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  • 2015 Cadillac Escalade 4WD

    Posted on September 11th, 2014 ninarussin No comments

    Full-sized SUV combines beauty and brawn

    By Nina Russin

    2015 Cadillac Escalade

    2015 Cadillac Escalade

    It would not have been my choice to drive an eighty thousand dollar Cadillac Escalade on the day that Phoenix, Arizona was hit with a hundred-year record rainfall. After four-and-a-half inches of rain, the flooding made national news.

    But the Escalade was what I had and that is what I drove. In retrospect, it was kismet, since I learned that the Escalade is a much more serious performer than I imagined it could be.

    Perhaps it was the car’s large chrome grille and 22-inch wheels that made me write the Escalade off as another pretty face, or the fact that it’s old school luxury. While other automakers are phasing out large engines in favor of small, more fuel efficient ones, the Escalade continues to sport a 6.2-liter V-8 with a rip roaring 460 foot-pounds of torque. Zero-to-sixty acceleration is less than six seconds. Although fuel economy isn’t great, the rear-wheel drive version can tow an 8,500-pound trailer.

    Imagine combining the power of a Corvette with the utility of a light duty truck and luxury interior. On dry smooth roads, the Escalade floats along like the QE2 on placid water. But when the going gets tough, the Escalade transforms itself into the kind of warrior Beowulf would have been proud of.

    The 2015 model I tested is the fourth generation of the vehicle first launched in 1999. Its three rows of seating can hold up to seven passengers. The V-8 engine is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, with an all-wheel drive system that automatically transfers engine power to the wheels with the best traction.

    Magnetic ride control, a technology first introduced on the 2002 Cadillac Seville and on subsequent generations of Corvettes, uses a rheological fluid to automatically adjust suspension settings according to driving conditions. A locking rear differential works with the all-wheel drive system to maintain traction.

    The Luxury edition comes fully-loaded with convenience features including a Bose sound system, Cadillac’s Cue infotainment system, Bluetooth, heated and cooled seats, keyless entry and start, tri-zone automatic climate control and more. Final MSRP, including the $995 destination charge is $79,290. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2014 Mazda MX-5 Miata Grand Touring

    Posted on September 3rd, 2014 ninarussin No comments

    Sports car for the real world

    By Nina Russin

    2014 Mazda MX-5 Miata

    2014 Mazda MX-5 Miata

    The Mazda Miata is not a particularly practical car for buyers with active lifestyles. It’s very small, even for a two-seater and has a cargo area that on a good day will hold a dachshund. Visibility in dense traffic is atrocious, not because of the car itself but rather the fact that every other vehicle on the road is taller. Although fuel economy is quite good, the fuel tank is rather small so driving range isn’t great.

    Despite that, I doubt any athlete who gets behind the wheel of a Miata will have a bad word to say about it. Why? Because the Miata is one of the most athletic cars on the market, and also one of the most affordable true sports cars. With its peppy two-liter engine and close-ratio six-speed manual gearbox, the Miata is stupidly fun to drive. It is the Paul Tergat of the automotive world.

    When Mazda chief designer, Tom Matano, and his team developed the original MX-5 a quarter century ago, their inspiration was the classic British sports cars of the 1960s. The Miata was to capture the spirit of those cars but in a more affordable and dare I say more reliable package. They nailed it.

    Although the audience for MGBs and Triumph Spitfires has waned a bit in the ensuing years, enthusiasm for the Miata has not. As long as there are people who love to drive, there will be those who have a passion for the Miata. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2015 Lexus RX 350

    Posted on August 28th, 2014 ninarussin No comments

    Luxury meets versatility

    By Nina Russin

    Lexus RX 350

    Lexus RX 350

    When I was a kid, most families owned one car and that seemed to work for them. Today, families own two or three cars and those vehicles are busy all the time. Not only are Americans driving more than ever, their vehicles need to work harder: haul more people, more cargo and occasionally tow a trailer.

    It’s no surprise that the versatile RX 350 is one of Lexus’ best-selling models, combining the versatility active families need with the luxury the brand is known for. Now available with all-wheel drive, the midsize, five-passenger crossover is a four-season vehicle with a high level of standard safety features, enough cargo space to carry skis, camping equipment and bicycles, and the ability to tow a small trailer.

    Available Siri Eyes Free mode technology enables drivers to call contacts, play music from iTunes and get navigation through their Apple iPhone accounts.

    Power comes from a 270-horsepower V-6 engine and six-speed automatic transmission with manual gear selection. Base price is $42,195 excluding the $910 destination charge.

    Standard convenience features include keyless entry and start, a 12-speaker premium audio system, 10-way power front seats, cargo area tonneau cover, power liftgate, dual-zone climate control and rearview camera.

    Options on the test car include xenon high intensity discharge headlamps, LED fog lamps, rain sensing wipers, dual-screen rear DVD system, navigation, Lexus Enform, 19-inch wheels, heads-up driver display, Mark Levinson surround sound system, blind spot monitoring, leather trim, power moonroof, power folding exterior mirrors, heated steering wheel, roof rails, wood and leather trimmed steering wheel and shift knob and a cargo net. Final MSRP is $55,099. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited AWD

    Posted on August 21st, 2014 ninarussin No comments

    Newest eight-passenger crossover is family friendly

    By Nina Russin

    2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

    2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

    The Highlander crossover and its hybrid variant are among Toyota’s greatest success stories. Although the 2001 Highlander wasn’t the first crossover to hit the market, its combination of rock-solid reliability and versatility struck a chord with families needing a functional alternative to minivans and full-sized SUVs.

    Fifteen years later, Toyota has re-engineered the formula, making the Highlander a more spacious, quieter car, with some unique features such as driver easy speak that enables the driver to talk with kids in back using the microphone in the rearview mirror.

    The new car is longer and wider than the outgoing model and comes with a choice of four-cylinder, V-6 or hybrid V-6 powertrains. The hybrid model utilizes the same Hybrid Synergy Drive system as the Toyota Prius to boost gas mileage to 28 miles-per-gallon.

    Product planners expanded the number of trim levels, going to more of a monospec pricing strategy. Pricing for the front-wheel drive four-cylinder LE starts at $29,215. All grades are available with all-wheel drive, but only upscale grades come with three rows of seating.

    In keeping with tradition, the hybrid is only available as the fully loaded Limited and Limited Platinum, priced from $47,300 and $49,790 respectively. The platinum package adds pre-collision, dynamic radar cruise control, automatic high beam headlamps, a panoramic sunroof, heated steering wheel and heated second-row captain’s chairs. Other options on the test car include carpeted floor mats and a glass breakage sensor. Final MSRP, including the $860 delivery charge, is $51,174. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2014 Hyundai Azera Limited

    Posted on August 15th, 2014 ninarussin No comments

    Premium sedan travels to the front of the pack

    By Nina Russin

    2014 Hyundai Azera

    2014 Hyundai Azera

    Since the economic downtick of 2008, car buyers have been veering on the side of caution, with those who formerly shopped luxury considering premium cars instead. The full-sized Hyundai Azera addresses this audience with a stylish exterior, powerful engine and segment-leading connectivity features.

    Buyers can choose between the base car priced from $31,000 and upscale Limited with a $34,750 MSRP. The Limited adds navigation, electroluminescent gauge cluster and power folding side mirrors to the list of standard convenience features.

    Power comes from a 3.3-liter direct injection V-6 engine rated at 293-horsepower and six-speed automatic transmission. Fuel economy isn’t quite as good as the Toyota Avalon the Azera competes against, but the Azera engine develops 25 more horsepower and seven more foot-pounds of peak torque.

    Options on the test car include a premium package that adds 19-inch alloy wheels, a panoramic sunroof, power rear sunshade, side sunshades and rear park assist as well as carpeted floor mats. Final MSRP including the $895 destination charge is $37,905. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2014 Buick Regal GS AWD

    Posted on August 13th, 2014 ninarussin No comments

    Premium sedan melds performance and style

    By Nina Russin



    Early afternoon on a Monday in mid-August, the temperature in Phoenix, Arizona is a balmy 108 degrees. I’m sitting behind the wheel of the 2014 Buick Regal GS in a traffic jam that extends at least five miles down the I-10 interstate. Somehow a semi truck has jumped the median that separates the I-10 and the exit ramp to the I-60: it is blocking the entire exit ramp and two lanes of the 10.

    Drivers in surrounding cars are understandably irate. But I’m not, because life inside the GS is actually quite pleasant. I have the HD radio tuned to a jazz station that rivals legendary KLON Long Beach or the best satellite radio has to offer.

    General Motors is known for air conditioners that blow ice cubes and this one is no exception, maintaining the interior at a comfortable 74 degrees. Using the blind spot monitoring system I am able to safely maneuver into the best strategic position for getting through this mess in a reasonable amount of time.

    What all of this tells me is that Buick has successfully reinvented itself for the modern world without losing touch with its heritage. When I was a kid, Buicks were known as doctor’s cars because they were upscale and when the situation demanded, they went like spit. My father’s favorite car was his 1966 triple black LeSabre.

    The LeSabre’s expansive black hood and even more expansive 340 cubic inch V-8 underneath was even more so. The sedan made my father feel like king of the road. He drove it like a New York cabbie and was blissfully happy doing so.

    Although the midsized 2014 Buick LeSabre is considerably smaller than the full-sized sedans of the 1960s, it appeals to a similar audience, and for very much the same reasons. It offers luxury styling and features without a high luxury price tag, and adds some very appealing performance.

    The turbocharged two-liter engine develops 259 horsepower: more than the considerably larger engine in my dad’s ’66. Because of the turbocharger, 295 foot-pounds of peak torque is available at very low engine speeds for excellent acceleration off the line and on highway entrance ramps.

    Base price for the all-wheel drive test car is $39,270 excluding the $925 destination charge. Options include blind spot monitoring, forward collision alert, rear cross-traffic alert, memory driver and front passenger seat settings, adaptive cruise control, automatic collision preparation and a power sunroof. Final MSRP is $43,780. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2015 Chrysler 200S

    Posted on August 8th, 2014 ninarussin No comments

    Midsize sedan is stylish and value-packed

    By Nina Russin

    2015 Chrysler 200

    2015 Chrysler 200

    Midsize sedans comprise the largest and most competitive segment in the passenger car market. Those who want to lead the pack need to bring their A-games and take no prisoners.

    When Chrysler product planners began work on the 2015 200, they started with a clean sheet of paper, leaving any references to the former Sebring or 200 models in the rearview mirror. From its muscular exterior to a standard nine-speed automatic transmission, the midsize sedan doesn’t compromise on style or performance.

    The 2015 model is also eminently affordable, with the base car starting at under $22,000 excluding the $995 destination charge. There are four grades: LX, Limited, S and C. All-wheel drive is an alternative to the standard front-wheel drive configuration on S and C cars.

    There are two available engines: a 2.4-liter Tigershark four-cylinder rated at 184-horsepower, the same 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 that also appears in the Jeep Grand Cherokee, producing 295-horsepower.

    The test car is the sporty S grade with the 2.4-liter Tigershark engine and nine-speed automatic, priced from $24,495. Options include a convenience group that adds automatic climate control, heated steering wheel, rear backup camera and heated front seats, navigation with Uconnect, a driver information display, satellite radio, real time weather and traffic updates, blind spot obstacle detection and a premium lighting group that includes high intensity discharge headlamps and daytime running lamps. Final MSRP, including destination is $29,170. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2014 Volkswagen Beetle TDI

    Posted on July 31st, 2014 ninarussin No comments

    Fun for the long run

    By Nina Russin

    Volkswagen Beetle TDI

    Volkswagen Beetle TDI

    As feel as if I have fallen down on the job. The purpose of doing an extended test drive is to put in some serious mileage: begin with a full tank of fuel and finish with the tank almost empty. However after a week and several hundred miles in the Volkswagen Beetle TDI, the fuel gauge shows the tank over half full.

    Anyone who has been in a car with me knows that I’m a right brain kind of driver. I have a bit of a lead foot. Emptying out a fuel tank is never a problem for me. So what happened’

    The culprit was the TDI’s 600-plus mile range, thanks its 41 mpg highway fuel economy. Add the engine’s 236 foot-pounds of torque available at 1750 rpm, and the Beetle becomes fun for the long run.

    Readers who want a greener alternative to traditional gasoline-powered cars and don’t want to pay the premium for hybrid technology should take a second look at diesel. The new generation of common rail diesel engines has reduced CO2 emissions as compared to gasoline, and average between 25 and 30 percent better fuel economy. That’s a statistic both sides of the brain can feel good about.

    Base price for the Beetle TDI test car is $27,495 excluding the $820 delivery charge. Volkswagen specs out its models to include popular convenience features- in this case a sunroof, Fender audio system and navigation- in the MSRP. It makes pricing easier for the consumer to understand and reduces haggling at the dealership.

    A carefree maintenance program adds two years of complimentary scheduled maintenance. Other standard convenience features include Bluetooth interface, air conditioning, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, split folding rear seat, keyless entry and start. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2014 Buick Verano FWD 1ST

    Posted on July 24th, 2014 ninarussin No comments

    Turbocharged premium compact sedan

    By Nina Russin

    2014 Buick Verano Turbo

    2014 Buick Verano Turbo

    A couple months back, Buick contacted me about participating in Runs Worth the Drive: a co-promotion the automaker was planning to host with MapMyFitness. The idea was to inspire buyers with active lifestyles to consider the Verano compact sedan by inviting members of the media to drive the car to a destination of choice and log some runs there. Since this sort of program has my name all over it, it didn’t take much arm-twisting to get me to agree.

    This week, husband and I spent four days in the Verano, driving it from Phoenix to Flagstaff, Arizona where we each ran segments of the Urban Trail: a network of dirt and paved byways for pedestrians and cyclists.

    We chose Flagstaff for two reasons. First, the drive involves an elevation gain of 5500 feet, which would be a good test for the Verano’s turbocharged two-liter engine. Equally important, Flagstaff is a hot spot for elite runners, who use the benefits of high altitude training to become more competitive at sea level.

    The front-wheel drive test car with six-speed automatic transmission is priced from $29,065 excluding the $925 destination charge. Standard safety and convenience features include a rearview camera with cross traffic alert, blind spot monitoring, keyless entry and start, heated leather front seats, dual-zone climate control, Bluetooth interface, satellite radio, seven-inch color touchscreen in the center stack, premium Bose audio system and redundant steering wheel controls.

    The white diamond coat exterior paint is a $995 option, as are navigation ($795) and 18-inch alloy rims ($600), bringing the final MSRP to $32,380. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2015 Dodge Challenger

    Posted on July 22nd, 2014 ninarussin No comments

    Millennial muscle car dusts the competition

    By Nina Russin

    2015 Dodge Challenger SRT

    2015 Dodge Challenger SRT

    If ever there were a car that breathed testosterone out of every pore, it would be the 2015 Dodge Challenger. Although it competes against the midsized Camaro and Mustang, the newest Challenger is really in a league of its own, with a larger chassis and available 707 horsepower hemi engine that not only dusts its direct competitors, but the Dodge Viper as well. Even Italian exotics will have a hard time keeping up.

    Dodge’s product strategy is to combine value with performance, offering the V-6, SXT model priced from $26,995. The top flight SRT Hellcat starts at $59,995.

    Buyers can also choose from the R/T with a 5.7-liter hemi engine and eight-speed automatic transmission, the 6.4-liter Hemi Challenger Scat Pack and the Challenger SRT 392, with 485 horsepower and 475 foot-pounds of torque. Two new Shaker models join the clan later on.

    Although its design isn’t a drastic departure from the 2009 car, the 2015 Challenger does have some distinct differences. Based on the classic 1971 model, the 2015 cars sport a new split grille, more pronounced hood bulge LED halo headlamps and LED tail lamps.

    The profile is essentially unchanged, maintaining its popular character line. Read the rest of this entry »