Late summer of 1984, my family moved to a new neighborhood. I was 11 years old, and soon got myself a newspaper route. One afternoon after school I was delivering the local daily paper and in the driveway sat a car that looked like nothing I had ever seen before. Since the house was on my route, I was able to get up close to this mysterious vehicle and the badge read GTV-6. The red paint was so lustrous, so deep it looked like you could dive into it. The well bolstered front seats were swathed in gorgeous Italian hides in a shade of tan that made tan exotic. The angled steering wheel, the font of the gauges so unique. I was experiencing my first Alfa Romeo.
With two daughters, the GTV-6 later gave way to a Milano, and finally a 164S. So taken was I with Alfa Romeo I vowed I would own one myself. While still in high school, I bought my own 1986 Alfa Romeo Spyder that I daily drove to school everyday in every kind of weather. Looking back now it is incredible how lucky I was to own that car, and it was such a joy to drive. Continental Motors in New Haven was the local dealer. Housed in an old brick garage, even the dealer itself was dripping with charm and character that no other cookie cutter dealership could match.
Here I am in Cape Cod, and there couldn’t have been many cars I’d rather have been driving. In college, I’d drive my Alfa the 250 miles to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. One winter in 1994, the area was hit with a blizzard with arctic winds and mountains of snow. It must have taken a week until I could get into my car. Bless her, she started right up, but within minutes the parking lot was engulfed in smoke. A trip to the dealer gave the fatal diagnosis-the engine block had cracked from the cold, and my joyous years with my Alfa Romeo had come to an end. The next year, 1995, Alfa Romeo quietly withdrew from North America.
Thirty five years after falling in love with my neighbor’s GTV-6, Alfa Romeo delivered a Giulia to my doorstep. And yes, I was excited. It is a sedan, yes, but it is a small one. And a rather striking, handsome one at that. From the front, it looks like nothing else on the road. Out for dinner in a sea of 3-series, the Giulia is a breath of Mediterranean air. Like a well designed Italian suit, there is no excess or gaudiness. The Giulia looks sophisticated, and self assured.
Inside, the Giulia is charming, and its own cabin to experience. The main gauge cluster with its hooded tach and speedo recall the Alfa Romeo Duetto. While many luxury cars revert to dark wood accents for a serious look, the Giulia sports light walnut that would have looked natural in a 1960’s Ferrari touring coupe. Leather dash, door caps with aluminum trim and pedals compliment the elegant cabin. Crema hides and our car’s panoramic sunroof combine to provide a light, airy cabin. Tasked with taking me to Atlantic City for Labor Day weekend, the Giulia was supremely comfortable, and the Harmon Kardon stereo was a welcome companion. I appreciated the knobs for the climate control.
However, I do have some reservations. Room in the backseat is at a premium, and getting in and out is not graceful. The trunk looked very small, and with a narrow opening, the Giulia’s practicality seems limited to grocery shopping or a weekend couple’s getaway. The graphics on the 8.8″ screen look hopelessly outdated; the navigation screen would have looked old compared to a ten year old Honda. Thankfully, the Giulia has Apple CarPlay and Andoid Auto, so you can overlook this flaw as long as you hook up your phone.
While other markets have different displacement engines and a choice of gas or diesel, North America gets a 2.0L turbo charged four, rated at 280hp. The wild Quadrifoglio is another story, for (hopefully) another review. All Giulia’s come with an 8-speed automatic. For a brand that is all about passion and driving engagement, I find it disappointing enthusiasts are not offered a manual. Thankfully, the Giulia is an entertaining car to drive. This is the first Alfa Romeo sedan designed as a rear wheel drive car since the 75/Milano was discontinued in 1992. All wheel drive is available, but unless traction is called for on the front axle, the Giulia is always in rear wheel drive. Boasting perfect 50/50 weight distribution, handling is delightful, and well controlled. You’d have to be pretty reckless to upset this car. With a 0-60mph time of 5.3 seconds, the Giulia is sufficiently quick off the line and in passing. Steering and brake feel (Brembo brakes BTW) should satisfy nearly any driving enthusiast. The automatic is a willing partner when it’s in the mood, but there were instances when the transmission software seemed at a loss of what it should do.
The Giulia is available in six different trim levels, each of which offer all wheel drive. Our TI Lusso AWD stands as the Giulia with an emphasis on luxury. While the Giulia comes standard with about what you would expect for a car starting at $42,495USD, our test car had nearly every option available. Including delivery, our Giulia cost $55,290USD. What’s more, the features I enjoyed most of our car-that light walnut wood, the aluminum pedals, Harmon Kardon audio, and panoramic moon roof were all options, and their absence would have taken away from the car. While I liked our Giulia, $55,000 seems just a bit too pricey.
Alfa Romeo’s return to North America is still too recent to predict its outcome. Many Gen X’er’s were still in school when Alfa left our shores, and its dealer network is small. Not known for Lexus levels of reliability when they left, buyers are likely gun shy about what modern Alfa Romeo reliability is like today. For some, however, the Giulia is a compelling alternative when every other small sport sedan on the road is either a 3-series or a C-class. Those willing to take the plunge will be rewarded with an engaging driver’s car, handsome looks inside and out, and of course, Italian character. Will it enrapture an 11 year old the way the first GTV-6 did with me? Probably not, but Alfa Romeo has the 4C for that kind of experience!
Telluride. For a skier, the name conjures up visions of a wild west town in Colorado ski country, known for deep powder and epic parties.
I have never skied at the legendary Colorado resort, but I did stay there once. For one night. The town has matured from the party town I grew up reading about, to a modern corporate resort town, with cookie cutter type upscale hotels being the norm. Not a hot tub party in sight.
Three beers. That was all I had. The combination of those three beers and 8,750′ of elevation made for one of the worst hangovers of my life. My head was huge and my lungs were an absolute mess. Turns out that I wasn’t the only one in the group and after a full day spent above 10,000 feet, a few drinks destroyed those of us who live at sea level.
Some might say that the less mature, cronologically, among us fared better. Like a certain ski town, some of us had become somehow softer, perhaps even pedestrian, with our middle-age creep.
It is interesting then that Kia elected to name it’s largest ever vehicle after a Victorian era silver mining town where the ghosts of past riches have been forgotten in favour of the amenities demanded by modern tourists with too much disposable income. I mean, hasn’t Kia become known as typically a value brand?
Well, sort of.
Kia has built a reputation for offering more bang for the buck, particularly in the modern infotainment amenities arena, than any other manufacturer.
Over the past few years however, as the brand has matured, so have their vehicles. Their interiors in particular have evolved to become somehow more American, in a good way, than at least two of the three traditional North American manufacturers.
Let’s face it, if you are looking at buying any of the three row SUVs on the market, then you really don’t give a fig about driving. You are buying an appliance which allows you to sit up high above the normies in cars, while carting your herd of spawn and their flotsam, with the misguided feeling that you are somehow safer because you are driving the biggest vehicle on the road.
What you likely do care about is the way the overall experience makes you feel when you look at the vehicle and especially once you are inside. This, is where the Kia Telluride stands head and shoulders above much of the competition, with a value added bottom line.
Let’s get pricing out of the way. A base Telluride can be had for forty five thousand bucks, while a fully loaded, every option known to human kind is just nine grand more.
To put that into perspective, a jammed Pilot is $57K. A Durango Citadel V6 is $61K. They aren’t competitors, but it is worth mentioning that if you drop a V8 in a Durango, you can be north of 70 in the blink of an eye.
Typically, traditional domestics aren’t lumped in with traditional imports when it comes to comparisons, but there is a direct link between the Telluride and the Durango which makes them a natural comparison. Dodge is that one company I alluded to above that builds interiors that feel, well, American. I mean that in the best, highest quality way. The crazy thing is that while the Telluride offers a somewhat different flavour of that feel, it too feels like the most American thing on the road.
From wood inserts to real stitching, the Telluride feels like it was inspired by a Doctor’s lounge in an old mountain town. Unfortunately, looking through my photos, I have to say that my shots simply do not do the space justice. The interior of the Telluride is nice.
Centre row passengers were happy to be coddled by their own seat heaters and we were amazed at the number of device charging options. There are no fewer than 6 USB ports and a wireless charger that actually worked with my Samsung Galaxy S9. I mention that because many of the vehicles I have tested this year did not. It is worth checking before you buy any vehicle if wireless charging is important to you.
On the tech driver aid front, the our tester offered pretty much every nanny imaginabile, packaged into a system dubbed “Kia Drive Wise” Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems (ADAS).
Smart phone users who are so inclined can use an app that Kia calls UVO to control door locks, act as a remote starter and access climate controls. It also allows the user to create road trip data on their phone and then send that plan to the vehicle’s navi system if equipped.
A regular customer in The Garage Cafe, who drives a Stinger GT warns that the UVO app is a data hog, particularly when using the mapping feature, which does not automatically disconnect itself from the vehicle once it pushes the trip info to the vehicle.
Naturally, the Telluride moves people well and with all of the seats down, you could pretty much land a small aircraft in it. Or, you could do what we did and use it to haul enough stuff to feed a couple of hundred holiday partiers.
Our week with the Telluride semi-ironically (given the direction of my story) included the first two snow storms of the season. Fortunately, our tester was shod with a full set of Yokohama iceGUARD G075 Winter tires.
This guy has driven a LOT of vehicles through Winter storms in Ontario over the years, so take note of the following statement. This combo made for the most sure footed vehicle I have ever driven in the snow. Period. The Yoko equipped Telluride offered absolutely exceptional grip on acceleration, but more importantly it also excelled under braking and while turning. Simply amazing.
With 291 horsepower and 262 lb-ft, the Telluride has more than enough oomph for dailt driving and is rated to tow 5,000 lb. Our tester was not equipped with a trailer hitch, so we were not able to see how it tows.
Transport Canada rates the Telluride for 12.5/9.6 L/100km . In a mix of city & highway driving, we saw an average of 12 L/100KM. Not bad considering that it also included two snow storms.
Even if your ski trips involve dropping the kids off at the local terrain park and not heading to the mountains, the Telluride’s bang for the buck, combined with sure footed performance on the road and American style luxury make it a must drive for shoppers looking for a substantial family hauler.
There are some vehicles in which you expect to receive an abnormal level of attention while driving. Some of them, like sports cars, are fairly predictable. The Bullitt edition Mustang I drove a few months ago comes to mind. Others, like the Kia Stinger GT I drove earlier in the year are less predictable, and yet generate crazy reactions from the public simply because it is so gorgeous and most people have no idea what it is.
The 2019 Toyota Tacoma TRD-Pro that we drove last week falls somewhere in between and while the whole package, bathed in a bright blue hue known as Voodoo Blue, is pretty damned sexy, there was one feature in particular which drew an unbelievable level of attention: the snorkel.
The most frequent commentary came in the form of a question which surprised me greatly: “What is that black thing sticking out of the hood of your truck?” It came from guys and girls, some of them were people I thought would know.
I guess I have been around the truck world for too long, because I sort of assumed that everyone knew what a snorkel was.
The next comment was of the “sweet truck, love the snorkel” variety. There were lots of those.
A few asked why the exhaust came out of the hood.
Then there was the snarky, smart-ass off roaders who threw jabs like “nice fake snorkel dude”.
And here lies the connundrum with the Taco’s most recognizable feature. The snorkel is not fake, but it also isn’t what an Ontario 4X4 enthusiast needs.
First off, for those who may not know, allow me to explain what a snorkel is. Starting at the beginning, I will remind you that along with a fuel source such as diesel or gasoline, an internal combustion engine requires a specific quantity of air, fresh, clean, atmospheric air, to run. That air has to come from outside the vehicle, which in most vehicles is accomplished through an air intake box somewhere down near the front bumper, behind the grille.
That is not the optimum position in many off road situations, such as when crossing a body of water, when the liquid may reach far enough up the vehicle to be sucked into the air intake. At best, this condition can potentially cause an engine to stop running. At worst, it can cause a catastrophic failure of the engine. The solution then is to add a tube which brings the air intake up above any reasonable water level that one might expect to successfully drive through.
How then, is the TRD snorkel a fake? It isn’t. It is just a different kind of snorkel.
Toyota has a long, illustrious history at the legendary Baja 1000 race, at the hands of Ivan “Ironman” Stewart, dating back to 1983. The current crop of TRD-Pro equipped trucks, including the 4Runner, Tundra and of course Tacoma, have been fitted with equipment suitable for driving at speed in the desert.
In the case of the Tacoma, that means under body skid plates, FOX Racing shocks with remote reservoirs and TRD springs in the front and back. It also include the addition of a free-flowing stainless steel TRD spec exhaust and a TRD “high mount desert air intake”, among a host of subtle branding cues.
Remembering that the internal combustion engine requires clean air to operate, the high mount air intake is an important thing for those running in the desert, where dust from previous vehicles can hang in the air, being sucked into conventional air intakes, clogging up air filters and robbing power.
While the Taco’s snorkel is in no way fake, desert style dust isn’t a concern for most Ontario buyers, but to be brutally honest, who cares? How many of those who buy and build off road trucks are actually making deep water crossings? For those who are, I am sure the aftermarket has a simple solution. For the rest of us, this snorkel simply looks badass!
Hell, I even saw some dude taking a selfie with it!
It has been over a year since I first drove this truck, in the wilds of Northern Ontario and truth be told, that was more like a play date than a road test. I didn’t really get to experience the truck on the road for more than a few kilometers.
Knowing that the Tacoma loves to play in the dirt, this time around, we put the truck to work to see how it fared out in the real world.
The biggest challenge that most potential Tacoma buyers will face is the seating position. Toyota’s mid-sized truck has a unique seating position which some have called “sitting on the floor”. It is kind of a love-it or hate-it situation, which Toyota truck fans have loved since the dawn of trucking. Those who don’t dig it had best look elsewhere.
Beyond that, the Tacoma is an unapologetically old school truck and there are no surprises when driving it. The truck simply feels like it is ready to take on anything you might throw at it.
There are however, a couple of TRD-Pro specific observations that some buyers might want to think about before choosing that package.
Bear in mind that at 52 years old, I still have a teenage obsession with noisy vehicles. The internal combustion engine, especially a normally aspirated V-6, is a glorious thing and deserves to be heard and the TRD exhaust sounds fantastic, if maybe even a bit too quiet for my liking around town. The challenge is that when towing even a light trailer on an undulating highway, the Tacoma’s transmission often shifts down to fourth gear, spinning the engine at just the right speed to create a constant droning noise. It isn’t terrible, but is just enough to be an annoyance.
The other observation has more to do with the desert racer spec than it does about the Tacoma. The soft rear springs required for jumping berms in the desert are not the best choice for towing, causing the back end to sag, the moment a trailer is loaded up. I have experienced the exact same condition with the even more racy Ford Raptor. For light towing, it is fine, but when images are posted on social media, inevitably some troll comments that the truck is weak or that you have overloaded it.
If you are smitten with this truck, there is a problem. The TRD-Pro version of the 2019 Tacoma had super limited availablity and the Voodoo Blue version was even more rare. Most of them were likely snapped up before they even hit dealer showrooms. For 2020, the hot colour is called Army Green with white, black and grey being the only other options. If last year’s sales are any indication, anyone wanting to buy the current model had best hurry and don’t plan on trying to haggle the $57,000 price.
It seems hard to believe, but the striking Audi A7 has been around for nine model years. In an ever increasing sea of SUV’s and crossovers, it’s refreshing to see Audi make an effort to deliver such a sensuous four door. The A7 occupies a curious place within their sedan line. Based on the A6, yet offering near A8 levels of luxury, the A7 may sound like an Audi jumble of cars, but one look at the car tells you it is all about keeping appearances. The A7 simply oozes elegance. Subdued, sexy, alluring, walking around this car, you are struck that luxury should be effortless, the A7 is luxury personified. This is not a faddish car. Although the A7 seen here is the new, second generation model, even a nine year A7 is still remarkably gorgeous. The new car is a careful evolution of the four door sportback concept. This is a timeless design. In the future, I wonder if generations down the road will wonder about our obsessions driving very tall station wagons as we do now, but regardless of time, the A7 stands proud as one of the handsomest sedans available at this time.
Audi is no stranger to constructing gorgeous interiors, and the A7 is no exception. A luxury car can mean different things to different people, but I seek two qualities. One it should be an oasis from the outside world. Two, it should feel special-when you slip in behind the wheel, it should immediately feel like you have stepped into an exceptional car. And the A7 excels here. Everything you see and touch is of exceptional quality. The wood, the metal accents, the leather all combine to make for a bona fide luxury car experience. The cabin is so inviting, this is a car that simply begs you to bask in its opulence. Waking up on a summer’s Saturday, the A7 was the perfect companion for a jaunt to Newport, Rhode Island, one of the most luxurious destinations on the east coast. The A7 happily cossetted me on an effortless journey, as you can see the car, as pictured on Newport’s gorgeous Ocean Drive on the Atlantic. Dinner that night was at the extravagant Ocean House, a five star hotel in more subdued Watch Hill, Rhode Island. After a fantastic experience, the valet pulls up with the car. As he hands it off to me, he remarks what a special car this is, which says something coming from a guy who spends his days parking only the finest luxury cars.
The A7 is powered by a 3.0L turbo V-6, good for 335hp, paired to a seven speed automatic, and of course, quattro all-wheel drive. We live in a world where you can buy a 301hp Toyota Camry, so this figure sounds unremarkable, but in the real world, the A7 delivers all the performance you’d want. And there is little doubt there will be S7 and RS7 versions in the near future. The commands presence on the interstate. It is a completely relaxed tourer, yet ready to pass and obliterate slower traffic in an instance. Handling is superb, though I’d have welcomed a little more steering feel. This car is simply a joy to drive, so the day after my stint in Rhode Island, I was only too happy to jump back in the A7 for a drive to lunch to the Instagram perfect little harbor town of Stonington, Connecticut.
In case you haven’t gotten the message by now, the Audi A7 is a true luxury car, and not some poseur. The A7 starts at $67,000USD, and, on the surface, comes with about every feature you might want. Our test car had the Prestige package, which kicks things up a notch with a 10″ navigation screen, Audi’s virtual cockpit with mind blowing Google Earth navigation (everything else is Commodore 64 tech compared to this), exceptional Bang & Olufsen audio, four zone climate control, dual pane acoustic glass, head up display and ventilated front seats. Adding 20″ alloys, Individual Contour Seating Package, Driver Assistance Package, and Cold Weather Package, our A7 rings in at $85,240USD. An impressive figure, yes, but I can say without hesitation the A7 feels like it is actually worth it. In fact, this is a car that would feel right at home with other premium luxury cars from BMW and Mercedes that cost substantially more.
The idea of a four door coupe is magnificently on display with the new A7. We are in an age of superbly elegant luxury sedans, which are unfortunately often overlooked with the masses snapping up crossovers. And that is a shame. But those smart enough, and individualistic enough, will see the elegant A7, and the practicality its hatchback design offers, and appreciate a driving experience those top heavy boxes cannot provide. When the first A7 was shown to the world in 2009, I was in love. After living with the A7 for a week, I can tell you, it was worth the wait.
Life is full of choices. When you look back on your life, I am sure you could point to at least one car that, for whatever reason, you let get away. Unfortunately for this car guy, there are more of those cars than I care to mention. But today, the one I let get away dates back to the summer of ’89. I was 16, and one summer evening I found myself in New Haven looking over a Mark I 1984 VW Jetta GLI. Having read every magazine review I could, I was thrilled the car lived up to the high expectations the press had built up. When the first GTI reached our shores in 1983, that car was a revelation. VW knew they had a hit, transferred all the GTI goodies to the Jetta and hey presto, the GLI was born! Over the years, I’ve owned a couple Jettas, but none captured the fun spirit of that ’84 GLI. For every Jetta generation since then, there has always been a GLI. Some stayed true to the recipe better than others, but now in its seventh iteration, how does this GLI compare?
First, it’s a huge help that the Jetta is a handsome car to begin with. As with all GLI’s that came before, VW goes the subtle route with its appearance with their performance Jetta. Unique front and rear fascias and wheels, side skirts and dual chrome exhaust tips and rear spoiler are GLI specific, but that honeycomb grille with that red trim might as well be a siren call to VW fan boys. One evening after work I pull up to a local craft beer bar, and within moments, a couple of guys, mid-twenties, approach me and they want to check out the car. Turns out they own a VW shop dedicated to tuning older models. They were impressed with VW’s latest effort. That weekend, I took the GLI to a Cars and Coffee event. More VW fans spot me looking for a parking spot, but I am waved over to where they are displaying their cars, and to park and show the GLI with their cars. They all said this was their first time seeing the new GLI in person, and again, they loved the subtle, tasteful and sporty treatment VW bestowed upon the car. So, the VW faithful approve, but I need to point out something when you look at the cars the GLI competes against. In particular, the Honda Civic Si. The Civic Si’s appearance is so cartoonish and ridiculous, I wouldn’t expect anyone to take me seriously if I were seen driving one.. The Jetta GLI, in comparison, comports itself as a serious sports sedan that an adult car drive and not feel embarrassed about. Sure, that morning the GLI was at Cars and Coffee with VW gearheads, but that evening I rolled up to the valet for dinner at a swank Southport hotel for dinner, and the GLI had no trouble fitting in with cars costing double or triple the cost.
Stepping inside, it is immediately apparent VW took the same approach as they did with the exterior-subtle, but just enough so you know you are not sitting in just any old Jetta. Thankfully, the current Jetta sports an already pleasant cabin, so there really wasn’t much to be done here. Yes, there’s the flat bottom rimmed steering that is all the rage on any car purporting any car suggesting sportiness. Less faddish is the red stitching on the seats and armrest. I invited the VW fanatics at Cars and Coffee to have a seat and tell me what they thought. They praised the comfort and support of the driver’s seat. Our Jetta has VW’s Digital Cockpit, or as the rest of us describe it, a digital gauge cluster, the first of its kind in a Jetta. Some might dismiss it as gimmicky, but the adjustable LED interior ambient lighting is particularly cool. Some critics complain about an abundance of plastic, but to that, people should remember the regular Jetta has a starting price under $19,000. Even so, our well equipped GLI is a wonderful setting to rack up the miles in comfort.
For the seventh generation, VW stuck to the original playbook-take the goodies from a GTI, put them on a Jetta. What that means is a 2.0 turbocharged four cylinder providing 228hp. Buyers can choose between a six speed manual or seven speed DSG automatic. Thankfully, our test car had the manual. I can truthfully say the latest GLI carries on the spirit of the original on the road. The car is an absolute joy to drive. No, you’re not going to be overwhelmed with power, but the GLI gives you enough to work with, and I assure you, if you get bored, that’s your own fault. The GLI sounds great when you open her up, but puttering around town, it’s quiet enough so you’re not going to get confused with some teenage Fast and Furious wannabe. The GLI is what you want it to be, depending on your mood. Slogging through downtown, it behaves like your typical small sedan. But when the road opens up and gets twisty, the GLI is absolutely ready to reward spirited driving. For driving dynamics, VW got the GLI absolutely right.
VW offers the Jetta in three flavors; base S, limited edition 35th Anniversary, and top-spec Autobahn. Our test car was the Autobahn. Standard equipment includes 18″ wheels, panoramic sunroof, rain sensing wipers, LED exterior lighting, heated and ventilated front seats, power driver’s seat, leather seating, stainless steel pedals, the aforementioned Digital Cockpit, 8″ color touchscreen infotainment center, Beats audio (sounds terrific!), Apple CarPlay and SiriusXM radio. Standard safety features included forward collision warning, autonomous emergency braking, and blind spot monitoring with rear traffic assist. Including destination, our Jetta GLI stickers at $30,090USD. This represents a fantastic value. For this price, you get practically every feature you would want in a modern car in a performance package that is tough to beat. The top spec GLI is still thousands less than, say, even the most basic Audi A3.
This latest Jetta GLI is everything the original was-a GTI, but with a trunk. My week with this car went by far too quickly, and I was sad to see it go. The fact I had encounters on two occasions with VW fanatics, and their reaction to this car confirms that VW got this GLI right. Sure, there are other alternatives for affordable sports sedans, like the Honda Civic Si and Subaru Impreza WRX, but in comparison, they come off as immature. The GLI was, and still is, a sports sedan to be taken seriously, and is rolling proof that you don’t need to look like a fool in order to have fun. Thirty fives years later, the Jetta GLI still delivers a rewarding driving experience at a price that won’t break the bank. Just don’t be like me and let one get away!
For someone who loves reading and writing about cars, it should come as no surprise that I have my favorite automotive journalists. One of them is Ezra Dyer. In his early days at Automobile Magazine, he would rhapsodize about his father’s extraordinarily basic Dodge Ram pickup truck. Like e, Ezra is a New Englander. As a young kid, my grandfather, a retired forest ranger, would put me in his giant Dodge pickup he used for runs to his charcoal kiln. It had no carpet, not even a radio; that truck served one purpose-to work. Fast forward to early adulthood and my cousin would let me use his truck to drive from his cottage to beautiful Moonstone Beach in Rhode Island, nicely broken in like your favorite jeans, and I certainly didn’t worry about tracking in any sand. Call it a Yankee sense of practicality, the common thread with these trucks lay in their simplicity.
In 2019, pickup trucks are much different. Years ago, if your owned a truck you had a legitimate reason to. And that truck wasn’t usually needed to take the family to church or your date on a weekend getaway. Trucks of today are asked to be able to function like a working truck while delivering all of the amenities of a passenger car. Dodge started using Ram for its pickups from 1932 to 1954. In 1981, Dodge resurrected the Ram name. In 2011, Ram became its own brand. For 2019, the Ram entered its fifth generation. The Rebel joined the Ram pickup family in 2016 as the Ram built for off-roading.
For a truck built to go off-rad, it certainly looks the part. The Rebel gets its own unique styling. Knobby all terrain tires, tow hooks and an overall serious demeanor suggest this Ram wasn’t built to just haul mulch from the local garden center. As a result, during my time with the Rebel it got a LOT of attention. I get to drive plenty of new cars for The Garage, and most of the time no one pays any attention. That all changes when I get a truck. One guy pulled over to the side of the road while I was walking up to it just to ask me questions about it. I was asked if this was Ram’s answer to the Ford Raptor-a good question. While it is down on power, from its looks to off-road ability, yes, this is the closest truck Ram builds to the Raptor. With its striking red and black exterior, the Rebel attracts plenty of attention. Much like how men gather around whenever you’re grilling something, men, complete strangers, will want to gather around to look at, and talk about this truck. And anyone who came up to check it out was mightily impressed.
And that’s before anyone stepped up to examine the Rebel’s cabin. While Ram offers trims that are even more opulent, our Rebel had nearly every conceivable amenity many luxury car buyers would want. Solidly constructed, the materials gave an impression of durability. The general impression being the Ram is ready to take a bit of a beating inside and put up with it. Ram engineers are aware that many of their customers use their trucks as a mobile office. There is storage galore, and an impressive number of power and USB outlets. Our Ram truck had Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, making this truck an instant extension of your smart phone. The Ram’s UConnect infotainment continues to be intuitive and easy to use. It is worth mentioning the Ram’s back up camera is without question, the clearest I have ever seen on any car or truck, and if you are towing anything, you will seriously appreciate that. For all its toughness, the Rebel is very comfortable up front. Our Rebel was a quad cab. I’m 6’1″, and while I fit in the backseat, my knees were up against the front seatback, That, and its upright seatback, the rear is acceptable for a quick trip but that’s about it. Buyers needing more rear seat room would do well to get a Ram with a crew cab. If I am reviewing a car equipped with SiriusXM satellite radio, I will typically tune in to the stations that play the alternative rock of my college days. But none of it ‘felt’ right while driving he Rebel. So strong is this truck’s personality that Tom Petty Radio was the only music I would listen to for my week with the Rebel. For any modern vehicle brimming with all the latest technology to have that much character really says something about this truck.
While other Ram trucks offer a V-6 under the hood, that engine is not going to do you any good if you intend to actually take the Rebel to do what it was built for, and that was to leave the paved road behind you. With that purpose in mind, all Rebel’s have a 5.7L Hemi V-8 with 395hp, paired to an 8-speed automatic. The Rebel always in 4×2 mode until you select 4×4. Puttering around town or humming down the highway, the engine is quiet, but once you stomp on the throttle the Hemi comes to life with a glorious roar, and it feels like you’re driving a muscle car that can haul things. Speaking of hauling, Ram 1500’s with a V-8 can tow up to 12,750 lbs, and can handle up to 2,300 lbs. payload on the bed. All of that power is handy for when you need it, but for a truck with this level of capability, it’s absurd to expect much in the way of fuel economy. At least the Ram has a 28 gallon fuel tank so you are not constantly at the pump. In addition to the all-terrain tires and tow hooks, the Rebel differs from other 1500’s with an upgraded suspension, a locking differential, skid plates and hill descent control.
It would be safe to assume that a truck built with the capability of tacking difficult off-road situations would have to give up a lot in terms of day to day driving comfort, but with the Rebel you would be dead wrong. Ram 1500’s use a coil spring rear suspension, while other trucks use a less sophisticated leaf setup. The result is a truck that doesn’t ride like a truck. I took the Rebel for a leisurely weekend trip to the Berkshire Mountains, and I was simply amazed. Even over rough pavement, the Rebel is remarkably composed. If not for the fact I could see the truck’s bed behind me, it feels like you are driving a large crossover. It is simply a remarkable feat that Ram engineers could build such a capable truck that offers unparalleled levels of refinement.
In addition to all the equipment unique to the Rebel that we already mentioned, other standard equipment includes a power drivers seat power rear sliding window and SiriusXM radio. Options on our Rebel included an 8.4″ color touchscreen display, dual zone auto climate control, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, heated front seats, heated steering wheel. front and rear parking assist, remote start, premium audio and blind spot detection. sticker price came to $54,250USD, including destination.
I often thought of my grandfather and his brute, no frills Dodge pickup while I was driving the Ram. I usually got stuck on how I would tell him that it is possible to have a truck that can do everything and more that his truck could but ride the way he would expect a luxury car would. Because if he wanted something nice than his single purpose truck, well, there was always my grandmother’s Chrysler LeBaron. The pickup truck as we know has evolved a long way from what I remember from my childhood, but with the new Ram, I feel like the goalposts just got moved forward. When it comes to trucks, most buyers are unwaveringly loyal to their brand of choice. Anyone shopping for a full size pickup truck, regardless of where their loyalties lie,, owe it to themselves to take a serious look at the Ram 1500. It is really that good.
We seldom stop to consider what a dizzying variety of options one has when it comes to picking out a new car today, especially when you consider how mind bogglingly simple it was once only a few decades ago. If you had a family and you needed to carry them and their belongings around, you would choose either a small, medium, or large sedan or station wagon. That was it. There were no minivans, there were no crossovers, and it was out of the ordinary for a family to buy an SUV for an everyday family car. Ford stunned the industry when it announced it was essentially going to let all of its sedans die off in North America. GM is killing off their large front wheel drive sedans. People are still buying large sedans, and as key players fall by the wayside, the companies still in the market will gladly take up the demand. But for what is such an old concept-the large sedan-how does it remain relevant in 2019?
The Avalon has been Toyota’s flagship sedan since 1994. For 2019, the Avalon is all-new, and now entering its fifth generation. While many consider the Avalon simply a larger Camry-which was once the case-the Avalon rides on its own platform that is shared with the Lexus ES. The Avalon is a large sedan, but its proportions are just right. Early Avalons were dismissed as Toyota’s idea of a Buick. A study also revealed that in North America, Toyota attracted the oldest buyers. A middle age or younger car buyer hears that Toyota’s are favored by old people can be enough to be a deal breaker. So in response to that, I do not find it surprising that contemporary Toyota’s are now looking edgier. Looking at the Avalon from the front or front 3/4 view, there is just no getting around that front fascia. To say it is overwrought is an understatement. Enormous front ‘grills’ seem to be a thing these days, and I predict this look is destined to not age well. Look at the rear of the car, its pleasant enough but entirely forgettable. There is just nothing to suggest this is Toyota’s premium sedan. Which is shocking, because when you take the Avalon in from its side profile, there is no question this is the most expensive four door Toyota offers. As a whole, the Avalon’s appearance is alright, but incoherent. You feel differently about this car depending on what angle you are viewing it from.
Inside, the Avalon is a grand slam homerun. There is simply no mistaking you’re sitting in the most luxurious car that wears a Toyota badge. Quality of materials and fit and finish are exemplary. The quilted leather and real wood accents confirm this is not a car that aspires to be luxurious, it simply is a luxury car, without question. Controls are intuitive and easy to use. The seats offer exceptional comfort, and as expected, the Avalon provides a very roomy and airy cabin. With all the quiet and comfort you could want, the Avalon is a perfect setting for long, relaxing drives. The Avalon is Toyota’s first car to come with Apple’s CarPlay (sorry Android users, your phone cannot connect). It is worth mentioning that in cars that were sold in regular and hybrid versions, hybrid owners had to be wiling to make a considerable sacrifice-trunk space. I have seen full size hybrid sedans have a trunk that might hold enough luggage for a weekend getaway but little else. Not so with the Avalon. With the batteries underneath the rear seat, you are able to enjoy the large amount of trunk space buyers expect in a car of this size.
The Avalon Hybrid is powered by a 2.5L four cylinder along with two electric motors to make a combined 215hp with a CVT transmission. While the numbers suggest that is not much horsepower to move a car of this size, in reality the Avalon keeps up with highway traffic with no problem at all, and never seems strained. Yes, there are buyers who will only accept the sound of a silky V-6 under the hood, and the regular Avalon delivers just that experience. But consider this-the Avalon Hybrid costs about $1,000 more, but delivers 70% better fuel economy. In the long run, the Hybrid makes more sense. Our perception of the luxury car experience is also evolving; exceptional fuel economy is also an accepted qualifier for luxury today. The typical Avalon buyer isn’t going to be doing any stoplight drag racing to begin with, and with such an unobtrusive drivetrain, you don’t feel like you’ve given up anything in the name of saving gas, The EPA gives the Avalon Hybrid 43 MPG, but my test car was telling me I was getting 37 MPG in mixed driving. That is a remarkable number for a full size luxury car.
The Avalon Hybrid is available in three trim levels; our test car was the luxury oriented Limited. Standard equipment included 18″ alloy wheels, LED headlights, moonroof, premium JBL audio, navigation, head up display, power heated steering wheel, leather power heated and ventilated front seats, heated rear seat, Qi wireless phone charging, pre-collision system, lane departure alert with assist, automatic high beams and dynamic radar cruise control. Our test car had the optional Advanced Safety Package, which added intelligent clearance sonar, bird’s eye view camera with perimeter scan and rear cross traffic alert with braking. Including destination, our Avalon Hybrid had a window sticker of $45,118USD. Remember when I mentioned the Avalon shares the same platform and drivetrain as the Lexus ES? A Lexus ES Hybrid equipped similar to our Avalon would set you back an extra $9,000. With that in mind, the Avalon represents a solid value for a luxury hybrid sedan.
While the notion of a full size sedan is a decades old proposition, the Avalon Hybrid points to the future of the genre. It is tough to argue the pros of a luxury car boasting the latest in technology and luxury features that boasts fuel economy figures you’d be happy to be getting in a basic, no frills Corolla. This combination is the new definition of luxury. While I question that front-end styling, the Avalon Hybrid is a full size sedan that is completely relevant in today’s automotive marketplace. Ford and GM may have thrown up their hands and walked away, but Toyota has proven this is a breed of car worth building.
In the summer of 1989, my friend’s mom had driven a group of us to Riverside Amusement Park in Massachusetts. After the end of a fun day, I was asked if I, who had a newly minted driver’s license, would like to drive home. Would I?!? I gladly got behind the wheel of the Funaro family hauler-a Buick Electra Estate Wagon-and floated on down the highway. As I drove us all back to Connecticut, what was not going through my 16 year old mind was “What kind of car would we all be driving when we’re all grown up and have kids?” Fast forward thirty years to the present. I post a pic of this Toyota Highlander on social media, and my old friend Nancee proudly proclaims “That’s my car!” And here we are. My generation has largely ignored the station wagon, and there are those of us who wouldn’t be caught dead in a minivan. If Generation X wasn’t rushing to buy a Camry wagon, and a true SUV was too harsh, what does Toyota do? Take that Camry platform, and build us a crossover.
The first Highlander arrived in 2001, making it one of the earlier crossovers. Now in its third generation, today’s Highlander has been around now since 2014, so it’s hardly new. In 2017, Toyota gave the Highlander a facelift, but apart from some other minor tweaking, Toyota has pretty much left it alone. Buyers are certainly not complaining-in fact, 2018 was the Highlander’s best sales year ever, with over 244,000 Americans taking home a Highlander.
Buyers like crossovers for their practicality-they need to comfortably hold passengers, and their belongings, so stylists have to work around those parameters. The Highlander is certainly contemporary, but what I found interesting was just how aggressive the front-end styling was. Parked near my neighbor’s older 4Runner, a very capable off-roader, I was taken aback at just how angry the family friendly Highlander looked in comparison. Out in the wild though, the popular Highlander tends to get lost in the crowd. I’d see another Highlander, or at least I thought I did, so I found myself always making a double take to be sure. On its own merit, the Highlander is a handsome car, it’s just a little forgettable from any angle except the nose and is easily lost in a crowd.
Of course, what matters most in any crossover is its cabin. The Highlander is a pretty substantial vehicle, so it should come as no surprise there is plenty of room inside. Back to my friend Nancee, who, when asked why she picked a Highlander, explained her teenage son is already over 6′ tall, so a roomy rear seat was a must, and in this regard, the Highlander delivers. The three-row Highlander can seat up to eight, but it’s worth noting the third row will not hold an adult. Seating falls to seven if you choose second row captains chairs. The interior of the Highlander is a very pleasant place to spend time. I appreciated the soft touch materials. There is storage space galore and multiple USB ports. Gauges and controls are easy to understand. While I appreciate having knobs for various adjustments, the buttons flanking Toyota’s aging but still excellent infotainment system lacked tactile feel. Our top of the line Highlander had nearly every feature most buyers could want-nearly-the absence of Apple CarPlay was a little disappointing. Overall, the Highlander was very comfortable, and with industry leading build quality and high grade materials, the impression I get is this is a car that is intended to hold up for a very long time.
Under the hood, the Highlander gives buyers two choices. Base cars receive a 2.7L four cylinder paired to a six-speed automatic. You can only have front wheel drive, and with only 185hp pushing a car this large, this sounds like a tall order. Our Highlander had the 3.5L V-6 paired to an 8-speed automatic. With 295hp and available all-wheel drive, this is far more suitable to the Highlander’s character. The EPA gives fuel economy ratings 20/26 MPG city/highway, but the trip computer in my car never budged its average above 18 MPG. It’s worth mentioning here that if fuel economy is that important to you, there is a Highlander Hybrid available. Power is perfectly adequate around town and for highway cruising. At highway speeds the Highlander is extremely quiet and composed. I appreciated the weight that gradually builds up in the steering as your speed increases. For a car designed to haul your family around in comfort, the Highlander more than meets expectations.
The Highlander is available in six different trims, with the base Highlander starting in the low $30’s. Our test car was the top of the line Limited Platinum. Standard equipment was leather seats, front heated and ventilated seats, power seats, second row sunshades, premium JBL audio, an 8″ touchscreen with navigation and SiriusXM radio, 19″ wheels, panoramic moonroof, second row heated seats, heated steering wheel, rear power ligtgate, rain sensing wipers, front parking sonar, Lane Departure Alert, Pre-Collision System, automatic high beams and dynamic radar cruise control. Out the door, our Highlander had a window sticker of $48,319USD. That is not inexpensive, but you are getting a high level of equipment, and a Highlander outfitted such as this one is essentially a luxury car. With so many trim options available, I suspect most buyers will gravitate to the mid-level XLE, as my friend did.
So yes, thirty years after the question I didn’t ask myself, the crossover is the choice my generation has made to haul themselves and their families. Over the years, the Highlander has evolved from a sort of tall station wagon to something that looks how you might expect an SUV to appear. And although the Highlander is no longer a new design, buyers continue to open their wallets. The true luxury of the Highlander goes far beyond any of its available features. For buyers, the true luxury of the Highlander is how seamlessly it fits in to their busy lives, and knowing they can ask nearly anything the car was meant to do, and the Toyota will happily go about its work without the slightest protest, Trips to amusement parks included.
It’s no small secret that Americans and Europeans have their differences, and one needn’t look any further to illustrate that point than to look at what kind of cars we like to drive. The 1970’s fuel crisis made a great argument for the hatchback-the idea being to get the maximum amount of room possible for people and cargo on a relatively small footprint. VW’s Golf was a raging success and proved the formula worked, and it was what a lot of people wanted. Well, almost everyone. For whatever reason, Americans looked at hatchbacks and decided they looked kind of cheap. And those new car buyers didn’t want to be seen driving something they perceived as being cheap looking. So, in 1980, VW had the brilliant idea to take the Golf, put on a trunk on it, and call it a Jetta.
Thirty nine years and seven generations later, that formula has been sales gold for VW. With Audi’s and BMW’s commanding premium prices, the Jetta was the only game in town if you wanted a German sedan on a budget most people could afford. And while the people who bought their Jettas loved them, VW looked around and saw their competition enjoying greater sales numbers. The problem, as I believe VW saw it, was the Jetta cost a little more, and VW engineers were obsessing over things the average American buyer didn’t really care about. The solution was the Jetta would be built with the American buyer in mind.
The purists were less than thrilled at the realignment. But the Jetta experiment continues to evolve, and for 2019 an all new, seventh generation has arrived. First impression is the Jetta appears a bit larger than Jettas of yore. And you would be right-today’s Jetta is around the same size as a Passat was twenty years ago. While the Jetta has grown to America specific proportions, the styling definitely has a German accent. It is no nonsense, not flashy nor trendy. The smart, creased styling gives the Jetta an upscale look. Our test car, finished in Platinum Grey Metallic with contemporary LED head and tail lights and a ‘just right’ amount of chrome looked serious enough for any junior executive to own without apology. Our SEL model let the car down in one area worth mentioning: the 16″ alloys look comically small on the car and betray the otherwise high end appearance. In fact, during my week with the Jetta, the only criticism I received about the car’s looks were that the wheels were too small.
Inside, the Jetta overall is a pleasant place to spend time. Utterly contemporary, the satin chrome accents and door handles, piano black surfaces and dark grey faux wood trim work in concert to provide an aesthetically pleasing environment. The controls are intuitive, displays crystal clear, and I appreciated the driver-focused infotainment screen. At night, you and your passengers will be entertained being bathed in soft ambient LED lighting-there are ten hues to choose from to set the right mood. The only letdown were the hard plastics found on the door caps and center console, which serve as reminders you’re sitting in the cheapest VW sold on these shores.
During my time with the Jetta, I took a 400 mile round trip from my native Connecticut to a wintry retreat to Atlantic City, and it was here I was able to appreciate the Jetta’s cabin and features. The seats provided plenty of comfort, and I loved how the steering wheel felt in my hands. Music is a must for any road trip, and the Beats audio did not disappoint. The trip really provided an excellent opportunity to use Apple CarPlay, which allowed me to use Google Maps for navigation, access Pandora radio, and send and receive text messages. It was a great companion, and very simple to use. Even after slugging through New York Friday rush hour traffic, I arrived feeling fresh and relaxed.
All Jettas are motivated by a 1.4L turbocharged four cylinder rated at 147hp. This proved to be perfectly adequate for merging onto highways and passing-the Jetta never felt out of breath. Fuel economy is excellent, with a rating of 30MPG city, 40MPG highway. After cruising at a pretty good clip for hours, I was impressed that I was still able to average 40MPG. You can get a six-speed manual in a Jetta-but you are forced to settle for the base model, as all other Jettas come standard with an 8-speed automatic. Left on its own, the automatic will rush to the highest possible gear for max efficiency, which is fine, but you find yourself constantly lumbering around at about 1,000 rpm where there is no boost on immediate tap. A friend and former Jetta owner found it an affront, and ignorant of longtime buyers that VW will not offer a manual across the line, and I agree.
In this Volkswagen tuned for American drivers, I set my expectations pretty low for ride and handling. I was pleasantly surprised. The Jetta feels well controlled and buttoned down. Ride was about as stiff as I would have hoped for a non-GLI Jetta. While the handling felt just right, the super light steering felt out of place, as if the handling people and steering people never once met to decide what the Jetta driving experience, as a whole, should be.
The Jetta is available in five trim levels-base S, SE, sporty R-Line, SEL, and SEL Premium. Our SEL test car came standard with LED head and tail lights, panoramic sunroof, heated front seats, leatherette seating, dual zone auto climate control, push button start, auto dimming rear view mirror, 8 speaker Beats audio with Sirius XM satellite radio, 8″ infotainment touchscreen, VW’s 10.25″ Digital Cockpit gauge cluster, rearview camera, forward collision warning, blind spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control, and lane assist. Including delivery, our test car stickers at $25,590USD, which represents a solid value for the features you get in return.
After seven generations, it’s only natural the Jetta has evolved from Golf with a trunk to a car with a personality all its own. Yes, the Jetta we see now is tailored specifically to the North American car buyer, but in this iteration, VW has smartly, if only slightly, moved the needle closer to it German ancestry. When asked ‘who is this car for?’, I would have to say the Jetta would be perfectly suitable for the small family who want out of the crossover craze, or anyone looking for an easy to live with highway commuter with a just right amount of amenities and style for a weekend date night.