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  • 2005 Mazda6 Sport Wagon

    The front-wheel drive Mazda6 wagon is a fun-to-drive, yet practical alternative to sport-utility vehicles.

    By Nina Russin

    2005 Mazda6 Sport Wagon

    2005 Mazda6 Sport Wagon

    Mazda has built its reputation upon cars which combine youthful styling with sporty handling, priced  within the reach of most buyers. The front-wheel drive Mazda6 sport wagon, powered by a 220-horsepower V6 engine, falls into that tradition. When paired up with the standard 5-speed manual transmission and standard 17-inch wheels,  the mid-sized wagon feels like a two-seat roadster with a lot of additional cargo space.

    Mazda produces the sport wagon specifically for North America: a four-cylinder version (not available here) is sold in Europe. The Mazda6 wagon comes standard with an eight-way power driver’s seat, antilock brakes, traction control, side and side curtain airbags, and collapsible pedals to protect the driver in the event of a severe frontal impact.

    The standard double wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension incorporates beefy sway bars to keep the wagon flat in the corners. Zero-to-sixty acceleration is about 7 seconds.

    Buyers can opt for a six-speed automatic transmission with manual shift option in lieu of the standard five-speed manual. The wagon comes in three trim levels: base, sport, and grand touring. Base prices range from $22,895 to $26,795, not including the $560 delivery fee.

    A City Car With a Sense of Adventure

    The test car was the mid-grade sport model, equipped with optional leather trim, base audio and moon roof package, heated front seats, and an in-dash 6 CD changer. The wagon’s compact dimensions and good fuel economy (19/26 m.p.g. city/highway) make it a good choice for urban commuters that need a little extra cargo space.

     While manual transmissions can be a chore to drive in traffic, the standard five-speed gearbox is easy to shift, and has a relatively light clutch pedal. The gears have enough range to prevent the driver from having to shift constantly.

    A quick-ratio rack-and-pinion steering system makes the wagon nimble on its feet. The steering is speed sensitive to provide maximum assistance at slow speeds and stability on the highway. Standard disk brakes are responsive without being grabby.

    Unlike some front-wheel drive cars, the Mazda6 has a good weight balance front-to-rear. The driver can push its limits without being on the verge of oversteer. Because of this, the wagon is as much fun to drive on windy two-lane roads as some sports cars.

    Yet its front transaxle makes the wagon a practical option for drivers living in snowy climates. Those who do might consider swapping the all-season tires for snow tires to maximize traction in the cold weather.

    Its fairly low stance and lack of a two-speed transfer case make the Mazda6 a poor choice for drivers who plan to go far off the beaten path. But the wagon has plenty of traction for driving on unimproved roads, wet and snowy surfaces. It can easily handle most of the dirt roads leading to trailheads. A turning radius of 38.7 feet makes the wagon easy to maneuver around bulging tree roots, and park in a tight spot.

    Bicycle-friendly interior

    Release latches on either side of the cargo area collapse the second-row seats without removing the headrests. The cargo floor will easily hold a road bike with the front-wheel removed, and some additional gear on the side.

    Concealed compartments on either side are great for stashing small items. Tie-down hooks make it easy to secure odd-shaped items. There is a standard tonneau cover to conceal items stowed in back, as well as a vertical cargo net that should appeal to pet owners. Buyers can opt to add additional cargo nets, mats, or an organizer tray for holding groceries and other small packages.

    An undersized spare tire is located beneath the cargo floor. While undersize spares can’t offer the durability or range of full-sized spare tires, they do save weight and space.

    While the optional leather trim was not especially practical in the Phoenix summer weather, the seats were comfortable from an ergonomic stance, and easy to adjust. Optional heated front seats come in handy in the cold weather.  The 60/40 split rear seats have ample legroom: the optional moon roof lets plenty of ambient light in for the second-row passengers.

    The wagon has analog gauges for speed, tachometer, engine temperature and oil pressure. A center stack incorporates controls for the audio, heat and air conditioning, where they’re easy to reach for both the driver and front passenger. There is also a 12 volt outlet.

    Both front doors come standard with map pockets and bottle holders. A cubby in the center console has two large cupholders, with two tiers of bins to hold compact disks, cell phones, and the like.

    Good Visibility in Any Weather

     A standard rear wiper should appeal to buyers who find themselves scraping snow and ice off the rear window in the winter. Rear and side-view mirrors do a good job of minimizing blind spots around the car. Buyers can opt for an automatic-dimming rearview mirror with compass to minimize the glare from other cars at night.

     The roof-mounted rear spoiler gives the Mazda6 wagon a sport look and enhanced aerodynamics without distracting the driver. Roof rack side rails and a rear bumper step plate are available on all models.

    While the Mazda6 can’t compete with larger sport-utility vehicles for cargo space and flexibility, it’s a good choice for buyers who can make do with a little less space, in exchange for better fuel economy. Drivers who have to park in city garages on a regular basis will appreciate its modest size and maneuverability.

    In conclusion, the Mazda6 wagon is a close-to-perfect choice for the driving enthusiast, who doesn‘t want to compromise his or her active lifestyle. Not only is it fun to drive, but its cost is significantly less than what many of the European manufacturers have to offer.

    That leaves more money in the budget for gear, and the occasional roadtrip to a favorite destination race. Buyers looking for a vehicle that holds a weekend’s worth of gear and a couple of bikes on the roof, gets good gas mileage and still makes a  sport out of two-lane twisty roads, should put the Mazda6 sport wagon on their short list.

    Quick facts:

    Base price: $22,895
    Price as tested: $27,580
    Horsepower: 220 @ 6300 r.p.m.
    Torque: 192 lbs.-ft. @ 5000 r.p.m.
    0 to 60: 7 seconds
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: No  
    Towing: No
    Off-road: No
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Fuel economy: 19/26 m.p.g. city/highway

  • 2005 Nissan Titan SE

    King of the Road

    By Nina Russin

    2005 Nissan Titan

    2005 Nissan Titan

    The Nissan Titan pickup is, as the name implies, a huge truck. With a standard 305-horsepower V8 engine and 9,500-pound maximum towing capacity, it’s an unabashed work horse. The 2005 models are basically carryover from 2004, with the addition of a couple new colors and safety features.

    Chassis Engineered for Towing

    The Titan’s standard 5.6-liter V8 engine has plenty of low end torque for accelerating into traffic and hauling loads. The engine comes mated to a five speed automatic transmission;  a well-designed gate shift makes it easy to engage the low gears.

    Fuel economy isn’t great, but that’s the price one pays for a truck weighing almost 5,000 pounds. The 28-gallon fuel tank gives the Titan decent range between fill-ups.

    Extended side view mirrors that come as part of the towing package have a dual design that includes a wide-angle mirror on the bottom.  The mirrors significantly enhance visibility to the sides and rear of the truck.

    Driving the truck through rush-hour traffic in Phoenix, the mirrors made it much easier to see around blind spots. Since wide-angle mirrors make objects look further away than they actually are, it takes a little practice to get used to judging distances, especially when passing other vehicles.

    An independent front and rigid rear suspension is standard. While four-wheel independent suspension provides a smoother ride, the rigid rear axle keeps the truck more stable when towing.

    Power rack-and-pinion steering makes the Titan relatively nimble, considering its size. The side mirrors and audible back-up warning system make the truck easier to park, but don’t expect to maneuver the Titan into a particularly small or tight spot. Turning diameter is a tick over 45 feet.

    An optional towing package increases towing capacity to 9,500 pounds. It includes a heavy duty battery, specially calibrated transmission, tow hitch and electrical connector. A traction package adds a limited-slip differential on two-wheel drive models, as well as front tow hooks.

    Four Passenger King Cab

    The test vehicle, a SE grade king cab, came with front bucket seats, and 60/40 split rear bench. The rear seat folds up to create a small cargo area in the back of the cab. The cloth upholstery was a blessing in the hot Phoenix summer: not only did it stay cooler, but it was easier to protect from sweat stains after a day on the trails.

    The power-adjustable driver’s seat has good lower back support. Optional adjustable pedals and a tilt steering wheel make it easy for drivers of different sizes to feel comfortable. Redundant audio and cruise control functions on the steering wheel minimize driver distraction.

    A triad of analog gauges display speed, tachometer, engine temperature, oil pressure and other vital functions. Audio and HVAC controls in a center stack are easy to figure out and reach for both the driver and front passenger.

    The optional Rockford Fosgate audio system with six-CD changer has excellent sound quality. Available XM satellite radio, while expensive, may be worthwhile for drivers who have long commutes.

    Nissan did a great job of designing in bins and cubbies around the front passengers, including two small shelves on the right and left sides of the dash, and a slightly larger center bin, all with rubber mats so the items don’t slide around.

    Dual-compartment map pockets in the front doors have molded-in bottle holders. The glove box is large and deep enough to hold a bunch of manuals, some spare fuses, and other essentials. Visor extenders keep the shield the driver and front passenger from direct sun at dawn and dusk.

    An optional auto-dimming rearview mirror is part of the SE popular package, that also includes the adjustable pedals, rear backup warning system, upgraded audio and steering wheel controls. The option also adds an overhead compass and temperature display and three storage bins, ideal for garage door openers and sunglasses.

    While the second-row seats have three-point safety belt harnesses in three seating positions, the relative lack of legroom would make seating three adults across very uncomfortable. The two outboard positions come with headrests and child seat tethers.  On the king car, the rear doors are hinged at the back and open “suicide style.” A special design allows the doors to open 180 degrees for easier access.

    A Cargo Bed That Holds More than Plywood

    The cargo bed has a factory-applied bedliner that keeps the bed from getting scratched or rusting. Two cargo tracks in the floor and tie-down hooks on the side make it easy to tie items down. The cleats that tie into the cargo rails are rated at 200 pounds, and can be removed to hose out the bed.

    Slide-in channgel caps keep dirt out of the cargo rails when they’re not in use. Nissan has a variety of cargo racks, trays, and bed dividers, including bike and kayak carriers, available as dealer-installed options.

    The test vehicle came with the a bed utility package that included a 12-volt outlet and lighting in the cargo bed. A sliding bed extender (also optional), adds a couple of feet to the cargo floor.

    There is also a small, lockable storage compartment behind the rear wheel on the driver’s side: handy for stashing valuables at the trailhead, a first aid kit, chains, ropes or other essentials.  The ignition key opens the storage compartment.

    Standard Safety

    All Titan pickup trucks come with standard front and side, and side curtain airbags, as well as antilock brakes.  The 2005 models also feature active headrest restraints for the driver and front passenger, that reduce the probability of whiplash in a rear-impact collision.

    Available Four-Wheel Drive

    The Titan pickup is available in either two-wheel (tested) or four-wheel drive configurations. There are three trim levels, beginning with the XE base model priced from $22,950.

     Four-wheel drive models have a shift-on-the-fly feature for engaging the lower gears. An available off-road package includes special axles, locking rear differential, off-road shocks and tires, skid plates and fog lights.

    The Nissan Titan pickups are currently available for test drives at area dealerships.

    Quick facts:

    Base price: $22,950
    Price as tested: $29,810
    Horsepower: 305 @ 4,900 r.p.m.
    Torque: 379 lbs.-ft. @ 3,600 r.p.m.
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: No
    Towing: Yes
    Off-road: No
    Bicycle friendly:Yes
    Fuel economy: 14/19 m.p.g. city/highway 
    Comments: Price as tested includes $670 destination charge.

  • 2005 Toyota Prius

    Fifty-five miles-per-gallon is just one of the things to love about Toyota’s hybrid sedan

    By Nina Russin

    2005 Toyota Prius

    2005 Toyota Prius

     When Toyota decided to produce hybrid cars, its engineers had the choice of either outsourcing the technology, or developing a system internally.  While doing the latter involved longer development time, it had some distinct advantages. 

    Toyota’s hybrid synergy drive system is completely proprietary.  Because the system was developed internally, Toyota doesn’t have to rely on outside manufacturers to supply components.  It is easier to transfer the technology between models, and to evolve. 

     A quick comparison between the first-generation Prius and the current model is proves how significant that evolution is. The original Prius utilized an air conditioning compressor that operated off of the gas engine.  When the car idled and operated purely on electric power, the compressor turned off.  It doesn’t take long for a car interior to get hot in the southwest, where summer temperatures are typically in the triple digits. 

    The current model uses an electric-powered air compressor that operates whenever the ignition is on.  It keeps the car cool in extreme heat , without reducing fuel economy.

     There are other big improvements as well:  better acceleration, a larger interior and cargo area, available keyless ignition, and a Bluetooth-compatible navigation system among them.  In a summer of rising fuel prices, its exceptional fuel economy is reason enough to check the Prius out.
    Better Power and Better Tires

     While fuel economy was the primary concern for the original Prius, performance was equally important for its successor.  The Prius needed to be more than a “green” car; it had to be fun to drive. The 2005 model uses a 1.5-liter, four cylinder gas engine in tandem with a permanent-magnet drive motor. 

    While the gas engine is relatively small, the new drive motor is fifty percent more powerful than its predecessor.  The Prius accelerates from zero-to-sixty in about ten seconds, and passes vehicles on the highway with ease. 

    Electronic throttle and steering controls make the car especially responsive to driver inputs.  A more robust standard tire gives the new model better traction, which is especially noticeable when driving on rain or snow-covered roads.

     A continuously variable transmission does not have fixed gear ratios, so there is no lag between shifts.  Because the transmission can vary the gear ratios according to driving conditions, it also enhances fuel economy.

     The regenerative braking system automatically recharges the battery when the vehicle is coasting or when the brakes are applied.  The Prius utilizes a nickel-metal hydride battery:  the same type of battery used in personal computers.  Hybrid components are covered by factory warranty for 8 years or 100,000 miles.

    More Room for Passengers and Cargo

     The five-door design of the current model makes it easy to access the rear cargo area.  Flip the two rear seats down and it’s easy to load in a road bike with the front wheel on.  Take the wheel off, and the cargo area can hold two bikes. 

    A weekend’s worth of camping gear is not a problem.  For daily use, there’s a tonneau cover to keep valuables out of sight, and cargo nets to secure small items so that they don’t roll around on the floor.

     The Prius comes standard with cloth upholstery.  The seats are comfortable and have adequate back support.  The manual adjustments are easy to use. 

     The cupholders in the center console are large enough to hold water bottles, and there are bottle holders molded into the map pockets in the front doors. 

     A unique gear shift design saves space and gives the instrument panel a high-tech appearance.  A small lever to the right of the steering wheel can be operated with a couple of fingers.  The driver uses the lever to put the car into drive, neutral or reverse modes. 

    A standard audible alarm sounds when the car is in reverse, since the electric motor works silently.  A separate button on the dash shifts the vehicle into park. 

     Keyless ignition models have a start button on the instrument panel to start and stop the car.  A special ignition fob enables the system.  It also automatically unlocks the door when the driver approaches the vehicle.

     Standard steering wheel controls for the air conditioner and audio system mean less driver distraction.  Other standard comfort and convenience options include rear intermittent wiper, cruise control, an air filtration system, heated side mirrors, power windows and door locks. 

    All models come with a six-speaker audio system, that includes an AM/FM radio and CD player.  An optional nine-speaker system includes an in-dash 6 CD changer.

    State of the Art Safety

     All models come with standard antilock brakes. Side and side curtain airbags are optional, as is a stability control system integrates antilock braking, traction and yaw control.  Front seatbelts have standard pretension and force limiters.  There are 3-point seatbelts in all seating positions.

    Available Navigation System 

     The optional navigation system is Bluetooth compatible.  Cellular telephones that are wired for Bluetooth allow the driver and passengers to make hands-free calls.  The touch screen in the instrument panel incorporates the mapping function and several information displays, including power graph that displays real-time fuel economy and battery charge. 

    A Hybrid Car Without Compromise

     The Toyota Prius is an easy car to love.  It is comfortable to ride in no matter how hot or cold the weather gets.  The interior is spacious and comfortable.  The cargo area is easy to access, and big enough to hold large items.  The tires have good traction. 

    The hybrid powertrain has plenty of muscle to provide good acceleration at any speed.  And best of all, the Prius gets almost twice the mileage out of a gallon of gas as a conventional midsize sedan.  If you’ve wondered why a vehicle that Toyota doesn’t advertise still has a six-month waiting list, this article has probably answered your questions.

    Quick facts:

    Base Price: $20,875
    Price as Tested: $26,880
    Horsepower: 76
    Torque: 82 lbs.-ft. @ 4200 r.p.m.
    0 to 60: 10.0 seconds
    ABS Brakes: Standard
    Side Curtain Airbags: Option
    First-Aid Kit: No 
    Towing: No
    Off-Road: No
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Fuel economy: 60/51 mpg. city/highway 
    Comments: Manufacturer’s list price does not include a $540 delivery and handling fee.

  • New Toyota Models Protect Passengers and the Environment

    By Nina Russin

    2007 Toyota Camry Hybrid

    2007 Toyota Camry Hybrid

    Toyota is making hybrid technology and active safety key elements of its future product strategy.  A hybrid version of the Highlander sport-utility vehicle goes on sale in June, and a hybrid Camry sedan is in the works. 

    New accident avoidance technology, including stability control, pre-collision, kinetic dynamic suspension, and adaptive cruise control, will help car owners reduce the risk of collision and injury.

    The hybrid and safety technology work in tandem.  Engineers use common microprocessors and electronic actuators to replace traditional mechanical systems.  The electronic systems can react faster to driving conditions, improving vehicle performance.  They also have fewer moving parts which can reduce maintenance costs in the long run.

    Camry Hyrbid production begins in 2006

     The Camry sedan is the fourth model to join Toyota’s hybrid family, which includes the Prius,  Lexus RX 400h, and the Highlander hybrid.  The new Camry, which goes into production at the end of 2006, will be the first Toyota hybrid built in North America.  Toyota’s Georgetown, Kentucky plant, which currently produces the gas-powered Camry, Avalon and Solara, will produce about 48,000 hybrid Camry models annually.

    Toyota has yet to release details on the new Camry sedan, but it’s a safe guess that the new Camry will utilize the same hybrid synergy drive that debuted in the Prius.  This full-hybrid system allows the vehicle to operate in pure gas or electric mode, as well as a combination of both. 

    By operating the car with electric power only when energy needs are low (such as idling in traffic), the system significantly increases fuel economy.
     A hybrid version of the Lexus GS also debuts for the 2007 model year.  The new luxury sedan will go on sale some time next spring.

    New active safety system helps drivers avoid accidents

    While passive safety systems such as airbags and seat belts reduce passenger injury during a collision, active safety features, including antilock brakes and traction control, help drivers avoid accidents altogether.  Since the advent of on-board computers, manufacturers have been able to introduce a host of active safety systems that would not have been feasible a few decades back.  Recently Toyota brought a group of journalists out to its Arizona proving grounds to showcase the latest and greatest of what it has to offer.

    Better off-road performance and handling

     A “kinetic” dynamic suspension system, available on the Lexus GX 470, enhances on- and off-road handling, by varying the amount of torsional stiffness in the front and rear stabilizer bars.  When the driver is traveling at high speeds on paved roads, the stabilizer bars have maximum stiffness, to keep the vehicle flat during cornering.  However, if the driver goes off-road, the bars disengage.  This allows the wheels to articulate according to need.  The result is better traction on uneven trails, and a more comfortable ride.

     Hill ascent and descent assist systems prevent the wheels from slipping on step grades.  Both systems, which debuted on the current 4Runenr, are also standard on the Lexus GX 470. Descent control assist is also optional on the Tacoma 4 x 4  pickup.

     Wheel speed sensors detect wheel slippage at each corner of the vehicle, and send that information to an on-board computer.  The computer uses the brakes to restore traction.  As a result the driver can stop on a steep incline without sliding sideways or backwards.  Accelerating from a stop is no different than it would be on a flat surface. 

    The hill descent assist utilizes the brakes to maintain a speed of two-to-four miles-per-hour on steep hills.  The driver maintains directional control better than if he was to apply the brakes manually.
    High-tech steering systems share hybrid components

     A new stability system called “vehicle dynamics integrated management” brings together a variety of active safety features in a manner that is imperceptible to the driver.  The system integrates antilock braking, stability control, traction control and brake assist, to prevent the driver from losing control of the vehicle.  Sensors that detect steering angle, yaw, deceleration, wheel speed and braking feed information to an on-board computer. 

    The computer can vary braking at each of the wheels or reduce engine power to prevent the wheels from either slipping or locking up.  This is especially useful when the driver is making an emergency evasive maneuver, or when traveling on wet or icy roads. 

    The systems can also compensate for situations in which traction varies between the four wheels.  A good example is when a driver hits an ice patch on one side of the car.  The computer limits wheel spin on the side with poor traction, so the vehicle moves forward in a straight line.

     An electronic steering assist function substitutes the electric motor used on the hybrid car steering systems for a hydraulic pump.  Steering effort is lightest at low speeds, such as maneuvering in and out of parking spaces.  At high speeds, there is more steering effort, to make the car more stable.

     The new system can make subtle changes in the steering angle ratio, to compensate for side winds.  It also compensates for the slight lag in steering response that occurs in all cars.  As a result, the driver is able to make faster lane changes, or move around an obstacle more quickly.
     The VDIM system is available on the Toyota Highlander Hybrid and Lexus RX 400h sport-utility vehicles, as well as the Lexus GS 430 sedan.

    Adaptive cruise control takes the stress out of urban commuting

     An adaptive cruise control system available on some Sienna minivan models, the Avalon Limited sedan, Lexus 430 sedan and Lexus RX 330 sport-utility vehicle, compensates for changing traffic speeds.  The system uses a laser sensor behind the grille to monitor the vehicle ahead. 

    The driver determines the following distance using a function on the cruise control stalk.  The following distance can vary from about 100 feet to 245 feet.  The driver also chooses the highest speed at which the vehicle will travel, similar to conventional cruise control.

     When the car is traveling in traffic, the system will maintain the preset following distance by varying engine acceleration and braking.  The cruise control will only function at speeds over 25 miles-per-hour.  It cannot make the car come to a complete stop.  When it senses that the car ahead is stopping, it slows the car down and sets off an audible alarm, alerting the driver to apply the brakes manually.

    Pre-collision system reduces damage and risk of injury

     A pre-collision system, introduced on the Lexus GS 300 sedan, helps to reduce collision damage and injury when an accident is unavoidable.  The function uses the same radar sensor as the dynamic cruise control to detect obstacles in front of the car.  If the vehicle computer determines that an accident is unavoidable, it will automatically increase tension on the front-row seatbelts to protect the driver and passenger.  As soon as the driver touches the brake, a brake assist function applies maximum braking force.  This activates the antilock braking sooner, and reduces the stopping distance.

    Making cars safer by reducing human error
     According to Toyota’s internal research, 70 percent of fatal car accidents are caused by driver errors.  While the technology behind these safety systems is complex, using them is simple.  They operate automatically, often before the driver becomes aware of a dangerous situation.  In other words, they make us better drivers without us even knowing it.

    Virtual models help engineers study the effects of injuries

     We are all familiar with the crash test dummies that car engineers use to determine how various types of impacts affect human bones.  They also allow the engineers to measure chest compression, so that airbags and seatbelts can do an adequate job of protection.

     But the dummies can’t help engineers gauge the effects of collisions on a person’s internal organs and muscles.  Recently, Toyota introduced a new virtual modeling system that helps to fill that gap.  Toyota engineers worked with Wayne State University, Virginia Tech and Virginia University to compile the data for the new system.

     The modeling system, called THUMS (Toyota Human Model for Safety), has taken over a decade to develop.  The THUMS family includes a typical adult male, female, a six-year-old child, and two pedestrians.  Engineers use the virtual system first, before belting the traditional crash test dummies into the front seat.

    “The dummies are just a measuring machine,” said Seigo Kuzumaki, vehicle safety engineer for Toyota.  The THUMS family brings the human element into collision testing so that new cars can protect us better, inside and out.

  • 2005 Volvo V50

    Better by design
    By Nina Russin

    Volvo V50

    Volvo V50

    Volvo’s newest compact sport wagon that replaces the V40 combines all-wheel drive capability, a more powerful engine, enhanced interior, and a sportier exterior styling.

    The 2005 V50 offers small car fans many of the features found in larger sport-utility vehicles.  The rear seats are easy to fold down to create a flat cargo area that holds two road bikes with the front wheels off.  The front passenger seat also folds flat for especially long items.  Roof rails are available as part of a convenience package that also includes a trip meter, power outlet in the cargo area and grocery nets.  The passenger compartment is loaded with useful bins and cubbies, including a “floating” center stack that puts audio, heating and air conditioning controls within easy reach of the driver, and also creates a storage area to the rear large enough to hold a purse.

    Having said that, the V50 is a more spirited performer than the V40, thanks to an all-new 2.5-liter turbocharged five-cylinder engine, six-speed, close-ratio manual transmission (standard on turbocharged models), and available all-wheel drive.  A dynamic trim package adds front and rear spoilers and 17-inch alloy wheels.  The all-wheel drive version, equipped with the 5 cylinder, 218 horsepower engine and optional automatic transmission (tested) gets an average of 19/26 miles per gallon in city and highway driving.  Isn’t it nice to spend Sunday mornings on the bike, instead of standing in line at the gas pump?

    Sporty exterior

    Viewed from above, the V50 exterior resembles a speedboat, with a rounded prow, broad midsection and narrow stern.  Doors that are convex in shape increase passenger space, especially in the shoulder area.  Windshield wipers are recessed under the hood, where they are less likely to get wet and freeze, or become contaminated with dirt and road salt.  Turn signals are integrated into the mirrors where they are more visible from the sides and rear of the vehicle.

    Scandinavian interior

    Scandinavian designers live by the adage that man is the measure of all things.  Those who enjoy the simplicity and smart ergonomics found in Scandinavian furniture design will appreciate similar features in the V50.  Volvo utilizes a “canteen group” to evaluate its cars internally before they go before they go out to customer focus groups.  The canteen group consists of Volvo employees ranging from receptionists to administrators and engineers.  The group gives interior designers feedback on how well the vehicle works ergonomically for individuals of different genders and sizes, as well as how intuitive the instrument panel controls are.  The less frequently a driver has to take his or her eyes off the road to find a control switch, the safer the vehicle ultimately becomes. 

    Volvo offers four interior fabric choices on the V50, two of which are cloth: T-Tec, a proprietary material, inspired by sportswear fabrics, and Dala, an upscale ribbed textile with T Tex elements and light colored seams.  The controls on the floating center stack are as simple as possible, in keeping with Volvo‘s safety philosophy.

    Fun To Drive

    While Volvo has traditionally been known for its high level of safety engineering, an image of lackluster performance in many of its vehicles has limited the brand’s appeal in the United States.  Beginning with the R cars, Volvo has sought to change that image by offering more powerful engines, available all-wheel drive, and other performance features.  The turbocharged five-cylinder engine standard on the all-wheel drive V50 develops 236 lbs.-ft. of maximum torque, for spirited acceleration off the line, or when merging into high speed traffic.  Engineers used a combination of high-strength steel and aluminum to create a body that is both light and rigid, for optimal steering feedback.  Dynamic stability and traction control are standard on the all-wheel drive model, and optional on other trim levels.  Standard four-wheel independent suspension on all models is enhanced with front and rear stabilizer bars, so that the V50 stays flat during high-speed cornering.  A dynamic sport suspension package is also standard on the all-wheel drive model.  Buyers can opt to upgrade from the standard 16-inch wheels and tires to 17-inch alloy wheels.  There is also a dynamic trim package that includes front and rear spoilers and side skirts.

    Because the V50 is a small car, it is also relatively light:  the all-wheel drive model weighs just under 3,400 pounds.  Not only does this enhance the wagon’s fuel economy, it also improves its handling, because there is less inertial weight to overcome when navigating hills or twisty roads. 

    While the V50 lacks the white knuckle performance of a Subaru WRX STi, it has plenty of power to make every day driving fun.  The turbocharged engine is ideal for those who live at altitude, where naturally aspirated engines tend to lag from lack of oxygen. 

    The V50’s compact dimensions make it an ideal city car:  it’s easy to maneuver through traffic and park in crowded lots.  On the other hand, the vehicle has plenty of engine power for highway driving, and is stable driving through cross winds.  The optional roof rails have a minimal impact on aerodynamic drag  and noise during high-speed driving.

    Segment Leading Safety

    As with all Volvo models, the V50 comes loaded with standard safety features.  Cross members in the frame protect passengers in the event of a side impact collision.  The front of the car is designed to channel impact forces around and under the passenger compartment.  The outer areas absorb most of the collision impact, while areas closest to the passenger compartment deform less.  The compact five-cylinder engine fits in the section of the engine bay that remained intact after internal front and offset crash tests were performed. 

    All models come with standard four-wheel disks and four-channel antilock braking.  Standard passive safety features include headrests with built-in whiplash protection, front, side and side curtain airbags.

    A Great Choice for Athletes with Moderate Cargo Needs

    The V50 is a good option for single drivers or couples looking for a passenger car with enhanced cargo space.  The V50 has a 2,000 pound towing capacity:  too low to meet our towing criteria.  Because the rear seats need to fold down to create a large enough cargo space for bicycles, the V50 is not the best choice for families with small children.  Those buyers might want to look at the larger V70 wagon or the XC90 sport-utility vehicle.

    Pricing for the V50 starts at $25,660 for the naturally aspirated five-cylinder version with standard automatic transmission.  The turbocharged T5 with all-wheel drive starts at $28,910.  The Volvo V50 is currently available at area Volvo dealers.

    Quick facts:

    Base Price: $25,660
    Price as Tested: $34,815
    Horsepower: 218 @ 5,000 r.p.m.
    Torque: 236 lbs.-ft. @ 4,800 r.p.m.  
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side Curtain Airbags: Standard
    First-Aid Kit: No 
    Towing: No
    Off-Road: No
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Fuel economy: 19/26 city/highway
    Comments: Base price does not include $685 destination charge.

  • 2005 Honda Odyssey EX-L

    Honda’s all-new minivan maintains its segment-leading quality.

    By Nina Russin

    2005 Honda Odyssey

    2005 Honda Odyssey

     The Honda Odyssey takes its name from Homer’s epic saga about a Greek warrior who spends twenty years wandering the high seas after the Trojan War.  Despite their circuitous route, Odysseus’ ship  delivers the clan home to Ithaca, no worse for wear.  Similarly, Honda’s Odyssey minivan will carry its passengers in safety and comfort whenever and wherever adventure calls.

     Knowing the Odyssey’s reputation for comfort and reliability, it seemed to be the perfect vehicle to drive from Phoenix to San Pedro, en route to the Catalina Marathon.  Having driven to several California marathons in the past, I knew the type of vehicle that would work best after the race:  automatic transmission (no need to beat the quads up further), ergonomic seats (for all of the other aching muscles), and a cargo area large enough to hold the luggage and me, if I decided to stretch out in back during the ride home.

     The test car was an EX model that retails for just over $30,000.  The EX comes standard with roof rails and dual sliding power doors, which makes it ideal for people who carry lots of cargo. 

    Comfort and convenience features include an AM/FM, 6-disc in-dash CD audio system, pre-wiring for satellite radio, steering wheel audio controls, dual-zone climate controls, power/tilt moonroof and an 8-way power driver’s seat with adjustable lumbar.  Heated front seats, and a standard rear wiper with washer will appeal to buyers living in the snow belt. 

    Honda’s 60/40 split third-row magic seat also comes standard on the EX.  It folds into the floor with one quick motion, and no need to remove the headrests. 

    The Gods are in the Details

     To paraphrase a famous architect, it’s the details that usually make the difference between a pretty good car and a great one.  For example, the Odyssey’s VTEC V6 engine with variable cylinder management combines excellent power and fuel economy.  The system automatically cuts off power to three of the cylinders when engine load is low. 

    The variable engine management feature is available on the upscale Touring and EX models with leather trim.  Unlike similar systems in the past, the on-board computer controls eliminate excess noise and vibration.  In fact, the power shifts are imperceptible , except for an indicator light on the dash.

     EPA figures for the test car were 20 mpg city and 28 highway.  The round trip, about 800 miles, took just under two tanks of gas.  On the other hand, the engine had enough low-end power to merge onto a crowded freeway in Long Beach, and find the sweet spots in Friday afternoon traffic.

     The 355-horsepower engine is mated to a five-speed automatic transmission that provides buttery smooth shifts.  The MacPherson front and double wishbone rear suspension provide a compliant ride that isn’t overly soft, thanks to improvements in torsional rigidity, and standard front and rear stabilizer bars. 

    A tire pressure monitoring system, standard on the Touring model, keeps drivers informed about any impending failures.  Michelin run-flat tires can go up to 125 miles at highway speeds following a puncture.

     There is excellent steering feel with the power rack and pinion system at all speeds.  The Odyssey is easy to maneuver into a standard parking space, and visibility is excellent all the way around the vehicle.  In fact, the ride and handling are more like a Honda sedan than a minivan.

     The seats with adjustable lumbar were comfortable for the 7-hour drive from Arizona to California.  The map pockets in the doors are well designed, as is the large, split level glove box. 

    Extensions on the sun visors make them more effective at blocking out sunlight early and late in the day.   The front center console and new in-floor storage area are much better designed than those in earlier models; they do a great job of holding small packs, books, cell phones, and like items within easy reach of the driver and front passenger.  A standard coin holder is handy for drivers who have to toss change at a toll booth basket during the daily commute. 

    Honda’s available navigation system is one of the best in the industry:  it’s easy to use and calculates (and recalculates) routes extremely quickly.

    User-Friendly Cargo Area

     The Odyssey’s interior is two inches longer and an inch wider than the previous generation, for more passenger and cargo space.  The third-row magic seat and removable second-row seats make it easy to create a large, flat load floor for holding large cargo. 

    The second-row seats move fore and aft ten inches to give taller passengers the legroom they require; the can also be pushed together to function as a single bench. 

     A removable second row center console provide additional storage for passengers in the back.  There are numerous bottle holders throughout the vehicle, and the touring model comes with a 115 volt power outlet. 

    A cargo area light makes it easy to load and unload the Odyssey at night.  There are plenty of hooks and nets in the cargo area as well, for storing smaller items that tend to shift around.

    Segment-leading Safety

     The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, one of two groups that conducts crash tests on new vehicles, named the Odyssey “best pick” among minivans in its frontal offset crash.  This is significant because offset crashes are more frequent than straight-on frontal crashes in the real world. 

    In the crash test,  40 percent of the vehicle’s front end hit’s a deformable barrier at 40 miles-per-hour.  The Odyssey received a “good” score, for its ability to minimize intrusion to the front passenger space, and divert crash forces away from the passengers.

     Standard safety features on all models include antilock brakes, vehicles stability assist and traction control.  Standard side curtain airbags have dedicated sensors for all three rows of passengers, plus a rollover sensor that deploys the side airbags in the event of a rollover. 

    The body of the car is designed to be compatible with other size vehicles in the event of a front impact or offset collision.  All models have the LATCH child seat attachment systems on both second row seats and the middle position, third row seat.

     The new Odyssey also received five-star crash test ratings on both frontal and side-impact tests by the federal government.

    Three Available Trim Levels

     The EX, and EX-L (leather) are two of four available trim levels.  Both the EX with leather (tested) and the upscale Touring model come standard with the variable cylinder management system, that cuts power from six to three cylinders when engine load is light. 

    The LX and EX models that do not have this feature get slightly poorer fuel economy than the test car:  19/25 mpg city and highway. 

    Pricing for the base LX model begins at $25,195, while the fully-loaded Touring model with leather trim and rear-seat DVD entertainment system retails for $38,495.  The Honda Odyssey is currently available at Honda dealerships nationwide.

    Likes:  Good power and fuel economy, thanks to Honda’s variable cylinder management system.
    Comfortable driver’s seat, with easy access to numerous storage bins and cubbies.  Redundant audio controls on the steering wheel make it easy to flip channels with minimal distraction.  The Odyssey remains the segment leader in safety, has a spacious, easy-to-use cargo area, and power sliding doors make the cargo bay easy to access.

    Dislikes:  None

    Base price: $25,195
    Price as tested: $30,810
    Horsepower: 255 Hp @ 5,750 r.p.m.
    Torque: 250 lbs.-ft. @ 4,500 r.p.m.
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: No 
    Towing: No
    Off-Road: No
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Fuel economy: 20/28 m.p.g. city/highway
    Comments: Base price does not include a standard $515 destination and handling fee.

  • 2005 Chrysler Town and Country

    by Jim Woodman

    As a minivan owner, and one who researched makes and models extensively before selecting the Honda Odyssey in 2002, I would’ve been hard pressed to ignore Chrysler’s third generation Town and Country had this vehicle existed at the time.

    Clearly the hoopla associated with the new Town and Country is its “Stow ‘n Go” feature which allows near effortless folding of the second and third row seats into the floor.

    2005 Chrysler Town and Country

    2005 Chrysler Town and Country

    Even though Honda first introduced its “magic seat” in the ’97 Odyssey, and subsequently captured huge market share with their 1999 redesign, it amazes me it took until 2004 for other manufacturers to follow suit. That said, Chrysler has introduced a very strong offering that’s turning a lot of heads.

    What Chrysler did, frankly, demonstrates American ingenuity at its best. I can picture the Chrysler engineers saying “so what if the Japanese can fold the third seat into the floor, we’ll fold all the rear rows and, just for grins, we’ll split the rows and fold them independently for all kinds of seating configurations.”

    To illustrate how easily one can fold the seats into the floor, I showed my 5-year-old son how to do it and, within a minute, he was folding and stowing all four seat sections into the floor by himself. It takes an adult about 30 seconds to fold everything into the floor once they’ve done it a couple times.

    The days of wrestling with 50 pound seats and storing them in a garage anytime you needed to haul cargo have gone the way of 8-track and cassette players. Manufacturers have taken Honda’s lead and the innovations are coming strong. It’s a great time to be shopping for a minivan.

    The rest of the vehicle

    Okay, you say, enough with the folding seats talk, what about the rest of the vehicle?

    The Town and Country Limited is the flagship Chrysler offering and its interior and exterior styling certainly reflect its higher price point. Even in 2002, I preferred the Chrysler’s styling to my Honda’s and not much has changed my mind there.

    Interior creature comforts such as three zone climate control, 8-way and 4-way power adjustable leather seats, height adjustable pedals, electrochromatic inside rearview mirror, leather-wrapped steering wheel, simulated wood dash and suede trim on the doors all help exude the feel of a luxury vehicle.

    Basically, just about everything you’d expect to find in any high-end luxury sedan is standard fare in the Town and Country Limited minivan.

    Both side doors are fully automated with power remote control as well as a power rear tailgate. While, yes, you can make the argument that a power rear tailgate is a nice feature for moms toting a child in one arm and a bag of groceries in another, it seems more gimmicky than a real necessity. The power side doors, however, are used all the time for quickly getting kids in and out of the minivan.

    Of course my kids were fascinated with the built-in DVD player and its cordless headphones and remote control operation. While it seems a little over the top to have a DVD player in your vehicle, I believe any parent can attest to the peace and quiet you ensure yourself on a road trip when the kids are watching Toy Story or Finding Nemo for the ten thousandth time.

    Another slick built-in feature was a GPS Navigation unit integrated directly into the AM/FM stereo and CD player unit. While the screen was a little smaller than I’d like for a navigation unit, it performed very well and the database was stock full of everything from gas stations, restaurants, grocery stores and ATMs. No question the Navigation system would be a huge addition for any road trip, especially when searching for a good local restaurant or nearby gas station.

    Children’s seats and safety

    Placing children’s car seats in both the second row bucket seats and third row bench seat was a snap. The safety anchor latch hooks are conveniently placed and extremely easy to connect. As a contrast, it’s always a struggle for my wife to connect the hooks with our Odyssey.

    The Town and Country also boasts four-wheel anti-lock brakes, driver and passenger air bags and traction control. The Limited model I tested also boasts side curtain airbags in all three rows.

    Powering the 2005 T&C is a 3.8 liter 215 horsepower V6 that was plenty peppy to get me up to speed on any freeway onramp as well as up some of the steep hills around San Diego. One of my complaints a few years ago, when I tested Dodge and Chrysler minivans is the automatic transmissions were not as smooth as import competitors. I was pleasantly surprised to find the 2005 T&C shifted very smoothly.

    The Town & Country offers four trim levels — base, LX, Touring and Limited. The base model is the only standard-wheelbase T&C; the other three are extended-wheelbase. Base models are equipped with basic amenities like cruise control, tilt steering, air conditioning, power windows and locks, an AM/FM/CD stereo and a 3.3-liter V6 engine.

    At a base price of $35,070, the Limited is certainly the most painful to your wallet and ranks as one of the more pricey minivans, but it’s also one of the more luxurious. The choice comes down to whether you want to be swathed in comforts and leather.

    An all-wheel drive model is also available, but you’d have to forego the Stow ‘n Go feature as getting power to the rear axles would interfere with the in-floor seating storage.

    With 10 million sold and 20 years of minivan experience, Chrysler and Dodge clearly lead the minivan market segment with a 38% market share and its Town and Country flagship minivan is going to give the Japanese imports a serious challenge.

    The T&C Limited will definitely dial you into any of your active lifestyle needs with style, luxury and convenience. Imagine just folding all the seats down and sliding a couple surfboards or bikes inside the vehicle. If you’re not hauling a lot of people around for your sporting adventures, you won’t even need exterior racks when transporting your favorite outdoor toys.

    As mentioned earlier, it’s a great time to be shopping for a minivan.

    Quick facts:

    Make: Chrysler
    Model: Town and Country
    Year: 2005
    Base price: $35,070
    Price as tested: $37,015
    Horsepower: 215 Hp @ 5000 rpm
    Torque: 245 lbs.-ft. @ 4000 rpm
    0-60mph: N/A
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: No
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Off-road: No
    Towing: Yes
    Fuel economy: 18/25 mpg city/highway
    Comments: Three row side curtain air bags are only offered on the Limited.

  • 2005 Volvo XC90

    By Nina Russin

    2005 Volvo XC90

    2005 Volvo XC90

    For years, the Volvo brand has been synonymous with safety engineering and smart Scandinavian design. But a lack of power under the hood has kept the Swedish automaker from gaining widespread appeal among American buyers. Volvo has been working to change this with a new generation of high-performance models, beginning with the “R” cars introduced last January.

    For 2005, Volvo engineers are giving the popular XC90 sport-utility vehicle a power jolt with an all-new V8 engine and six-speed automatic transmission. The new 311 horsepower engine should give the XC90 the muscle it needs to compete against other high-performance crossover vehicles such as the BMW X5, Infiniti FX45, and the Mercedes-Benz ML500.

    Volvo gave automotive journalists a chance to put the pedal to the metal on the new XC90 during a sneak preview in Gothenburg, Sweden this past August. A 400-kilometer route on city streets, highways and rural roads offered ample opportunity to test Volvo’s newest version of all-wheel drive, that includes a feature called “instant traction.”

    The system virtually eliminates the small amount of wheel spin that typically occurs on wet surfaces. As a result, the drive wheels have maximum power right away, helping the driver to maintain directional control with no loss of power.

    Midway through the test drive, a brief rainstorm soaked the narrow two-lane roads outside the city. The new all-wheel drive system made driving at speed and passing a non-issue. The new six-speed transmission provided a buttery-smooth ride with imperceptible gear shifts.

    The XC90 V8 incorporates Volvo’s roll-stability control system, which made the five- and six-cylinder versions of the car a hit among off-road driving enthusiasts. The system uses gyroscopic sensors to determine the car’s roll speed and roll angle. If there is a high risk of rollover, an onboard computer reduces engine power and applies braking at one or more of the wheels until stability is regained.

    On a short off-road course, the XC90 maintained good traction at all four wheels, allowing the vehicle to move forward with ease. While the XC90 does not have a two-speed transfer case for serious off-roading, it can safely navigate unimproved roads or trails.

    As with all members of the Volvo family, passenger safety is a priority. The compact design of the new engine allows for large deformation spaces in the front of the vehicle to protect passengers in full-frontal crashes up to 35 miles-per-hour, and offset crashes up to 40 miles-per-hour.

    Other standard safety features include inflatable side curtain airbags that protect all three rows of passengers, an integrated sliding center booster cushion that allows parents to move the center second-row seat closer to the front in order to monitor small children, and seat belt pretensioners for all seven seating positions. The center console is removable to provide adequate foot room for a child in the center booster seat.

    The XC90 is designed to be crash compatible with passenger cars, and also takes into account the personal safety of pedestrians and cyclists, with larger hood deformation zones.

    Although Volvo no longer maintains its marketing affiliation with Cannondale, designers have maintained their focus on people with active lifestyles. The second- and third-row seats of the XC90 fold flat, making it easy to slide a mountain bike into the cargo area with the front wheel on. Both rows of seats fold flat without removing the headrests.

    Volvo is making a variety of bike racks available through its accessories catalogue, including two roof-mounted racks. One rack features a hoist that attaches to the handlebars to lift the bikes up, while a second fork-mount rack has a more traditional design.

    The split rear tailgate supports up to 500 pounds, so a person can stand on it while lifting bikes or cargo onto the roof. Roof rails are standard equipment on the XC90; crossbars are available as an option.

    An internal fork-mount rack for the cargo area holds one bicycle, and protects rear passengers against injury from the bike in the event of a rear-impact collision. The cargo area has plenty of cargo hooks, and storage pockets on either side to hold smaller items in place.

    The front seats are well-designed from an ergonomic stance, with excellent lower back support. Leather upholstery is standard for the V-8 model, as is a power glass moonroof.

    Other standard comfort features include an in-dash 6-disc CD changer, and air conditioning with separate controls for the third-row seats. Standard rear audio headphone outlets and controls accommodate an available DVD entertainment system.

    Front map pockets have built-in bottle holders, and there are plenty of cupholders throughout the vehicle. The instrument panel includes a 12-volt power outlet (there is an additional outlet in the cargo area), as well as a nice storage cubby for a cell phone or PDA.

    The new engine is environmentally friendly: the world’s first ULEV (ultra low-emissions vehicle) certified gasoline-powered V-8. Weight reduction measures in the engine design coupled with the six-speed automatic transmission maximize fuel economy. Despite its powerful zero-to-sixty acceleration, the new model averages 18 miles-per-gallon on city and highway driving.

    The new XC90 rolls into American dealerships at the beginning of next year. Pricing begins at $45,395, plus a $685destination charge.

    Quick Facts:

    Base price: $45,395
    Price as tested: $47,155
    Horsepower: 311@ 6000 rpm
    Torque: 325 lbs.-ft. @ 4000 rpm
    0 to 60: 7.0 seconds
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: No
    Towing: Yes
    Off-road: No
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Fuel economy: N/A