere SUV. That type of vehicle is quickly becoming extinct. Toyota announced that 2014 will be the FJ’s last year, and that pretty much leaves the XTerra and Jeep Wrangler, not to mention stripped versions of the Toyota 4Runner as the last of their kind. Is it the SUV for everyone? No, and it was never intended to be. And to those who own XTerra’s and never ventured further than a dirt path, you owe it to yourself to find a local off-road club and discover all the fun you’ve been missing. You’ll thank me later.

Review: 2013 Mitsubishi Lancer SE

2012 Mitsubishi Lancer SEIf you’re a car guy, you most likely are fascinated with the ultra-hyper Mitsubishi Lancer EVO. Lord knows I am, and even though it’s been a couple of years since I had the pleasure of driving one, I still have fond memories of carving up Connecticut’s Route 66 on a gorgeous summer’s day. It’s a given the EVO is highly desirable among gearheads and gamers. But, what about the car that beast is actually based on? The car most buyers actually buy? A regular, plain jane, Lancer. It was The Garage’s turn to find out.

The current Lancer has been around since 2008, essentially rendering it a dinosaur against its competition. Fortunately, the Lancer has been blessed with stylish, tasteful looks that defy the test of time. The slight forward leaning of the front end recalls classic BMW’s, and the slanted styling treatment of the head and tail light clusters are distinctive, and add character in an otherwise banal class of cars. The character line ripping up just shy of the door handles on the side profile is also a sporty touch. She may be the oldest design in its class, but she still looks terrific after all these years.

2012 Mitsubishi Lancer GT TouringTime has not been so kind to the interior of the Lancer. Given the intensity of the EVO, I was willing to forgive a lot of shortcomings. With the pedestrian Lancer, not so much. It’s disappointing that Mitsubishi was able to craft such an attractive exterior, yet come up with a completely uninspiring interior. All black, all dark, and hard plastics prevail. All controls are easy to decipher and intuitive to use. At 6′ 1″, I had plenty of room and was fairly comfortable, but I’m not sure if I’d pick the Lancer for a long trip. The lack of a telescoping steering wheel was a disappointment, and the trunk size is pathetic. It’s by no means an econo-box cabin from the 1980′s, but the Lancer’s peers offer much more refinement for the same money.

The Lancer is offered with a choice of two engines. Lesser Lancers come equipped with a 2.0L four cylinder rated at 148hp, and is available with a five-speed manual or a CVT. Step up to SE or GT trim, you get a 2.4L four good for 168hp. The GT can also be had with either the manual or CVT, but our test car was an SE, which is all-wheel drive, and can only be had with the CVT. And that’s a shame. Our Lancer packs a lot of horsepower for its class, but the godawful Continuously Variable Transmission sucks the soul out of the car. Passing is slow, and all the rough engine racket that accompanies it makes for a less than pleasant driving experience. Naturally, the Lancer handles well, since she is the basis of the almighty EVO, but this drivetrain takes all the fun out of driving. If you want affordable all-wheel drive fun, Subaru offers its Impreza with a manual tranny.

2012 Mitsubishi Lancer SEThe Lancer is available in DE, ES, SE and GT trims. Our test car was the all-wheel drive SE. Standard equipment includes side sill extensions, roof rack plug in roof rack accommodation, 16″ alloys, heated seats, SiriusXM satellite radio, HD radio, 6.1″ color touch screen display, rearview camera, and Bluetooth connectivity. Our test car added the Premium Package, which includes a power moonroof, 9 speaker Rockford Fosgate audio, and leather wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. All in, our Lancer has an MSRP of $22,940USD, including destination charges. For what you get, this is a fairly reasonable price.

So where does that leave us? In its favor, the Lancer SE offers all-wheel drive, great looks and desirable features at a fair price. However, the low-rent interior and tiny trunk make a tough case for a car for a small family. While boasting a powerful engine, the CVT seems to make a deliberate effort to sap all of the power. I’ve driven cars with much less power than our Lancer that felt far quicker off the line, and were much more fun to drive. Having driven the EVO, I know how good this chassis is, but with this engine and transmission, all that effort from Mitsubishi’s engineers are completely lost on this car. Swap in a six-speed automatic, you might give up a couple MPG, but in exchange the driving experience would be transformed. Upgrade the interior to modern standards, and Mitsubishi has a home-run with this car, but until that happens, I have a hard time recommending this car to potential buyers.

Review: 2013 Chrysler 200S Convertible

2013 Chrysler 200 S ConvertibleI cannot recall the publication, but I certainly remember the article. Jeremy Clarkson, the opinionated and outspoken host of the popular BBC car show ‘Top Gear’ had flown to the US, and the rental car awaiting him was a Chrysler Sebring convertible. He reviewed it. To put it politely, he did not have anything nice to say about the car. He completely trashed it. In car journalist circles, there is a term regarding a review where you “kill a car”. With the Sebring, that’s essentially what Clarkson did. And Chrysler knew it too. Yeah, Clarkson’s biting, scathing review does not account for the fact that Chrysler was undergoing long-term neglect from its parent Cerberus.

As we all know, Chrysler was saved when Fiat came in and bought a substantial share of the Pentastar. The Sebring was a disaster of a car, but time and money constraints required immediate action, and not enough for an entirely new car. Chrysler wisely ditched the Sebring name, and for 2011 introduced the 200 sedan and convertible. Though not all new, the car did undergo a very heavy revision, aimed at addressing the sins of the outgoing car.

For as hard as the media in general has kicked the Sebring around, it was fundamentally not a bad looking car. The reborn 200 retains the basic shape of the outgoing car, but has been thoroughly refreshed and presents itself as a contemporary car. Still, the 200 has a deserved reputation as a favorite among, ahem, a slightly older demographic, as well as a favorite rental car in sunny climates. Not that there is anything wrong with that. Chrysler was well aware of that too, and wisely came out with the 200S, which takes the styling updates of the standard 200 a step further. A black finish grille, black headlight and fog light bezels with 18″ polished and painted alloys are subtle changes that worked to great effect. Our test car came finished in a gorgeous coat of Billet Silver Metallic clear coat. To sum, wherever I went, I didn’t feel like I was giving people the impression that I was driving my Dad’s car.

2014 Chrysler 200 ConvertibleInside, the 200 offers a roomy and relaxed cabin. I appreciated little details like crisp LED interior lighting, soft ambient lighting, and the analog clock. White stitching on the seats and silver trim brightened up our all-black interior. It’s easy to get comfortable in the 200. Easy to read gauges, supportive seats and fairly intuitive controls add up for a pleasant experience. Unfortunately, the 6.5″ touch screen color display controlling the audio, communication and nav looks hopelessly outdated, and is a tad clunky in some operations. Chrysler has addressed this in new models like the 300, so I see this as a problem with a solution in sight.

My Chrysler 200S would be my transportation for the annual International Motor Press Association’s two day gathering known as Test Days. On a lovely evening late September, I left my home on the Connecticut coast and headed northward for the bucolic scenery of the Catskill Mountains in New York state. With the top down, heat blowing, and heated seats on with my favorite satellite radio station on, it was time to hit the road. The 200 proved its mission as a relaxed, comfortable, yet competent cruiser. By the time I arrived in Newtown, CT, it was dark, temps dropping, and it was time to hit the interstate. I raised the top, and traveled into the night in quiet comfort. In fact, the top is so well insulated, I question why anyone would want to go with the extra weight and cost of the optional retractable hardtop.

The 200 is available in three trim levels, Touring, Limited, and S. The Touring comes standard with a 2.4L four cylinder rated at 173hp. Optional on the Touring and standard on the Limited and S is a 3.6L V-6, good for 283hp. For 2014, both engines are paired to a six-speed automatic. The V-6 sounds good under hard acceleration, and the car can hustle merging into highway traffic. My drive to the Catskills consists of curving and undulating roads, interstate travel both smooth and rough, and finally off the highway, a 15 mile blast on broad, smooth as glass and sweeping corners on my approach to my hotel. The 200 took it all in stride. This is no sports car, mind you, and it never pretends to be. What Chrysler offers is a confident budget grand tourer.

2014 Chrysler 200 S Convertible and SedanOur top=spec 200S test car starts with a base price of $32,820USD. Standard equipment includes Bluetooth, power cloth convertible top, power and heated front seats, leather seating surfaces, Boston Acoustics audio with SiriusXM satellite radio, auto climate control and remote and push button start. Our car’s only option was Chrysler’s UConnect with integrated Voice Command and Navigation. Including destination charges, total price rings in at a still respectable $34,610.

While the 200 can hardly be considered cutting edge, it does represent a remarkable value for what you get. Convertibles have a bad rap as compromised cars. You have to sacrifice something for that fun in the sun when it is warm, but not too hot, not too cold. I never got that impression during my week with the 200S. Top up or down, I was able to maintain a comfortable environment in the cabin. Top up or down, there is plenty of room in the trunk for luggage for a weekend getaway. Most modern convertible tops take up a lot of space in the boot, forcing you to keep the top up for the trip. The Chrysler’s trunk is big enough I can keep my luggage in the trunk, and keep the top down. I mean, that’s the point, isn’t it? It also bears mentioning the 200 has a usable rear seat, where real adults can sit without fear of them cursing you under their breath.

In sum, the Chrysler 200S Convertible represents a great value, slick styling, competent performance, with an unexpected level of trunk space and interior roominess not normally associated with convertibles. The lemmings may follow the gospel of Jeremy Clarkson or back off on seeing so many of these things on rental car lots, but the reality is the 200 Convertible no longer deserves all the crap that has been dished out. Chrysler fixed the flaws of the Sebring as best they could, and the car now deserves a second chance.